On Being Wrong

Excerpts from the first chapter of Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz.

“Why is it so fun to be right? As pleasures go, it is, after all, a second order one at best. Unlike many of life’s other delights — chocolate, surfing, kissing — it does not enjoy any mainline access to our biochemistry: to our appetites, our adrenal glands, our limbic systems, our swoony hearts. And yet, the thrill of being right is undeniable, universal, and (perhaps most oddly) almost entirely undiscriminating. We can’t enjoy kissing just anyone, but we can relish being right about almost anything. The stakes don’t seem to matter much; it’s more important to bet on the right foreign policy than the right racehorse, but we are perfectly capable of gloating over either one. Nor does subject matter; we can be equally pleased about correctly identifing an orange-crowned warbler or the sexual orientation of our coworker. Stranger still, we can enjoy being right even about disagreeable things: the downturn in the stock market, say, or the demise of a friend’s relationship, or the fact that, at our spouse’s insistence, we just spent fifteen minutes schlepping our suitcase in exactly the opposite direction from our hotel.

Like most pleasurable experiences, rightness is not ours to enjoy all the time. Sometimes we are the one who loses the bet (or the hotel). And sometimes, too, we are plagued by doubt about the correct answer or course of action — an anxiety that, itself, reflects the urgency of our desire to be right. Still, on the whole, our indiscriminate enjoyment of being right is matched by an almost equally indiscriminate feeling that we are right. Occasionally, this feeling spills into the foreground, as when we argue or evangelize, make predictions or place bets. Most often, though, it is just psychological backdrop. A whole lot of us go through life assuming that we are basically right, basically all the time, about basically everything: about our political and intellectual convictions, our religious and moral beliefs, our assessment of other people, our memories, our grasp of facts. As absurd as it sounds when we stop to think about it, our steady state seems to be one of unconsciously assuming that we are very close to omniscient.”

“If insisting on our rightness tends to compromise our relationships, it also reflects poorly on our grasp of probability.”

“Before we can plunge into the experience of being wrong, we must pause to make an important if somewhat perverse point: there is no experience of being wrong.

There is an experience of realizing that we are wrong, of course. In fact, there is a stunning diversity of such experiences. As we’ll see in the pages to come, recognizing our mistakes can be shocking, confusing, funny, embarrassing, traumatic, pleasurable, illuminating, and life-altering, sometimes for ill and sometimes for good. But by definition, there can’t be any particular feeling associated with simply being wrong. Indeed, the whole reason it’s possible to be wrong is that, while it is happening, you are oblivious to it. When you are simply going about your business in a state you will later decide was delusional, you have no idea of it whatsoever. You are like the coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, after he has gone off the cliff but before he has looked down. Literally in his case and figuratively in yours, you are already in trouble when you feel like you’re still on solid ground. So I should revise myself: it does feel like something to be wrong. It feels like being right.

This is the problem of error-blindness. Whatever falsehoods each of us currently believes are necessarily invisible to us. Think about the telling fact that error literally doesn’t exist in the first person present tense: the sentence “I am wrong” describes a logical impossibility. As soon as we know that we are wrong, we aren’t wrong anymore, since to recognize a belief as false is to stop believing it. Thus we can only say “I was wrong.” Call it the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Error: we can be wrong, or we can know it, but we can’t do both at the same time.

Error-blindness goes some way toward explaining our persistent difficulty with imagining that we could be wrong. It’s easy to ascribe this difficulty to various psychological factors—arrogance, insecurity, and so forth—and these plainly play a role. But error-blindness suggests that another, more structural issue might be at work as well. If it is literally impossible to feel wrong—if our current mistakes remain imperceptible to us even when we scrutinize our innermost being for signs of them—then it makes sense for us to conclude that we are right. Similarly, error-blindness helps explain why we accept fallibility as a universal phenomenon yet are constantly startled by our own mistakes. The psychologist Marc Green has observed that an error, from the point of view of the person who makes it, is essentially “a Mental Act of God.” Although we understand in the abstract that errors happen, our specific mistakes are just as unforeseeable to us as specific tornadoes or specific lightning strikes. (And, as a result, we seldom feel that we should be held accountable for them. By law, after all, no one is answerable for an Act of God.)”

“But another, oddly paradoxical reason why erring can be so disquieting is that our mistakes show us that the contents of our minds can be as convincing as reality. That’s a dismaying discovery, because it is precisely this quality of convincing-ness, of verisimilitude, that we rely on as our guide to what is right and real.”


On another note, in a footnote later in the book, Schulz provides a definition of cognitive dissonance via the psychologist who coined the term in the 1950s, Leon Festinger, which relates to my post Do (Part Of) The Right Thing While Doing Nothing At All that links to this page:

“As Festinger described it, cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling that results from simultaneously holding two contradictory ideas. The dissonance can arise from a conflict between a belief and its disconfirmation (“the spaceship will land on Tuesday”, “no spaceships landed on Tuesday” [referring to a religious cult that predicted this]), or between a belief and a behavior (“smoking is bad for you”; “I’m on my second pack of the day”). Festinger proposed that there are two ways to to ameliorate this uncomfortable feeling. The most direct way is to change your mind or your actions, but this can be difficult if you are heavily invested in the disproved belief or heavily dependent on the contraindicated behavior. The other option–more contorted, but sometimes more comfortable–is to convince yourself and others that the false belief isn’t really false, or that the harmful behavior isn’t all that harmful. This is why heightened adamancy and evangelism are not uncommon in the face of disconfirmed beliefs.”

I hadn’t had a clear definition of cognitive dissonance when I wrote the post, but just trusted my vague recollection. I was lucky I got it right. I’m sure the field of psychology has considered the middle way I proposed as well, and I didn’t do any research to try to find it. But it’s interesting that either “act” or “convince yourself it’s not true” are recognized in psychological orthodoxy as the only two choices most people consider, and can even be presented in a general overview as the only two possible choices. I really believe that my alternative to these two, accepting the fact while doing nothing about it, really is a viable and productive middle way.

Published on June 23, 2013 at 2:18 am  Leave a Comment  

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