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When was the last time you were wrong about something? For me, it was this morning when I misread a text, and responded with what must have seemed like lunatic ravings. I make a lot of mistakes and frequently find myself back-tracking and correcting myself. Just a few months ago I argued with my sister about an old family photo in which I confidently identified myself. It was hard to explain my belief (even to myself) when my mother contradicted me. Her exact words were “I have no idea who that child is”.
Human beings hate being wrong. As a result, when evidence contradicts our beliefs, we will go to great lengths to wriggle out of fessing up to our errors. One way we do that is by dismissing evidence we dislike. Most of us are now familiar with confirmation bias – a psychological blind spot we use to avoid confronting our own mistaken beliefs. But, no less than Daniel Kahneman, who first described it (with his collaborator, Amos Tversky), says that even knowing a great deal about cognitive bias will not help to avoid their presence. They are inevitable. Well, that stinks.
We all find it tempting to double down on our own beliefs, proving we are right –even when confronted with counter-evidence. But that creates stagnation, stifles learning, and for many of us, causes arguments and frustration. Given that tendency, is there any hope for refining our reflexes to allow learning and growing throughout our lives? Yes. Instead of trying to become unbiased, we could try to inoculate ourselves against our dislike of being wrong.
The first principle human psychology and biology is self-preservation. That includes both physical preservation and the preservation of our self-image –or, in Freudian terms, our egos. Our self-images include those beliefs we have about the world and about ourselves. Being wrong calls those into question, violating the urge to preserve our self-image. When we believe something and are confronted by evidence that it’s untrue, we experience cognitive dissonance – discomfort at a conflict between evidence and belief. There are important reasons why we evolved to be like that. In prehistoric times, being wrong could be life-threatening. If you suspected the coast was clear and you were wrong, your mistake might turn you into lunch for a saber tooth tiger. So, being right and having an accurate view of the world was truly critical for our ancestors. Our psychology is still wired up to avoid tigers –despite the lack of tigers in modern life.
Sometimes, even in modern life, the stakes can be very high. Scientists who are looking for treatments for COVID 19 cannot afford to be wrong when they ultimately make a recommendation. Unlike in ordinary life, where we try hard to prove we are right, the scientific method includes actively looking for contradiction of its hypotheses. It builds into its practice the commitment that there will be no certainty.
Without the prospect of certainty, wrongness becomes more palatable. Per George Bernard Shaw, “Science becomes dangerous only when it imagines that it has reached its goal.” To remedy the possibility of being lured into believing they might be certain, scientists reject terms like “true” or “proven”. Instead, they trade in theories, which warrant varying degrees of confidence. To wit: The theory of gravity garners more confidence than that of time travel.
In our personal lives we also experience moments of high and low stakes over our own certainty. Imagine you believe your bank balance to be $1000. You recently looked at a statement, always balance your checkbook, and track your debit card purchases. If you then go to the grocery store and the card reader tells you there are insufficient funds for your purchase, you will be shocked, and sure that the bank is mistaken, or that you have been robbed. You will experience significant cognitive dissonance, and probably rush from the grocery store to the bank to sort out their mistake.
Now, imagine you are asked by an ESP researcher to guess the card he is holding. You guess a five of hearts. He reveals a queen of spades. You shrug your shoulders. You had no expectation that you would know the card. Low stakes, low cognitive dissonance.
Since we are predisposed to resist discovering our wrongness, how can we learn to be more flexible in those moments? Well, we can do two things:
Reframe: The first is to create a context for embracing wrongness. This is called reframing. When we are wrong, we feel like we, our person-hood, is under attack. But we can create a new way of framing wrongness. Maybe it’s a wonderful opportunity to learn something new. Do that often enough and the discovery of being wrong will sting less. To cultivate that kind of mindset requires a new way of being, or a rule for yourself. Maybe you conceive of yourself as a learner, someone on a quest. Or, as a practical scientist, always seeking contradictions to your beliefs. Make it a game in which discovery of wrongness is a win.
Practice:The second way to get better at something –anything — is to practice. If you are afraid of water, you can undertake exposure therapy and begin hanging out at a pool, swimming and wading. Over time, the fear will dissipate. The same is true of being wrong. By actively seeking out our own wrongness and embracing it, it gets easier. We become less defensive and more flexible. Think of it like righteousness inoculation.
You can grow to love learning you are wrong! That will accelerate your own learning and evolution toward ever greater clarity and critical thinking. The practice could help you to become a better leader, friend, partner and parent.
“Every time you make a mistake, every time you fail at something, you should throw your arms in the air and say, ‘How fascinating!’ “ The Art of Possibility