The Value of Being Wrong

A good friend of mine recently sent me a book that she thought I would enjoy, entitled “Being Wrong.” The quote from President Clinton on the book’s cover was enticing: “If you want to feel better about not being perfect and see the potential upside in your errors, read Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz.” Seeing the potential upside in errors is one of the primary objectives of much of my work with clients. People generally seek my services because they are unhappy or stuck, and they find themselves in that position because they’ve made “wrong” choices (the wrong career, the wrong job, the wrong company, the wrong college major, the wrong partner, etc.) I find that there is real value in helping my clients see the upside of their choices, which allows them to release some of the self-doubt, blame, and guilt associated with being wrong.

Unfortunately the book was at least twice as long as it needed to be, unnecessarily academic in its exhausting use of quotes from philosophers across the ages, and occasionally pretentious in its language (e.g. “….caused by a concatenation of errors”). Nonetheless, the book contains what to me are interesting and valuable insights about the meaning of, and reactions to, being wrong. Ms. Schulz comes at the subject of Wrongness from numerous angles, which is at the same time enlightening and confusing. In this post I will try to summarize her principle conclusions.

She explores in great depth the importance we place on being right, and how that importance distorts our ability to be objective. We cling to certainty because “”It gives us the comforting illusion that our environment is stable and knowable, and that therefore we are safe within it.” We go out of our way to find reasons to discount information that would undermine our certainty, our Rightness (surprisingly she doesn’t really bring up the concept of Control, which in my mind is a precursor to safety. If I feel that I am in control I can feel safe, and I can only be in control if I accurately assess situations – in other words, if I’m right. So only if I’m right can I be in control; if I’m wrong I lose control).

Another primary thrust of the book is examining the pitfalls in the way we determine our Rightness. First, our senses, which are a primary source of information for us, can easily fool us (she presents on pages 58 and 59 a startling optical illusion). Second, the information we remember is often bogus: “There is a vast body of literature, most of it in neuroscience and psychology, about how our memories come to be riddled with errors.”

Third, we are unconsciously swayed by the prevailing opinions of our peers and community. Fourth, because of cognitive dissonance (the tendency to discount information that contradicts our beliefs) we ignore many facts. Fifth, our judgments about which sources of information to trust are frequently faulty (as anyone who has been flim-flammed by a salesman can attest).

Another major area explored in the book is the ways in which we tend to look at people’s Wrongness, which she characterizes as our feeling that they are either ignorant, idiots, or evil. Ignorant because unaware of theTruth revealed by facts; Idiots because they hold wrong (i.e. contrary to our) beliefs in spite of the facts, which they are unable to understand; or Evil because they intentionally ignore the facts in pursuit of their own nefarious goals. This way of looking at Wrongness makes it hard to accept that we ourselves might be wrong.

She notes that the Enlightenment, but particularly the Scientific Revolution of the 16th – 18th centuries paved the way for a more balanced view of Wrongness. It was shown that Wrongness could point the way to Rightness through rigorously examining facts, generating hypotheses and then testing them so as to get closer to the Truth. I often use a very simple analogy to illustrate this point to my clients: in the game Pin the Tail on the Donkey the clue “You’re getting colder” (i.e. you’re heading in the wrong direction) is almost as valuable as “You’re getting warmer (i.e. in the right direction).

Only by entertaining the notion that we might be wrong can we progress. This week a startling projection was made based on observations by the Kepler spacecraft – namely that there may be as many as 40 billion inhabitable planets in just our galaxy alone, one of an estimated 100 billion galaxies in the universe. How far we have come from the pre-Copernican notion that the earth was the center of the universe! But only because we were willing to admit, many times along the way, that we might be wrong.

There can be real value in Wrongness.

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