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Mistakes Were Made but Not by Me

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Why do people dodge responsibility when things fall apart? Why the parade of public figures unable to own up when they screw up? Why the endless marital quarrels over who is right? Why can we see hypocrisy in others but not in ourselves? Are we all liars? Or do we really believe the stories we tell?

  • More than half a century ago, a young social psychologist named Leon Festinger and two associates infiltrated a group of people who believed the world would end on December 21, 1954.2 They wanted to know what would happen to the group when (they hoped!) the prophecy failed. The group’s leader, whom the researchers called Marian Keech, promised that the faithful would be picked up by a flying saucer and elevated to safety at midnight on December 20. Many of her followers quit their jobs, gave away their houses, and disbursed their savings in anticipation of the end. Who needs money in outer space? Others waited in fear or resignation in their homes. (Mrs. Keech’s husband, a nonbeliever, went to bed early and slept soundly through the night, while his wife and her followers prayed in the living room.) Festinger made his own prediction: The believers who had not made a strong commitment to the prophecy—who awaited the end of the world by themselves at home, hoping they weren’t going to die at midnight—would quietly lose their faith in Mrs. Keech. But those who had given away their possessions and waited with other believers for the spaceship, he said, would increase their belief in her mystical abilities. In fact, they would now do everything they could to get others to join them. At midnight, with no sign of a spaceship in the yard, the group was feeling a little nervous. By 2:00 a.m., they were getting seriously worried. At 4:45 a.m., Mrs. Keech had a new vision: The world had been spared, she said, because of the impressive faith of her little band. “And mighty is the word of God,” she told her followers, “and by his word have ye been saved—for from the mouth of death have ye been delivered and at no time has there been such a force loosed upon the Earth. Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room.” The group’s mood shifted from despair to exhilaration. Many of the group’s members who had not felt the need to proselytize before December 21 began calling the press to report the miracle. Soon they were out on the streets, buttonholing passersby, trying to convert them. Mrs. Keech’s prediction had failed, but not Leon Festinger’s. … The engine that drives self-justification, the energy that produces the need to justify our actions and decisions—especially the wrong ones—is the unpleasant feeling that Festinger called “cognitive dissonance.”
  • Dissonance produces mental discomfort that ranges from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it. In this example, the most direct way for a smoker to reduce dissonance is by quitting. But if she has tried to quit and failed, now she must reduce dissonance by convincing herself that smoking isn’t really so harmful, that smoking is worth the risk because it helps her relax or prevents her from gaining weight (after all, obesity is a health risk too), and so on. Most smokers manage to reduce dissonance in many such ingenious if self-deluding, ways.
  • These findings do not mean that people enjoy painful experiences or that they enjoy things because they are associated with pain. What they do mean is that if a person voluntarily goes through a difficult or a painful experience in order to attain some goal or object, that goal or object becomes more attractive. If, on your way to join a discussion group, a flowerpot fell from the open window of an apartment building and hit you on the head, you would not like that discussion group any better. But if you volunteered to get hit on the head by a flowerpot to become a member of the group, you would definitely like the group more.
  • You can see one immediate benefit of understanding how dissonance works: Don’t listen to Nick. The more costly a decision in terms of time, money, effort, or inconvenience, and the more irrevocable its consequences, the greater the dissonance and the greater the need to reduce it by overemphasizing the good things about the choice made. Therefore, when you are about to make a big purchase or an important decision—which car or computer to buy, whether to undergo plastic surgery, or whether to sign up for a costly self-help program—don’t ask someone who has just done it. That person will be highly motivated to convince you that it is the right thing to do. Ask people who have spent twelve years and fifty thousand dollars on a particular therapy if it helped, and most will say, “Dr. Weltschmerz is wonderful! I would never have [found true love] [got a new job] [lost weight] if it hadn’t been for him.” After investing all that time and money, they aren’t likely to say, “Yeah, I saw Dr. Weltschmerz for twelve years, and boy, was it ever a waste.” Behavioral economists have shown how reluctant people are to accept these sunk costs—investments of time or money that they’ve sunk into an experience or relationship. Rather than cutting their losses, most people will throw good money after bad in hopes of recouping those losses and justifying their original decision. Therefore, if you want advice on what product to buy, ask someone who is still gathering information and is still open-minded. And if you want to know whether a program will help you, don’t rely on testimonials; get the data from controlled experiments.
  • The Dammit Doll reflects one of the most entrenched convictions in our culture, fostered by the psychoanalytic belief in the benefits of catharsis: expressing anger or behaving aggressively gets rid of anger. Throw that doll, hit a punching bag, shout at your spouse; you’ll feel better afterward. Actually, decades of experimental research have found exactly the opposite: when people vent their feelings aggressively, they often feel worse, pump up their blood pressure, and make themselves even angrier.20
  • Our convictions about who we are carry us through the day, and we are constantly interpreting the things that happen to us through the filter of those core beliefs.
  • Indeed, several experiments find that most people who have low self-esteem or a low estimate of their abilities do feel uncomfortable with dissonant successes and dismiss them as accidents or anomalies.30 This is why they seem so stubborn to friends and family members who try to cheer them up. “Look, you just won the Pulitzer Prize in literature! Doesn’t that mean you’re good?” “Yeah, it’s nice, but just a fluke. I’ll never be able to write another word, you’ll see.” Dissonance reduction, therefore, will protect high self-esteem or low self-esteem, whichever is central to a person’s core self-concept.

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