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It is evident that the importance of making healthy decisions in individual lives cannot be underrated. Daily routines present hundred of decisions, and some of them may significantly affect people if they cannot adequately deal with them. In the recent times, poor decisions made by leaders, managers, and other notable groups have had a devastating effect on companies and the general public. Procida (2007) argues that decision making is the heart of any successful leader. However, there are critical moments when making decisions may be perplexing, difficult, and nerve-racking.

Newnham (2008) notes several instances when poor decisions made by individuals, leaders, and corporate managers have led to mistakes. For example, poor lending decisions made by financial institutions, such as JPMorgan, in a developed country like the U.S. led to the global financial crisis. As a result, millions of people became jobless. Some European countries, including Greece, Spain, and Italy, had to seek massive bail outs from more successful countries, including Germany and France. However, the major problem is when leaders fail to recognize the mistakes they make, thus making it even harder to develop an effective solution to the existing problems. In this paper, the concepts of cognitive dissonance and self-justification, as seen in the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts written by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, will be examined.

Background Information

The book was written by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. It is a non- fictional book that was first published in 2007. The book deals with self-serving bias, cognitive dissonance, as well as other cognitive biases. The authors use a number of psychological theories to explain the ways in which perpetrators, who have performed a hurtful act, rationalize and justify their behaviors. The book describes a positive feedback loop of self-deception and activities through which a small difference between individuals’ attitudes becomes polarized. The authors, Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris, take a compelling look on the ways in which human brains are wired towards self-justification, when individuals make a mistake.  Tavris and Aronson (2008) suggest that individuals need to deal with the cognitive dissonance that jars their feelings of self-worth.

Consequently, most people create fictional stories with the aim of absolving their responsibilities and restoring their belief that they are moral, smart, and right. This belief keeps them from seeing themselves as wrong, immoral or dumb. With fascinating examples that range from the justification of the Iraq War to the faked evidence made by police to confirm marital infidelity, the authors candidly explain the reasons why human beings tend to shirk accountability. As seen from the book, the human ability to rationalize and justify mistakes is enormous and incredibly dangerous, as it has profound implications for each facet of life. For instance, at the beginning of the book, Tavris and Aronson (2008) cite journalists, scientists, and government officials who clearly believe that they had not done anything bad, despite the external evidence indicating otherwise.

One of the most egregious examples is the study, which showed the link between vaccines and autism. The author was to be paid over $80,000 to play the role of a researcher and an expert witness into the connection between the vaccines and autism. Until present, the study and its results remain extremely influential, despite being severely disapproved by additional studies (Tavris & Aronson, 2008).  In the section below the concepts of cognitive dissonance and self-justification are discussed in greater detail.

Concepts of Cognitive Dissonance and Self-Justification

Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable tension, which occurs when a person holds two psychologically inconsistent cognitions, opinions, attitudes or ideas. The authors clearly indicate that this dissonance is disquieting, because holding two contradictory ideas is like flirting with absurdity. The fact that all human beings spend their lives trying to convince themselves that their existence is not absurd (Tavris & Aronson, 2008). For instance, most smokers clearly know that smoking is harmful to their health. This dissonance results in mental discomfort, and the best way to reduce this type of dissonance is to quit smoking. However, there are situations when one has already tried to quit but failed. Then there is a tendency to reduce the existing dissonance by convincing oneself that smoking is not that harmful. Others convince themselves that smoking prevents weight gain. After all, obesity is a serious health problem that has killed many people across the globe.

It is clear that the dissonance theory challenges behaviorism. However, human beings have thinking abilities, and the dissonance theory demonstrates how human behaviors transcend the effects of punishment and reward and in some cases contradicts them. In this book, the authors list and describe the ways used by people to relieve their cognitive dissonance, for instance through self justification (Tavris & Aronson, 2008). For example, Tavris and Aronson (2008) predicted that when people experience a great deal of discomfort, embarrassment or pain in order to acquire something, they will be happier as compared to when these things come easily. However, for the authors, this is all about self-justification. Many people relieve discomforts arising from the dissonance stress by rationalizing and justifying their behaviors. Selective recall is another mechanism used by the human brain to help validate human behaviors and beliefs.

Another extremely visible example regarding self-justification is that of “the poster boy for ‘tenacious clinging to a discredited belief’” (Tavris & Aronson, 2008, p.304). Here, the authors describe the tenacious views held by President Bush in regard to the Iraq War. It is clear that the claim made by the President that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction was intentionally wrong. Later, Bush was also wrong when he linked Saddam Hussein to Al-Qaida. Other mistakes committed by the President include underestimating the cost of the war, predicting that all Iraqis would be free in their land after the departure of Saddam, and many others. When Bush was proved to be wrong in his original claims, he came up with other reasons and arguments to justify the invasion to Iraq. Tavris and Aronson (2008) suggest that self-justification does not reduce the scope of bad decisions and mistakes made by individuals. However, through self-justification, everyone can see a hypocrite in action, except the hypocrite himself. Self-justification allows people to address their moral lapses and close the gap between their immoral actions and decisions (Tavris & Aronson, 2008).

Accountability for Mistakes

It is evident that everyone, including politicians and company leaders, fall prey to one particular form of cognitive dissonance. In most instances, there is a tendency to justify one decision and stubbornly defend one’s position, despite the evidence which proves to the contrary. In all these cases, people use self-justification to relieve the cognitive dissonance. Procida (2007) argues that cognitive dissonance is the main reason why most people experience difficulties admitting and being accountable for the mistakes they make. Ironically, this is highly true of leaders and other people in distinguished positions, as well as those who make difference in society.

On the one hand, people view themselves as intelligent, while bad decisions usually look stupid. On the other hand, by admitting that they have made a stupid decision, intelligent people experience stress and cognitive dissonance, because they do not want anybody to know they have made stupid decisions (Tavris & Aronson, 2008).For instance, prior to the recent financial crisis, most managers and stakeholders of the financial institutions in the U.S. refused to admit the mistakes they had made. To justify themselves, they blamed the federal government for the failure to deregulate banks and reduce credit trading activities. As a consequence, shareholders could no longer trust those financial institutions, thus investing their money in other areas, such as government bonds or fixed assets like houses and cars. In Asia, African and Latin America, leaders justified their greed to stay in power by the need to protect human rights. For example, President Mugabe stayed in power for more than four decades and justified his stay by the need to return the land occupied by foreigners back to the Zimbabweans.


From this book, it is clear that people must finally admit the mistakes they have committed. This is mostly true of the leaders who manage countries and other institutions. For instance, the failure of President Bush to recognize the mistake he made when the U.S. invaded Iraq led to the massive loss of lives and other vital resources (Tavris & Aronson, 2008). In countries like Syria, it is important for all leaders to recognize and analyze the mistakes they have made while serving an office, in order to stop the ongoing civil war and avoid destroying the lives of innocent civilians.

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