Mistakes were made, how we justify bad decisions — Summary

Learn why it is important and in our best interest to admit our mistakes

People tend to justify their mistakes

Cognitive dissonance is the term used to describe the uneasiness people feel when they have two conflicting ideas or views.

After making a mistake people tend to justify their decisions which lead to the mistake even if they know they did the wrong thing. People try to avoid or diminish the feeling of having done something wrong and try to justify their decisions instead of admitting their error.

Cognitive dissonance happens to us all the time, for example, suppose you are on a diet, but then you come across that delightful pack of potato chips, and you devour it at once. After finishing the pack, you probably say to yourself that it’s ok because you performed more exercises this week, and thus your calory balance is still fine. In reality, you know that it’s not what you should have done, but the excuse alleviates the dissonance you felt. So how exactly do we justify our actions?

Justifications are made through the confirmation bias

The confirmation bias is the tendency of people to look at information which supports their current belief or conviction. Doing so can make them find information that supports their case even if there is no evidence, or worse, it can make contradictory evidence look like supporting evidence. But self-justification and the confirmation bias tend to start after a series of decisions, this process is known as the pyramid of choice.

The pyramid of choice

The author describes the pyramid of choice as a starting point from where people depart in different directions. For example, suppose there are two similar people with the opportunity to commit a crime.

The top of the pyramid represents the situation where none of them have yet made a decision, and both have an overview of both options, committing a crime or not.

One person makes a decision which leads that person gradually closer to a situation where a crime could be committed, for example, the person decides to check if there are opportunities to steal a car in the neighborhood. The other person decides to do something honest instead and calls a contact to set up a job interview.

As both persons go further down the pyramid, their views will become more biased towards their previous decisions. The person about to commit a crime will be sure that it was the right decision because he or she had no other choice, while the other individual will be more convinced that getting a job was the best decision.

Memory biases make us remember wrong things

Our memory is far from perfect. People tend to remember things the way they better suit their current needs and situations.

In fact, it is even possible that we have completely false memories, about events that never happened. Millions of Americans believe they have been abducted by aliens. Studies have shown that such encounters are often a product of mental fatigue which can lead to sleep paralysis. 5% of those cases lead to hallucinations, which can implant a memory in that individual’s brain which is indistinguishable from reality.

Biases hinder scientific advancement and can be dangerous

Whether a medical doctor refuses to admit he made an error or a scientist refuses to look at alternative possibilities due to his confirmation bias, the result often leads to stagnation or disaster.

In the nineteenth century physician, Ignaz Semmelweis realized that he could have prevented the death of many of his female patients due to infection if his colleagues would have disinfected their hands before the delivery. He enforced stricter guidelines and saved many lives. But not always do professionals admit their mistakes. Sometimes they unconsciously or consciously refuse to see if they made a mistake.

One such mistake is called clinical intuition when doctors assume their first judgment is correct without exploring other possibilities.
Confirmation biases also lead the justice system to assign wrong sentences.

Relationships suffer from the refusal of admitting mistakes

In relationships, people tend to shift blame to their partners. A study showed that if the ratio of being ok and arguing goes below 1–5 the relationship is unlikely to last.

So what should couples do? The solution is to stop blaming the partner personally and recognize that the mistakes are not who their partners are. In other words, differentiate between the mistakes and the person who made the mistakes.

In politics, mutual blaming can often lead to out of control situations, where governments blame each other for an escalating conflict. Situations like this can be solved once one party starts recognizing their mistakes, which can lead to a mutual de-escalation.

Admitting mistakes is great for learning and personal development

Learning to admit mistakes can be immensely valuable for the professional progress of an individual. Instead of fearing that other people see your weaknesses, you should embrace your errors because doing so will accelerate your learning and growth.

One study compared the educational techniques used in the US, China, and Japan. They found that Asians, in contrast to their American counterparts, tended to make mistakes first in class and then learn from them, while the American students felt embarrassed about making mistakes in the presence of their peers.

Opening yourself to criticism of others helps you to become better faster. In the space industry recognizing errors is highly valued. After the Columbia had exploded, Wayne Hale took full responsibility for it and was promoted in consequence. [To see more about self-criticism in the space industry check out this book.]

Anecdotal reports seem to suggest that doctors tend to be less likely sued if they commit errors. In politics, it seems admitting mistakes can be detrimental to an individuals popularity, which may be why it didn’t happen again after John F. Kennedy apologized for the Bay of Pigs disaster.

Thoughts: Admitting errors can be helpful in nearly all situations. The strongest factor may be that it leads to feedback from other people which lets us learn faster.

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Karl Niebuhr

Karl Niebuhr

I'm Karl! I like to read, learn and share knowledge
Karl Niebuhr

Also published on Medium.