The best piece of non-fiction I’ve read this summer – by a long shot – is the little social science paperback Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. The title gives away the appeal. The authors, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, place “justification” at the very center of day-to-day life, arguing that you simply cannot understand yourself or other people without understanding the (universal) justifying impulse. They go so far as to attribute most of life’s problems and a great deal of human suffering to its prevalence and power, all the while grounding their observations in Leon Festinger’s notion of “cognitive dissonance” (more on that next time).

What’s most convincing/charming about the book are the hundreds and hundreds of examples they give, which run the gauntlet from the humorous to the tragic to the global to the mundane. Of course, it’s not as if one has to look far to observe people justifying themselves – just ask my wife…

At times Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) even reads, well, like this site (on a good day!). Or, I should say, on a good day our site reads like it. Once you take a gander, you won’t be surprised to hear that it was recommended to me by a reader who felt the diagnostic congruencies were uncanny.

Here are a few paragraphs from the introduction:

We look at the behavior of politicians with amusement or alarm or horror, but, psychologically, what they do is no different in kind, though certainly in consequence, from what most of us have done at one time or another in our private lives. We stay in an unhappy relationship or merely one that is going nowhere because, after all, we invested so much time in making it work. We stay in a deadening job way too long because we look for all the reasons to justify staying and are unable to clearly assess the benefits of leaving. We buy a lemon of a car because it looks gorgeous, spend thousands of dollars to keep the damn thing running, and then we spend even more to justify that investment. We self-righteously create a rift with a friend or relative over some real of imagined slight, yet see ourselves as the pursuers of peace – if only the other side would apologize and make amends.

Self-justification is not the same thing as lying or making excuses. Obviously, people will lie or invent fanciful stories to duck the fury of a lover, parent or employer; to keep from being sued or sent to prison; to avoid losing face; to avoid losing a job; to stay in power. But there is a big difference between what a guilty man says to the public to convince them of something he knows is untrue (“I did not have sex with that woman”; “I am not a crook”), and the process of persuading himself that he did a good thing. In the former situation, he is lying and knows he is lying to save his own skin. In the latter, he is lying to himself. That is why self-justification is more powerful and more dangerous than the explicit lie. It allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done. In fact, come to think of it, it was the right thing. “There was nothing else I could have done.” “Actually, it was a brilliant solution to the problem.” “I was doing the best for the nation.” “Those bastards deserved what they got.” “I’m entitled.”

Self-justification not only minimizes our mistakes and bad decisions; it is also the reason that everyone can see a hypocrite in action except the hypocrite. It allows us to create a distinction between our moral lapses and someone else’s, and to blur the discrepancy between our actions and our moral convictions. Aldous Huxley was right when he said, “There is probably no such thing as a conscious hypocrite.”…

But, you say, [what if] the justifications are true! Hotel room charges do include the costs of repairs caused by clumsy guests! The government does waste money! My company probably wouldn’t mind if I spend a little time on email and I do get my best work done (eventually)! Whether those claims are true or false is irrelevant. When we cross these lines, we are justifying behavior that we know is wrong precisely so that we can continue to see ourselves as honest people and not criminals or thieves. Whether the behavior in question is a small thing like spilling ink on a hotel bedspread, or a big think like embezzlement, the mechanism of self-justification is the same.

Now, between the conscious lie to fool others and unconscious self-justification to fool ourselves lies a fascinating gray area, patrolled by that unreliable, self-serving historian – memory. Memories are often pruned and shaped by an ego-enhancing bias that blurs the edges of past events, softens culpability, and distorts what really happened. When researchers ask husbands and wives what percentage of the housework they do, the wives say, “Are you kidding? I do almost everything, at least 90 percent.” And the husbands say, “I do a lot, actually, about 40 percent.” Although the specific numbers differ from couple to couple, the total always exceeds 100 percent by a significant margin. It’s tempting to conclude that one spouse is lying, but it is more likely that each is remembering in a way that enhances his or her contribution…

By understanding the inner workings of self-justification, we can… make sense of dozens of [the] things that people do that would otherwise seem unfathomable or crazy. We can answer the question so many people ask when they look at ruthless dictators, greedy corporate CEOs, religious zealots who murder in the name of God, priests who molest children, or people who cheat their siblings out of a family inheritance: How in the world can they live with themselves? The answer is: exactly the way the rest of us do.

To read part two, go here.