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

You Play The Girl

On Playboy Bunnies, Princesses, Trainwrecks and Other Man-Made Women

For me this was an insightful and interesting exploration of the role women have played in (largely American) culture since the mid 1800s, seen through the lens of their portrayal in popular media. The author was a TV and then a film critic, and she looks at the roles women have been given to play, from The Philadelphia Story (1940) through The Stepford Wives (1975) to Frozen and beyond. Her take on things is always insightful and witty, and she made her points very well. I’m a late middle-aged, cis-gendered white man, and I was thoroughly enraged by the way in which women have been expected to politely play nicely as either background or suitable companions for the hero throughout the ages.

This sort of segregated role for women seems to be a creation of a post-industrial age. Hunter-gatherer societies will often have had men and women in broadly separate roles, but this didn’t imply any kind of power hierarchy – women in such societies would have openly laughed at the idea that men were “in charge” of anything (see Margaret Mead’s writings, for example). Such a hierarchy was present in the upper echelons of medieval society in the West, however, as women were often seen as useful pawns in the political wars of the time. I think some of the responsibility for this is the view clearly expressed by the Abrahamic religions that women need to be kept separate from men, and increasingly subordinate to them.

Quite how we get out of this, I’m no clearer than the author, but it’s clear that for the sake of everyone involved, we really need to find a better way to be in the world. This book reveals the “patriarchy” as alive and kicking back, and it’s not good for anyone involved.

Book review

Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass

Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain's Underclass
Read date: Nov 2018

Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass by Darren McGarvey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a scream of rage at modern Western society. McGarvey manages to do this while acknowledging that the same society contains the seeds of the solution. He also sees very clearly the processes that create the problems.

Darren McGarvey was brought up on one of the most challenging estates outside Glasgow in the 1990s. Except that “brought up” is an exaggeration – better to say he survived an often personally dangerous childhood with an alcoholic and depressive mother, a father he fell out with, bullying an everyday fact of life, addiction to drugs, alcohol and fast food an everpresent reality. Behind this all, he contends, are the brutal battering from the stresses of extreme poverty.

He’s fairly unflinching in his views of the world – judging all by the standards he came to recognise as reality, from the highest to the low:

“People who are convicted of crimes very rarely think the law has been applied fairly to them. This is as true of serial killers as it is of petty thieves. Most people find it hard to accept even the most banal forms of legal responsibility. Think how indignant drivers get when they receive legitimate parking tickets or speeding fines. Everyone always has a good reason as to why they are the exception to a rule they are being subjected to and it’s very rare that a person holds their hands up and accepts culpability. Most people believe their circumstances are unique and that the rules shouldn’t apply.”

He holds no truck with the press, and their relentless middle-class approach to the world:

“On the day women were legally obliged to provide proof of their rape to claim benefit designed to ease the burden of in-work poverty on their children, the national news was dominated by a family who felt hard done by because they were fined £60 for taking their daughter to Florida. I’m not saying both parties do not have the right to feel equally aggrieved at their respective circumstances, but surely one deserves more prominence than the other in the public mind?”


“Being underclass is to sit, day after day, and scroll through a news feed full of Guardian articles that are confirming things you knew were the case 20 years prior. ‘Study finds children living in dysfunction can’t learn’, ‘Experts say sugar is addictive’ or, my personal favourite, ‘Survey discovers the arts is dominated by middle class people’.”

His tough mindedness and his honesty are sometimes challenging, but I think he would say he doesn’t care – he’s trying to get a message across, and he does what he needs to do in order to ensure it sticks. Each chapter is part of a thread, telling a story to deliver his message. It certainly changed my views on what the lived experience is like today in Britain for many people:

“Much like the school curriculum, where your value is derived not only from your ability to think and reason but also from your willingness to submit to a process, the conversation about decision-making in your own community follows a similar pattern. You must engage within the parameters set by the people who are really in charge.”

I also came away better informed on the complexities and difficulties that lie behind the simplistic phrases and glib generalisations of those in the “poverty industry”, who often tacitly need the problems to continue to justify their roles and funding. However, McGarvey isn’t afraid also to challenge those in poverty themselves, encouraging them to take personal responsibility – if only because actually there are no “quick wins” coming from politicians or the third sector.

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