Why can’t law enforcement admit their mistakes? Their refusal to do so leads to countless wrongful convictions, but psychology says few will cop to misconduct

Self-justification is the powerful mechanism that blinds us to the awareness that we were wrong says Tavris who wrote Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me: How We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts with social psychologist Eliot Aronson.

“It’s a mechanism that allows us to maintain a consistency between our beliefs about ourselves, which are usually positive – ‘I’m a good, kind, competent, ethical person’ – and the cognitive dissonance that is aroused when I, a good, kind, ethical person, am confronted with evidence that I did something incompetent, unethical, immoral, hurtful, or cruel.”

Cognitive dissonance, says Tavris, is unconscious mental conflict that arises when two attitudes, or an attitude and a behavior, or an attitude and new information, are incongruous with one another. We quash any contradictory or conflicting thoughts that pop up, she explains, because accepting them would mean accepting that the initial decision was wrong – something which makes humans, from detectives to doctors, uncomfortable.

Dror believes there are also reasons why criminal justice professionals’ intractability may be heightened. One factor: the more time, effort and money invested in an investigation, the more crucial it becomes to justify past choices. While that might seem equally applicable to those in business or public office, criminal justice professionals get a different kind of feedback.

“When they make errors it is not clear that they do because the actual truth is not known,” says Dror, “When a doctor amputates the wrong leg, then it is clear a mistake has happened. No way out! However, in the criminal justice system, the court gives a verdict but we never do know if it is correct or not.” Working in our adversarial justice system also plays a part, says Dror. “It makes admitting to error very hard – not only in the specific case, but the implication for future cases.”

To Dror, all the work we put into “not admitting mistakes, not seeing mistakes, and building all this very elaborate dynamic rationalization to things you do” is an example of just how flexible and dynamic the human brain is.

“It’s because your brain all the time is building constructs that make sense of your behavior,” he says. “And people want to have a good self-image. The forensic examiners think they’re scientists, that they help the criminal justice system. And the last thing their brain wants to entertain is that they’re sending innocent people to jail.”

He notes that when people are asked to rank their driving skills, most will say “above average,” and that dynamic is widespread.

http://www.salon.com/2012/10/21/why_cant_law_enforcement_admit_their_mistakes/

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