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Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

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mistakes were made

Like all writers, I’m interested in people and what makes them tick. Real life people are often baffling, but characters in novels have to make sense. Writers are usually good at creating three-dimensional heroes, but what about the bad guys? It’s hard to imagine doing some of the things these villains do. It’s even harder to imagine that the villain’s actions make perfect sense to him.

MISTAKES WERE MADE (BUT NOT BY ME) explains exactly how humans justify their actions. Our brains can trick us into thinking everything from bickering with our spouse to going to war is perfectly rational. We all work very hard to maintain our positive self image, and when we do something that’s not in keeping with the great person we think we are, we are quick to make up “reasons” why it was the right—perhaps even the best—thing to do.

Each chapter covers one aspect of this troubling human behavior. Tavris and Aronson explain why bullying almost always intensifies, why the police are reluctant to let wrongly accused people go, how soldiers justify torture, and how easily marriage spats get out of hand. In each case, being wrong is seen as the problem. No matter what, our brains don’t like to be wrong. So, even when confronted with facts, we’ll dig in our heels and try to shift blame or explain away the problem.

The best villains I’ve come across in fiction were not strictly “bad guys.” Their motives were pure in some way, even if their methods were not. More importantly, each villain told himself a story about why his actions were necessary, even good. Thanks to MISTAKES WERE MADE (BUT NOT BY ME), I have a little more insight into how that happens. And, a little more insight into myself as well.


Rating: 4 stars


Pie slices: 8 slices craft


This book is best for: intermediate writers


I recommend this book

About Alex Kourvo

Writer, reader, parent. On the endless quest for great books and the perfect slice of key lime pie.

3 responses »

  1. Shame upon thee! Coppers *nevah* seek to lock up the innocent or keep ’em one second longer than required for justice!

    All my time as a cop, I used to wonder about motivations. Not so much about revenge or thieving, generally those were only too obvious, but the miserable cruelties sometimes carried out by all too apparently normal individuals.

    I shall have a gander at this book, ta.


  2. juliabarrett

    Ah, complicated villains – the best kind. Everyone is motivated by something.


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