This is a wide ranging and enormously interesting book on memory, retention and and self justification. The basic idea is that our brains are designed to minimize Cognitive Dissonance. Our brains will re-write memory and selectively remember details or give us other means to repress or eliminate Cognitive Dissonance.
Early in the book there are a number of examples of government, journalism and scientists that believe that they did nothing wrong while external evidence suggest otherwise. One of the most egregious, is the first study that showed a link between autism and vaccines. The lead author of the study was being paid on the side by class action lawyers (over $800,000) as an expert witness and researcher into the connection between autism and vaccines. The link was not disclosed and the research study continues to be influential even after it has been widely disproven by additional studies.
Another interesting example are the gifts given to doctors by drug companies. Drug companies know that small gifts are very effective in creating obligation to the drug companies, but large gifts, especially early in the relationship will make the doctors feel like they are being bribed. One of the important insights from this section is that often people do small things that are not wrong, but once they are a situation, end up doing many things that they would not have considered if they started with that action. For instance, Watergate did not start as a break in, but by the time all the players were in the game, it was easy to justify something that most of them would have never participated in had the idea of a break-in and cover-up been originally on the table.
There is an extended section on child abuse and recovered memories. You may remember the string of abuse cases in the 1980s, especially in day care settings, where children started remembering ritualistic and sexual abuse. These cases helped start the wide spread fear of child abuse (especially stranger abuse) in the United States. The authors use these cases to show the weakness of memory and the dangers of psychology and social work that is not backed up by strong clinical evaluation and research. Virtually all of the cases in the 1980s were later disproved but there are still some people in jail with only recovered memory statements as evidence. These recovered memory episodes were contrasted with studies of Holocaust victims that were able to recall in vivid detail their abuse 40 and 50 years after it occurred. One of the unintended consequences of these recovered memory episodes is a huge distortion in the perception of how prevalent sexual abuse of children is. The US Department of Human Services reports that 1.3 to 1.7 (boys and girls) per 1000 children are sexually abused each year and that over their childhood it is likely about 10 percent of children are sexually abused. While this is far too many children being abused, many people believe that 1 in 3 or even more children are actually abused. This difference between documented and assumed cases leads to many protective behaviors that are really not warranted by the actual danger. (Similar to fears of terrorism and the TSA.)
The authors use the cases of social workers and psychologists continuing to push their cases of abuse in the face of mounting evidence as an example of Cognitive Dissonance. We do what it takes to eliminate Cognitive Dissonance. So a social worker removes a child from a family solely on the basis that the mother had been abused as a child. The social worker has experience with multi-generational cases of abuse, but has not submitted her practice to broader research which would show that more than 70 percent of children abused by parents do not repeat abuse to their children. Subsequent to the 1980s cases, many studies have looked at how to properly interview children without inserting memories or giving leading questions. (Using the transcripts of the actual interviews with one of the day care abuse cases a study showed 70 percent of children ages 4-6 would implicate an adult man that visited a day care for just 10 minutes one time a week before the interview of abuse and torture within 10 minutes of first being interviewed.) Several states now have research based guidelines for gathering evidence from children. But not all states have adopted these guidelines and people continue to be jailed as a result of questionable interview techniques and little or no additional evidence.
There are more chapters with great examples of self justification, Self Justification in Marriage, another on disagreement and feuds, one on law enforcement, one on prejudice. But the last chapter is about what to do with all of this information.
There are a wide range of thoughts that I have about this book. One is that it inspires me to really try to admit to my mistakes and take responsibility. But also I see all kinds of implications for the Christian life. Not discussed, but I think it is interesting, is how Catholics might be different in regard to self justification. Confession is part of the regular Catholic liturgy, but not a part of most Protestants’ regular activities. Based on the research that has been done, it would seem that anyone that participates in regular confession, should be better at not self justifying. There are also some real implications for evangelism. Much traditional evangelism has been based around making people feel remorse for their sins. That makes sense if their is a cultural understanding of everyone being sinful creatures. But I think that culture has moved away from the traditional understanding of sin. I am not sure what that means, but I think it does mean we need a better theology and practice around evangelism and the concept of sin in light of research like what is presented in this book.
This review is already too long, but I very interested in reading more around this subject. If you have any book suggestions let me know.
I saw an article on Wednesday about a Doctor that profiled his mistake in the New England Journal of medicine in order to help doctors understand mistakes and how to properly take responsibility for them. It is a great real world example of the suggestions at the end of the book. Boston Globe article.