Kathryn Schulz has dubbed a whole new study of being wrong…’Wrongology’. Her business card reads ‘Wrongologist’. Her TED talk ‘On Being Wrong’ is packed with gems, but I’ve culled a somewhat trimmed down Readers Digest version of highlights here…
- “I’ve spent the last five years thinking about being wrong. This might strike you as a strange career move, but it actually has one great advantage: no job competition. In fact, most of us do everything we can to avoid thinking about being wrong, or at least to avoid thinking about the possibility that we ourselves are wrong. We get it in the abstract. We all know everybody in this room makes mistakes. The human species, in general, is fallible — okay fine. But when it comes down to me, right now, to all the beliefs I hold, here in the present tense, suddenly all of this abstract appreciation of fallibility goes out the window — and I can’t actually think of anything I’m wrong about…[I]t is possible to step outside of that feeling and that if you can do so, it is the single greatest moral, intellectual and creative leap you can make.”
- So why do we get stuck in this feeling of being right ? One reason, actually, has to do with a feeling of being wrong. So let me ask you guys something — or actually, let me ask you guys something, because you’re right here: How does it feel — emotionally — how does it feel to be wrong? Dreadful. Thumbs down. Embarrassing.
- Do you remember that Loony Tunes cartoon where there’s this pathetic coyote who’s always chasing and never catching a roadrunner? In pretty much every episode of this cartoon, there’s a moment where the coyote is chasing the roadrunner and the roadrunner runs off a cliff, … He just keeps running — right up until the moment that he looks down and realizes that he’s in mid-air. That’s when he falls. When we’re wrong about something — not when we realize it, but before that — we’re like that coyote after he’s gone off the cliff and before he looks down. You know, we’re already wrong, we’re already in trouble, but we feel like we’re on solid ground…It does feel like something to be wrong; it feels like being right.
- I call this error blindness. Most of the time, we don’t have any kind of internal cue to let us know that we’re wrong about something, until it’s too late. But there’s a second reason that we get stuck inside this feeling as well — and this one is cultural. … So by the time you are nine years old, you’ve already learned, first of all, that people who get stuff wrong are lazy, irresponsible dimwits — and second of all, that the way to succeed in life is to never make any mistakes.
- The first thing we usually do when someone disagrees with us is we just assume they’re ignorant. They don’t have access to the same information that we do, and when we generously share that information with them, they’re going to see the light and come on over to our team. When that doesn’t work, when it turns out those people have all the same facts that we do and they still disagree with us, then we move on to a second assumption, which is that they’re idiots. They have all the right pieces of the puzzle, and they are too moronic to put them together correctly. And when that doesn’t work, when it turns out that people who disagree with us have all the same facts we do and are actually pretty smart, then we move on to a third assumption: they know the truth, and they are deliberately distorting it for their own malevolent purposes. So this is a catastrophe. This attachment to our own rightness keeps us from preventing mistakes when we absolutely need to and causes us to treat each other terribly.
- It’s like we want to imagine that our minds are just these perfectly translucent windows and we just gaze out of them and describe the world as it unfolds. And we want everybody else to gaze out of the same window and see the exact same thing. That is not true, and if it were, life would be incredibly boring. The miracle of your mind isn’t that you can see the world as it is. It’s that you can see the world as it isn’t. We can remember the past, and we can think about the future, and we can imagine what it’s like to be some other person in some other place. And we all do this a little differently, which is why we can all look up at the same night sky and see this and also this and also this. And yeah, it is also why we get things wrong. 1,200 years before Descartes said his famous thing about ‘I think therefore I am’ this guy, St. Augustine, sat down and wrote ‘Fallor ergo sum’ – ‘I err therefore I am.’ Augustine understood that our capacity to screw up, it’s not some kind of embarrassing defect in the human system, something we can eradicate or overcome. It’s totally fundamental to who we are.
- I found myself listening to a lot of episodes of the Public Radio show This American Life. And so I’m listening and I’m listening, and at some point, I start feeling like all the stories are about being wrong…’And the thing is,’ says Ira Glass [Producer of This American Life], ‘we need this. We need these moments of surprise and reversal and wrongness to make these stories work.’ And for the rest of us, audience members, as listeners, as readers, we eat this stuff up. We love things like plot twists and red herrings and surprise endings. When it comes to our stories, we love being wrong. But, you know, our stories are like this because our lives are like this. We think this one thing is going to happen and something else happens instead. And maybe you thought you were going to grow up and marry your high school sweetheart and move back to your hometown and raise a bunch of kids together.
- We just spent an entire week talking about innovations and advancements and improvements, but you know why we need all of those innovations and advancements and improvements? Because half the stuff that’s the most mind-boggling and world-altering — TED 1998 — eh. Didn’t really work out that way, did it? (Laughter) Where’s my jet pack, Chris?
- And to me, if you really want to rediscover wonder, you need to step outside of that tiny, terrified space of rightness and look around at each other and look out at the vastness and complexity and mystery of the universe and be able to say, ‘Wow, I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong.’