Mistakes were made, but not by me

Greater Kashmir

As friends, neighbours or relatives when we quarrel over some real or imagined slight, far from seeing ourselves guilty we tend to see ourselves as peaceniks and self-sacrificing patriots. We commit ourselves to the unanswerable opinions, like, ‘who started it’ and ‘but what about….?’ Averse to accepting information that lacks harmony with our positions, naïve realism demands that if only the other side would apologize and make amends. As we decide who the ‘perpetrator’ is and who the ‘victim’ is, our ability to empathize with the other side weakens. This is soon followed by the presuppositions that people who’re open-minded and fair must agree with a reasonable opinion. As we assume that other reasonable people see things the same way as we do, any opinion we hold is, therefore, reasonable…… if it weren’t, we’d not hold it. Consequently, if we can just get our opponents to sit down, and listen to our explanations, they’ll agree with us. And if they don’t; it must be because they’re biased.

People look at discomforting evidence to find a way to criticize, distort, or dismiss it to maintain/strengthen their existing belief. As we suffer from confirmation-bias, we see only our positive attributes and not theirs. We fail to persuade ourselves to change our beliefs we’re committed to. Despite a host of evidence, we’d not only resist it, but we may also come to support our original wrong opinion even more strongly. Once we invest in a belief and justify its wisdom, we can’t change our minds. As along with the confirmation-bias the brain comes designed with blind-spots, and packaged with self-serving habits, we unintentionally blind ourselves into justifying our perceptions and beliefs as being accurate, realistic and unbiased, but regard such personal feelings on the part of others who hold different views as a source of bias.  If they disagree with us they aren’t seeing clearly. The ‘past-exonerative tense’ phrase, ‘mistakes-were-made…… but-not-by-me’, is a glaring effort to acquit oneself of the blame…. someone else, who made mistakes, shall remain nameless. Memories minimize our responsibilities and exaggerate theirs. They create stories, which also create our memories. Once we have a narrative we shape our memories to fit into it. Parent-blaming, a popular and convenient form of self-justification, allows us to live less uncomfortably with our regrets and imperfections. Mistakes were made……… but by my parents.

Self-justification, explains why everyone can recognize a hypocrite except the hypocrite. Motivated by the wish to be right or by the need to preserve self-esteem and so on as we keep justifying our behaviour which we know is wrong, over time the self-serving distortions of our memory blur the edges of past events to soften culpability and to distort what happened. We forget past events and start believing our own lies little by little. Despite knowing our wrongdoings we begin to think it wasn’t our entire fault. We start underestimating our responsibility, whittling away at it until it’s a mere shadow of its former hulking. As the totalitarian ego tries to protect us from the pain and embarrassment of our actions that are dissonant with our core self-image we call the foot-soldiers of memory (confabulations, distortion, and plain forgetting) to the front lines. Self-justification lets us sleep at night and frees us from the agonies in the aftermath of our decision-making, and blocks our ability to even see our errors, let alone correct them. It keeps us from letting go of unhealthy habits. It permits us to avoid taking responsibility for our deeds. It helps rifts between relatives, friends, and nations prolong and widen. It ensures that innocent people in jail stay there.

A degree of unrealistic over-estimation about ourselves must have helped us survive in the treacherous ancestral environment. Lake-woebegone effect preserves our positive self-image and reduces dissonance. It says ‘we’re better than average—smarter, more ethical, funnier, nicer, more competent, more humble, even better drivers’. The exaggerated confidence in our abilities and qualities, the illusion of superiority are all underpinned by our tendency to think our decisions shape the world (even when they don’t) and that to persuade ourselves that ‘I’m-nice-and-in-control’. Pretty skilled at pulling the wool over own eyes, we keep on telling ourselves story after story with explanations that sound reasonable enough to believe. And when the story portrays us in a more glowing and positive light (so much better) we soon make-up reasons to blame others, deny there’s an issue at all, before hanging our minds.

The admiration of ourselves, and regarding ourselves superior to others, let us become careless. The vain of the correctness of our opinion, our acts, our intellect or wisdom grows us a tendency to begin to partake the behaviour that we’d earlier abstained from as undesirable because we come to incorrectly perceive the behaviour as normal.  As we persuade ourselves into thinking that we have the human qualities of intelligence and deep emotions and others have no feelings of love, shame, grief or remorse, we avoid feeling guilty or unethical about how we treat them. The stereotypes justify behaviour that otherwise would make us feel bad about the kind of people we’re. As acquired prejudice is hard to lodge, trying to educate a bigot is like shining light into the pupil of an eye, which constricts.

As a species, we’re just good enough at mind-reading to construct sophisticated ideas about what other people believe and just bad enough at it to make errors. Much of life-comedy derives from our misreading of other people’s mental states. The fact remains that getting people right isn’t what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that’s living, getting them wrong and wrong and then on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive; we’re wrong. We have the most complex innervations of facial muscles and use massive numbers of neurons to control them—no other species can be poker-faced. And we have language, that extraordinary means of manipulating the distance between a message and its meaning. Humans also excel at lying and finessing truth because our cognitive skills allow us to do something beyond the means of any perfidious gelada baboon.