Why Do We Justify Foolish Beliefs? Interview with Social Psychologist Dr. Carol Tavris

Dr. Carol Tavris

Dr. Carol Tavris

Recently Jason Korbus and I had the privilege to speak to Dr. Carol Tavris. Dr. Tavris is a social psychologist and author whose work has tackled such topics as misconceptions about anger and feminism. Her latest book is called “Mistake Were Made, But Not By Me” and touches on how cognitive dissonance theory and other ideas from psychological research explain how, as the subtitle suggests, people justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts.  This is a very interesting interview; trust me you want to download this.

To download this interview, right click the link and save target as.


I Remember…

I am sure everyone reading this can remember in detail what they were doing when they heard about the catastrophic events of September 11th, 2001.  I remember it very clearly, I supposed everyone would, such tragic events seem to stay imprinted in our memory.

What I was doing when I heard the news.

I remember I was in Mr. Wade’s Information Technology (IT) class.  Everything started off normal at about 8:35am; however that would change very soon.  I am not to certain of the time, maybe about 20 minutes into class a teacher from across the hall named Ms. Eade ran into our class room hysterically screaming “They just bombed us, we are under attack!”  The kid I was sitting next to, Yahia, quickly went to some news website where he read out loud about the plane that had crashed into the WTC, it was still speculation if this was an accident or an attack .  We quickly evacuated our class room and ended up being split up into two class rooms, Mr. Kregel and Mr. Nuendorf’s rooms.  I remember this distinctly because they both had their class room televisions on.  After watching for a short while, I saw the second plane crash into the south tower live on television.

Again I cannot begin to tell you how clear this memory is for me.  It is so vivid I would have actually bet 1 million dollars that the events I described took place exactly how I described them.  To prove my accuracy I devised a small and simple experiment.  I would simply ask 3 of my friends whom I stayed close with over the years, how they remembered hearing the news of 9/11/2001.  Now these 3 individuals were all with me when we heard the news, we were all in the same IT class.

Jeremy’s account

Class had just started when out of nowhere Mr. Nuendorf ran into our room yelling “the twin towers have been attacked.” Mr. Wade told us to stop what we were doing and to get onto the internet and find out what was going on.  After a couple minutes we all gathered in the back of the class room and turned the TV on.  As soon as we turned on the television the second plane crash into the World Trade Center. 

When I asked Jeremy if he would give his recollection of events a 10 out of 10 for accuracy, he responded with yes.

Kevin’s account

We found out in IT class with Mr. Wade.  People kept saying NYC was under attack.  Mr. Wade checked the internet and confirmed that something big was happening.   Quickly Mr. Wade wheeled a TV into class and we watched it on the news.  I remember this like it was yesterday because it was a tragic day.   Things like that don’t happen every day and its burns an everlasting memory of that day into your brain.

When I asked Kevin if he would give his recollection of events a 10 out of 10 for accuracy, he responded with yes.

Yahia’s account

So it was 2nd period and I had a calculus test with Mr. Hershey. Shit I remembered that I didn’t study that day and I was fretting if I was not going to pass or not. About 15 minutes into the test, someone yells out “they hit the twin towers”….I just came from Mr. Wade’s class, so everyone in Mr. Hershey’s class went to Mr. Wade and watched the planes crash into the twin towers. Everyone freaked out….rumors spread fast that the Arabs were the ones and seeing how I am an Arab, I was targeted very fast.

When I asked Yahia if he would give his recollection of events a 10 out of 10 for accuracy, he responded with yes.

After reading each of these memories, I was blown away.  The only thing that seems consistent with all four of our stories is we were all at school when 9/11/2001 happened.  I mean the one guy, Yahia, who I swear was sitting next to me and read the news out loud to the class claims he didn’t know anything about the attacks until second period (IT class was first period).  Some remember Mr. Nuendorf in the memory, others don’t.  This is very interesting to me, because it simply shows how distorted memory can get.  Like I said before, all four of us were together in the same class yet we all have very different description of events.  So who is right?  Like I said I would bet 1 million dollars my account is the accurate version, but that doesn’t do any good when the other 3 are just as confident their account is the accurate description.  We were all there for 9/11/2001; I will even say we were most likely all in the same room when it happened, what I cannot say is whose depiction is exact.  This even means I have to doubt my own recollection of the event, as hard as that may be. 

So if something so tragic like 9/11/2001 can happen and those memories can’t be recalled correctly how can people trust the “true” stories people like Bob Gimlin share at Bigfoot conventions?  How could Gimlin successfully recollect an event that happened in 1967?  The same question should be asked to people who retold the story of Roswell decades later, how can those memories be trusted?  Well, the answer is they can’t be.

It isn’t that people are lying about the events that took place, they may really believe it happened the way they say it did, however that doesn’t make it true.  I remember Yahia confirming the twin towers had been hit by a plane in the Mr. Wades IT class; Yahia remembers being in Mr. Hershey’s calculus class when he heard the news.  Which was it?  It couldn’t have been both.

This also shows that you can’t rely on memory as fact.  For instance, I talk to many people who are “ghost hunters”.  They like to present me with electronic voice phenomena (E.V.P.) and ask “how can you explain that?”  Well 98% of the time they are not looking for an explanation they are just looking for me to confirm it is a ghost – but I digress.  I usually say well we can’t rule out people whispering, the response I always get is “I know no one was talking because I was there,” or “well I can rule out talking, because I was there in the room and no one made a sound.” Again I know we went to Mr. Nuendorf’s room to watch the news on 9/11 and Kevin knows we watched the news in the front of the IT classroom.  I know Ms. Eade came in screaming about the attack, Jeremy knows it was Mr. Nuendorf who came in telling us about the attack.  Memory cannot be trusted; it’s as simple as that.

So before you go professing your personal experiences as fact because you remember the account so vividly, remember memory is a flawed thing.  Question everything, even things you feel are certain.


Let Me Tell You Your Fortune!

Welcome everyone!

I would like to try an experiment, it is very simple all you do is read the paragraph below and see if you can identify it with yourself. 

You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.

How did I do?  Was it spot on?  Chances are you were able to relate to this fortune or personality test to yourself.    What you just read was the result of a personality test that was administered in 1948 by psychologist Bertram Forer.  Forer would give his students a personality test to his students and totally disregard their answers.  After the test was finished Forer would tell the students that they would receive a personality analysis unique to each student.  When the students received the analysis they were then asked to give it a rating from 0-5, 0 being worst and 5 being excellent.

However the students didn’t receive a unique analysis, they all received the same exact evaluation, which is what you just read above.  Interestingly enough in 1948 the average rating was 4.26.  Today this test is still administered in colleges throughout the world; it has been repeated hundreds of times with an average rating of 4.2 out of 5. 

Forer assembled his paragraph from a bunch of different horoscopes.  He did this to show that people have a tendency to rate sets of statements as extremely accurate to them even though the statements could apply to many people.  This is now called the Forer effect.  This effect can actually explain why certain people believe in things like astrology, tarot, fortune telling, etc.    

There are also 3 things that help influence this effect.

  • If the subject believes that the analysis only applies to them
  • If the subject believes in the authority of the person doing the evaluating or administering the test
  • The analysis lists mainly positive traits

If these 3 factors are in play, people usually give higher accuracy ratings. 

Thanks for reading Pork Rhine.