Simon Tam

Founder and Bassist, The Slants LLC

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Why are we so afraid of being wrong, even when faced with facts?

The Kathryn Schulz talk, "On being wrong," recently reminded me a University of Michigan study on cognitive dissonance.

The Boston globe wrote: "Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts..."

Talk of the Nation on NPR stated: "We'd like to believe that most of what we know is accurate and that if presented with facts to prove we're wrong, we would sheepishly accept the truth and change our views accordingly...that's not what happens, that we base our opinions on beliefs and when presented with contradictory facts, we adhere to our original belief even more strongly."

After being involved with political activism for over a decade, I've seen this behavior over and over again (often times in myself). It seems even more persistent online (just look at many of the TED debates here), perhaps because of the level of separation or anonymity that the internet provides.

Why do you think we're so afraid of being wrong, even if we're presented with data that challenges our notions? Why do as people lose our ability to reason when threatened with the possibility that a belief might be wrong (whether it is in politics, religion, science, or even opinions on pop culture)? How can we avoid this behavior?

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    Jan 28 2012: I once did a paper on Death of a Salesman and the Prof stated that I was wrong and needed to reevaluate my critical reading skills. I stated that he was not dead but reborn into a new life. The Prof pointed out that the title stated "DEATH". We are often given the opportunity to choose either the Lady or the Tiger. By doing so in our academic enrivonment we are either hero or goat. Our society is geared to preparing youth for the industrial / military complex. Thinking outside of the box is encouraged in limited circles. For all of the rest of us stay within the box. Being unconventional will get you labeled. Politicians promise what the audience wants to hear even though we do, or should, know that it is not within their power to deliver. Being wrong will get you sent to the back of the line, reduce your GPA and make you less likely to participate in the future. General Patton stated, "All the world loves a winner, but will not tolerate a loser." Being wrong equates being a loser. Hard to name anyone who comes in second.

    Being wrong should be a learning experience to build on not a scar to heal. And that in my opinion why we hate to be wrong.
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      Jan 28 2012: I agree Robert, that with many "lessons" of society, we are taught that being wrong equates to being a loser, so we will fight for our right without question or pause and be willing to stick to our "right" no matter what. As with your example of an analysis of the play "Death of a Salesman", there are many times when a theory, thought, feeling, idea, opinion or perception is neither right or is simply an idea. When a person needs to label another person "wrong" for an idea/perception, the one who labels, lacks confidence and security in him/her "self". Rather than being upset with that person, I recognize it as valuable information about that person.
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    Jan 23 2012: I would argue that the fear of being wrong is no different than the fear of loss.

    We invest time, money and effort acting in accordance with our own world view, (whatever it may be, whether it is rational or not) and when someone confronts us with the idea that we may be wrong, we have in fact been confronted with the idea that we have wasted time, money, effort etc. The more we have invested, the more we have to lose; the more we have to lose the greater the fear.

    I would argue that we act rationally in the defend of those false beliefs because we are acting in our best interest. Ironic, no?

    Once the fear sets in, it becomes fight or flight. Perhaps flight may be expressed as the denial of an idea's existence and fight may be expressed as blatant opposition against an idea. If we choose to fight it becomes the more we have invested the less likely we are to yield.
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      Jan 23 2012: Great observation!

      I haven't heard of the idea of loss (other than loss of pride); I think it's a great point and perhaps we innately feel a bit of shame with that loss.
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    Jan 28 2012: Please can you site the UOM study?
    In my mind cognitive dissonance has to do with actions and values so not sure what opinions have to do with it.
    Oh and I have been wrong so often and for so long that I do not fear it at all....
    Thats the secret. You have to experience it regularly and often to get over the fear.
  • Jan 27 2012: Hi,

    Research tells us.:The nature of fear is survival... The amygdala fires up the same brain regions when We are in a life/death situation and when our beliefs are challenged.

    So. if that information is true. the brain' just has to be right in order to survive........

    that's some conclusion :D
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      Jan 27 2012: I agree Yuri, that sometimes, when one is attached to his/herself being "right", the very idea that someone may challenge his/her ideas with another idea, concept, thought, feeling or perception, may feel like a personal attack. If a person is not secure enough in him/her "self", it may feel like an act of survival to prove the "rightness" of his/her idea.
      • Jan 28 2012: Hi Colleen..

        Yes. That's why "Knowing yourself goes far deeper than the adoption of a set of ideas or beliefs" - Eckhart Tolle.
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          Jan 28 2012: Again I agree with you and Eckhart Tolle Yuri:>)

          Knowing our "self" may start with the adoption of ideas and beliefs, and when/if we hold on to those ideas and beliefs as the only "right" ideas and beliefs, without further exploration, we deny ourselves the opportunity to discover information on another level in ourselves.

          As you say in your first post here...
          "Research tells us.:The nature of fear is survival... The amygdala fires up the same brain regions when We are in a life/death situation and when our beliefs are challenged".

          If that research is accurate, which I believe it is, it may feel threatening to a person to even explore different ideas/beliefs in him/her "self", which may contribute to the fear of being wrong.
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    Jan 22 2012: I have a theory about this, because I am not afraid to be wrong, and many of the people I associate with also have this advantage.

    We're allowed to be wrong -- and equally allowed to go out on "eccentric" limbs -- because we're perceived to be 'different'. It's all part of this same phenomenon in (Western - can't speak about elsewhere) society. (And by "allowed" I mean "by society and those around us", obviously.)

    It's what I refer to as "the genius licence" and it's about that peculiar leeway people are willing to give those they place in this category -- whether it is about artistic or a more mundane usage. It spans personal foibles, career/business choices, even conversations (my friends are perfectly used to the idea that - as Marshall McLuhan put it, "I don't necessarily agree with everything I say," because sometimes I am just exploring the opposite side of something, looking for holes in my own position).

    And it seems to boil down to faith.

    Faith that this person will eventually figure it out and get it right. And, of course, that allows the other to feel that they are not tied to or defined by what they say or do.

    And I'd love to be able to give this experience of life to others, if only I could figure out how. It's a matter of living without schadenfreude or even mocking when something is off, and I do not know whether it is because people who are petty in those ways tend to self-select themselves out or whether they are there but make these peculiar exceptions.

    And that's not to say I have never been mocked -- an instance one that springs to mind was when I explained past imperfect by my shorthand "wuzzing and whirring" ('was ___ing' and 'were ___ing') in French class and heard a derisive snort when the teacher disagreed, though it's a little weird to be mocked for being wrong when you're right. But since that was almost 30 years ago, it clearly doesn't happen all that often.
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      Jan 25 2012: Great response, but, are we allowed to say what we think and go out on eccentric limbs, because of our genius? Or, does our genius emerge, from continuously saying exactly what we think, and going out on eccentric limbs? Is genius a choice?

      More importantly, is it the very specific choice to always assume, that everything you believe... might be wrong?
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        Jan 27 2012: I suspect the factors play off each other.

        Some of it is innate - inclined to just be "quirky", some of it is reaching and finding no boundary, continuing to reach further. Other people's responses really are telling and can influence you.

        My earliest memories involve either surprise from other people in response to something I would do, or being weirded out by (what I thought was) excessive praise. Somewhere early along the line I started looking for the shocked response.

        I have a memory of reading the TV Guide with my dad and picking out "University Today" from the listings, sounding it out in my head and then announcing it to him and being very pleased with myself because even though he only said, "That's right, but it's on too early, " I could tell it had floored him. I couldn't have been much more than three, because my sister wasn't born yet and given the room we were in (we moved quite a bit as my parents established themselves). So already by then, there was the challenge of eliciting "the response".

        And then on the other hand, I recall being in grade one, standing in the school yard, surrounded by sixth graders quizzing me from their spelling book, and thinking alternately, "This is ridiculously easy," (I distinctly remember someone asking me to spell the word 'important' and thinking that) and "Why me? When can I go play?"

        By the next time we moved I had learned not to be an oddity.

        And saying what I am thinking is not always a good thing. Worse still when it's because my brain had jumped five sentences ahead and left my mouth to finish the one it's working on, apparently with only the help of my subconscious. There have been some really bad moments of accidental honesty as a result, usually only noted when the body language of the person I am talking to shifts (this is also how I know that I am nowhere on the autistic spectrum, because I can detect that shift just fine).

        Anyway, I guess what I am saying is it's a big mixed bag.
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          Jan 27 2012: Interesting... When I hear "I had learned not to be an oddity"... I think "That's tragic. Why would anyone want to be anything, but odd? Is there really anything desirable about normallity?"

          I think Neil De Grasse Tyson put it best when he said "If I go a day without being proven wrong or discovering my own ignorance.... If I go one day without marveling at how incompetent I was the day before... Then I'm not doing my job as someone on the cutting edge of science" (paraphrased)

          I'm proud of when I've expressed thoughts that make other people squirm, because humanity isn't a uniform race... We're a billion niche markets... If you're uncomfortable around someone who says the wrong thing in social situations... Then, you're not in my niche market.

          I'd rather say what I'm thinking, and experience an honest reaction... Than hide what I'm thinking, and learn nothing. I'd rather be wrong than boring.

          That is each individuals choice of course, and it is a delicate balancing act, when you factor in the fact that happiness tends to arise from positive social interactions. Negative social interactions don't have to contribute to unhappiness however... You can just ignore them and move on... If you so desire.
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        Jan 27 2012: Oh, I didn't say that I learned not to be odd, just not "an oddity". An oddity gathers a cluster of onlookers; then you end up with that weird internal tug-of-war between enjoying the attention and wanting to go do something more interesting.

        I am wrong all the damned time. All day long, in fact. Sometimes it's a matter of experimentation, sometimes it's just a bad idea that I had and acted on. (I find other people's responses to those things the most amusing.)

        "I'd rather say what I'm thinking, and experience an honest reaction... Than hide what I'm thinking, and learn nothing. I'd rather be wrong than boring."

        Yeah. There's this thing called "tact" that I am well-noted for being short in. Even online, where I really don't have the luxury of that excuse that I just let my subconscious finish the sentence for me, so probably I have just gotten so used to that horrified response that I really just don't care anymore.

        My friends joke about my seeming inability to distinguish between "brain words" and "mouth words". Apparently the sentence "The average person is an idiot" should have been "brain words". (Though seriously, I cannot be the only person to have ever thought that.) TIL.

        I am very often wrong about the list of potential responses to what I am about to say. ;-)
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      Jan 28 2012: QUOTE: "I have a theory about this, because I am not afraid to be wrong, and many of the people I associate with also have this advantage. ... We're allowed to be wrong -- and equally allowed to go out on "eccentric" limbs -- because we're perceived to be 'different'. It's all part of this same phenomenon in (Western - can't speak about elsewhere) society. (And by "allowed" I mean "by society and those around us", obviously.)"

      In "Eastern culture" it's not okay to be wrong - it results in a loss of face - and folks will do almost anything to avoid making a mistake, or appear to not know. As a result, not a lot gets done unless someone "gives an order;" getting a "straight answer" is next to impossible; and innovation almost never happens.

      One facet of the training I do here, in China, is encourage people to "try things" - ideas, processes, strategies, and so on - and to celebrate the mistakes.

      In our company, we literally applaud when someone makes a mistake.

      It's quite effective.

      Our little company is already well known for its service, personnel, and culture.

      And "the bosses" - that would be my wife and I - can go away for a time and the company will not only function well in our absence, it will grow and thrive. This is virtually unheard of in China ... normally when "the boss" leaves nothing will happen until he gets back. (Almost all bosses are men with very few exceptions.)

      People think we are "BIG" because of our level of service and professionalism. We only employ 13 people. For now.
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        Jan 28 2012: Out of curiosity, are there certain people who ARE allowed to take risks and make the decisions?
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          Jan 28 2012: Everyone is expected to ... ah ... do you mean in China or in our little company?

          In our company, everyone is expected to take risks and make decisions. Major decision making is collaborative. (I almost never make the decisions.)

          While we were away for the Christmas and Western New Year's holidays (that are not celebrated in China) the folks we "left behind," hired two new people, and made what was, for them, a major financial commitment on behalf of the company.

          Again, this is HUGE in China ... employees here just do not do that kind of thing ... but it is exactly what I have been training them to do.

          My goal is to make myself obsolete.
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        Jan 28 2012: I meant China in general. But that is great about your business.

        What would happen if you had to let someone go, though? How would they fare elsewhere?
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          Jan 28 2012: We haven't actually looked at the hiring numbers but we think we're batting .500. We fire about one out of every two people we hire. Usually we just do not extend their employment agreement past the initial three month probation period everyone must go through.

          The reason we usually let them go is precisely because they would probably do better in a traditional Chinese company.

          And for the others - the ones who stay?

          I think they would do well in any company. They might not like working in a command and control environment but they could do it. And, with the skills they pick up with us, they might even excel.
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    Jan 28 2012: You are absolutely right about valuable info on that person. Approximately a month ago a news release concerning meetings presented that we lose brain cells and initative by attending staff meetings. Years ago I attended a Rand think tank. Input was from sublime to ridculous, we shared highs and lows, every thought was recorded. There was no leader and no followers. I have often thought of that awsome experience and how to replicate that in business. When the boss / chair come into the room all minds go to the company his/her line. However, just prior to his arrival many good ideas are discussed never to be voiced again. Maybe King Authur had it right .. a round table. Maybe the boss / chair needs a devils advocate to feed him/her options and brain storm without fear. Net Flix serves as the perfect example of no lower input to the executive decision. That one really bad decision almost brought down a company with a really bright future. Maybe fear to tell the boss was present at that meeting. The fear of being wrong was certainly a player.
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      Jan 28 2012: Unfortunately, the fear of being wrong, stifles a lot of possibilities and opportunities. Ken Robinson addresses this issue in his TED talks relating to children in our educational systems.
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    Jan 28 2012: It is a philosophical question is in order, since, that the accuracy of the attributes of science, and if we suspect the accuracy of the science, we suspect in the science itself.

    but the success of science pays doubt about it, and science is a product of the mind, and mind dictates that it devloppe the sciences using the suspicion.

    but, in my opinion, the human unit is integrated with the universe, and his mind is more integrated, for this reason, the mind is the first to follow.

    On this basis, we have to ask: Why doubt the mind, and why his production work, retaining of doubt.?
    I think that is on the way of unification. because the most important, is the natural integration of all things, within the known universe.
    thank you :)
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    Jan 28 2012: We like to believe a lot of things about us and of course it doesn't mean they are all true .

    We are afraid of being wrong because I think we don't know too much of what's that mean to be right . When we'll start to reason and accept the critiques and answer them logically if we can we'll surely start having an idea of what's that mean to be right .

    So why are we afraid os being wrong? Because we are wrong.
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    Jan 22 2012: Kathryn Schulz t, the TED speaker that this discussion is linked to, believes that we are conditioned to become "perfectionists" and to be right from birth through the education system; that we as people tend to view people who are wrong as ignorant, perhaps malevolent...

    It's interesting to see how in all studies, the more people realized that they are wrong, the harder they fight for their point of view despite being shown an overwhelming about of evidence and data
  • Jan 22 2012: I'm not sure what makes us fear being wrong exactly. I would assume it's different points for each individual. Some might hold power by being 'right' and when they're challenged on such statements they make which they believe to be correct, it's destabilising. It changes the situation and could make others think, "He's been wrong about this, what else are they wrong about?". In the worst case scenario, it's very damaging to the persons credibility, they lose power and control. Something which I believe quite a lot of people like to strive for.

    It could even be down to fear. Sometimes even when there's a great amount of evidence refuting a belief, someone might still hold onto it because they fear the consequences of losing such a belief. A Popular example would be those who have loved ones who go missing. Despite being told that it's highly likely that they're dead, they still hold onto the belief that they could still be alive. I think sometimes believing you're right, even when there's evidence against it provides comfort and security.

    I think in either scenario I've mentioned there seems to be a common theme which is stability and control. I think it's a natural resistance to change. I think sometimes, it's easier to believe in comforting lies than it is to change to see reality as it is.
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    Jan 22 2012: As society grows increasingly materialistic (universally) it is also departing from its fundamental requirement to live honestly, humbly, openly.

    By materialistically, I am implying that we seek to have not only more items, the latest etc., but also to hold onto what we claim to know. Whilst we may claim to know, we mainly only know 'about'.

    The more enlightened we become, the less complicated our lives become, as living egoistically, we like to show what we (pretend) to know, we like to have knowledge, but a lack of humility keeps us at times, distant from the light of truth and humility.

    Lies, pretense, and anxiety are all related to the effort in living our life as 'a person.' God says " I am no respecter of persons"

    Living our life as a person, causes us to save face and defend our ego with a lie and denial, along with further anxious pretenses. Living a life identifying as a person breeds anxieties, and all that goes with pretending to be what we are not, and along with this is the need protect this person i e: the Ego.

    So perhaps sadly enough, admitting to being ignorant is too drastic for the ego to consider. Therefore defending one's claim to being Right in the face of the truth claiming otherwise is perhaps but another example of the manifestation of Ignorance. Ignorance is always to blame, not the person, so we may end with Compassion towards the individual claiming ' a person-hood.'

    Patrick McCarthy
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      Jan 22 2012: Patrick said: "Ignorance is always to blame, not the person, so we may end with Compassion towards the individual claiming 'a person-hood'"

      Well said Patrick. When we have a truth, and we have proof of that truth, and it is collaborated by science and professionals, and we try to help someone see this truth, and they refuse...they are blinded to the truth, then we are left with "compassion" for that individual. How beautifully stated. That is a healthy way to respondl when what we perceive as truth is rejected by others.

      I was reminded of an article written by a nurse who cares for Alzheimers victims. She stated; "You have to hate the disease, not the patient". I have taken those words, and they have helped me to treat people with more compassion. We just don't know why some individuals react the way they do to information. We cannot get into their head, or [edit] see the seed of motivation, their figurative heart.

      Thank you Patrick. I agreed with everything you stated above.

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      Jan 28 2012: Hey Patrick,

      I was with you up until the "God says ... " part.

      The part after that was pretty good too.

      Not that I expect it to make a whit of difference, but I think it is the height of hubris for a "human" to speak to other humans on behalf of "God."

      Now, if God personally spoke - to me - I would be quite justified in saying, "God said...."

      And, of course, this is were it becomes problematic. "God did say it to me," we say, "I read it in 'God's Word,' therefore, we can justifiably say, 'God said ...'"

      Or, we say, "God spoke to me 'in my heart' or 'through the Holy Spirit,'" and so on.

      But which book is "God's Word?"

      The Bible? (Which one?)

      The Qur'an?

      The Vedas?

      The Book of Mormon?

      And why would God say one thing to one heart (say,Martin Luther's) and another thing to another heart (say, Pope Leo X's)?


      Very problematic indeed.
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    Jan 22 2012: Pride.

    Also, and this is just an opinion, some are a bit skeptic about what others tell them. They take things with a grain of salt.

    It is very difficult to think that someone really has our best interest at heart.

    It is easy to think, especially on-line, that they have some hidden agenda, don't you agree?
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    Jan 21 2012: Afraid of "losing face" and a lack of humility.