Mistakes Were Made . . . (But Not By George Bush)

This week's quiz question: What is the psychological difference between Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's admission, "I acknowledge that mistakes were made here," and George Bush's comment in his January address to the nation, "Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me"? Everyone knows that public figures resort to this clichAf(c) to distance themselves from responsibility for their actions; what else is new?Gonzales joined a long list of practitioners of "mistakes were made," including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissinger, Cardinal Edward Egan, and McDonald's, to name a few. But there is a big difference, we suggest, between this responsibility-shirking crowd and George W. Bush. It is the difference between the conscious effort a politician or other public figure makes to convince the public of something he knows is untrue ("I did not have sex with that woman"; "I am not a crook"), and the unconscious process of justifying his actions to himself, persuading himself that he did nothing wrong -- that, in fact, he did a good thing. In the former situation, he is lying and knows he is lying to keep his job or save face. In the latter, he is lying to himself. That is why self-justification is more dangerous than the explicit lie.

We want our politicians, business leaders, physicians, prosecuting attorneys, and love partners to own up to their errors and bad decisions, without weaseling. More important, we want them to correct their mistakes and learn from them. But before they can do that, they have to be aware that they actually did make a mistake or a bad decision. How come we can see their mistakes so clearly and not our own? As decades of studies in cognitive science have demonstrated, the brain is designed with blind spots, psychological as well as optical, and one of its cleverest tricks is to confer on us the comforting delusion that we, personally, do not have any. We have no biases, we know why our small immoralities are justified and theirs are not, we know that our beliefs are valid and theirs are full of holes. These hardwired, self-serving habits of thinking are why everyone can see a hypocrite in action except the hypocrite, why husbands and wives can see the partner's stubborn unwillingness to change but not their own, and why the most villainous despots on earth sleep soundly at night.

When the fundamental belief that we are smart, moral, and kind crashes into the accusation that we did something stupid, immoral, or hurtful, we have major cognitive dissonance to resolve. Did I just commit an unethical act? I'm a good person; therefore my action was trivial, didn't hurt anyone, and besides everyone does it. Did I make a decision that proved disastrously wrong? I'm a smart person; therefore that decision has to be right, even if it will take a few decades to prove it. In this way, the brain sees to it that the very need to maintain the belief that we are kind, smart, and moral can keep us stuck in a course of action that is cruel, stupid, or immoral.

Understanding how self-justification works helps to explain the mystery of George Bush. Why can't the man ever admit that any of the specific predictions he and his administration made about Iraq were flat wrong? There were no WMD, there were no happy Iraqis pelting American soldiers with flowers, the "mission" was not "accomplished" in a short time, oil revenues did not subsidize the cost, and no united pro-Western government arose from the Saddam's crushed regime. Indeed, political commentators across the spectrum -- Ben Stein, Andy Rooney, Jonathan Rauch, George Will, and Paul Krugman, to name a few -- have not only called upon Bush to admit he was wrong; they even wrote face-saving speeches for him. In 2005, Jonathan Rauch predicted that Bush would have to withdraw from Iraq or he would lose both houses of Congress in the 2006 elections, and what sane politician would risk that?

A self-justifying one. And that is why Alberto Gonzales is no George Bush. Gonzales may justify his ethical lapses and failure to uphold the Constitution as acts of loyalty to his president, but he undoubtedly knows what he is doing and what he has to do to protect his job. Bush's actions, in contrast, suggest a man whose religious and political ideology has cocooned him in self-justification. He has systematically demoted or fired anyone who had the temerity to disagree with him, a sure sign of a leader unable to hear any information that might create dissonance about his decisions.

After the 2006 midterm elections, with Iraq in chaos, Bush no longer had an external incentive to "stay the course"; he could not run for reelection and the majority of the country wanted an end to the war. If Bush were acting pragmatically, he now had the perfect opportunity to accept the recommendations of his own Iraq Study Group and his top generals, who were telling him the war was unwinnable. But by then Bush had convinced himself that the invasion of Iraq was not a mistake. "I've never been more convinced that the decisions I made are the right decisions," he told a delegation of conservative columnists. The only "mistakes," he told the country in January, had to do with tactics. Ergo, if we are not winning, we need to do what we have been doing, only with more troops and more money.

Self-justification has benefits. It allows people to sleep at night, untroubled by regrets over roads not taken or by memories of embarrassing failures. But for those in positions of power, some sleepless nights are called for. When self-justification blinds them to evidence that a decision was wrong, disaster usually follows.

Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson are social psychologists and authors of Mistakes Were Made (But Not By ME): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts (Harcourt). For more information, please visit https://Tavris.socialpsychology.org/ and https://Aronson.socialpsychology.org/.

(c) 2007 Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

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