Once, when I was a young, I tried admitting I was wrong. I attempted self-reflection and contrition, but I couldn’t pull it off. I nearly threw out my back. Now, on cold days, I still can feel a creeping pain at the base of my spine.
This is a pretty predictable response. Being told you’re wrong hurts. Admitting you’re wrong hurts all the more. Refusing to acknowledge your screw-ups is neither helpful nor productive, but it is human. The good news is that there’s a better way. Before diving into what that better way is, let’s take a minute to understand why we hate admitting when we’re wrong.
Imagine you love cheese fries—crispy, salty, greasy, dripping with melted cheddar. Mmm… Imagine also, that you have high blood pressure and that your doctor has told you to lay off the junk food. “Cheese fries,” she says, “are the rat poison of American cuisine.”
Now, you might be the kind of person who thinks, “That’s it. I’m never eating another french fry again for as long as I live.” If so, good for you. Your trophy is in the mail.
Conversely, you might be the kind of person who says, “Dammit, I work hard and I deserve a treat. Cheese fries are scrumptious!” If so, you are pretty normal. But by signing up for all that cheesy-crispy goodness, you also signing up for a particular brand of psychic distress known as cognitive dissonance.
You eat cheese fries, but you know they are killing you. These facts are hard to reconcile, so you respond by downplaying the threat of junk food. “Cheese fries aren’t so bad,” you say to yourself. “After all, potatoes are vegetables!”
Cognitive dissonance plays out in all sorts of ways that have nothing to do with french fries. Sometimes, you believe something to be true, and then it’s revealed to be false. This threatens your core view of yourself as a bright, competent, logical individual—someone who sees the world as it is. So you rationalize your pre-existing belief rather than assimilate new, conflicting information.
The pain of being wrong is problematic, however, because screwing up is an essential part of science, engineering, governing, business, art, music and, you know, being human. It is impossible to improve your understanding of the world or make better decisions without acknowledging when you are wrong. That simple fact is why so many successful people are willing to cop to their mistakes. As Thomas Edison said of his many unsuccessful attempts as an inventor, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Kathryn Schulz, journalist and author of “Being Wrong”, echoes this point in her 2011 TED talk: “This attachment to our own rightness keeps us from preventing mistakes when we absolutely need to and causes us to treat each other terribly.”
Schulz speculates that at least part of our resistance to screwing up starts in school. You are graded on every paper you write and problem you solve, such that “by the time you are nine years old, you’ve already learned, first of all, that people who get stuff wrong are lazy, irresponsible dimwits—and second of all, that the way to succeed in life is to never make any mistakes.”
So, how do we cope with being wrong? It’s tempting to think that recognizing your errors reveals something negative about you—that you are not as smart or as rational or as well-informed as you thought. It would be healthier and more accurate to think that admitting when you’re wrong affirms something positive about you—that you are confident and well-reasoned, and that you won’t let your ego get in the way of a good idea. The best kind of people admit when they’re wrong.
Author Seth Godin writes, “The secret to being wrong isn’t to avoid being wrong! The secret is being willing to be wrong. The secret is realizing that wrong isn’t fatal.”
So, be confident. Be curious. Be courageous. But most of all… Be wrong.