Monday, July 23, 2012

Mistakes Were Made by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

Aside from the obligatory opening and closing criticisms of President George W. Bush to establish their liberal and professional bona fides, the authors have written a very interesting book about "Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts." One of the the things they talk about is confirmation bias - holding on to memories and "facts" that reinforce our beliefs, whether they be scientific, political, religious, or relational, and throwing away those that do not fit the jigsaw puzzle of our world view. I notice this all the time on social media sites and blogs - people tend to ignore things that contradict their point of view, often employing complex mental and logical gymnastics to do so.

Evidently we all tell ourselves little lies that keep us from acknowledging that we make bad decisions, or have behaved badly, in order to keep our self image intact as smart and good people. There are people, however, who do just the opposite, when they have low self esteem, and are unable to acknowledge to themselves the good things which they have done.

"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 for 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.'"

It's a bit scary to realize that our memories are often faulty, even before the effects of aging take their toll. A story told in the book...
"illustrates three very important things about memory: how disorienting it is to realize that a vivid memory, one full of emotion and detail, is indisputably wrong; that even being absolutely positively sure that a memore is accurate does not mean that it is; and how errors in memory support our current feelings and beliefs."

I've recently had some of my own recollections of my childhood called into question, when my parents denied certain events having ever happened - and it makes me doubt far too many of my other memories.

The authors spend several chapters on wrongful convictions and the criminal justice system, from discussing the prosecutorial bias that has sent a far greater number of innocent people to prison than you might have ever imagined, to tearing apart the interrogation techniques widely used by police departments that produce an amazing amount of fabricated confessions.

They also have a quite insightful chapter or three on relationships, especially marriage. In a marriage, it seems, we have the tendency to either file away events and memories as reinforcing the belief that our spouses are bad people and ever hurtful thing they do just adds to that idea, or that they are good people, and we file away all the good things they do, ignoring the hurtful ones, or just dealing with the act itself quickly and moving on. There was an interesting statistic about that:

"Successful couples 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). It doesn't matter if the couple is emotionally volatile, quarreling eleven times a day, or emotionally placid, quarreling once a decade, it is the ratio that matters....If the ratio is five to one or better, any dissonance that arises is generally reduced in a positive direction...When the positive-negative ratio has shifted in favor of those negative feelings, however, couples resolve dissonance caused by the same events in a way that increases their alienation from one another."

Ok, so this bit of information reinforces my confirmation bias - I've believed for a long time that showing my wife a great deal of respect, being affectionate often, and trying to show her that she's appreciated has overcome what a pain in the rear I often am to live with. Gotta maintain that five to one ratio, now that I know the exact numbers I need.

Another bit of bias I had confirmed was in this passage,

"Those who travel the route of shame and blame...As the new story takes shape, with husband and wife rehearsing it privately or with sympathetic friends, the partners become blind to each other's good qualities..."

I've seen it often in the disintegration of a marriage, especially when the "sympathetic friend" is a member of the opposite sex, who may have an unacknowledged motive for breaking up the couple. Even same sex friends may have ulterior motives, especially if they're enjoying the freedom of a single lifestyle, or have marriage troubles of their own. You gotta be careful who you confide in.

One rather scary bit,

"Dona actually took the confirmation bias further than most spouses do: She told Pines that whenever her husband made her feel depressed and upset, she wrote it down in a 'hate book.' Her hate book gave her all the evidence she needed to justify her decision to divorce."

While most of us don't have an actual hard bound hate book lying around, we often keep a mental list of all the wrongs done us, don't we. This is so in conflict with the Christian concept of forgiveness and remembering sins no more.

An interesting cultural difference, that may explain some things about the failure of our educational system these days,

"The researchers alsofound that American parents, teachers, and children were far more likely than their Japanese and Chinese counterparts to believe that mathematical ability is innate; if you have it, you don't have to work hard, and if you don't have it, there's no point in trying. In contrast, most Asians regard math success, like achievement in any other domain, as a matter of persistence and plain hard work. Of course you will make mistakes as you go along; that's how you learn and improve. It doesn't mean you are stupid."

Very is most of this book.

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