It’s Right to Be Wrong

Being WrongOnce I thought I was wrong but I was mistaken.

It’s a classic expression which is both a play on words and recognition that it’s very hard for us to admit we’ve made a mistake.

Kathryn Schulz, author of “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error,” claims you can’t just admit your mistakes but you must fully embrace them. Kathryn is a self-described wrongologist and writes a Slate series called the “The Wrong Stuff” that profiles how famous people feel about being wrong. According to Schulz, if you want to improve your odds of being right, you have to embrace your fallibility, consistently look for your mistakes, and systematically determine what caused you to make them. Only in failure do we become smarter.

In this engaging video, Kathryn explores the mental process we go through when someone disagrees with us when we know we are right.  She posits three separate stages:

Ignorance Assumption
First, we believe we have information that the other person does not have and, once we “generously share that information with them”, they will change their viewpoint. We need to enlighten the ignorant.

Idiocy Assumption
When we discover the other person has the same facts that we have and still doesn’t agree with us, we decide they must be idiots. Even though they have the right information, they are too stupid to draw the correct conclusion.

Evil Assumption
Finally, when we find out that the person who disagrees with us has the same facts we do and is perfectly competent, we decide they are deliberately distorting the truth for their own evil purposes. How else could they know the truth and not agree with us?

This should be a wake-up call to all of us. During an argument, the more certain we are that we are right, the more dangerous the situation might be. Fixated on our view of the truth, our inherent bias against being wrong increases the likelihood that we might make a mistake. Essentially we become blind to alternative possibilities. What’s more, it can cause us to treat each other poorly.

So, embrace your wrongness. It might make you right.

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11 Responses to It’s Right to Be Wrong

  1. Timo Elliott (@timoelliott) September 18, 2011 at 9:56 pm #

    I’ve tried to live my career with a simple maxim: “treat the people I work with as professionals that are making the right decisions”.

    So if I see somebody doing something “wrong”, I assume it’s because I don’t have all the data, and so I need to ask more questions to understand what I’m missing in the picture.

    This approach has helped me time and time again to avoid pointless disputes, and mediate between different groups who don’t think the others “get it” (e.g. sales vs R&D).

    And yes, sometimes the people were “wrong” — but asking them questions, rather than telling them so, was by far the best way to start getting them to agree with me…

  2. Timo Elliott (@timoelliott) September 18, 2011 at 9:56 pm #

    PS, I assume this post has absolutely NOTHING to do with US politics?

    • Jonathan September 19, 2011 at 7:05 am #

      Inspired by, in fact

      • Mark Yolton (@MarkYolton) September 20, 2011 at 7:14 am #

        And US politics was what came immediately to mind for me. Please excuse me since I now need to go apologize to some friends about a recent discussion where I thought they were obviously ignorant evil idiots…

  3. Jeremy Kestler September 19, 2011 at 5:48 am #

    Great topic that never gets enough air time. I’ve often felt that if I only had one question as a litmus test to screen a potential future employer or size up a corporate culture it would be asking about how they handle mistakes. The response, if truthful, sheds light on their tolerance for new ideas and ability to innovate, leadership style, learning culture, flexibility, ability to adapt, and ultimately growth potential. One organizational development tool (er, crutch) you’ve probably used to short circuit the “I think” battles is the Ladder of Inference which shows the relationship between Facts, Interpretation of Facts, Assumptions, Beliefs/Conclusions. It provides insight into how people formulate their beliefs and makes it easier for them to talk about what they are based upon. It can work well to deepen circular conversations that always play out according to scripts.

  4. Anonymous September 19, 2011 at 7:56 am #

    Love this post…. it made me LOL.

    One of my favorite teachers, Thich Nhat Hahn, suggests that we practice two things to develop stronger relationships: 1) listening deeply with compassion and 2) expressing ourselves with kind speech to convey our views, experiences, and insights.

    I try to practice this every day… when I’m not an idiot 🙂 Thanks for the reminder.

  5. Anonymous September 19, 2011 at 10:00 am #

    I couldn’t agree more with this line of thinking. It have watched it play-out numerous times personally as well as with colleagues. It is the type of learning that fuels wisdom and helps to develop the experiential instincts that Malcolm Gladwell speaks of in Blink.

    During the rise of internet business models in the ’90s, it became possible to make business decisions rapidly, take them to market and see if they took hold…or otherwise “fail fast”, as we viewed it, so that we could get the learning and move on to the next option or alternative. Failing was no longer a dirty word, rather part of a process of getting to optimization. In fact, taking the point further, every marketer realizes that more is learned from those who don’t “repsond” to our programs, in contrast to those who do…again failure telling us something!

    Lastly, we are seeing this reality-based thinking finding its way into our educational system. As recently as yesterday, the New York Times magazine had a cover story about students learning from failure.

    Failure accelerates learning…as long as you are open to it

  6. Robert E September 20, 2011 at 6:13 am #

    Leaders are under tremendous pressure to be right all the time and the perceptions of power relies on a certain appearance of infallibility. The politics of power require that bosses and rulers never admit to being wrong. Unfortunately, it’s just as hard for those not in power to admit being wrong as well.

    As with most mistakes, it’s how we deal with them; our attitude about them and using them as opportunities to learn and grow.

    The same leader, whether in business, politics, or a cultural icon, will have their strategies and decisions both lionized and ridiculed depending on the group, the place, and the times. Which certainly brings up the notion of what is, after all, ‘right’?

  7. Aiaz Kazi September 20, 2011 at 1:55 pm #

    On a related but slightly different note – one must first acknowledge they are wrong to themselves – whether they admit it or not. That is being self-aware.

    Whe we say power corrupts – this is perhaps the most egregious effect where leaders or people in positions of power lose their ability to be self aware. And that’s what leads them more than anything else to rationalize the “wrongness” of others (the 3 assumptions highlighted above are a good example of such rationalizations)

  8. dichvuseowebtop1 September 28, 2011 at 11:31 am #

    Good post Jonathan. Albert Einstein couldn’t remember his phone number, but knew where to always find it – the phone book.

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