We all make similarly irrational arguments about decisions in our lives: we hang on to losing stocks, unprofitable investments, failing businesses and unsuccessful relationships. If we were rational, we would just compute the odds of succeeding from this point forward and then decide if the investment warrants the potential payoff. But we are not rational--not in love or war or business--and this particular irrationality is what economists call the "sunk-cost fallacy."
The psychology underneath this and other cognitive fallacies is brilliantly illuminated by psychologist Carol Tavris and University of California, Santa Cruz, psychology professor Elliot Aronson in their book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) (Harcourt, 2007). Tavris and Aronson focus on so-called self-justification, which "allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done." The passive voice of the telling phrase "mistakes were made" shows the rationalization process at work. "Mistakes were quite possibly made by the administrations in which I served," confessed Henry Kissinger about Vietnam, Cambodia and South America.
The engine driving self-justification is cognitive dissonance: "a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent," Tavris and Aronson explain. "Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don't rest easy until they find a way to reduce it." It is in that process of reducing dissonance that the self-justification accelerator is throttled up.
What happens when someone says, "I was wrong"?
Wrongly convicting people and sentencing them to death is a supreme source of cognitive dissonance. Since 1992 the Innocence Project has exonerated 192 people total, 14 from death row. "If we reviewed prison sentences with the same level of care that we devote to death sentences," says University of Michigan law professor Samuel R. Gross, "there would have been over 28,500 non-death-row exonerations in the past 15 years...." What is the self-justification for reducing this form of dissonance? "You get in the system, and you become very cynical," explains Northwestern University legal journalist Rob Warden. "People are lying to you all over the place. Then you develop a theory of the crime, and it leads to what we call tunnel vision. Years later overwhelming evidence comes out that the guy was innocent. And you're sitting there thinking, 'Wait a minute. Either this overwhelming evidence is wrong, or I was wrong--and I couldn't have been wrong, because I'm a good guy.' That's a psychological phenomenon I have seen over and over."
What happens in those rare instances when someone says, "I was wrong"? Surprisingly, forgiveness is granted and respect is elevated. Imagine what would happen if George W. Bush delivered the following speech:
This administration intends to be candid about its errors. For as a wise man once said, "An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it." We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors.... We're not going to have any search for scapegoats ... the final responsibilities of any failure are mine, and mine alone.
Bush's popularity would skyrocket, and respect for his ability as a thoughtful leader willing to change his mind in the teeth of new evidence would soar. That is precisely what happened to President John F. Kennedy after the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, when he spoke these very words.