Being Wrong: Adventures In The Margin Of Error
By Kathryn Schulz
Hardcover, 416 pages
List price: $26.99
As a culture, we haven't even mastered the basic skill of saying "I was wrong." This is a startling deficiency, given the simplicity of the phrase, the ubiquity of error, and the tremendous public service that acknowledging it can provide. Instead, what we have mastered are two alternatives to admitting our mistakes that serve to highlight exactly how bad we are at doing so. The first involves a small but strategic addendum: "I was wrong, but … " — a blank we then fill in with wonderfully imaginative explanations for why we weren't so wrong after all. (More on this in Part Three.) The second (infamously deployed by, among others, Richard Nixon regarding Watergate and Ronald Reagan regarding the Iran-Contra affair) is even more telling: we say, "mistakes were made." As that evergreen locution so concisely demonstrates, all we really know how to do with our errors is not acknowledge them as our own.
By contrast, we positively excel at acknowledging other people's errors. In fact, if it is sweet to be right, then — let's not deny it — it is downright savory to point out that someone else is wrong. As any food scientist can tell you, this combination of savory and sweet is the most addictive of flavors: we can never really get enough of reveling in other people's mistakes. Witness, for instance, the difficulty with which even the well-mannered among us stifle the urge to say "I told you so." The brilliance of this phrase (or its odiousness, depending on whether you get to say it or must endure hearing it) derives from its admirably compact way of making the point that not only was I right, I was also right about being right. In the instant of uttering it, I become right squared, maybe even right factorial, logarithmically right — at any rate, really, extremely right, and really, extremely delighted about it. It is possible to refrain from this sort of gloating (and consistently choosing to do so might be the final milestone of maturity), but the feeling itself, that triumphant ha!, can seldom be fully banished.
Of course, parading our own brilliance and exulting in other people's errors is not very nice. For that matter, even wanting to parade our own brilliance and exult in other people's errors is not very nice, although it is certainly very human. This is where our relationship to wrongness begins to show its stakes. Of all the strife in the world — strife of every imaginable variety, from conflict over crumb cake to conflict in the Middle East — a staggering amount of it arises from the clash of mutually incompatible, entirely unshakable feelings of rightness. Granted, we find plenty of other reasons to fight with one another as well, ranging from serious and painful breaches in trust to resource scarcity to the fact that we haven't had our coffee yet. Still, an impressive number of disputes amount to a tug-of-war over who possesses the truth: we fight over the right to be right. Likewise, it is surprisingly difficult to get angry unless you are either convinced that you are correct, or humiliated and defensive about being wrong. Our default attitude toward wrongness, then — our distaste for error and our appetite for being right — tends to be rough on relationships. This applies equally to relationships among nations, communities, colleagues, friends, and (as will not be lost on most readers) relatives. Indeed, an old adage of therapists is that you can either be right or be in a relationship: you can remain attached to Team You winning every confrontation, or you can remain attached to your friends and family, but good luck trying to do both.
Reprinted from Being Wrong: Adventures In The Margin Of Error by Kathyrn Schulz by arrangement with Ecco.