By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Marsha Mercant, Joe Barrett
“Mistakes Were Made” reminds one of Socrates’ wisdom; e.g. “I know something that I know nothing.” Self-awareness is the essence of wisdom. Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, in “Mistakes Were Made”, challenge the foundation of social and physical sciences by questioning the integrity and correlation of human memory and truth.
The scientific method creates hypothesis, a series of purportedly related facts, and experiments to disprove relatedness. The hypothesis is tested by experiment. Each experiment is to be reproducible by others with similar, if not precisely alike, results. If no results are found to deny the truth of hypothesis, hypothesis becomes a probabilistic truth; a potential natural law. However, Tavris and Aronson infer scientific methodology is flawed by the nature of human cognition. They argue that human brains are naturally inclined to distort facts, either by ignoring pertinent information or rationalizing observed facts to fit preconceived notions (hypotheses).
Karl Popper argues the same in his skepticism about science. Popper refuses to believe human beings are preternaturally objective. Popper suggests, “Science may be described as the art of systematic over-simplification.”, and goes on to say, “It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood.” In other words, science only vaguely represents truth and, fails to be the same thing for each person that observes and explains the same fact.
S. I. Hayakawa makes the same point in saying that the same words mean different things to different people; even though words have defined definitions.
Tavris and Aronson offer disturbing examples of lives ruined by false memories, coerced confessions, and planted evidence. Human beings cannot escape prejudice or preconceived categories of information that influence judgment. Humans act on intuitive belief (hypothesis) which increases probability of error. Human beings, by nature, pattern facts to enhance remembrance of things past; i.e. objectivity and truth take a back seat in human memories.
Memories are not precise films of past events. Memories are facts held together by cognitively created stories that make sense in the mind of the person who remembers. Making sense in the mind of one who remembers is not the same as truth. Patterning of remembered facts compels humans to distort memory. The distortion is caused by forgotten details, rationalizations, and prejudices that blend facts to make memories logical in the mind of the one who remembers. The technical expression of difference between memory and truth is partly defined in Tavris’s and Aronson’s book as cognitive-dissonance.
Tavris and Aronson argue that humans rarely retract their mistakes. Most often when history confirms their errors, human response is “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)”. Tavris and Aronson are not saying all humans misremember or lie. Rather, they argue that human nature seeks to preserve its dignity by not taking responsibility for mistakes. They blame their mistakes on others. Tavris and Aronson see cognitive dissonance when people defend their decisions by saying “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)”. Those who say “Mistakes Were Made” defend their ego by saying not enough information was available, I was given bad information by people reporting to me, or there is no right answer; there is only probability. Those who make mistakes are protecting their egos, their vision of themselves.
“Mistakes Were Made” attacks the credibility of eye-witness accounts, recovered memories, torture confessions, and criminal conviction without hard evidence. Tavris and Aronson argue it is better to let a guilty person free than imprison the innocent. This is a troubling thought to real victims of real crimes. Then again, how troubling is it to see cases like the McMartin Pre-School vilification or the New York jogger rape convictions that destroy reputations and lives of falsely accused perpetrators?
Tavris and Aronson make one wonder about memories of childhood that influence one’s view of life. Tavris and Aronson question the truth of claims made by mature adults with recovered memories of parental abuse. They create a cognitive dissonance in readers who hear of alleged abuse of children by Catholic clergy or sexual abuse of daughters by fathers. One is thrown into confusion about truth; what to believe; who to blame.