In terms of progress, being wrong is a necessity. Making mistakes and finding errors is how we come to new understandings about the world.
by Kristance Harlow
Throughout history, stubborn self-righteousness has not been a good approach to democratic domestic and international relations. Kathryn Schulz argues in her book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, many of the devastating conflicts in the world can be traced to “the clash of mutually incompatible, entirely unshakable feelings of rightness.”
Humans are excellent at pointing out other people’s mistakes, but seem to have an aversion when someone changes their tune and takes responsibility. How often have you invoked the phrases “it’s just not right” and “it’s just wrong” when disagreeing with a government policy or upset about a heartbreaking event?
Being right is a satisfying feeling. In our daily lives, most of us are right on a regular basis. We can make it from point A to point B and the assumptions about how to do so are right. People survive thanks to their ability to correctly predict outcomes: knowing that it’s cold, so you need to bundle up to keep warm; being correct in choosing edible food over poisonous plants; being able to navigate the commute to work.
The survival of the human species is predicated on being right: knowing the Earth was round before satellites could show us pictures; taking a chance and migrating to new lands for the first time; correctly diagnosing an ailment and administering a treatment.
If being right is a good thing, why should we admit being wrong?
In terms of progress — both personal and societal — being wrong is also a necessity. Making mistakes and finding errors is how we come to new understandings about the world. You can only learn to be right by being wrong. Children make mistakes all the time because it’s part of growing up. Medical advancements wouldn’t have occurred had there not been recognition of errors and attempts to correct a problem. We wouldn’t know which plants were poisonous if someone hadn’t made the mistake of ingesting them.
As Schulz writes, “It is our meta-mistake: we are wrong about what it means to be wrong.” Being wrong doesn’t indicate dishonesty. Taking responsibility for transgressions is a telltale sign that someone has the capacity for growth. Psychological research has found that the more someone believes that people can change, the more likely they are to own up to their mistakes. People who make mistakes and learn from them are also the most likely to succeed.
If being wrong is also a good thing, why are we so averse to it?
People don’t like to be wrong. Being wrong brings up feelings of embarrassment and shame. Being called out in a public setting can cause defensiveness and denial. At best, being wrong can be a relief when you had been expecting a terrible outcome. At worst, it can shatter a person’s understanding of the world and their individual role within it.
We might be right every day, but we are always profoundly wrong. We just don’t realize it or admit it. Every decision is an opportunity to be wrong. Actions and core ideologies do not always line up perfectly. Contradictions are natural. It is also natural to desire balance and reason in our beliefs, which is why we find ways to rationalize our hypocrisy. Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is what we feel when we believe contradictory things and then justify their co-existence.
Jimmy Kimmel’s Lie Witness News
Jimmy Kimmel Live has a segment called Lie Witness News, where pedestrians are stopped and asked about a completely made-up news story. The moments that make the cut are when the people being interviewed feign knowledge of the fabricated event. The reporter frames the question as if the interviewees are aware of the news story. It is a comedy segment, where we can laugh at how stupid we can be. It also highlights how unwilling people are to be wrong.
Redditors have been making claims that the footage is either doctored or the people being interviewed knew it was a joke and played along to get on TV. Some people know the news isn’t incorrect and say so to the reporter. Either way, no one seems to admit being uninformed or wrong. If someone being interviewed really did think they should know about the imagined event but didn’t, that person didn’t say so to the reporter. Nor did they, after the fact, admit they were wrong in their answer to the reporter. Few people seem willing to say, “I was wrong, and I am ignorant about the subject.”
When we’re uninformed, we look to someone who knows more to guide us — and take cues from them to modify our own behavior. In the case of Lie Witness News, the reporter plays the role of leader. They act certain of the fake news they’re asking about, therefore the pedestrians respond agreeably to the reporter’s suggestions.
We don’t like leaders who make mistakes
In times of uncertainty, people gravitate toward claims of certainty. If you’re looking for a surgeon, you’re more likely to pick the doctor who is the most confident and certain about performing the procedure. In politics, we do the same — even when it is detrimental to our wellbeing. Self-doubt in a leader is unappealing.
Al Gore ran as the Democratic nominee in the 2000 United States presidential election. He lost, and much of the criticism of Gore centered around the argument that he flip-flopped. I was in middle school at the time, and I remember the election buzzword being “flip-flop.” I found it confusing, because as a 13-year-old I was changing my mind all the time as I learned new things. I thought we were supposed to listen to others with an open mind.
Four years later, the next Democratic nominee, John Kerry faced the same criticism of being a massive flip-flopper. Republican Herman Cain, who lost the GOP presidential nominee to Mitt Romney in 2012, was attacked by his Republican rivals for his shifting ideologies even once, saying, “The thing that’s going to convince people that my campaign is credible is if I make a misstatement, I’m going to retract it. If I make a mistake, I’m going to admit I made a mistake.” In 2016, Hillary Clinton was also called out for flip-flopping on issues like the Iraq war, which she voted for and later opposed, admitting, “I made a mistake, plain and simple.”
The label of flip-flopper played a role in the failure of these four campaigns. The public thought of these candidates as dishonest. Some said they were the worst kind of politicians, the kind who would say anything to get elected. We doubted their ability to make judgments. We expect powerful people to be infallible, and distrust those who cop to their gaffes.
Donald Trump is the most flip-flopping President-Elect in history, only he would never say, “I made a mistake.” His defining quality is that he is undeniably arrogant. Despite contradicting himself on a daily basis, Trump doesn’t acknowledge ignorance or wrongdoing. Trump’s unwillingness to be honest, and his stubborn egoism, won him the election, because enough uninformed people saw him as a symbol of certainty.
Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of arrogance is an inability to admit ignorance. People like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un, who lead authoritarian governments, are protected by their refusal to admit ignorance. Squashing any challenge to their competency is critical to maintaining total control. For these kinds of governments to survive, constituents must believe their rulers are untouchable.
Trump is terrifying because he is behaving the same way dictators do. He claims to know more than the generals, disparages the intelligence community and denounces anyone who doesn’t agree with his obstinacy. His most dangerous quality has also been his most appealing. It is unrealistic to expect positive change under a Trump administration. Change only comes when we can see, admit and correct mistakes.