Why do people persist in believing things that have been proved to be untrue? Social psychologist Carol Tavris, author of Anger and The Mismeasure of Woman, joins fellow social psychologist Elliot Aronson to answer this question inMistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): How We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts (Harcourt, 2007). The authors use cognitive dissonance theory to analyze issues and disputes in the worlds of politics, medical science, psychiatry, the criminal justice system and personal relationships. The theory can’t explain everything, Tavris says, but it can shed light on a surprising number of issues. American Scientist assistant book review editor Anna Lena Phillips interviewed Tavris by telephone and e-mail in August and September 2007.
How did you become interested in the subject of cognitive dissonance, and how did you and Elliot Aronson determine the course you would take in writing the book?
Well, we have been friends and colleagues for many years. We were sitting around one afternoon talking about George W. Bush and the fact that commentators from right, left and center were all shouting at him to admit that he was wrong about weapons of mass destruction and wrong about everybody dancing in the streets to greet us, and how come he didn’t just say so. Andy Rooney, in a commentary for 60 Minutes, actually wrote him a mock-speech and begged him to deliver it to the country: “I told you Saddam Hussein tried to buy the makings of nuclear bombs from Africa. That was a mistake and I wish I hadn’t said that. I get bad information sometimes just like you do.”