TED Conversations

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 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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