Thursday, November 15, 2007

Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)

Frequently I'll hear a book review on NPR or I'll hear somebody reference a good book so I'll just go to library website and request the book. Sometimes in the process of reading one book my interest will be sparked in another. I just wait until the library sends me the email that the book is ready and I go pick it up off of the hold shelf. In this process I frequently forget how I found out about the book in the first place. Such is the case with my current book. Due to the similar themes, if I had to guess I'd suspect it was referenced in The Lucifer Effect.
Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) details the process that we all take to distance ourselves from our mistakes. Like The Lucifer Effect it is an eye opening book. I'm about half way through and I've been really impressed with it so far. The book doesn't criticize people for being human. In fact most of the analysis in the book starts after the mistake has been made. If we own up to and speak about it in the active voice we are on our way to starting to correct the problem.
One part that I thought was very eye opening was an FMRI study on the brain activity of people as they were told different pieces of information that agreed with and some that went contrary to what the subject already believed. As long as the statements being read to the subject supported their existing beliefs their brain activity showed normal activity in the logical areas and the emotional areas of the brain. When they are read a statement that is dissonant to their beliefs the logic areas shut down and their emotional areas spike. In a very real sense they have shown that the fight or flight reflex by its very nature is illogical and based on emotion. Once they are again told statements that they agree with the logic area begins to function normally again. I've witnessed this personally on many occasions. When I've pointed out someone else's inconsistency they have lit into me with a strong emotional tirade.
Just as with Zimbardo's book, so far this book has shown me the value of being intellectually honest and consistent in you opinions. For me this has not been much of a problem. I've never felt the need to follow the herd. I'm perfectly fine with being the only one who believes quite the same as I do. I can see how someone who proudly touts their political affiliation would have a hard time making internal peace with decisions made by they candidate that went contrary to their personal philosophy.
One story that they tell about overcoming this cognitive dissonance came from conservative columnist William Saphire. I normally haven't been too impressed with Saphire's opinions. However, in this story Saphire takes the moral high ground in order to avoid his internal dissonance. Such actions should be admired. They are very rare, especially in politics. Saphire was a very vocal opponent of the Clintons and he was extremely critical of Hillary violating the law and refusing to turn over the Rose law firm's billing records. Saphire criticized her distain for "the rule of law" on many occasions. So several years later when Dick Cheney was being evasive about his energy policy records Saphire had a dilemma. He could support his man or bite the bullet and do the intellectually honest approach and criticize Cheney for the same reason he criticized Hillary. Such standing on principle is very rare in the political arena.
The thing that I enjoy most about these types of books is that they give real, practical advice as to how to avoid the behavior that they describe. Actually putting it into practice is, of course, much harder. I'm looking forward to reading the rest.

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