We’ve all been there. We did something wrong (incorrectly, evil, whatever, take your pick). But we’re capable, we’re good, so this can’t be true. There has to be another explanation. Somebody else’s fault. Not wrong, just not right yet. This is what I actually intended. This is even better. As I’ve said here before, Jeff Goldblum nailed it in “The Big Chill”—we can go a long time without sex but we can’t go a day without a rationalization.
Social psychologists have long had a term for it—cognitive dissonance, when two realities collide in our belief systems and force us to either make them fit (however bizarrely) or jettison or deform one or both of them. Cognitive dissonance is the theme of Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson’s Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.
Tavris and Aronson are two of the best known social psych folks, and this book should be required reading for anyone laying claim to intelligence. It’s extremely easy to read, except for all the dogearring, margin-writing, and quoting you’ll be doing to anyone close by. And it’s applicable to every reader and everyone they know. Except you and me. Here’s their thesis in a nutshell:
As fallible human beings, all of us share the impulse to justify ourselves and avoid taking responsibility for any actions that turn out to be harmful, immoral, or stupid. . . . The higher the stakes—emotional, financial, moral—the greater the difficulty.
It goes further than that: Most people, when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously. Even irrefutable evidence is rarely enough to pierce the mental armor of self-justification.
The authors then spend the rest of their book illustrating exactly how with examples from politics (which is built on cog diss), science, wealth, personal memories (which are readily and frequently unreliable), psychoanalysis (and false memory debacles), alien abductions, love and relationships, fixing the starting point of blame. And, most importantly for us here, trials and sentencing.
Cog diss makes up an enormous portion of our work in corr sent. The rationalization and justifications offenders make to explain away their offense are the backbone of crime. Reading this book made me think most of Paul Cromwell's In Their Own Words, a compendium of articles on how criminals (white-collar, blue-, and no-) explain their actions that would (should) make economists give up their professions. But Tavris and Aronson don’t discuss criminals. No, they use for their examples . . . prosecutors and judges, especially those who can’t admit mistakes even in the face of incontrovertible evidence, as we frequently note here. They spend a whole chapter on them.
You send the wrong guy to prison. Do you admit being wrong? Or do you deny it, claim the new evidence is wrong, the guy’s a “bad guy” who’s done other things. You’re still a “good guy,” you’re still possessed of truth and righteousness, God still personally makes you His spokesperson on justice. “The alternative, that you sent an innocent man to prison for fifteen years is so antithetical to your view of your competence that you will go through mental hoops to convince yourself that you couldn’t possibly have made such a blunder.” IOW, the “bad” prosecutors we highlight here when they make these ridiculous, self-protective, God’s representative statements, like the OR DA they take to town for his blowhard hubris over and over.
Once cops and DAs zero in on someone, their training and experience over and over bracket off any contradictory info, and you don’t need this book to know that, although far too many of them do deny it themselves. The authors’ detailing of deceptive interrogation techniques that allow no refutation is scary, as scary as DAs' active efforts to block mitigating evidence from freeing innocent people. (Scariest, and the best proof of where their heads really are and what they really believe in, is their apparent indifference to reopening the cases in which this happens and finding who really did do the crime.) They know what they know, and disagreers are just wrong, despite all those facts and evidence on their side.
You come away from this book with many feelings, none good. Foremost is the realization of just how little contact someone really has to have with reality to survive and even prosper on this planet. You’d think all the wake-up calls we’ve gotten from sweeties and those we wished were in our lives would alert us to our innate confusion and blindness, but apparently not. They were stupid, and, really, they weren’t that hot anyway.
More related to corrections sentencing, once again, I found myself wondering how on earth we can have no specific training for practitioners in criminal proceedings, as practitioners are educated in Europe. When is a law school going to take a chance on this and help the entire country??? Tied to this is the need for all these practitioners to be drowned in cog diss lit and other cognitive research until it is just second nature for them to look for where the biases and misconceptions are misleading the search for truth and justice.
You also, I think, will find it unfair that the authors don’t go after defense attorneys, too. I’ve found their self-justifications just as hard to bear and on just as shaky ground to any Mr. Spock who happened by. With their claims that innocence and justice don’t matter, in order to live with their protection and freeing of abusers, cheats, and psychopaths, they cede the moral high ground when DAs play the “they’re guilty of this or something else, I don’t care what you say” game. If cog diss were seen as a foundation of their work, maybe we could drop the games they’ve built into the system to justify, promote, and protect themselves and restore the “justice” part of criminal justice that the rest of us are paying for and expect.
The book also gives us a very good answer for why “evidence-based practice” finds such tough sledding and will likely never be what its advocates want it to be, the answer to those questions about “why don’t people listen to our studies???” Unless the costs of ignoring the evidence are just so high that all but the diehards recognize the need to change, the old guard will resist. The authors thankfully include the example of the doctor who figured out that washing hands before sticking them on patients would save lives made progress only funeral by funeral of the old guard doctors who refused to believe it. Why wouldn’t they, why won’t the current policymakers and practitioners? Because accepting the evidence would mean admitting they’ve been WRONG all these years, that they’ve put people away who shouldn’t have been, or for longer than they deserved. Who wants to own up to that? So it’s “you can prove anything with statistics” or “yeah, but I had a case once . . . .” La, la, la, can’t hear you.
Tavris and Aronson don’t promise us remedies to all these dilemmas and disasters that our cog diss can lead us to. What they do offer is a thorough and unforgettable overview of what it is and does so that we can try to overcome the problems. “Drivers cannot avoid having blind spots in their field of vision, but good drivers are aware of them . . . . We cannot avoid our psychological blind spots, but if we are unaware of them we may become unwittingly reckless, crossing ethical lines and making foolish decisions. . . .” Not only does this apply to all the players in our sentencing—offenders, cops, prosecutors, defense, victims, and judges—it also applies to our entire corr sent policy nationally and in every state. Until we get that fact and reality are more important than our beliefs and egos, we will keep doing what CA did with its recent “solution” to its fiscal nightmare with prisons. Bandaids, not cures. Tavris and Aronson should be required reading in that first new law school that decides to take criminal justice seriously.