Book review

Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me)

Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts

By Carol Tavris, Elliot Aronson

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Many people (but obviously not me) find it difficult to admit to their mistakes. This book explains why (although clearly it doesn’t apply to me, because I’m not like that), illustrating its points with some great examples, and explaining the experimentally-verified underlying psychological tendencies. Most important is the concept of cognitive dissonance: how we (well you lot, anyway, I’m too smart to do it) will resolve the conflict between our view of ourselves as fundamentally honest and right-minded, and any actions we may have taken that aren’t quite as honest or sensible as they might have been:

“Most people, when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or plan of action but justify it even more tenaciously.”

We are terrifically good at this, too. Over time we will nudge our memories so they align better with how we wish things had gone, we tell half-truths to others that we come to fully believe are justified, and maybe even actually a more realistic version of what happened. And we do all this entirely unconsciously – our minds are just seeking to resolve this cognitive dissonance, and do it all for us without our awareness. For example, talking of the first Gulf war and the invasion of Iraq:

“Before the invasion, about 46 percent of Democrats supported it; by 2006, only 21 percent remembered having done so. Just before the war, 72 percent of Democrats said they thought Iraq had WMDs, but later, only 26 percent remembered having believed this.”

Mostly we do this to make ourselves feel better, but actually it’s about reinforcing whatever our self image is. If you are that way inclined, and you have a negative image of yourself, you will reinforce that view. “Yes, I won the Pulitzer prize, but it was just a fluke, I’ll never write anything half as good again”, these people would tell themselves – quite sincerely believing it.

While we may have noticed this inclination in others, the authors are at pains to point out that we all do it – they give various annecdotes about how they did just this on one occasion or another.

“The brain is designed with blind spots, optical and psychological, and one of its cleverest tricks is to confer on its owner the comforting delusion that he or she does not have any.”

The worst aspect of this isn’t what it may do to our individual lives, but how it can play out on a larger canvas. Several chapters are given over to examples in our courts or in our political system where the implications have included everything from wrongful imprisonment of innocent people of decades, to children taken away from their parents, to corruption, to thousands of deaths in wars or accidents.

Even when we think we are certain we are not doing it this time, we may still be doing it:

“The weakness of the relationship between accuracy and confidence is one of the best-documented phenomena in the 100-year history of eyewitness memory research”

How or why do we do this? One plausible explanation is that we tend to view things that people do as due to either the situation, or due to an innate tendency on their part. When we make mistakes, this is due to the situation – I bumped into you because I was rushing to get somewhere. When others make mistakes, all too often we blame it on their character: they bumped into me because they are just plain rude. This is the so-called “fundamental attribution error”, and again, we may see it in others much more easily than we see it in ourselves.

The final chapter talks a little about how we might get better at spotting these problems in ourselves. If I had one complaint about this book, it’s about how short this section is. The advice is basically “now you know it’s a risk, you can be on the lookout for it, and catch yourself doing it”. True, I’m sure, but how, and what else might we do as well?

I shall give the last word to George Orwell, who the authors quote as putting the whole thing quite magnificently thus:

“We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”

Book review

What Matters Most

Living a More Considered Life

by James Hollis

What Matters Most by James Hollis

There’s an awful lot to like about this book, but it’s not a straightforward read. Hollis seems to relish obscure words and his text isn’t always easy to parse: as Benjamin Disraeli once said of William Gladstone, he seems at times almost “inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity”. Having said which, it’s a style thing, and it perhaps made me slow down my reading and forced me to engage more with the meaning, which was all to the good, as there’s a lot to engage with here.

When I started reading, I knew nothing of Hollis, nor of his other books, so I didn’t realise that he was by trade a distinguished psychoanalyst in the Jungian tradition. This soon becomes evident, as a lot of the book centres around the kinds of myths by which we live our lives, and the potential to transform ourselves (or at least our view of ourselves) by engaging with those myths:

“We are all exiles, whether we know it or not, for who among us feels truly, vitally linked to the four great orders of mystery: the cosmos, nature, the tribe, and self?”

I was new to a lot of this, and really enjoyed the discussion. It’s about how you confront the world:

“The dragon shows up every day, no worse for the wear, and ready to scare you back into a corner of your life, to swallow you, and to annihilate the life energy you are supposed to incarnate in this world.”

That’s our challenge, then. We must continue to show up, to face our difficulties, our boredom, our anxieties, and to live so our “daily discipline becomes: That Life Not Be Governed by Fear”. Scattered throughout the book are anecdotes taken from Hollis’s clients, which speak to these deep concerns and to the undercurrents of our lives:

Angela walks away from her marriage of twenty years. Safe, secure, valued by all, including her husband, she walks away. Why? When asked, she mumbles, “I wanted to know that I wasn’t dead yet.”

It’s about understanding our anxieties and our neurosis. Our daily lives tend to become “anxiety management systems”, but are to deeply buried that we don’t even know that this is what we’re doing, nor quite the extent to which we’re doing it. None of which is easy. In fact, in many ways it wasn’t meant to be easy – and anyone who tells you different is selling somehting:

“Why do we have psychologists in the media who conveniently fail to verify the contradictions with which we all daily live, the necessary suffering that is a by-product of real life, rather than suggest that three easy steps will bring us happiness and material affluence

Ultimately, we must become larger people – “step into largeness”, living life by verbs (actions we take), not nouns (things we own, or static truths). Or we can choose not to do that, and live instead on the scraps from the tables of other lives, which we falsely imagine somehow to be more meaningful than our own:

“The world is full of people droning on, sitting before the telly or the Internet, waiting to die, living only for small sensations of scandal or vicarious catastrophe that they can witness from afar.”

It’s our choice, though. Growth, or security – you can’t have both. It’s clear which Hollis is striving for, and although he offers us no “ten steps” or “twelve rules”, no map at all, he perhaps is offering us a compass that will give us our heading, as we cross whatever terrain our lives hold.

Book review

The Four Agreements

A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom

by Miguel Ruiz

The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz

Some useful advice, buried under many layers of mysticism. So yes, the principles of the Four Agreements are sound psychological advice. They are: Be Impeccable With Your Word, Don’t Take Anything Personally, Don’t Make Assumptions, and Always Do Your Best, and all four are indeed excellent advice in general terms.

But no, the trappings in which it was wrapped did not work for me. Although it’s possible that the wisdom of the Toltec culture survives, the reality is they were a mesoamerican culture that died out nearly a thousand years ago and left no written records, although they certainly left some impressively large stepped pyramids. My conclusion: directionally interesting, but the terrain over which one traveled wasn’t helpful. Two stars, regardless of how much Opra loves it, because it’s recycled and wrapped in too much mystic claptrap.

Book review

The Daily Stoic

366 Meditations for Clarity, Effectiveness, and Serenity

by Ryan Holiday

The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday

There’s been a huge revival in the Greek and Roman philosophy of Stoicism in the past few years, and this book is a good example of what it yields. It’s a series of daily quotations from the great Stoic philosophers such as Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus. Each quotation is accompanied by a paragraph or two of discussion, underlining the key points. It’s well done, with readable and un-stuffy new translations of the originals, and the presentation is good.

I read this book at the average pace of the one meditation a day for which it was written, although I must admit I would sometimes loose track for a week or ten days, and then do some catching up. If one can hold a thought in one’s head, and follow through on it for the day, it’s hard to see the day not being the better for it. There’s a reason why these observations have lasted nearly two thousand years.

My qualms, such as I have them, are I suppose based on an underlying niggle of disquiet. Look at the philosophers quoted: Marcus Aurelius – very successful general, somewhat reluctant but well-regarded emperor; or Seneca – senator, playwright, adviser to the emperor Nero. These are powerful men, at the top of whatever power hierarchy was going. Is this a philosophy for the rich and powerful, enabling them to keep what they have with a clear conscious, thinking they could give it all up if they had to (although, mostly, they don’t…)? And all the while lecturing us that we, too, should be content with what we have? Sometimes it seems that way: on June 23rd we have Marcus Aurelius telling us:

You could enjoy this very moment all the things you are praying to reach by taking the long way around – if you’d stop depriving yourself of them

Epictetus, to be fair, was born a slave, and grew up crippled (and Seneca was exiled, and eventually forced to take his own life when accused of plotting against Nero). Although none of Epictetus’ writings survive directly, we do have several volumes of his discourses from his pupil, including a “best of…” compilation known as the Enchiridion. It is this work that perhaps is most responsible for the modern revival of Stoicism: James Stockdale, the vice presidential candidate of Ross Perot, was shot down in the Vietnam War and spent seven and a half years in captivity, which included torture and four years of solitary confinement. He had read the Enchiridion at college, and credits it with enabling him to survive this horrific ordeal in his book Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior. There are a good few Epictetus quotes in The Daily Stoic; for January 19th, for example, we have Epictetus saying:

A podium and a prison is each a place, one high and the other low, but in either place your freedom of choice can be maintained if you so wish

Focus on what is in your control, as opposed to what is not. Good advice, however and wherever you are living.

In the end, it is to Epictetus’ quotations that I was perhaps most drawn. And he won’t care that I rounded my 3 1/2 star view of this book down to 3 stars, for the disquiet. “Not things, but opinions about things, trouble men”, he once wrote. Enough said.

Book review

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

by Oliver Burkeman

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I bought this book as a present for my wife, who would have no shame in admitting that she can’t stand all the “positive thinking” malarkey. She read it, and didn’t really enjoy it, finding that it had many of the same messages for how to be happy but without the “positive” sticker on the front. So I was curious as to what lay within…

And once I’d read it, I could see her point. Many of the conclusions that Mr Burkeman comes to are, indeed, those that you might read elsewhere, but without the same spin: you would read elsewhere of the benefits of mindfulness, of Stoicism, of self-awareness in many websites and books.

The spin here, if there is one, is that you don’t have to do these things with any view that they are designed to be positive affirmations. You can just do them because they seem to work. Plus, you get to poke fun at the wilder elements of the “positivity” crowd, which Mr Burkeman does very effectively in is re-telling tales of huge conference centres with crowds chanting empty slogans about “winning” or whatever it happens to be.

So in the end I rather liked this book. From my personal point of view, I’m becoming increasingly wary of the whole move to Stoicism, as I think it may entrench particular points of view that I don’t subscribe to (in particular I fear it pushes people into accepting a bad status quo, rather than in pushing back against it).

On the other hand, I’m all-in on Mindfulness: there is clearly a bunch going on in our brains that isn’t directly accessible to us, and the identification of ourselves with our stream-of-consciousness self-talk seems like a great candidate for why so many of us are so upset, so much of the time. My cats don’t do that (or at least I don’t think they do…), and they are pretty content.

So anything that tries to break us out of this is a good thing. Plus, the book got me watching Youtube videos of Eckhart Tolle, and the guy is like Yoda, if Yoda were wearing clothes that escaped from the 1970s that his mother had knitted him, sitting and smiling and blinking and not saying much, but when he does saying wise things. How much do I love him!

Three and a half stars, rounded up to four because of the Tolle bits.