Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2007.

Tavris and Aronson explore how and why we “justify ourselves and avoid taking responsibility for any actions that turn out to be harmful, immoral, or stupid.” [p. 2] They demonstrate the role confirmation bias plays in how we suss out what is and is not true. They point out that we each have “blind spots”–prejudices, for example–in the way we view the world. They examine the way that we construct our own memories, so that what we “remember” is not necessarily what happened, but what is consistent with certain narratives we adopt to explain ourselves. They look at the strategies we use to deny our own role in our mistakes. In the last chapter they look at ways to go beyond the self-serving self-justification.

When I Google this book, the reviews praise it to the nines. One partial exception, a review at Metapsychology Online, praises it only to the eights, listing a few of what the review’s author sees as its ultimately inconsequential weaknesses I agree that this book is overall good and should be read.

The book doesn’t deserve that much praise. I found its authors’ approach frustrating and at times misleading. Tavris and Aronson don’t acknowledge the paradoxes of their argument, and they oversimplify what strike me as complicated processes. None of that invalidates the points they make. But if they had shown a little more introspection and more willingness to acknowledge counterarguments, their book would have been richer.

The paradox of “recovered memories”

I suspect most readers of this blog know about the “recovered memories” fad in psychoanalysis. In the 1980s and into the 1990s, a large number of therapists argued that victims of childhood and adolescent sexual abuse commonly repressed their memories of that abuse. Therapy could “recover” those memories, these therapists said, and they helped  increasing numbers of clients to “recover” sexual abuse that later turned out to be false.

Tavris and Aronson explore how and why this happened. Therapists used the authority of their position to subtly pressure their clients into believing they had been abused. Through the therapist’s suggestion and the clients’ re-narrating his or her life to include the theretofore “forgotten” abuse, the clients often came to believe they had been abused even if they had not. The process is fascinating, and the chapter on “bad science” that discusses it is worth a close read.

The now discredited turn to “recovered memory” was a fad and caused much harm. It needed to be discredited. But we learn in another chapter –“Memory–The Self-Justifying Historian”–that memory is flexible. We choose to remember things that fit with the narrative we prefer for our lives.

That which Tavris and Aronson are debunking comes about from one of the mechanisms they cite to debunk it. We get very little acknowledgment of how Tavris and Aronson’s own argument about memory make “recovered memories” seem plausible. If one can create a memory that never happened, that also suggests one can erase–or repress–a memory of something that did happen.

I should be clear here. I take Tavris and Aronson at their word that most cases of “recovered memory” are false. And their goal isn’t only to expose “recovered memories.” It’s also to demonstrate why and how practitioners of “recovered memory” held fast to it even after studies showed it to be at best exaggerated and at worst deceptive. But I still come away thinking they want me to believe “recovered memories” are beyond the pale implausible even though memory is faulty and flexible.

Venting anger is not helpful, except for when it is

Tavris and Aronson spend a few pages early in the book contesting the commonly held view that “venting one’s anger” confers a healthful catharsis on the angry person [p. 26]:

Actually, decades of experimental research have found exactly the opposite: that when people vent their feelings aggressively they often feel worse, pump up their blood pressure, and make themselves even angrier.

I’m inclined to wonder about the “often” from that quote. Are there cases where venting actually makes people feels better, lessens blood pressure, and abates anger? We don’t hear about that.

But aside from trolling an adverb, I have a more important concern. Tavris and Aronson’s don’t go deep enough. They’ve discredited an overly simplistic view of venting one’s anger. They don’t really explore why people might believe that venting has its benefits.

And later in the book, the authors instances where people who engage in a form of venting are helped by it, although Tavris and Aronson don’t call it venting. In the chapter on marriage, Tavris and Aronson look at one couple whose marriage is strong, and one example of the strength of this marriage is an anecdote where one partner, “Ellen,” discusses a challenging moment in her marriage [p. 173-4, bold mine]:

“I wish he would have given me something [for my birthday]–anything–I told him that, like I am telling him all of my thoughts and feelings,” Ellen said to Pines [Ayala Pines, who studied the couple’s relationship]. “And as I was doing that I was thinking to myself how wonderful it is that I can express openly all of my feelings, even the negative ones….The left over negative feelings I just sent down with the water under the bridge.”

Or take, from another chapter, the authors’ discussion of the Truth and Reconciliation [TRC] Commission in South Africa after the end of Apartheid [p. 211]:

The goal of the TRC was to give victims of brutality a forum where their accounts would be heard and vindicated, where their dignity and sense of justice would be restored, and where they could express their grievances in front of the perpetrators themselves. In exchange for amnesty, the perpetrators had to drop their denials, evasions, and self-justifications and admit the harm they had done, including torture and murder.

To me, both those examples sound “venting.” Someone has a complaint, airs that complaint, and feels better about it afterward.

To be sure, these types of venting are distinct from what Tavris and Aronson think they are discrediting. Airing a grievance to a loving partner who listens empathetically and coming to terms with a violent past in a controlled, open forum are very different from my smacking a car that almost hits me as it runs a red light. In the latter case, the split second of satisfaction I get is followed by 299 seconds of feeling bad that I lost my temper.

Even so, I suspect that most people’s simplistic view about venting–that is releases built-up pressure that otherwise would eat away at one’s insides–is commingled with a more nuanced view. Sometimes people want to be understood. They want their day in court or they want to have their say. When they take that desire and translate it into rage–into screaming and pounding the tables–it probably does more harm than good. But in certain forums and under certain controlled circumstances, voicing anger or frustration can lead to satisfaction.

I say “venting,” they say “po-tah-to.” Maybe it doesn’t matter whether we call it venting. But if you’re exposing false notions most of us supposedly have–and you expect most of us to listen–then you might want to understand all the reasons we hold those false notions to begin with.

Oprah and Frey: Bastion of truth vs. craven dishonesty

Tavris and Aronson commence the last chapter of their book by describing a kerfuffle between Oprah Winfrey and James Frey. Frey had written a memoir about his alleged experiences with drug addiction, which Oprah endorsed. The memoir was later found to be fraudulent. Frey made it all up. And for a time, Oprah stood fast in her support for Frey even after the evidence had demonstrated he was lying. Finally, however, Oprah apologized. Tavris and Aronson see this apology as an admirable admission of making a mistake.

If Tavris and Aronson had stopped there, I wouldn’t particularly object to their use of the example. But they don’t stop there. They go on to describe what Oprah did next. She devoted one of her talk shows to discussing her mistake. She invited Frey to appear as a guest and confronted him on his lies, exposing him in public and chastising him whenever he tried to evade responsibility for what he had done.

I get that people need to be held accountable. Frey probably did make it all up. He didn’t have to go on the show. But it all seems like a public shaming to me. The lesson I take from that episode (or Tavris and Aronson’s retelling of it…I didn’t watch it) is that his major offense was to dupe Oprah. Lying is bad enough, but deceiving a powerful, popular billionaire talk show host is unacceptable. (And frankly, a book that devotes scores of pages to explaining how easy it is to lie to oneself and come to hold false beliefs might question whether a public shaming is so obviously the right thing to do.)

Tavris and Aronson might have at least considered that part of Oprah’s shtick–one of the ways she promotes herself–is to endorse books and that calling Frey to account was as much a business decision as a search for the truth. They don’t need to agree with me, but I wish they had addressed the possibility that Oprah’s interview with Frey was a grandstanding vanity project.

The two genres: debunker lit and self-help

Tavris and Aronson’s book is “debunker lit,” or literature devoted to debunking our false notions and busting the myths to with we are all enthralled. Like most debunker lit, this book follows a standard narrative:

  • A lot of people believe X is true
  • Several studies that show X isn’t always true
  • Therefore, X is never true

No, Tavris and Aronson never say “never.” But they often say “often” in a way that implies a “never.” They’re not dishonest, but they shoot first and decline to ask questions later. As with a lot of debunker lit that I’ve read, their book is interesting and informative. But if I want further discussion, I find myself going elsewhere.

I might criticize Tavris and Aronson’s tendency to over-conclude from, and their refusal to poke into the nuances of, whatever studies they cite, but they seem to be acting from good faith. They’re not necessarily wrong, either. “Recovered memories” were probably over-diagnosed. “Venting one’s anger” can be harmful. And while I’m not a fan of Oprah, I’d probably hold a lower opinion of her if she hadn’t admitted her mistake.

Mistakes Were Made disappoints as debunker literature. But as a work of self-help, it does a good job. It reminds us that we can and do make choices and that taking responsibility for them is a first step to something like happiness. It also reminds us that epistemological humility is a virtue. That which we think we know might actually be more what we want to know than what we need to know. That’s a useful, even empowering, lesson.

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3 Responses to Mistakes Were Made: some reservations

  1. Dr X says:

    (Postscript as preface: Please forgive typos, errors etc. I want to offer some thoughts on this great post, but I’m rather rushed today, and we’ll be away, probably without internet through the holiday, so this was unedited and off the top of my head. I hate when I wind up saying the opposite of what I meant to say through an error, but it’s been known happen and cause confusion. Also, there might be some things I reference that could be googled if you want to dig into them.)

    Nice review. I haven’t read the book,so I can only comment on your take. Tavris is a social psychologist, so much of what she writes about can be described as trend and tendency. This contrasts, by the way, with psychiatry and my branch of psychology, both of which focus on the study of individual differences and their application. There’s enough overlap, however, in the core curricula that I can offer some observations.

    Rarely if ever is a finding true for all participants in a particular study. One serious problem in the way studies are popularized in the press and sometimes by authors, is that generalities about people mask substantial individual differences in the data. I think you’re picking up on that problem. Also, statistically significant differences found in studies may in fact be weak or as us clinicians say, clinically insignificant. A statistical difference can be observed, but it’s so small and there is so much individual variation, that knowing that the group differences exists is of ]little to no practical value. Unfortunately, much is often made of weak statistical differences, which can lead to vast over-generalization when discussing studies.

    Regarding recovered memory, I can tell you that whatever Tavris presented, I’m sure it couldn’t possibly convey the complexity of the subject. If you’re in an academic bookstore some time, pick up a current Cognitive Psychology/Memory/Information Processing textbook and take a glance through it.

    I don’t stay active and current on Cog Psych (not to be confused with clinical cognitive therapy), but I studied a lot of it as an undergrad and some of it as grad student. I do know that some cases of recovered memory have been verified as authentic, but in most cases it’s difficult to evaluate the veracity of any particular recovered memory. We also know that it’s very, very easy to create false memories – so easy that any particular case of alleged recovered memory without independent evidence should be regarded with great skepticism, both in legal and clinical settings.

    Actually, it’s always been the case in clinical and cognitive psychology that recovered memories have been regarded skeptically by the academic and professional communities as whole. When the recovered memory craze was a thing in the news and in pop psych books, many psychologists and psychiatrists were actively warning the public and the legal community that a lot of quackery was driving unjust criminal prosecution, as as well harming patients in those instances of patient exploitation by quacks.

    Unfortunately, these warnings went largely unheeded in the press, and they didn’t make for juicy pop pscyh best sellers. Once in a while, Elizabeth Loftus would get a little press, but the warnings of the larger professional community were almost entirely ignored. In fact, there was even considerable pushback and upbraiding of the professional community by victim advocates, accusing us of denying sexual abuse, which wasn’t true at all. Our skepticism applied very specifically to alleged recovered memory, especially recovery after years of alleged total memory blackout, and alleged recovery of memories from age 3 and under. I’ll get to that last part (about age) in what follows.

    You brought up an interesting problem with respect to Tavris’s apparent dismissal of forgotten and recovered memory when, at the same time, she emphasizes malleability of memory creation and reconstruction. This isn’t necessarily a contradiction. Think about it this way: there are many events that aren’t encoded into memory in the first place. This is especially true at pre-verbal and early-verbal phases of development, when self narratives are limited to non-existent. In early development, we lack the semantic pegs to hang our experiences upon for later retrieval. This can be and is true, while it’s also true that we create a shitloads of partially false and false memories based on evolving verbal narratives as we age and develop as verbal narrative encoders. The fact that we can create false narrative memories later in development, in no way implies that we can remember what never meaningfully encoded in the first place.

    I know of one complication that should perhaps be a part of this discussion. I know there’s research evidence that the memory processes for traumatic memories and ordinary memories interact, but are actually rooted in different neuro-cognitive processing systems. So we shouldn’t assume that an understanding of how we encode and recall actual traumatic experiences is going to follow the same general principles that apply to encoding and recollection of non-traumatic memories. I’m anything but an expert on the ins and outs of this part of it, but I believe this is the thinking among some if not many cognitive neuroscientists. I also believe that at least some of the research on this pre-dates Tavris’s book. IIRC, it dates back to the early 2000s. Not having read her book, I can’t say that this would have clearly had a bearing on her discussion, or if it might have addressed seeming contradictions you found, but I certainly think insofar as it suggests caution in the way we generalize about memory principles and research on non-traumatic memory versus traumatic memories.

    Anyway, nice job “Conroy.” It’s all very interesting stuff. Well, to me, at least. I’ll try try to check in over the weekend if I have internet access, but it may be sporadic, more off than on, at the location we’re heading.

    • (((Dr. X, I haven’t had a chance to read your comment yet because things on my end have been hectic. But I promise I will in a few days and then respond. For now, I’ll just say thanks for reading.)))

    • Now that I’ve had a chance to read your comment, I can comment in turn.

      First, thanks for sharing your perspective and that of your profession, especially concerning the “recovered memory” craze. I don’t think Tavris and Aronson’s account actually disagrees with yours so much that they don’t go into the nooks and crannies and complications. What they say is consistent with most everything you say in your comment, but they just don’t go the extra yard to make it clear.

      And one thing I don’t think I was clear enough about in my review is that an important part of what they’re writing about in the recovered memory chapter isn’t so much recovered memory and why it’s wrong (when it is wrong), but why so many practitioners held fast to the theory even though its weaknesses were well-known.

      Second, my big problem with Tavris and Aronson (and I’ve read a few other things by Tavris) is their presentation, of which their treatment of recovered memory is only one instance. They, or at least Tavris, seem to have built a career out of “telling us the truths we didn’t know, but that science tells us” when things are messier than they allow. There’s a lot we (by which I mean I, and others) need to know that Tavris tells us. The example of anger and venting seems spot on, for instance. But I wish they would explore things more deeply and engage the individual variations you refer to in your comment.

      Thanks, again, for reading over my review and taking the time to comment.

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