The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Bush’s Mistake & Kennedy’s Error

published May 2007
Self-deception proves itself to be
more powerful than deception
magazine cover

The war in Iraq is now four years old. It has cost more than 3,000 American lives and has run up a tab of $200 million a day, or $73 billion a year, since it began. That’s a substantial investment. No wonder most members of Congress from both parties, along with President George W. Bush, believe that we have to “stay the course” and not just “cut and run.” As Bush explained in a speech delivered on July 4, 2006, at Fort Bragg, N.C.: “I’m not going to allow the sacrifice of 2,527 troops who have died in Iraq to be in vain by pulling out before the job is done.”

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.

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 is 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.

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8 Comments to “Bush’s Mistake & Kennedy’s Error”

  1. Mark A. Craig Says:

    I have to say, as someone who has been “proselytizing” against cognitive dissonance and self-delusion almost since birth, this commentary is going in my intellectual toolbox. Thanks for preaching to this member of the choir.

  2. Jim Milstein Says:

    How appropriate this discussion is to the interview aired on NPR yesterday and today with Doug Feith, former high ranking Pentagon official. His only fault with respect to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, to hear him tell it, was in not being more assertive. Otherwise, he had it exactly right, and no one can tell him otherwise. Maybe, in thirty or forty years, he will have a “McNamara moment”. If I were McNamara, I would check myself into detention at the Hague for suspected war crimes. It amazes me that Kissinger and McNamara, among many many others, can continue to live with themselves. The interior of their heads should be very noisy dissonant places.

  3. Hank James Says:

    This was a well done article and I would like to see the War On Drugs get the same analysis. I think cognitive dissonance describes the behavior of most religious followers pushing for this war but leaves out the more malicious bully cult leaders and the sadistic joy they feel at the pain of others.

    It looks to me like we are punishing religious moral taboos against self-pleasuring but pretending we are protecting health and safety. The fact that we are doing vastly more damage to rule of law, international relations, our economy, civil rights and individuals than we are gaining through protecting anything seems like cognitive dissonance to me. How can we be both the world leader in freedom and liberty and arrest 840,000 pot users each year?

    That this has gone on for decades but has seen otherwise responsible skeptics and scientists look the other way makes me think they are afraid to confront this dangerous abuse of power and influence from religious sources.

    I’ve watched this for more than 35 years and, as a skeptic and student of the sciences I am increasingly alarmed and disgusted. Please address this subject? It is an international disaster.

    Your reader,


  4. Helen Alexander Says:

    From a personal point of view, I have two comments on this article.

    First, as a teenage child of an MIA from the Vietnam war, I became disillusioned with the U.S. military, and with war, in general. “Lies were told” to the American populace, in the name of “national security”. Similar lies continue to this day, for the same alleged reason. If more politicians believed in resolving their cognitive dissonance about mistakes by telling the truth, the American people would probably experience a great increase in their faith toward the U.S. government.

    Secondly, as a psychology professional, I watched myself and others deal with cognitive dissonance by strengthening weak arguments. It is a cowardly and a weak strategy, but it assists professionals in “getting through the day”. I encourage the day when we in our culture face our weaknesses, admit them, and cope with the results–rather than bolstering our weakness and fears with false arguments made stronger by increasing lies.

  5. Pax Starksen Says:

    Michael: you are much too conservative in your estimates; the war in Iraq began on 03/20/03, FIVE+ years ago.
    Further, your estimates of the financial costs are way too low! I suggest that you review “The Three Trillion Dollar War” by the Nobel Award winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz.

  6. Brian Powell Says:

    Pax should note that the date of the article is May, 2007 – about a year ago. So the figures Shermer cites are correct.

  7. Randy Kirk Says:

    I suspect one would have to first ask if the author of the book, the article, and the comments are somehow outside the influence of the psychological tendencies applied to those they disdain.

    Second, one might wonder just how stupid all the folks in the military and government would have to be not to “compute the odds of succeeding from this point forward and then decide if the investment warrants the potential payoff.” As one who has followed the details of the news available to citizens during this conflict, it certainly appears that such risk/reward equations are being considered. Bias exists, of course. But we must assume that these biases exist for both sides of any argument.

    In fact, we would expect that these biases even effect scientists.

  8. » Blog Archive » September 18 — Hear social psychologist Elliot Aronson Says:

    […] before you go: For an application of Aronson’s ideas, read Michael Shermer’s “Bush’s Mistake & Kennedy’s Error.” Bookmark […]

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