Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)

In the early 1950’s Leon Festinger, a social psychologist, infiltrated a doomsday group led by a housewife named Dorothy Martin. Martin had convinced the group that a flying saucer would appear and take them to safety at midnight on December 20 just before the world’s destruction on the 21st. Many in the group “quit their jobs, gave away their homes, and dispersed their savings waiting for the end.”

Festinger wanted to know what would happen on December 22 after everyone in the group realized that the prophecy had failed, that the flying saucer hadn’t come to rescue them, and that the world remained as it had on December 20th. Amazingly (or predictably), Dorothy Martin received a new vision that the world had been spared because of the “impressive faith of her little band.” She told them that because of their commitment, because they were such a force for “good and light,” the world had been saved. The failed prophecy of the end of the world actually ended up increasing their commitment and devotion.

This is but one story in Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) showing that “most people when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously. Even irrefutable evidence is rarely enough to pierce the metal armor of self justification.”

All of us have an image of ourselves and we have a lot invested in maintaining that image. In fact we  have so much invested in it that we will do whatever it takes to justify that image even to ourselves. First a harmless example. Let’s say that I view myself as a sensible, competent person but I also know that I chose to join a group with a painful initiation process (say a fraternity). Now how do I reconcile these two seeming contradictory “facts” about myself? The most common way is to tell myself that it was worth it.

Study after study has shown that “severe initiations increase a member’s liking for the group. These findings do not mean that people enjoy painful experiences” but it does me that “if a person voluntarily goes through a painful experience in order to attain some goal or object, that goal or object becomes more attractive.” In order to justify that we are reasonable people, we tell ourselves that the pain was worth it.

Of course there are more serious examples. One involved Jeb Magruder who was Deputy Director of Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign. Magruder was a decent man when he entered the White House but one step at a time he went along with dishonest actions until he ended up pleading guilty in Watergate. How do we end up taking those small steps that lead to major compromises in character and lapses in judgment?

Stanley Milgram created a famous experiment that demonstrates the power of self justification. Imagine if a scientist offered you money to inflict an incredibly painful electrical shock to another person. You would refuse. It’s an easy decision. But let’s say a scientist offered you money to inflict a very small shock to another person “to see if the zap will improve the man’s ability to learn.” The tester shocks you with the same 10 volts that you would be shocking the other person with and you can barely feel it. You agree but then after you administer the first shock, the scientist tells you that the “the learner” got an answer wrong so you need to shock him with 20 volts. Since you could barely feel 10 volts, 20 volts can’t be that big of a deal, right? So you do it.

Here’s the shocking part: two thirds of the people will continue to increase the voltage until they are shocking the other person with a very dangerous 450 volts even when that switched is marked “XXX Danger.” Why? Self justification. Once they had started administering the shocks, most people found it incredibly difficult to quit. To quit would mean that they had been wrong from the beginning and their own self image wouldn’t let them admit that.

“The Milgram experiment shows us how ordinary people can end up doing immoral and harmful things through a chain reaction of behavior and subsequent self justification.”

At his sentencing Jeb Magruder said to the judge: “I know what I have done, and Your Honor knows what I have done. Somewhere between my ambition and my ideals, I lost my ethical compass.”

“How do you get an honest man to lose his ethical compass? You get him to take one step at a time, and self justification will do the rest.”

If you’ve stayed with me this far and are still reading, I’d like to leave you with a question that we will come back to next Thursday. Have you ever caught yourself in self justification in order to preserve your view of yourself as a hard worker, good parent or spouse, reasonable person, good at my job, etc…?

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