Last time I told you a little about the book Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, a fascinating and easy-to- read book about the clever ways we all justify “foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts.”
Here is a very useful illustration of what they’re talking about. On p. 32 they ask you to imagine two students who are tempted to cheat on a crucial test. Both have moderate attitudes toward cheating and are otherwise similar. One cheats and one doesn’t. One sacrifices a good grade; the other sacrifices integrity. “Their decisions are a hair’s breadth apart; it could easily have gone the other way for each of them.”
How will they feel about cheating a week later? The authors predict that the cheater will minimize its seriousness, while the one who resisted temptation will now hold a harsher, more punitive attitude toward cheating.
Here’s where it gets interesting:
By the time the students are through with their increasingly intense levels of self-justification, two things have happened: one, they are now very far apart from one another; and two, they have internalized their beliefs and are convinced that they have always felt that way. It is as if they started off at the top of a pyramid, a millimeter apart; but by the time they have finished justifying their individual actions, they have slid to the bottom and now stand on opposite corners of its base… It’s the people who almost decide to live in glass houses who throw the first stones. (p. 33)
The pyramid metaphor applies to most important decisions, and the authors say it blurs the common distinction between good guys and bad guys. Throughout the remainder of the book they show how the pyramid of choice plays out in a multitude of contexts, such as the story of Jeb Stuart Magruder, who started off as an idealistic employee in President Nixon’s administration and ended up as a key player in the Watergate break in. “How do you get an honest man to lose his ethical compass?” the authors ask. “You get him to take one step at a time, and self-justification will do the rest.” (p. 37)
“Recovered memory” psychotherapists slide down the pyramid when they ignore the malleability of memory and are faced with the damage caused by false memories of abuse; police interrogators face it when they coerce a confession that later proves to be false. Couples in troubled marriages come to view their own negative behavior as a reaction to circumstance but their spouse’s negative behavior as an expression of fundamental character.
Regarding injustice and cruelty, we learn that, “Feeling like a victim of injustice in one situation does not make us less likely to commit an injustice against someone else, nor does it make us more sympathetic to victims. It’s as if there is a brick wall between those two sets of experiences, blocking our ability to see the other side.” (p. 192)
Again, we tend to see the world in terms of good guys and bad guys, tend to think of evil as a thing with a life of its own, a dark force lurking out there like a predator. The reality is that everyone sees themselves as good guys who are fully justified in what they’re doing. “Evil” is what that looks like when seen from the other side.
It’s often said that science can’t teach us morality. In fact, science can inform our moral choices by revealing the consequences of actions and the psychological mechanisms and cognitive biases that tend to distort our picture of the world. One of the things I most appreciate about this book is how deeply rooted it is scientific research. The pyramid of choice is a metaphor, and cognitive dissonance is a theory, but like a good theory it generates testable hypotheses, and years and years of experimentation under controlled circumstances shows that, yep, this is how our brains tend to work.
And that knowledge allows us to step back from ourselves and look at our choices and attitudes in a new light. That’s never easy, and we can never hope to do it perfectly, but we can get better at it. And this could make a huge difference in relationships, criminal justice, conflict resolution… the whole world of human relations that’s so fraught with misunderstanding. The first step in learning how to do better is learning where you tend to go wrong.