On Being Wrong

This is my personal take on an excellent talk on TED by Kathryn Schulz.

What’s Wrong with Being Right

We work hard to be right all the time, living in a bubble of “Being Right”. The problem with this is that it isn’t true. Sometimes we are wrong and sometimes there isn’t a right in the first place. So this rightness is a blind spot. Our sense of rightness is not a reliable guide to what is actually going on.

You can see its effects in the Global Recession (economists Being Right), Wars (politicians Being Right), Religious conflict (religious ‘leaders’ Being Right), its all around us.

There seem to be two sources of this rightness bubble. First, there’s no way of knowing when we are wrong – so no correctional process that could alert us to this – combined with an unwillingness to question which is a kind of “error blindness”. Second, there’s a cultural attitude that there is a right way of doing things, a right way of thinking etc. which brainwashes us into believing in rightness and seeing wrongness as a bad thing, even a shameful thing. This is strongly reinforced by schooling practices.

We learn these really bad lessons really well. Except that then we freak out at the possibility that we’ve gotten something wrong. Because according to this, getting something wrong means there’s something wrong with us. So we just insist that we’re right, because it makes us feel smart and responsible and virtuous and safe.

So this is a huge practical and social problem.

The Argument Fallacies

I think CBT as a therapeutic approach often (mostly) misses the point, but nevertheless it has made some significant contributions to our understanding of what makes people tick One of its greatest contributions to therapy is the concept of Cognitive Distortions: the many and varied ways we mis-see the world in order to make ourselves feel more comfortable. I love cognitive distortions. And the Being Right attitude is one of them.

One of the consequences of the Being Right bubble is that discussion is nearly impossible. This is because the cognitive distortion that it is causes people to reject others’ opinions, using three fallacies to do so. These three fallacies that enter into discussions make them into confrontational arguments:

The Ignorance Fallacy: you disagree with me because you are ignorant. Therefore let me educate you in what is right and then you will agree with me.

I’ve seen this many times with someone launching into  a lecture without any interest in what I do or do not know about something.

The problem is that the other person may not be ignorant, they may be well informed, yet still hold a different viewpoint. So the second fallacy comes into play:

The Idiocy Fallacy: wow, you’ve got all the facts but can’t see it my way, you must be an idiot not to see what I see.

So the argument descends into effectively name-calling, calling the other person an idiot for having a different viewpoint.

When this doesn’t work, for example when it becomes obvious that the other person is not an idiot and is capable of rational thought, then the third fallacy comes into play:

The Evil Fallacy: so, you’re intelligent and well informed, yet still hold a different view? You must be an evil person who distorts things for some malevolent purpose.

I have certainly seen all these stages and it makes any kind of discussion impossible.

Being Wrong

In a way its not really about being wrong, but allowing for the possibility of wrongness and giving up this clinging on to being right. This can make you a “better person”.

Why?

Being Right means we don’t prevent mistakes – as the global recessions shows. It also leads us to treat other people appallingly badly. As Kathryn puts it:

what’s most baffling and most tragic about this is that it misses the whole point of being human. It’s like we want to imagine that our minds are just these perfectly translucent windows and we just gaze out of them and describe the world as it unfolds. And we want everybody else to gaze out of the same window and see the exact same thing. That is not true, and if it were, life would be incredibly boring. The miracle of your mind isn’t that you can see the world as it is. It’s that you can see the world as it isn’t. We can remember the past, and we can think about the future, and we can imagine what it’s like to be some other person in some other place. And we all do this a little differently

So, allowing yourself to Be Wrong means you’ll be able to respect other people and be part of a bigger world with many viewpoints, rather than locked into a boring world of same-thinking people. You might even learn something and rediscover wonder.

Original Work

This is my take on an excellent talk on TED by Kathryn Schulz. Do see her talk.

Kathryn Schulz is the author of “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error”.