How Can We Be Smarter?

By Robert Bernstein   |   April 1, 2021

“Mistakes were made (but not by me)” is a quote attributed to President Reagan and later to President George W Bush. It is also the title of the book I would most recommend everyone should read.

Before we can get smarter, perhaps we should find out “Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts.” That is the book’s subtitle.

A paradigmatic example? A woman is being abused by her boyfriend. She leaves him repeatedly, but keeps coming back. Why? “Because I love him.” In fact, there is another reason.

Elementary psychology teaches us of the conditioned response. An animal will adjust its behavior to reduce pain. Why do humans defy this and keep doing something that causes pain? Because there is a pain worse for humans than an electric shock or a punch. The pain of doing something unfamiliar.

“Insanity Is Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again and Expecting Different Results.” This quote is wrongly attributed to Einstein; it seems to have originated in 1981.

Suppose you are walking down the street and accidentally bump into someone and cause them to drop something valuable they are carrying. How will you feel about them if you see them later? Will you try to be especially nice to make up for the hurt that you caused? Unfortunately, you are likely to do the opposite. You are likely to back-rationalize that you hurt this person by believing that they deserved it. You are actually likely to hate them and hurt them again. Why?

A central theme in the book is the concept of “cognitive dissonance.” We see ourselves as the center of our universe. I know that I am a good person. So, if I seem to do something bad, there must be a reason. We like to think we are rational. But in fact we often act and later make up a story to justify what we did.

You may have heard that the left brain hemisphere is the rational hemisphere. It is more accurate to say it is the rationalizing hemisphere! We are very good at making up stories.

Are you aware that the idea for Obamacare was written by the right-wing Heritage Foundation as a way to head off true universal healthcare? So, why did right-wing people hate Obamacare? Because if the “other team” promotes it, it must be bad. Even if the idea came from your team!

Do you believe in catharsis or “venting”? Experiments show the effect is the opposite. “Venting” actually just increases agitation rather than “letting off steam” and calming things down.

As I read the book, I started to understand why bad things happen in the world. I also started to realize something uncomfortable: I do some of those same things.

Have you ever had a vivid memory of something that turned out never happened? I promise this is the case; you may just have never checked back to find out. Memory is more like a fabrication than like computer data recall. Peoples’ lives have been destroyed by witness testimony that is verifiably wrong. The witness is not lying. They “remember” what never happened.

Relationships don’t fail because of the quantity of conflict. They fail if the ratio of positive to negative interactions falls below the magic ratio of 5:1. And if the relationship fails? People are good at “rewriting history” that “I never loved you.”

When the U.S. occupied Iraq I remember the news people struggling to say those words. Only bad countries “occupy” other countries. Aren’t we the good guys?

What is to be done? In the case of countries, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission can help a society come to terms with its mistakes and harms it has done. The U.S. is long overdue for this. Americans have no idea why “everyone hates us.” We don’t know our history.

Patients are less likely to sue a doctor who mistakenly harmed them if the doctor apologizes. Admitting mistakes allows learning and healing. Some cultures are better at this.

Unfortunately, you can’t make someone else see that they have harmed you. And you can’t make someone like you by being extra generous with them. The best you can do is ask them for a favor and hope they help you. Why? Because they will back-rationalize this to mean that you deserved to be treated well.

If more people read this book and saw their own mistakes it might help. Unfortunately, those who most need to see their mistakes are those who are least likely to see them. The good news: Great people do admit mistakes and are respected for it. You can do that, too.


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