Admitting a Wrong: The Challenge and the Reward
Why is it so hard for people to admit when they are wrong? Research says it’s because that’s the way the human brain is wired. The brain is wired for self deception and people are biased to think of their choices as correct. That is how someone can be absolutely convinced that they are right in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary. It seems that the brain does not process information as logically as was once believed.
There is a psychological theory called cognitive dissonance that describes feelings of discomfort, which can range from mild to severe, that we all experience when we hold two conflicting ideas at the same time. Dissonance can occur when we learn something new that is inconsistent with our beliefs and expectations, or with earlier learning.
The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that we have a motivational drive to reduce the tension that is created by this dissonance or discrepancy. When that tension or dissonance is resolved, we experience consonance, or harmony.
There are several ways a person can resolve dissonance and reduce feelings of discomfort. Some are healthy, others not so healthy. We reduce dissonance when we change our beliefs, attitudes, expectations, preferences, desires, and actions in response to new information. We can also reduce dissonance by use of defense mechanisms, especially denial, blaming and justifying. While some use of defense mechanisms can be helpful in reducing discomfort, excessive use of defenses can prevent us from learning from our mistakes, and can enable a harmful course of action to continue unchallenged.
The Fox and the Grapes
The Aesop fable, The Fox and the Grapes, is a classic example of cognitive dissonance. The fox found some grapes on a vine that were not within reach. After several attempts to reach the grapes, the fox decided that the grapes were probably sour anyway. The fox resolved the dissonance between his desire for the grapes and his inability to attain them by criticizing them. The moral of the story, “It is easy to despise what you cannot get.”
- Why It's Hard to Admit to Being Wrong : NPR
We all have a hard time admitting that we're wrong, but according to a new book about human psychology, it's not entirely our fault. Social psychologist Elliot Aronson says our brains work hard to make us think we are doing the right thing, even in t
Brain Activity and Naïve Realism
Neuroscientists have shown that there are biases in thinking that are built in to the way our brains process information. They used MRIs to monitor brain activity while people were subjected to information that would create dissonance about their political beliefs. Subjects were presented with discussions on both sides of a political issue. When there was dissonance between the new information and their current beliefs, the areas of the brain associated with reasoning shut down. When subjects were able to achieve consonance, the areas of the brain associated with emotions lit up. The research confirms that once our minds are made up about something, it is hard to change.
When we receive new information that is consonant with our existing beliefs, we find it useful and confirming. When the information is dissonant, we consider it biased or stupid; and we reject it. The need for consonance is so powerful that when we are forced to listen to information that is inconsistent with our beliefs, we will find a way to criticize, distort or dismiss it so we can maintain our existing belief.
Through another phenomenon called “naïve realism,” the brain convinces us that we perceive objects and events clearly, and allows us to justify our own perceptions and beliefs as being accurate, realistic and unbiased. We assume that other reasonable people see things the same way we do. If they disagree, they obviously aren’t seeing clearly! We assume that we are reasonable people, that any opinion we have must be reasonable, that other reasonable people ought to agree with a reasonable opinion, and that if our opinion wasn’t reasonable we wouldn’t have it (because we are reasonable). Therefore, if I tell you “how it really is,” I expect that you will agree with me. If you don’t, it’s because you are biased, stupid, wrong, and possibly a despicable liberal, conservative or communist!
Responding to Cognitive Dissonance
As mentioned above, some of us have mild discomfort with dissonance, and others of us have severe discomfort. Aside from individual differences in our biological and neurological make-up, there are differences in our life experiences and skill development that can contribute to dissonance and our reaction to it. Furthermore, dissonance related to political beliefs is not likely to be as intense as dissonance related to self worth.
When a person experiences harsh physical punishment and verbal abuse as a child rather than fair, consistent consequences for wrong choices, feelings of shame and low self worth are easily triggered in a confrontation. When the person is confronted about a mistake, they are hearing an attack against their personhood. Instead of hearing that they have made a mistake, they hear that they are a mistake. Instead of considering they may have made a bad decision, they hear that they are bad and incapable. Instead of being infallible like the rest of us, they view themselves as incompetent when their mistakes are exposed. An angry, shame filled, and defensive response is likely to emerge. Sometimes, these deep seated feelings of inadequacy and incompetence are disguised in a façade of perfectionism, that has been constructed to prove the person’s worth and competence.
Thankfully, we are not all victims of our brain’s hard wiring and our early experiences! We can overcome our shortcomings and accept personal responsibility for the choices we make. We can develop skills and learn to apologize. We can develop humility to replace our need to be right. We can learn how an apology alleviates guilt and allows creative problem solving. We can let go of the need to be right and perfect, and begin to accept our imperfection and infallibility. We can learn to increase our tolerance for discomfort and frustration and develop coping skills for managing strong feelings that emerge when we experience dissonance. We can learn to delay gratification rather than demand instant gratification. We can change unrealistic expectations to more realistic ones. We can learn to be loving and compassionate toward ourselves and others. We can learn to accept consequences for our actions, even though they may be difficult, because it will lead to self respect. We can admit to making a mistake and even learn from our mistakes.
While a certain amount of compassion and understanding may be helpful in dealing with a person who has difficulty admitting mistakes, being in an intimate or close relationship with someone who shows a persistent pattern of not being able to do so can be problematic. In that case, it might be more effective to shift focus to oneself and whether or not one can meet one’s needs in the relationship and whether or not to continue the relationship. While we all have difficulty at times admitting mistakes, there are some who are seemingly incapable of doing so and have no desire to change. They can be extremely abusive and dangerous.
There is a certain degree of satisfaction in having the courage to admit one's errors. It not only clears up the air of guilt and defensiveness, but often helps solve the problem created by the error.-- Dale Carnegie
Kathryn Schulz: On Being Wrong
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