Why was it so hard for our President to admit that there were no W.M.D.'s in Iraq or that Saddam had no links to Al Qaeda? Why is it so difficult for some prosecutors and police officers to accept the reality of a wrongful conviction? Answers to these and other questions can be found in a new book by eminent social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. In Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, Tavris and Aronson explain that the reason why humans have so much difficulty in admitting error is our need for self-justification, an all too human tendency.
To protect our self-worth, even when faced with evidence of our errors, our first impulse is to dig in and justify our position with even more tenacity. We reject any evidence that disconfirms our original beliefs and find alternative explanations to explain why we were right in the first place. The engine that causes us to self-justify is cognitive dissonance -- the uneasy feeling that surfaces when we hold two ideas that cannot be reconciled (e.g., the system works, the defendant is guilty, innocents don't confess versus the system makes mistakes, the defendant is innocent, some innocents can be induced to confess falsely). Dissonance produces mental anguish and causes us to look for a way to reduce it. There are plenty of good external reasons for self-justification (loss of job, reputation, preventing harm to a colleague) but it is the more powerful internal reasons that often are the cause -- we want to think of ourselves as honorable and competent.
How do we reduce dissonance?. One of the ways is denial , write the authors: "the greatest impediment to admitting and correcting mistakes in the criminal-justice system is that most of its members reduce dissonance by denying that there is a problem." The authors cite Joshua Marquis, the oft-quoted Oregon District Attorney, as one of the great deniers.
Using examples from real cases, the authors discuss how cognitive dissonance and self-justification influence almost every decision made by police officers and prosecutors in the course of a wrongful conviction. They single out certain iindividuals who admitted their mistakes as modern day heroes, including former Indiana prosecutor Thomas Vanes for changing his position on the death penalty after learning that he had participated in a wrongful conviction.
To combat the powerful engine of self-justification in the criminal justice system, Tavris and Aronson call on police academies and law schools to teach students about their own vulnerabilities for self-justification. (Aside: The study of the causes and consequences of wrongful convictions is one way to train officers and students.) Judges, prosecutors, defenders, and officers receive almost no information about their cognitive biases, how to recognize them, to correct them, and how to manage the dissonance that is created when their belief systems are confronted with disconfirming evidence. Some of the specific reforms advocated by the authors mirror those that form the reform agenda of the Innocence Network , including mandatory videotaping of interrogations and independent innocence commissions.
Mistakes were Made is a highly engaging book, one that I simply could not put down. For those engaged in educating law students about self-justification, it should be mandatory reading material for your courses, right alongside Keith Findley and Michael Scott's groundbreaking law review article The Multiple Dimensions of Tunnelvision in Criminal Cases at 2006 Wisconsin Law Review 291-397.
For non-lawyers, there are life lessons here that go well beyond how to recognize and understand self-justification in the criminal justice system. The book devotes one even more ink to the ways in which we deceive ourselves in our work, our relationships with others, our marriages, etc.