On the psychology of being wrong

Many of us have been through at least one phase of our lives in which we experience an inability to entertain the idea that our understanding, ideas, beliefs and principles could be wrong. This is even be when we are directed with facts in front of our face that we simply discard as inaccurate. Many people call this arrogance, but I’m somewhat more forgiving, because this is simply part of human nature – and we all still do it, whether we like it or not.

In psychology, we call this cognitive dissonance: we are presented with facts that directly contradict our beliefs and understanding, and reject those facts to retain our original view of the world. When the moment of dissonance ends, we call this informed decision-making. For those of you really interested in this theory – and alongside many others – I would strongly recommend reading one of my favourite books on the subject of cognitive biases: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

In politics, we call this bad policy; and where the dissonance ends, we call it reconsideration, or a u-turn. Sometimes, it’s simply honouring a manifesto commitment, after a genuine change of heart. In day-to-day life, we simply accept that we’ve been wrong, and change our minds.

What often happens is that we do not think critically after the formation of our values; rather, we defend our values as opposed to critically thinking. To quote the analysis of (John Timmer): “… the study pretty clearly shows that behavior isn’t driven simply by what we believe; our actions can feed back and alter our beliefs. Which, really, shouldn’t have surprised anyone, given the degree of post-hoc rationalization that most people engage in. However, as the authors note, this fact seemed to have escaped those who developed the economic systems that assume that people are rational actors.” I recommend reading both the full article and the associated journal article.

As human beings, according to much of science, we consistently view the world in accordance with both our nature and nurture. It’s only when something happens to us, or that we become more mature and wiser, that we discover that which is truly important to us – the ability to to retain integrity.

This brings me on to the final point in this post, which is on being wrong about morals: we feel it necessary to pass evidence which directly contradicts our beliefs through our cognitive defences. When we encounter someone with whom we disagree, when an opinion is expressed, we go through the stages of thinking: the person in front of me is stupid, evil, or misinformed. The issue with operating from this perspective is that it, by nature, prevents you from truly deepening the understanding of what you are learning, whether it be academia, in work, or in day-to-day life.

3 Comments

  1. A considered and well written piece. I wouldn’t be so forgiving of arrogance. It is a fault in which I a somewhat a master. I think your analysis of u-tuns is accurate but I think most eople detest the lack of an ability to apologise more than the chamge of mind. It would, at least, appease many.

    There is an evolutionary purpose to believing you are right and asserting as much. It is all part of the creation of dominance heiratchies and we are, pehaps, misguided if we forget that ae are animals first and humans second.

    I have a t-shirt which might perfectly suit the occasion. It reads, I majored in psychology. To save time, let’s just assume I am right.

    • I love your response, Kevin, and is precisely what I expected of my clever, entertaining and immovable former lecturer.

      Thanks for your kind words and highlighting the genetics perspective.

  2. There’s excellent examples of cognitive dissonance being used in religion, (probably it’s most resolute version) in Dawkins’ “The God Delusion.” Also good examples of the favourite “fixer” of hard ideas, circular reinforcement.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*