This article was based on the TED2011 Talk, “On Being Wrong?” by Kathryn Schultz:
The Meaning of Being Wrong
Kathryn Schultz has spent the last five years of her life thinking about why we sometimes misunderstand the signs around us, how we behave when that happens, and what this can tell us about human nature. In other words, she is trying to find meaning in being wrong.
Most of us do everything we can to avoid thinking about being wrong, or at least to avoid thinking about the possibility that we could ever be wrong. Even though we don’t want to be wrong, we get it in the abstract that everybody makes mistakes. The human species, in general, is fallible.
Being Wrong in the Present
Although we may have an abstract appreciation of fallibility, it is hard to stop and actually think of instances where you are presently wrong. The thing is, the present tense is where we live. We go to meetings in the present tense; we go on family vacations in the present tense; we go to the polls and vote in the present tense. So effectively, we are all traveling through life, trapped in a little bubble of feeling very right about everything.
This is a problem. It’s a problem for each of us as individuals, in our personal and professional lives, and for all of us collectively as a culture. However, Schultz believes that it is possible to step outside of this feeling and to do so is the single greatest moral, intellectual, and creative leap you can make.
Getting Stuck Being Right
Why do we get stuck in this feeling of being right? One reason has to do with a feeling of being wrong. Emotionally it doesn’t feel good to be wrong. It may feel embarrassing or dreadful. While these are valid answers, they’re answers to a different question. Those answers describe how it feels to realize you were wrong. Actually, just being wrong doesn’t feel like anything.
There is a structural reason why we get stuck inside this feeling of rightness. Schultz calls this 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. Yet, there’s a second cultural reason that we get stuck inside this feeling as well.
By the time you are nine years old, you’ve already learned, first of all, that people who get stuff wrong are lazy, irresponsible dimwits — and second of all, that the way to succeed in life is to never make any mistakes. This drives people to become perfectionists and over-achievers. According to this, getting something wrong means there’s something wrong with us. This is what makes us so insistent on being right; it makes us feel smart and responsible and virtuous and safe.
A Series of Unfortunate Assumptions
Think for a moment about what it means to feel right. It means that you think that your beliefs perfectly reflect reality. When you feel this way, you’ve got a problem to solve, which is, how you are going to explain all of those people who disagree with you. It turns out, most of us explain those people the same way, by resorting to a series of unfortunate assumptions.
The first thing we usually do when someone disagrees with us is we just assume they’re ignorant. They don’t have access to the same information that we do, and then we generously share that information with them. When that doesn’t work, when it turns out those people have all the same facts that we do, and they still disagree with us, then we move on to a second assumption, which is that they’re idiots. When that doesn’t work, and it turns out that people who disagree with us have all the same facts we do and are actually pretty smart, then we move on to a third assumption: they know the truth, and they are deliberately distorting it for their own malevolent purposes.
Detaching from Our Rightness
This attachment to our own rightness keeps us from preventing mistakes when we absolutely need to and causes us to treat each other terribly. We want to imagine that everyone sees the world in the same way. The miracle of the 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, but we all do this a little differently.
For good and for ill, we generate these incredible stories about the world around us, and then the world turns around and astonishes us. We come up with another idea. We tell another story. If you really want to rediscover wonder, we need to step outside of that tiny, terrified space of rightness and look around at each other and look out at the vastness and complexity and mystery of the universe and be able to say, “Wow, I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong.”