How Wrong is our Need to be Right?

Yesterday, I mentioned that we often refuse to believe something if it contradicts what we know and believe, even when presented with overwhelming evidence that points to us being wrong.

Kathryn Schulz is the author of “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.” She talks about how most of us do not like to think about being wrong and are way too invested in being right. She talks about how dangerous it is for us as individuals and society, this attachment we have to the feeling of being right. But why do we get stuck in this feeling of rightness? One reason is what Karthyn Schultz calls “error blindness”. “Most of the time, we don’t have any kind of internal cue to let us know that we’re wrong about something, until it’s too late.” Another reason has to do with social programming: we learn very early in life (in school and at home) that making mistakes or being wrong means there is something wrong with us, that we’re not smart enough or good enough. Regardless of the reason, the point is “is that trusting too much in the feeling of being on the correct side of anything can be very dangerous.”

Feeling that you are right means you think your thoughts perfectly reflect reality. This is a common problem that Cognitive Psychology has been studying for a long time: our tendency to mistaken our own thoughts for reality. Studies in Social Psychology have found that in the end we believe what we want to believe: what perpetuates the feeling of being right, despite overwhelming facts and evidence that contradicts our beliefs. You can read about this here. We reject information that points to our wrongness and embrace information that “proves” our rightness. Also the same information may be interpreted in different ways to fit into our preconceived notions of how things are. This is one of the reasons why a lot of people refuse to believe that Obama is an American citizen despite overwhelming evidence that supports that. Read more about that here.

According to Kathryn Schultz, our attachment to being right leads to treating others, who disagree with us, badly. She talks about what happens when others disagree with us, by listing “a series of unfortunate assumptions”:

  1. We think they are ignorant: they don’t have all the information and we are quick to provide it to them thinking once they have the information they will change their minds.
  2. We think they are stupid: they have all the information but somehow can’t put it together.

And when we find out that people who disagree with us have all the information and are actually smart, we resort to the most dangerous assumption of all:

  1. We think they are evil: and they are deliberately distorting the truth for their own malevolent purposes.

She continues by saying “This attachment to our own rightness keeps us from preventing mistakes when we absolutely need to and causes us to treat each other terribly. But to me, what’s most baffling and most tragic about this is that it misses the whole point of being human.” And being human means we make mistakes. We are often wrong.

When we see our world, we miss some aspect of it or misinterpret it. We often filter out the information that doesn’t fit our beliefs and accept information that does. Our minds are not impartial, objective observers. We see what we want to see. We accept what makes us feel right. This is especially important when it comes to conflict and conflict resolution. But if we are all so attached to being right, who gets to decide who’s actually wrong? How can we tell the difference between right and wrong? We can rely on science but as one of my professors would say “there is no such thing as politically-free data”. We can try to rely on religion but that’s all a matter of faith anyway. We can try to rely on values and morals but they are ever-changing.  Can everyone be right and wrong all at the same time? Is is possible to fact-check things systematically in a reliable way to reduce error in our day to day, life decisions? Our minds are egocentric and have difficulty seeing another person’s perspective especially when we disagree with them. Being egocentric is innately human just as being wrong is. How are we to overcome this? Is being open-minded and accepting of our wrongness enough to overcome differences, prejudice or even hate? What does this mean for the future of humanity?

Take a look at the image below. What do you see?

Whatever answer you give, you’ll be right and wrong at the same time. And if you keep looking at it you’ll fluctuate between two images. Our perception works this way: we see the parts before we see the whole and then we switch back and forth between the two. We see what’s there and what’s missing. So maybe, as long as we try to keep an eye on the big picture, we can live with being wrong while thinking we’re right.

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