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How to Admit That You’re Wrong (Even If You’re Always Right)

In this age of denialism, it's more important to state plain truths such as "I was wrong." It also makes you a better role model.

You misspoke. That had to be it. You knew the answer, felt its smooth edges in your mind, but it came out differently. Probably because you were busy cataloging the 379 new things you have to keep in your head today. No matter. The real issue is that you knew what the right answer was so you weren’t wrong. And there’s no need to make yourself look inept. Because you weren’t. Not at all. ‘Kay?

Listen, this sort of thought process is natural. And it happens to everyone. But now more than ever it’s more necessary to know how to be wrong. Yes, because it’s an obnoxious trait and no one wants to grab a beer with the guy too stubborn to say he biffed something. But, more importantly, because in today’s denialist culture, it’s good to hold onto simple truths. Such as “I was wrong.

So why do so many find it so difficult to admit that they’re wrong? It’s a question that’s been much considered in the past year, largely in response to the denialism of one particular politician. In March, Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times that “American politics … is suffering from an epidemic of infallibility, of powerful people who never, ever admit to making a mistake.” Whether this problem has gotten worse in recent years or not, it certainly is not limited to politics. We have all been victims of our own certainty.

And not without good reason. It feels bad to be wrong (and worse to be corrected). Moreover, the truth of our beliefs and the wisdom of our decisions are not always clear even to a neutral third party. And defending false or foolish positions can be highly expedient, at least in the short term. What requires some explanation is why people continue to insist they are right even when it should be obvious that they are wrong, and even when admitting it would be in their self-interest.

Most modern psychological explanations for such pigheadedness make reference to “cognitive dissonance,” a term coined in 1957 by the social psychologist Leon Festinger. According to dissonance theory, people can usually sense when they have done or learned something that is in conflict with something else they believe — in other words, when there is  “dissonance” between two “cognitions.” Despite F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous claim that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time,” cognitive dissonance creates stress and anxiety, and people instinctively try to resolve it.

Scrutinizing, let alone abandoning, convictions can be destabilizing, and so we tend to dismiss, rationalize, or forget information or experiences with which they conflict: 

One means of resolution is simply to abandon or modify the original belief: I thought we should take the turnpike, but since we’ve missed our flight and are still five miles from the airport, I’m willing to listen to alternate theories.

However, not all of our beliefs are so easily surrendered, in particular those connected to one’s identity and self-esteem. Scrutinizing, let alone abandoning, convictions can be destabilizing, and so we tend to dismiss, rationalize, or forget information or experiences with which they conflict: I’m sure we’ll be there soon, and there was no way to know traffic would be so bad, and it wasn’t my idea to take the turnpike anyway.

“Everything we believe is inherently related to our need to survive and our need to preserve our sense of ourselves in a positive way,” said New York psychoanalyst Douglas Van der Heide. He adds that there’s nothing wrong with trying to justify one’s actions or defend one’s identities. There may be a good reason you missed the first inning of your son’s baseball game, and it does not automatically make you an unpunctual person. The real problem, according to Dr. Van der Heide, is when we ignore our behavior entirely. “I can’t be that way. I have to be a person who is always on time therefore I’m just going to disregard it.”

In their relationships, most people want to see themselves as competent and powerful. “To say I was wrong is also to say I was weak, I was someone who didn’t know what I was doing. And that’s very difficult to admit,” explained Arlene Richards, M.D, a psychoanalyst based in New York.

This is particularly true in relationships with your spouses and children. “The parent wants to maintain their authority with their children and I think that the spouse wants to maintain their authority in the marriage,” said Dr. Arnold Richards, Arlene’s husband, also a psychoanalyst and the former editor of The American Psychoanalyst and the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association. “Admitting you’re wrong puts that at issue and diminishes the sense of authority.”

Most people want to see themselves as competent and powerful. “To say I was wrong is also to say I was weak, I was someone who didn’t know what I was doing. And that’s very difficult to admit.”

Typically, the impulse to deny and rationalize is deep-seated, the result of early childhood experiences. However, it can be exacerbated by an adversarial response (an apology refused or a nursed grudge) from one’s spouse.

“It’s very important for the admission to be accepted by the other party, because if it isn’t, then the person who acknowledges they were wrong will be reluctant to acknowledge that they were wrong again,” added Dr. Arnold Richards. If one spouse becomes a “grievance collector,” Dr. Richards said, he or she hoards these grievances over the long term, “and that makes it hard for the relationship to progress.”

Marriage therapy can be greatly beneficial to couples caught in a cycle of denial and blame, but the crucial step is to reproduce the conditions of therapy at home. By establishing a safe environment in which views and perspectives can be discussed honestly without fear of judgment or recrimination, husbands and wives can help their defensive partners recognize their biases and defense mechanisms. And by the same token, parents can help keep their children from developing similar insecurities and self-defeating behaviors. “It’s hard. I think it takes patience,” said Dr. Van der Hyde. “But I also think it takes picking your spots. Finding a time when it’s really clear.”

Of course, you cannot admit your mistakes to others until you have admitted them to yourself. And that requires a willingness to interrogate and potentially change deeply-held beliefs. This isn’t easy, and the stronger your convictions, the more tempting it will be to justify or ignore actions that are incompatible with them. But fight that impulse. In the age of denialism, objectivity is an asset.