Strategic Living

Mistakes were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish belieft, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Actions, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

I'm puzzled by an apparent contradiction. I give a "pop quiz" at the beginning of every self-defense class I teach. The question correctly answered most often by most students is whether women are more often assaulted by strangers or acquaintances. Most (correctly) answer acquaintances. Yet, when asked who they see as THEIR possible assailant, almost ALL students describe a stranger blitz attack. And it was this discrepancy between what people told me they knew about assault and who they felt was likely to attack THEM that puzzled me.

Tavris and Aronson's book is all about "cognitive dissonance," a state of mental tension that arises when a person simultaneously holds two ideas, beliefs or opinions that are contradictory. Because holding two contradictory views is a mentally uncomfortable state, cognitive dissonance describes the process by which they become reconciled in the head of the beholder. E veryone over the age of 14 can recall a time when they made a decision, stubbornly stuck by it despite its obvious poor results, and only after enough time went by could acknowledge it as a mistake.

Tavris and Aronson have collected a wide range of examples, enough to irritate many people (just take a look at the reviews on While they did not directly address my question, I'll infer their answer (here's the short, simplistic version). Acquaintance assault casts doubt on your ability to judge character. That is a weakness. Weakness is bad, and admitting to weakness is also bad. These are uncomfortable feelings. Therefore, even though you INTELLECTUALLY know better, you FEEL more threatened by those dark alleys you'd never walk down anyways.

While I do not consider this the entire explanation for students' contradiction, I believe it is part of a complex convergence of social and psychological factors. How does this information help my students learn better risk assessment?

One of the authors' points is that cognitive dissonance is everywhere because it is a normal activity of the human mind. However, the authors also point out that we can minimize it (and its harmful effects) with awareness and a measure of self-reflection mixed with honesty. Acknowledging mistakes is the first step in learning from them. Acknowledging your real risks is the first step in planning to reduce them.

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