Don’t people who are wrong annoy you? I just read a very interesting book called Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz. Of course I read it with an eye toward figuring out how better to correct those other people who are so dangerously and aggravatingly wrong. And of course the book ended up telling me that I myself am essentially a creature of wrongness.
But if we’re all wrong, I can live with that. It’s being more wrong than other people that’s intolerable. However, statistics show that most of us believe we’re more right than average, suggesting a significant if not downright dominant wrongness in our very idea of wrongness.
Even worse, we’re clearly not wrong by accident or despite the best of intentions. We go wrong for the most embarrassing of reasons — albeit reasons that might serve unrelated purposes, or which perhaps did so for distant ancestors of ours. For example, when asked to solve simple and obvious problems that a control group of similar people has no trouble solving, a disturbing number of humans will give the wrong answer if stooges planted in the room confidently give that wrong answer first.
Even more disturbingly, measurements of brain activity during this process suggest that those giving such wrong answers actually perceive them as correct following careful consideration of the question with no particular energy expended on consideration of peer relationships. In other words, people believe their own obvious B.S., even though its been blatantly placed in their minds by a bunch of fraudsters. (I am aware of the redundancy in making this observation during what has been an election year in the United States.)
A lone dissenter in the room can change the dynamic (which perhaps explains why Fox News quickly cuts off the microphone of any guest straying from the script, why a sports announcer who denounces our gun culture must be punished, why a commentator who questions Israel’s crimes must be silenced, etc.), but why should we need someone else to dissent before we can?
Well we don’t all or always. But a disturbing amount of the time a lot of us do.
Even more disturbingly, few of us are often inclined to say we are undecided between possibilities. We are inclined toward certainty, even if we have just switched from being certain of an opposing proposition. As we are confronted with reasons to doubt, it is not uncommon for our certainty to grow more adamant. And we are inclined to greater certainty if others share it. Many of us often admire, and all too often obey, those who are certain — even about things they could not possibly be certain about, even about things there is no great value in being certain about, and even about things these “leaders” have been wrong about before.
Now, I think Schulz is wrong in her book on wrongness not to place greater emphasis on the issue of why politicians change their positions. If they do so for corrupt reasons, to please their funders, we have corruption as well as indecisiveness to dislike. But if they do so in response to public pressure and we still condemn them for indecisiveness, we are condemning representative government along with it. But there is no doubt that many people — sometimes disastrously — can be inclined to prefer the certain and wrong to the hesitant and ultimately right. A baseball umpire who’s wrong but adamant is the norm, because one who corrects himself is soon out of a job.
We begin our careers of wrongness early. If you show a toddler a candy box and ask what’s in it, they’ll say candy, completely free of doubt. If you then show them that it’s actually full of pencils, and ask them what they had thought — five seconds earlier — would be in the box, they will tell you they thought it was full of pencils. They will tell you that they said it was full of pencils. Schulz says this is because young children believe that all beliefs are true. It could also be a result of the same desire to be right and not wrong that we find prevalent in adults, minus adults’ ability to recognize when the evidence of their wrongness is overwhelming. A psychologist in 1973 asked 3,000 people to rank their stances on a scale from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” with positions on a range of social issues like affirmative action, marijuana legalization, etc. Ten years later he asked them to do so again and to recall how they thought they had answered 10 years prior. The what-I-used-to-think answers were far closer to the people’s current positions than to their actual positions of a decade back.