I was wrong.

I picked the book “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error” by Kathryn Schulz, and it sounded like a good choice for the Science of People book club. I was wrong.

This post is all about how to be really good at being wrong.

Yes, I tricked you.

I titled this post “How to Be Right All the Time” to lure you into clicking on it and learn something really cool. This post is not about being right. It’s about being wrong. Actually, I’m going to teach you how to:

Be really, frickin’ good at being wrong.

Or be a badass at being wrong. Or be a wrong ballah.

Being right is boring. Being wrong—ahh, well, that’s where the magic happens. On top of that, being right all the time is impossible. The statement: ‘I often ride unicorns to work’ is as ludicrous as trying to be: ‘Right all the time.’ Yes, it’s a ridiculous idea—I work at home, I only ride my unicorn on weekends.

Two things I want to share in this post:

First, I’m sorry. I really, really tried to finish this book. But I didn’t. I got to 22%. Ok, I actually got to 17% and I skimmed to 22%. If you finished it—I’m so sorry I didn’t read it with you. (But will you send me an email with the highlights?)

Second, since this is a book about being wrong and I was wrong about reading it, I decided to write a post about the science of being wrong using this experience as an example.

How to Be Really Good at Being Wrong

Let’s talk about the pernicious little thoughts that keep us unjustifiably right and gloriously unwrong.

#1: I told you so

Mmmmmm, don’t those 4 little words feel delicious? Just say it out loud a few times. Righteous, right? Do you get a warm and fuzzy feeling thinking about the last time you were right? When you are right and you can prove it, doesn’t it take every ounce of your being not to shout it in someone’s face? ‘I told you so’ is basically saying I was right AND I was right about being right. It’s like right cubed. Exponential rightness. Here’s why this feels so good: Being right is essential for our survival… and we are programmed for it:

The experience of being right is imperative for our survival, gratifying for our ego, and, overall, is one of life’s cheapest and keenest satisfactions.

Schultz

So being right is our reward for trying. We are wired with an internal reward system for our brain to have motivation to seek the right answer. The problem is that we often aren’t right. Or we jump to the wrong conclusions far too fast on far too little info. This tendency often leads to confirmation bias, which causes us to search or interpret information in a way that confirms our preconceptions, leading to statistical errors, gross misinterpretations and snap judgments.

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#2: I’m basically right about everything

Quick, tell me how right you are about:

  • ____ How the person in front of you should drive
  • ____ How your friends should live their lives
  • ____ How to eat healthy
  • ____ Your taste in home decor

If you’re like most people, you not only have opinions on each of these things, but you also feel extremely right about those opinions. Nothing says it better than this quote:

Keep a fair-sized cemetery in your backyard in which to bury the faults of your friends’.

Henry Ward Beecher

How about these:

  • ____ Your religious views
  • ____ Your political beliefs
  • ____ Your taste
  • ____ Your intellectual convictions

Most of us will say we are 90% right about our beliefs. But how can we all be right all the time? Obviously, we can’t. The question is, why don’t we know this? As smart as we are, why don’t we question our opinions instead of thinking that our word is gospel? Check out the reality of how most people think versus how it should be logically but isn’t:

Reality:

“Ugh, how could they vote for him?! Are they out of their mind?! Are they insane? He is going to drive this country into the ground. I swear, I really thought they were smart people. It’s so disappointing they would make such a dumb decision. We should start a newsletter to send out to our friends about the issues.”

Logic:

“Ugh, how could they vote for him?! Well, I guess I should keep in mind that everyone is different. Perhaps they have different values or ideas than me. Yes, that must be it. I voted for someone else, but I still very much respect their decision and should talk to them about my decision. Maybe they can convince me to change my opinion.”

Decision-making is an emotional process and response. Neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio discovered that people with brain damage in the areas of the brain where emotions are generated had a peculiar commonality. Along with not being able to feel emotions, they couldn’t make decisions. They could describe what they should do in logical terms, yet found it extremely challenging to make a final decision.

While we believe we make decisions and base our beliefs in logic and try to convince others to ‘see things the way we do’, it almost always comes down to our emotional response. According to author Jim Camp, “at the point of decision, emotions are very important for choosing. In fact even with what we believe are logical decisions, the very point of choice is arguably always based on emotion.”

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#3: Why you’re wrong

We swore we saw a turkey. This past Thanksgiving, I went to a potluck Friendsgiving. As everyone was setting out dishes and re-heating pans of sweet potatoes, green beans and rolls, my two friends, husband and I all swore we saw a turkey. Really, it was sitting right there! I swear! Once the buffet line was open, we all moved through it and sat down at the table. My friend whispered, “where did the turkey go?” I shook my head—I hadn’t seen it on the buffet. Perhaps it was lurking in the oven? We all murmured confusedly and finally asked the hostess, “Where’s the turkey?” She replied easily, “Oh we don’t have one, I just made a ham.” Here’s what happened:

Brain-Fill-In-the-Blank: Our brains are efficient. They make snap judgments and then deduce needs and ideas. Here’s the problem: our brains are not recorders. We think we have a very good memory and recollection, but in reality our brains are masters at connecting the dots—whether those dots are actually there or not.

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#4: No way I’m wrong

On December 7, 1941, 13 year-old Ulric Neisser was listening to a baseball game on the radio when he learned that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. This was a memory he recalled throughout his formative years as traumatic and devastating. When he was an adult, he was thinking about the memory again and realized that baseball isn’t a winter sport. There is no way he could have been listening to a game on the radio at that moment. Even though he swore it was the case, it was simply impossible. His mind had tricked him—or filled in the blank. As a professor at Emory University, he decided to test this with his students when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. He asked his students to write down exactly where they were and what they were doing when they learned about the Challenger’s demise.

3 years later, he asked them to recall the experience again:

  • Only 7% of the students remembered their ‘memory’ accurately
  • 50% got 2/3 of their assertions wrong
  • 25% were wrong in every major detail

Our memories and our perceptions are not necessarily reality. This is essential to keep in mind when arguing with a spouse, disputing something at work and discussing memories with a friend. Our brains are not recorders. Dr. Lars Muckli, from the University of Glasgow, has studied visual blind spots and how the brain makes predictions based on our surroundings. He proposes that “the brain’s main function is to minimize surprise – that is what it has evolved to do.” While this aspect of evolution can be an advantage in some circumstances, it’s important to be aware of both physical and emotional blind spots. Read on…

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#5: Your wrong traps

There are many reasons why we end up being wrong more often than we would like. Failures of memory as discussed above are certainly the cause of some, but there are two others I would like to discuss:

  1. Emotional Blind Spots: The blind spot is the part of the eye where the optic nerve passes through the retina. This prevents any visual processing from taking place in that area. I would like to suggest that all of us have emotional blind spots. These are people, ideas or sensitive topics that render us rather irrational. Have you ever brought up a topic to your mom and she FREAKED OUT at you? Emotional blind spot. Have you ever had someone be far too sensitive or overreact to something out of proportion to the importance? Emotional blind spot. I think it is essential to know what yours are to help prevent against being caught up in a mistake.
  • What are topics that you feel overly sensitive about?
  • Who are people who you tend to always give the benefit of the doubt to?
  • What do you know, but don’t want to really know? Do you have an inconvenient truth?
  1. Rationalization: We are also very good at rationalizing our wrong opinions and convincing ourselves of almost anything if we really want it. In 1977, Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson set up an experiment in a shop in Michigan. They lined up 4 pairs of panty hose on the table and asked shoppers to compare them and pick which one they liked best. Here’s the catch: they were all the same. However, no one said they were the same. Person after person picked up each pair and dutifully explained why one pair was ‘woolier’ or ‘scratchier’ or ‘warmer’ than the next. Even after the experiment when the researchers told the shoppers they were all the same, many of raters simply refused to believe them. This kind of rationalization often blocks important truths and slows down our learning. Read on to find out why…

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#6: I’m right, right away

Sometimes we have to make fast choices. So, we rely heavily on our first impression, our intuition and our gut to make the right decisions. When sussing out Being Wrong for book club, I got hooked by this quote on the 3rd page of the book:

“A whole lot of us go through life assuming that we are basically right, basically all the time, about basically everything… Our steady state seems to be one of unconsciously assuming that we are very close to omniscient.” –Kathryn Schulz

For me, this quote was powerful. Why? I am not exaggerating when I say:

The majority of all relationship failures derive from the fact that everyone thinks they’re right.

Dr. Steven Stosny bewares couples of being right. He hypothesizes that the high rate of divorce is directly related to power struggles in relationships– the persistent need to be right while simultaneously making others wrong. He goes even further to say that high-adrenaline emotions, like anger, make us feel “more right” due to its amphetamine effects. According to Dr. Stosny, “the amphetamine effect creates a temporary sense of confidence and certainty, while narrowing mental focus and eliminating most variables from consideration.”

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#7: You can either be right or be in a relationship

Bananas are the universe’s magic fruit. They are not only delicious, but they are also packed with vitamins and minerals and come in a convenient transportable package. They are also yellow, the color of sun and happiness. My husband, the menacing, banana-hating, banana-bigot, believes that bananas are the devil’s dessert (poppycock) and should banished from this earth (heresy).

My husband and I lovingly fight about bananas all the time—whether we should share a bananas foster or a slice of apple pie, etc. But the thing is, we are both right. He is absolutely justified in his OPINION about bananas. It’s not a fact, it’s an idea. This brings me to the breakdown of wrongness… not all wrong is created equal.

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#8: I feel I’m wrong

Wrong is a big word. It implies that the answer is black and white. Yes or no. True or false. But usually, wrong is a spectrum and the causes are varied. In your relationships, it is incredibly important to understand what you can and can’t argue. Here’s my suggestion:

What if wrong was a spectrum?

spectrum

You cannot be wrong about an opinion. This is important. Taste, feelings and opinions are perceptions of an experience. Stop arguing about these experiences—you will get nowhere except closer to frustration. Somewhere between fact and opinion is belief. Remember, beliefs are a mix of verifiable facts and perceived feelings. Think of the 3 most common fights you have with your partner (or parent or friend):

Plot your stance for each on the spectrum. Are they closer to opinion or fact? Now plot your partner’s. This idea can fundamentally change how you argue.

Here is an example from one of my couple friends (names changed to protect the innocent):

Tracy and Doug have been dating for 2 years. A huge fight happens every Monday night during Football season. She hates going over to watch the game at Doug’s college buddies’ houses. Here’s how that usually goes:

  • Tracy: “I don’t want to go. I hate going over to their houses. It’s loud, the food is terrible for you and you come back drunk.”
  • Doug: “It’s the only time I see my buddies during the week! It’s also the best part of Mondays. Look, it’s only 3 hours, why is this such a big deal?”

This happened every. single. week. When they told me about this, I knew exactly what the problem was: They were arguing facts, beliefs and opinions all mixed in one. Let’s break it down differently:

Fact: There’s a football game is every Monday night.

Opinion:

  • I don’t want to go.
  • I hate going over to their houses.
  • It’s the only good thing about Mondays.

Belief:

  • Food is terrible for you.
  • You come back drunk.
  • It’s the only time I can see my buddies during the week.

Facts are not negotiable. Neither Tracy nor Doug can change the game. Opinions are hard to argue, but they can be shifted by beliefs. Let me show you:

Food is terrible for you. –> I hate going over to their houses.

If Tracy believes the food is terrible, she can’t eat anything and hates going over to their houses. Instead of arguing about the game, why not discuss the food choices. For example, Doug can try:

  • Let’s grab a quick bite to eat before we go.
  • Let’s bring over snacks you like.
  • Let’s host next time so you can make what you enjoy eating.

You come back drunk. –> I don’t want to go.

If Tracy thinks her husband gets too drunk, that should be the issue up for discussion, not the game. She can ask:

  • Can you limit yourself to 2 beers?
  • Can you have a coffee before you head home?
  • Can we try a few non-drinking game nights?

It’s the only time I can see my buddies during the week. –> It’s the only good thing about Mondays.

If Doug feels this is his only shot at seeing his buddies during the week, then that should be a point to be changed. If he knows he is seeing his buddies another time, the game becomes less crucial. For example:

  • Let’s do happy hour drinks every Friday night with the whole gang—spouses included, so Tracy has someone to talk to.
  • Let’s go to Trivia night on Tuesdays.
  • Let’s have the guys over for a BBQ on the weekend.

This was a really long point, but I hope it breaks down the idea of ‘being wrong’ into what’s actually wrong and what’s negotiable. Practice this with one of your common arguments with a friend, parent or partner:

Common Argument:

  • Fact:
  • Your Opinions:
  • Partner’s Opinions:
  • Your Beliefs:
  • Partner’s Beliefs:

Negotiable:

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#9: Wrong is righteous

We have been talking about being wrong as a potentially harmful state of being. This is far from the truth. The capacity to err is a skill. Wrongness is the way of progress. As Schultz says:

Wrongness, not rightness, teaches us who we are.

Schultz

We learn so much about ourselves when we get something wrong. We learn so much about our behavior when something goes wrong. AND we learn so much about other people when THEY are wrong. Here are a few questions for you to ponder:

  • Are you good at being wrong?
  • What have you learned from your mistakes?
  • How did a friend or partner handle being wrong? What did you learn about them?

Putting it another way, if we are willing to be wrong and examine our wrongnesss, we explore. Being wrong is also hard, humbling and sometimes a dangerous journey—but a beautiful one at that.

“To err is to wander, and wandering is the way we discover the world, lost in thought. Right is more gratifying, but in the end it is static.” – Schultz

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#10: Being good at being wrong

One of the parts of the book I found interesting (in the short bit I read) was when Schultz would tell people she was writing a book about being wrong. According to her, people would exclaim: “Oh! You should interview me, I’m wrong all the time!” But then after some prodding, they couldn’t provide her with one example. Why? Schultz calls this a categorization error. That we don’t remember things we did wrong so much as possibly ‘times we were angry’ or ‘experiences I learned from’ or ‘things I used to know.’

  • Replacement Ideas: Once we find out we are wrong about something, we typically replace the idea or behavior with what we deem to be the right idea. In other words, realizing we are wrong about a belief almost always involves acquiring a replacement belief at the same time. Something else instantly become the new right.
  • This got me thinking about my old beliefs. And I found this exercise to be a lovely mental journey. Fill in the following:

Stuff I Used to Believe:

‘“I know” seems to describe a state of affairs which guarantees what is known, guarantees it as a fact. One always forgets the expression, “I thought I knew.”’ – Ludwig Wittgenstein

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#11: The right way to be wrong

Let me take this last point to sum up all of the right ways to be wrong:

  • Being right feels good, but it’s static and boring.
  • Wrong is better. It means growth. It means learning. It means adventure.
  • Find your emotional blind spots.
  • You can be wrong or you can be in a relationship. Remember, opinions can’t be wrong.
  • Know the difference between fact, opinion and belief.
  • You will always have stuff you used to believe. Your ideas will change. Be open to that change.

Thanks for being ok with my mistake. I was wrong, but I hope we all benefit a bit with this post.

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is a national best selling author & founder at Science of People. Her groundbreaking book, Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People has been translated into more than 16 languages. As a recovering awkward person, Vanessa helps millions find their inner charisma. She regularly leads innovative corporate workshops and helps thousands of individual professionals in her online program People School. Vanessa works with entrepreneurs, growing businesses, and trillion dollar companies; and has been featured on CNN, BBC, CBS, Fast Company, Inc., Entrepreneur Magazine, USA Today, the Today Show and many more.

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