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Being Wrong

Adventures In The Margin of Error

Kathryn Schulz

We get huge thrill out of being right - undiscriminating thrill. We don't enjoy kissing just anyone, but we can relish being right about almost anything: the stakes don't matter much. Stranger still, we can enjoy being right about things that are't good, such as a stockmarket fall.

Most of us go thru life assuming that we are basically right, basically all the time, about basically everything. We seem to unconsciously assume that we're omniscient.

But if we relish being right, and regard it as our natural state, how do we feel when we are wrong?

We see it as rare and unusual; and associate it with shame, stupidity and ignorance.

But this is an error as well - in fact the fundamental mistake we make about our mistakes. If we didn't make mistakes, we wouldn't learn.

Virtually all religions have mechanism for granting pardon for errors. But in real world, no such system. When they happen we try to deny them or blame them on others or external circumstances. We have not mastered the basic skill of saying "I was wrong". Instead it's "I was wrong but.." or "mistakes were made ..." All we really know about dealing with mistakes is not to acknowledge them as our own. Contrast the difficulty we have in restraining ourselves from gloating "I told you so" which happens when we are not just right, but we are right about being right: right squared in fact.

Old adage of therapists is that you can either be right or you can be in a relationship - you can either win every confrontation or you can remain attached to family and friends, but good luck trying to do both.

Early explorers into Canadian Arctic fooled by an unusual mirage. We are used to inferior mirages - heat effects like things like puddles that aren't there - but these superior or Arctic mirages reflect real things that are over the horizon. Explorers saw mountain ranges that were 200 miles away that looked like they were just in front of them. Suggestion that the Vikings were fooled by such mirages when living in Greenland, thinking that the North American coast was nearby.

For millions of lifetimes our ancestors have looked at night sky and derived 3 obvious lessons: 1) sky is a curved bowl with the stars slowly turning overhead 2) you are at the very centre of it 3) the land is flat and stationary around the midpoint that is you. These are basic errors - don't have to make great calculations to come to these ideas, they are simply the results of our perception.

So the first step to enlightenment is to gain control over your perception.

In mid-nineteenth century, France was having trouble in Algeria. Islamic holy men were using their supposed supernatural powers to encourage rebellion against the colonial power. Napoleon III sent in a famous magician named Robert-Houdin (he was so famous that in 1890 an ambitious young American magician named Ehrich Weiss changed his name to Harry Houdini as homage to his hero) Robert- Houdin trotted out all the contemporary illusions, catching bullets between his teeth, making people disappear etc, and convinced audience that the French had the more powerful gods on their side.

Illusions should teach us humility. They show us that even the most convincing vision of reality can differ from reality itself. And the cognitive processes that usually serve us well leave us vulnerable to mistakes.

Small strokes change people's brains without their understanding . People can go blind or have limbs paralysed, but totally disbelieve. (called anosognosia, the denial of disease) They will confidently describe a scene in front of them; they will say they can get up and go for a walk, but they just don't feel like it right now. There seems no plausible way to believe you're wrong - after all you should know what is happening to your own body. But what this shows is that there is no limit to how wrong we can be - there is no form of knowledge based on our perception, that cannot fail us. These people are not dishonest or insane - they are lucid and rational right up to the time where their disability comes up. What they are doing is confabulating - making things up. Word comes from 'fable', which is when fiction explains things - our unstoppable drive to tell stories to make sense of the world.

We seem to have two systems in our brain - one to come up with confabulatory stories, and the second to verify them - to check them against reality. Confabulists retain the first but brain damage has compromised the second. It is as if we have an inner writer and an inner fact-checker.As soon as the writer devises a story, the fact checker compares it with input from senses, checks against memory, examines it for logical inconsistencies and contradictions, and then assesses what others think of it.But if fact checker is asleep at the wheel, the stories get completely disconnected from reality, as when we are dreaming.

Confabulation occurs when the left brain, the side of brain responsible for crafting our narratives of the world, gets cut off from the right side, which is processing the data coming in through our senses. The left brain has literally no idea why its self is doing something. All it can do is theorize backwards to come up with an explanation, and it does this very well, without apparent hesitation or doubt.

If someone asks a normal person a question, he has 3 choices. If we know the answer we give it. If we don't know, we admit we don't know. Or if we think we know when we don't, we give the incorrect answer. But for someone with ansognia, they can only give the last one. They don't have the info to answer correctly, but they also seem to have lost the ability to realize that they don't know the answer.

We have huge, and mistaken, confidence in our memories. Most people have vivid memories of what they were doing on Sept 11 2001, and have a very high degree of confidence in accuracy of those memories. Psych prof named Neisser knew he had a false memory of listening to a baseball commentary when Pearl Harbor attacks 1942, but later realizing that pro baseball not played in December. Decided to see if this an anomaly or whether happened to everyone. When Challenger space shuttle exploded 1986, got his students to write down their memories of event day after it happened. Then 3 years later got them to do it again. less than 7% of second reports matched originals, 50% were wrong in two-thirds of their beliefs, and 25% got every major detail wrong. These and many other similar studies confirmed that the 'flashbulb memory' theory wrong. Our memory of event can be startlingly vivid, but it's accuracy decays just as fast as other memories, and by same mechanisms. (It is so predictable that it can be plotted on a graph called the Ebbinghaus curve of forgetting) The students who got it wrong refused to believe the evidence. "I know that's my handwriting, but I couldn't possibly have written that."

Almost impossible to convince laymen of this. We stick to Plato's model of memory as a wax tablet because that's how it feels to us. We don't sense the retrieval and reconstruction process of memory

We have a 'bias blind spot' - we believe that other people's motives are biased and self-interested, whereas ours are simply true. We can see our own motives, and understand why we think things, but for other people we can only judge by appearances. We look into our own hearts and see objectivity; we look into our own minds and see rationality; we look at our beliefs and see reality. From this comes a cascade of unfortunate effects.

First is the Ignorance Assumption. Since we think our own beliefs are based on the facts, we conclude that people who oppose us just haven't been exposed to the facts. This most obviously shows up in rel evangelism where they are convinced that they can persuade people by educating them on the issues. Problem with is that the assumption can be wrong - the facts may contradict your interpretation, or support multiple interp. And, crucially, when other people reject our beliefs we think they lack facts. When we reject theirs, we think we show good judgement.

Power of communities to shape our judgement. They bolster our conviction that we are right and shield us from the possibility that we are wrong.

1. expose us to disproportionate support for our own ideas
2. shield us from disagreement of outsiders
3. cause us to disregard any outside disagreement
4. quash development of disagreement from within

When we see certainty in others we interp it as a sign of a narrow stubborn mind; whereas our certainty is simply bc we are right. We cannot imagine that our own certainty, viewed fro outside, looks just as unbecoming to others. Whereas empathy lets us sympathise and understand others stories, certainty destroys that. When we are caught up in our own convictions, other people's stories, and other people, cease to matter to us. We leave behind our thoughtful and generous selves and become smug patronizing and scornful. And that's just with the people we love.

'I told you so' attitude makes it v diff for people to admit they're wrong. For example after the Iraq war, when it was pretty obvious that all the pretenses for war were either made up or wrong, a writer for Atlantic magazine commented " With every 'I told you so' and demand that they apologize to you, personally, for the sin of being wrong, you are hardening the hawks against the possibility of changing their minds. I know you may feel that you cannot be happy until they apologize, admit that they were wrong, that they were stupid, that everything they believed was in error. They know it too. Indeed after all the sniping, many people will refuse to say they were wrong because it would make you happy. They don't want to make you happy."

Everyone complains about their memory; no-one complains about their judgement.

When we are in love, we can't imagine that we will ever be out of it - a kind of error blindness. If we leave our love, that illusion often switches - we can't quite believe we were ever really in it.

NY divorce lawyer to the celebrities Raoul Felder says people walk into his office with two predominant emotions. First, they feel deeply wronged. You'd think they were describing Genghis Khan sacking some village, rather than some trivial incident in a Greenwich restaurant. Second, they feel incredibly righteous. He's Prince Charming and she's the Wicked Witch of the West. When you finally get both people in the same room, it's like they're talking about two different marriages. But each person believes passionately in the truth of what they're saying.

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People don't seem to be able to tolerate anything short of this absolute rightness. People hate being wrong about anything, but particularly not about love. It's one of biggest personal decisions and financial deals you make, so it should be your wisest decision. But it's not. It's probably the stupidest. What other important choice do we make on the basis of hormones?

It comes as a terrible shock when you have to accept your own fallibility. This is even more so for high-fliers who are used to authority and control - as you get higher up the ladder you get less and less contradiction, being told you're wrong. You are confronted with fact that you have made an error in trusting this person, that you can't judge people very well. So what will you do? Will you face facts and admit you made a mistake, or will you opt for denial? "She's not the woman I fell in love with" etc.

A significant subset of his clients verge on the murderous, wishing partner dead is commonplace.

When relationship begins, there's a collusion to maximise similarities. Then later, when reality breaches the romantic view, there's real competition for who has the truth.We sign up to share our life with someone else, and sooner or later we realize we are also living with another's reality. But we don't want that - we want them to second our own. The failure to do so is a betrayal of a tacit contract to affirm our view of the world. The other person's job is to understand and share our worldview, and if they don't, it's both maddening and threatening.

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When strangers disagree with us we can ignore or dismiss them without any great consequences. But when our loved ones disagree with us, we don't have that easy out.We have to deal with conflicting theories and the possibility that we may be mistaken.

Better option is to accept partner's reality alongside our own. You like apples but you accept that yr partner like oranges

The basis of our desire to be right isn't that we care so deeply about the substance of our claims. It is that we care about feeling affirmed, respected and loved. So if loved one disagrees with us, it's rejection. The moral is that we can learn to live with disagreement as long as we feel esteemed and loved.

Need to abandon old model of love. In new model, love is not predicated on sharing each other's world, we are not the 'other half' of a divide soul. Instead it is based on idea of sharing a story. What is true of a story is true of love. For either to work, you'd better be good at talking and good at listening. Stories only succeed when we agree to suspend belief, and relationships require something similar - the ability to let go of our own worldview long enough to be interested in someone else's. Love is not about living idyllically in our similarities, but about living happily in our differences.

Discussions work better when participants start with qualified statements like "I might be going out on a limb here" "I cd be wrong but" - accepting possibility of error is the more sophisticated thinking.And by moving away from decree and toward inquiry, they set the stage for more interesting conversations.

Listening is really hard, especially for any length of time. This is true even when it really matters - studies show that on average, doctors interrupt their patients eighteen seconds after they have started explaining the reason for their visit. Nobody likes this, and nobody believes it leads to best medical outcomes, but it's the way our minds work.

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As soon as we think we're right about something, we narrow our focus, attending only to the details that support our belief.

Described a guy named John Francis, who took a one-day vow of silence and found result so interesting that he never stopped. As he said, "Most of my adult life I have not listened fully. I only listened long enough to determine whether the speaker's ideas matched my own. If they didn't, I would stop listening, and my mind would race ahead to compose an argument against what I believed the speaker's position to be."

In love as in medicine as in life, listening is an act of humility. It says that other people's ideas are interesting and important, that our own could be in error, that there is still plenty for us to learn.

Superiority theory of comedy as espoused by Thomas Hobbes. Errors make us laugh because they make perps look foolish, and thereby make us look better.

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