There are certain things in life that pretty much everyone can be counted on to despise. Bedbugs, say. Back pain. The RMV. Then there’s an experience we find so embarrassing, agonizing, and infuriating that it puts all of those to shame. This is, of course, the experience of being wrong.
Is there anything at once so routine and so loathed as the revelation that we were mistaken? Like the exam that’s returned to us covered in red ink, being wrong makes us cringe and slouch down in our seats. It makes our hearts sink and our dander rise.
Sometimes we hate being wrong because of the consequences. Mistakes can cost us time and money, expose us to danger or inflict harm on others, and erode the trust extended to us by our community. Yet even when we are wrong about completely trivial matters — when we mispronounce a word, mistake our neighbour Emily for our co-worker Anne, make the dinner reservation for Tuesday instead of Thursday — we often respond with embarrassment, irritation, defensiveness, denial, and blame. Deep down, it is wrongness itself that we hate.
Being wrong, we feel, signals something terrible about us. The Italian cognitive scientist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini summed up this sentiment nicely. We err, he wrote, because of “inattention, distraction, lack of interest, poor preparation, genuine stupidity, timidity, braggadocio, emotional imbalance, … ideological, racial, social or chauvinistic prejudices, as well as aggressive or prevaricatory instincts.” In this view — and it is the common one — our errors are evidence of our gravest social, intellectual, and moral failings.
Of all the things we’re wrong about, this view of error might well top the list. As ashamed as we may feel of our mistakes, they are not a by-product of all that’s worst about being human. On the contrary: They’re a by-product of all that’s best about us. We don’t get things wrong because we are uninformed and lazy and stupid and evil. We get things wrong because we get things right. The more scientists understand about cognitive functioning, the more it becomes clear that our capacity to err is utterly inextricable from what makes the human brain so swift, adaptable, and intelligent.
Misunderstanding our mistakes in this way — seeing them as evidence of flaws and an indictment of our overall worth — exacts a steep toll on us, in private and public life alike. Doing so encourages us to deny our own errors and despise ourselves for making them. It permits us to treat those we regard as wrong with condescension or cruelty. It encourages us to make business and political leaders of those who refuse to entertain the possibility that they are mistaken. And it impedes our efforts to prevent errors in domains, such as medicine and aviation, where we truly cannot afford to get things wrong.
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