Personal Responsibility 101: Why Is It So Hard To Own Up to Our Mistakes?


“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

u201CI 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.u201D ~ 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 u201Cmistakes were made,u201D 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 u201Cpeople need to own up to their mistakes!u201D 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: u201CYou should do this. Okay, now do it.u201D

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.

Then tomorrow 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: u201CI know smoking is bad for me…but I smoke a pack a day anyway.u201D 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, u201CPeople say that smoking is bad, but my grandfather smoked two packs a day for fifty years and never got cancer. It's fine.u201D

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:

u2022 You think of yourself as an honest man, but you cheated on your last exam. You can either:

  1. Admit that cheating is wrong and that maybe you're not as honest as you thought. Or,
  2. Justify the cheating by saying that a lot of other students were doing it too, so it really just leveled the playing field.

u2022 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:

  1. 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,
  2. Tell yourself that you never said anything about a relationship and that it was entirely her fault for letting herself get attached.

u2022 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:

  1. Admit that you've been nursing a grudge and didn't tell him, which isn't something a good friend would do. Or,
  2. Say that you were totally trashed and didn't know what you were doing.

u2022 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:

  1. Acknowledge the mistakes and reevaluate your theory and research methods. Or,
  2. 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 itself. 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:

  1. If X had happened, I would have been right. (u201CMy predictions for the economy would have been correct if A had won the election rather than B. No one could have seen that coming.u201D)
  2. It really wasn't wrong. (u201CThe company doesn't pay me enough anyway, so taking those supplies just evens things out.u201D)
  3. It wasn't that big of a deal in the long run and didn't have lasting consequences. (u201CI'm sorry I treated her the way I did, but she's happily married now and probably doesn't ever think of me.u201D)
  4. I can’t help it, this is just who I am. (u201CMy father has a temper, and my grandfather had a temper, and my great-grandfather too! It’s a family tradition!u201D)
  5. I was provoked. (u201CNo one could have heard what he said without punching him out.u201D)
  6. The situation was to blame. (u201CEveryone was yelling and it was total chaos – I couldn't even think straight and felt paralyzed.u201D)
  7. That was the old me and happened in the past. (u201CI've changed a lot since then. I'm not the same person.u201D)
  8. It was an isolated incident and is over and done with. (u201CI've never acted that way before, and haven't since.u201D)
  9. My mood/state was to blame. (u201CI had just gotten over the flu and just wasn't feeling like myself.u201D Or, u201CI was really drunk and don't remember what happened.u201D Or, u201CI had been crazy stressed for weeks and that was just the straw that broke the camel's back.u201D)

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 u201Cdramaticu201D 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 u201Cally.u201D

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.

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