Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)

Tom Shipka

In 2006 Oprah Winfrey endorsed a book by James Frey which was purported to be a memoir of his drug addiction and recovery. It was entitled A Million Little Pieces. Oprah's endorsement made the book an instant best-seller. As time passed an investigative website called "The Smoking Gun" and a journalist named Richard Cohen showed that Frey's story was fabricated. Initially Oprah reasserted her support for Frey. (1) The fact is that Oprah had been duped but she was intent on justifying her original decision and her credibility despite the facts. Remarkably, though, she made a 180 degree turnabout, publicly declared that Frey was a liar, apologized to the journalist, and chastised Frey in front of a national TV audience. (2)

Do most of us show the courage and candor which Oprah showed? No, say Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, psychologists and co-authors of a book entitled Mistakes Were Made (but not by me). Their book draws from hundreds of research studies of how people deal with their mistakes. It shows that most of us, to maintain our confidence and self-esteem, routinely fail to admit our mistakes and reject information that questions our beliefs, decisions, or preferences. We thrive on self-justification at the expense of the truth.
Early in the book, Tavris and Aronson cite a well-known recent example of a failure to admit mistakes. (3) The Bush administration sold the invasion of Iraq to the nation and the Congress on two principal claims, that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and that he aided and abetted international terrorism. Both proved to be groundless. Not only did the White House fail to acknowledge this, but it shifted to new justifications for the invasion. (4) President Bush continues to assert his confidence in the wisdom of his decisions about Iraq to this day.

Tavris and Aronson show how bias, distortion of the past, and self-justification infiltrate all of our relationships, personal and professional. One of the most illuminating chapters is on marriage. It should be mandatory reading for all couples planning to start or end a marriage. The authors point out that stable, lasting marriages are only possible when a person is able "to put empathy for the partner ahead of defending their own territory" and able "to listen to the partner's criticisms, concerns, and suggestions undefensively." (5) Tavris and Aronson marshal persuasive evidence that successful marriages have "a ratio of five times as many positive interactions (such as expressions of love, affection and humor) to negative ones (such as expressions of annoyance and complaints)." (6) Once the "magic ratio" dips below 5 to 1, the marriage is in trouble. (7)

As one reads this book, one wonders if people can let go of self-justification and admit mistakes? The authors insist that we can and they furnish impressive examples of public figures who have done so. They tell us that the first steps to success are being aware of the tendency to self-justify (8) and reminding ourselves regularly that we are fallible. (9)


  1. Oprah said, "The underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me..." and she blamed any problems on the publisher. See Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), Harcourt Books, 2007, p. 214. All references are to this book.
  2. Page 215.
  3. Pages 18-19.
  4. The new justifications included "getting rid of a 'very bad guy,' fighting terrorists, promoting peace in the Middle East, bringing democracy to Iraq, increasing American security, and finishing 'the task (our troops) gave their lives for'." On the claim that the U.S. is in Iraq to fight terrorists, a report issued by sixteen U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that "the occupation of Iraq had actually increased Islamic radicalism and the risk of terrorism." Page 3.
  5. Page 180.
  6. Page 173.
  7. Page 173.
  8. They write: "The need to reduce dissonance is a universal mental mechanism, but that doesn't mean we are doomed to be controlled by it. Human beings may not be eager to change, but we have the ability to change, and the fact that many of our self-protective delusions and blind spots are built into the way the brain works is no justification for not trying... An appreciation of how dissonance works, in ourselves and others, gives us some ways to override our wiring. And protect us from those who can't." (Pages 222-223).
  9. Page 228.

© 2008 Tom Shipka