“All this has been my fault. I asked more of my men than should have been asked of them.” –Robert E. Lee, after heavy Confederate losses at Pickett’s Charge
“I had the opportunity and the information and I failed to make use of it. I don’t know what an inquest or a court of law would say, but I stand condemned in the court of my own conscience to be guilty of not preventing the Columbia disaster…The bottom line is that I failed to understand what I was being told; I failed to stand up and be counted. Therefore look no further; I am guilty of allowing the Columbia to crash.” –Launch Integration Manager N. Wayne Hale Jr., after the Columbia space shuttle explosion which killed seven astronauts
The stark honesty of these men in taking responsibility for their failures is striking, all the more so because similar statements are so rare. In recent years we have seen the heads of the nation’s corporations and banks testify before Congress as to their role, or rather lack thereof, in the implosion of the economy, and could only shake our heads as they passed the buck, admitted vaguely that “mistakes were made,” and yet failed to name anything specific for which they were personally at fault.
In our day-to-day lives, we all know folks who constantly blame their failures on everything but themselves. They were fired because their supervisor was jealous of them. They got dumped because their girlfriend is nuts. They failed an exam because the questions the professor asked were unfair. The dog hasn’t just eaten their homework – it’s devoured their whole lives.
Plenty of folks decry this shirking of personal responsibility, and declare that “people need to own up to their mistakes!” But what does this vague injunction really mean and how do you start doing it? Unfortunately, most people rarely go beyond the slogans, essentially saying: “You should do this. Okay, now do it.”
Today we’re going to take a look the very real cognitive reasons for the difficulty in owning up to your mistakes. Understanding leads to greater awareness of the blind spots our brains develop as to when we’re at fault, and this awareness is the first step in learning to overcome them. As we explore this topic, we’ll come to see that while it’s awfully satisfying to point out the motes in others’ eyes, we all justify our failures to one degree or another.
We’ll explore why owning our mistakes is so important and how we can work to counter our natural tendency to shirk responsibility. Taking ownership of our mistakes and shortcomings requires both humility and courage; as such, it is one of the true hallmarks of mature manhood.
Why Is It So Difficult to Take Responsibility for Our Mistakes?
All humans are essentially ego-driven creatures. Starting from a young age we develop an identity — a self-concept and self-image — constructed of our beliefs and how we view ourselves. Most of us think of ourselves as pretty decent people, better than average in certain areas, maybe a little worse than average in a few, but always trying to do our best. We believe we see the world realistically, and act rationally.
When our own thoughts and behaviors, or the accusation of another, challenges our cherished self-concept, we experience what is called cognitive dissonance – a form of mental discomfort and tension. Cognitive dissonance arises when you attempt to hold two conflicting beliefs/attitudes/ideas/opinions at the same time. For example: “I know smoking is bad for me…but I smoke a pack a day anyway.” Because our minds crave consonance and clarity over contradiction and conflict, we immediately seek to dissipate the mental tension created by cognitive dissonance. The smoker can reduce their dissonance either by throwing the cigarettes away and trying to quit, or by thinking to himself as he lights up, “People say that smoking is bad, but my grandfather smoked two packs a day for fifty years and never got cancer. It’s fine.”
When we make mistakes, the gap between our questionable behavior and our sterling self-concept creates cognitive dissonance. We can allay this dissonance either by admitting that we made a mistake and revaluating our self-concept in light of it, or by justifying the behavior as not in conflict with our self-concept after all.
Here are some examples:
- You think of yourself as an honest man, but you cheated on your last exam. You can either:
- Admit that cheating is wrong and that maybe you’re not as honest as you thought. Or,
- Justify the cheating by saying that a lot of other students were doing it too, so it really just leveled the playing field.
- You think of yourself as a decent guy and have been casually sleeping with a girl over the course of a few months. You’ve never talked about the relationship, and when she admits she has feelings for you, and you shut her down, she’s pretty crushed. You can either:
- Acknowledge that you should have set clear parameters for the relationship and admit you had a role to play in her hurt feelings and didn’t treat her decently. Or,
- Tell yourself that you never said anything about a relationship and that it was entirely her fault for letting herself get attached.
- You think of yourself as a good friend, but one night when you’re out drinking with your buddy, you bring up your bitter feelings about something he did in the past and try to start a fight with him. You can either:
- Admit that you’ve been nursing a grudge and didn’t tell him, which isn’t something a good friend would do. Or,
- Say that you were totally trashed and didn’t know what you were doing.
- You think of yourself as a smart, cutting-edge academic, but when you present a paper you’ve been working on for years, your colleagues point out numerous errors in your conclusions. You can either:
- Acknowledge the mistakes and reevaluate your theory and research methods. Or,
- Accuse your colleagues of jealously, narrow-mindedness, or bias.
Unsurprisingly, many people, when push comes to shove, lean towards option #2. When our behavior threatens our self-concept, our ego automatically goes into hyper-defense mode, circles the wagons, and begins issuing self-justifications designed to protect it. The higher the moral, financial, and emotional stakes, the more our self-concept – our very identity — is threatened, the greater the dissonance that arises, the harder it is to admit a mistake, and the more we seek to justify ourselves to preserve our self-image. Self-justifications are not lies, where we know we’re being dishonest, nor are they excuses; rather, we believe the justifications to be true, and truly think that they show we are not to blame.
Self-justifications can take many forms:
- If X had happened, I would have been right. (“My predictions for the economy would have been correct if A had won the election rather than B. No one could have seen that coming.”)
- It really wasn’t wrong. (“The company doesn’t pay me enough anyway, so taking those supplies just evens things out.”)
- It wasn’t that big of a deal in the long run and didn’t have lasting consequences. (“I’m sorry I treated her the way I did, but she’s happily married now and probably doesn’t ever think of me.”)
- I can’t help it, this is just who I am. (“My father has a temper, and my grandfather had a temper, and my great-grandfather too! It’s a family tradition!”)
- I was provoked. (“No one could have heard what he said without punching him out.”)
- The situation was to blame. (“Everyone was yelling and it was total chaos – I couldn’t even think straight and felt paralyzed.”)
- That was the old me and happened in the past. (“I’ve changed a lot since then. I’m not the same person.”)
- It was an isolated incident and is over and done with. (“I’ve never acted that way before, and haven’t since.”)
- My mood/state was to blame. (“I had just gotten over the flu and just wasn’t feeling like myself.” Or, “I was really drunk and don’t remember what happened.” Or, “I had been crazy stressed for weeks and that was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.”)
Regardless of what form self-justification takes, it’s designed to keep your self-concept and self-esteem intact by reducing your responsibility for the mistake or failure.
While I cited more “dramatic” examples of mistakes above, self-justifying happens every day in small ways, and everyone does it. When we cut off someone while speeding to work we tell ourselves that we don’t normally drive this way but have to get to work on time or we’ll get in trouble with the boss. When we’re gruff with our kids when we get home, we tell ourselves that we’ve had a long, hard day and are tired.
Whether self-justifications kick in over big mistakes or small, we don’t really notice it happening, especially if we haven’t been cultivating an awareness of them. They work much like an ego thermostat – making small adjustments throughout the day to keep our self-concept nice and comfortable.
The Tricks Our Memory Play
When it comes to piecing together justifications to mitigate our feelings of responsibility and protect our self-concept, our faulty memory can be our greatest “ally.”
It used to be thought that memory was like a filing cabinet which stored everything that ever happened to us. Sometimes it was hard to find a specific file at a later date, but it was all in there somewhere, waiting for us to pull out nearly whole cloth. Memory was seen as an accurate film strip of past events that would fade over time, but could be replayed whenever we wished.
We now know that our experiences are broken up into pieces, and that these fragments of memory are stored in different parts of the brain. Not every detail of a memory is stored, just the most salient bits. When we later try to remember something, our brains reconstitute the memory, pulling together the pieces it has stored, and filling in the blanks in a way it feels make sense – splicing in background information from other memories, stories our friends have told us, childhood photographs, old home movies, and even Hollywood films and TV shows, along with your own dreams. The memory doesn’t feel like a composite, however; the whole thing feels very accurate and real to us, a feeling which only increases the more we recall that version of the memory and rehearse it to others.
For example, in a study that asked participants to read stories about two roommates, and then to write either a letter of recommendation or of complaint about one of them, they invariably added their own details to the letter that did not appear in the original stories. When they were later asked to recall the original stories as accurately as possible, they remembered the details they had added to the letters as being part of the original, and they forgot details of the original story that conflicted with the kind of letter they had written. The act of telling a story about the past had successfully revised that past. If you’ve ever seen a convicted criminal passionately proclaim his innocence, despite a mountain of evidence against him, he probably isn’t knowingly lying; years of rehearsing a version of events where he isn’t culpable has likely replaced the memory of what really happened, and he himself now believes in his innocence through and through.
While we all firmly believe our memories are accurate, and such things would never happen to us, as Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson report in Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), studies have shown that “memories are distorted in a self-enhancing direction in all sorts of ways”:
“Men and women alike remember having had fewer sexual partners than they really did…People also remember voting in elections they didn’t vote in, they remember voting for the winning candidate rather than the politician they did vote for, they remember giving more to charity than they really did, they remember that their children walked and talked at an earlier age than they did.”
Another interesting fact: 73% of college students surveyed remember seeing the first plane crash into the World Trade Center on 9/11…even though footage of that event was in fact not aired until the next day.
If you’ve ever been sure that you remembered an episode of your past correctly, only to later find evidence that your version of events couldn’t possibly have been true, you know how disturbing it is, and how much dissonance arises when you realize your memory isn’t as reliable as you once thought.
The Role Memory Plays in Our Self-Justifications
“‘I have done that,’ says my memory. ‘I cannot have done that,’ says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually–memory yields.” -Friedrich Nietzsche
The pieces the brain chooses to compose our memories are those that best preserve and protect our self-concept. We have all had experiences where our memory of an event differed from that of another person. While the ensuing argument often presumes that one person is remembering it accurately, and one is not, what is more likely is that each is remembering it from their own angle – one that highlights their innocence as opposed to culpability.
Memories also change over time, as our present experiences and attitudes alter and shape how we see the past. This bears reiteration: Our memory of the past doesn’t simply shape who we are today, we also shape the memory according to how we’re doing in the present.
For example, a study asked teenagers and parents to come into a lab and list their areas of disagreement, then spend ten minutes discussing the conflict together and trying to resolve it. The teenagers would then rate how they felt about the conflict and their parents. Six weeks later, the teenagers were asked to remember how they felt about the conflict at the time of their first visit to the lab; those who were currently feeling close to their parents remembered the rating they had given as lower than it was, while those whose relationships to their parents were more strained remembered their rating as being worse than it was. Their current feelings altered the memory of how they had felt in the past.
This distortion can be magnified as we think over the sweep of our lives. Every person feels the need to fit their personal history into a narrative. The lead-up, the turning points, the bad guys and good guys, our triumphs over obstacles that made us who we are. For instance, “I grew up in a very religious family with uber-strict parents. I never questioned what they taught me until I got to college in New York. And then I became an atheist, and my family disowned me. And I’ve had to make it on my own but it’s made me stronger.”
We explain our lives through the filter of this narrative. And if we’re currently in a chapter of the story where we feel more down-and-out than triumphant, we’re inclined to remember episodes of the past that we believe led to our current struggles and confirm our narrative, and forget details that are dissonant with it. This is often the case for those who blame their parents for how they’ve turned out.
As Tavris and Aronson explain:
“We tell our stories with the confidence that the listener will not dispute them or ask for contradictory evidence, which means we rarely have an incentive to scrutinize them for accuracy. You have memories about your father that are salient to you and that represent the man he was and the relationship you had with him. What have you forgotten? You remember that time when you were disobedient and he swatted you, and you are still angry that he didn’t explain why he was disciplining you. But could you have been the kind of kid a father couldn’t explain things to, because you were impatient and impulsive and didn’t listen? When we tell a story, we tend to leave ourselves out: My father did thus-and-such because of who he was, not because of the kind of kid I was. That’s the self-justification of memory.”
The problem with our memory is it invariably paints us in the best possible light, and confirms our chosen narrative, while leaving out the details that threaten our self-concept and contradict that narrative — the mitigating factors, the strengths of others that balanced their flaws, our own role in a situation. Those we blame for our current woes, like our parents, become not complex human beings but one-dimensional symbols for why we’ve turned out the way we have and everything that’s gone wrong in our lives.
Confirmation Bias and Sunk Cost Fallacy
Two other cognitive distortions that keep us from owning up to our mistakes bear mentioning: confirmation bias and sunk cost fallacy.
Confirmation bias explains the way in which our brains seek information that ratifies our preexisting beliefs, and spurns that which contradicts them. When we come across information that aligns with our own opinions, we readily believe it to be true (“This is brilliant!), but when we’re confronted with information that challenges our opinions, cognitive dissonance rears its head, and researchers have actually found that the reasoning parts of our brain shut down. We seek out flaws, however small, in the conflicting information that enables us to summarily dismiss it (“This is utter garbage!”). Once we do, consonance is restored, and the emotional parts of our brain light up with happiness. The result is that being confronted with information that contradicts our ideas can actually leave us more sure of them than before. Confirmation bias explains how a Republican and Democrat can watch the same debate, and both walk away feeling confident that their candidate scored big points, while the opponent was smarmy and dishonest-looking. We look for and latch onto the things that confirm what we already believe, while that which contradicts us flies under the radar – as if one is made of velcro and the other teflon. The confirmation bias explains why it is difficult to change our minds once we’ve made them up.
The sunk cost fallacy explains how the more we invest in something, the more we fear losing that investment, and will thus continue doing it even we don’t really want to, in order to avoid knowing we wasted our time, money, and/or effort. The law student who decides halfway through his three years that he definitely doesn’t want to be a lawyer, will feel he’s invested too much to drop out now. The man who knows his girlfriend of nine years isn’t right for him can’t bring himself to break up with her and face feeling like that near-decade was a waste. The man who’s been devoting all his free time to serving his church can’t bring himself to leave even when a sordid scandal involving the minister blows up. Each is suffering from the sunk-cost fallacy. Each will tell themselves sensible-sounding justifications for why they should continue in their path, when at the heart of it, they really fear losing their investment and feeling like they made a mistake and wasted time, money, and effort. If they continue on, they may come to waste much more, but that’s in the future and the abstract, and is much easier to deal with.
Related to the sunk cost fallacy is the fact that studies have shown that the more pain, effort, and embarrassment you go through to get something, the happier you will be with your choice. Your mind doesn’t want to believe you went through all that for nothing, so it keeps telling you that the reward is truly worthwhile and you made the right decision. This is why hazing rituals are so effective. It would create too much dissonance to think that the painful and embarrassing hazing you went through to get into a group was all for naught, so your brain says, “I am so glad I did this. This group is awesome.” If it’s really not so awesome, and not right for you, and you’ve made a mistake in joining, it becomes very hard to admit.
But Not Everything My Brains Tells Me Isn’t True!
We’ve now established the way in which your mind works overtime to shield your cherished self-concept from any threats. Self-justifications and distorted memories create veritable blind spots in our brains that keep us from seeing a completely accurate picture of how we operate in the world and to what degree we are responsible for what happens to us.
You may be thinking, “Well, I guess I do come up with justifications to wriggle out of responsibility sometimes, but there’s often plenty of truth to them too! A lot of other students were cheating! My friend deserved that grudge I had against him! I was stressed out when I snapped at her! I was unduly provoked when I got in that fight! My parents were distant when I was growing up! I am happy with my fraternity!
Self-justifications distort reality, but they typically do not supplant it. There often are indeed kernels of truth to them. Yet the whole truth of the matter tends to lie somewhere in-between what we tell ourselves happened, and what really happened. Taking ownership of your mistakes means being able to reflect on, and sift through, what our role and responsibility in a situation was. Does the number of students who cheat have a bearing on the moral rightness or wrongness of the decision? What could have been your friend’s motivations for doing what he did? Is it possible to control your temper even when you’re stressed? Did you do anything to provoke the other person’s provocations? Are you forgetting some of the good things your parents did for you too?
Life is full of choices, and what you make of them determines your entire experience. Sometimes you may swim against the current and other times you may go with the flow. Recognizing that the outcome of your life is a product of your decisions is what accepting personal responsibility is all about. Weather any storm that may come your way like the captain of a ship, since after all, calm waters never made a skillful sailor.
Our brain’s blind spots are actually not entirely bad – they do serve a purpose. Without these ego defense systems, we wouldn’t be able to function and would endlessly ruminate about things we did wrong, embarrassments we experienced, and hurts we caused others. We would agonize over whether we made the right decisions and become paralyzed by regret. Self-justifications preserve our confidence and self-esteem and help keep us plunging ahead.
However, too much self-justification can lead to truly deleterious effects on our lives. Therefore, it is most important to stand up and own up to the mistake, accept the consequences, and be part of the solution; fight the self-justification beast; take ownership of your life; and mature into manhood.
References for this article include: