In a new book called Being Wrong, journalist Kathryn Schulz explores the history and psychology of being wrong, and the effect that blind stubbornness can have on personal and professional relationships. She also argues that, contrary to popular belief, “the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition” and that “wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change.”
Schulz has written a guest post addressing an interesting paradox: while we clamor for opponents to admit their mistakes, we often excoriate them further when they do.?Why? What’s the right way to respond to someone’s admission of error?
Thanks for Admitting the Blindingly Obvious: On Hearing “I Was Wrong”
By Kathryn Schulz
Are the most beautiful words in the English language “You’re right”?? Late last year, in an opinion piece for the Times, the writer and legal scholar Stanley Fish proposed as much, and it’s easy to see why.? Almost all of us relish being right, and we’re only too delighted when other people affirm our own sublime accuracy.
What, then of the phrase “I was wrong”?? A kind of semantic mirror image of “You’re right,” this acknowledgment seems, at first, equally likely to please.? And we certainly claim to want to hear these words more often than we do.? Whenever some sort of debacle transpires, we clamor for the responsible parties to admit their mistakes.? Regardless of the issue at hand – whether it’s an oil spill, an economic meltdown, or something far more trivial – when people blow it, we want to hear them say it.
Or so we claim.? But how do we really feel when people admit their mistakes?? When the person in question is a friend or family member, we all too often choose to rub his or her face in the mistake – while simultaneously exulting in our own rightness.? 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 are the one saying it or hearing it) derives from its admirably compact way of pointing out that 1) I was right; 2) you were wrong; and 3) I was right that you were wrong.
When the admission of error comes from a public figure, meanwhile, the situation gets even stickier. On the one hand, we express outrage when officials fail to acknowledge their mistakes.? The Bush administration infuriated a good swath of the American public not just by making a series of high-stakes mistakes (WMDs, the failed counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, the handling of Katrina), but also by maintaining an almost Pope-like pretense of infallibility. (The rare-book seller AbeBooks.com once ran an advertisement featuring a fake book by President Bush called Whoops!?I Was Wrong; the tag line read “If we don’t have it, it doesn’t exist.”)
On the other hand, there’s a case to be made that Bush’s hermetic strategy was a sound one.? However angered we might be by public figures who refuse to admit their mistakes, we often respond with even more vitriol to those (few) who do.? Take Robert McNamara, probably the best-known American political figure to offer a sweeping acknowledgment of an equally sweeping mistake.?? As secretary of defense under Kennedy and Johnson, McNamara was one of the lead architects of the Vietnam War.? In 1995, with the publication of In Retrospect, he admitted that “We were wrong, terribly wrong.”
To say that this admission did not go over well in many quarters is to put it mildly.? A scathing editorial in this paper belittled McNamara for “in the fullness of time grasp[ing] realities that seemed readily apparent to millions of Americans throughout the Vietnam War.” Others accused him of cynically shifting his views in response to the prevailing winds, or of writing the book in order to profit from a mistake that had cost so many others so much.? And, of course, those who continued to support the Vietnam War excoriated him a tergiversator.
Those responses are representative of the way most political retractions are received.? Earlier this year, former Assistant Education Secretary Diane Ravitch published The Death and Life of the Great American School System, which denounced a series of school reforms (including educational testing, school choice, charter schools, and No Child Left Behind) that she herself had advocated for years.? When I interviewed Ravitch for Slate, the comments section lit up with the familiar charges: “Why is Diane Ravitch Making a Bundle Saying She Was Wrong All Along?”?”Wow! Thanks Diane! It’s only taken you ten years to see the blindingly obvious.”?”We’re supposed to be impressed by her contrition?”
And that is the central question: what are we supposed to do about the sincere contrition of those who err?? In our private lives, the answer is (to my mind) fairly obvious: reward them.? After all, if you can accept admissions of error gracefully, everybody wins.? You will help stop a dispute in its tracks; you will help restore intimacy and humor to what was about to become one of those pointless fights that help send therapists’ kids to college.? And you won’t even have to do the hard part, which is actually saying “I was wrong.”? All you have to say is “Okay.”
In the public domain, though, the situation is trickier.? Even those who hold the high-minded conviction that we are all fallible and must all be at liberty to change our minds can balk in the face of admissions of serious error.? Suppose, for argument’s sake, that you opposed the Iraq War from the get-go, saw through the WMD scrim, stood on the sidelines fuming while the Bush Administration shifted its justification for the war, listened with disbelief to its premature claims of victory, and mourned the Iraqi and American wounded and dead.? Now imagine that it’s 2023 and Bush comes out with an In Retrospect-esque mea culpa of his own.? How would you feel?? Pleased that he had finally seen the light?? Affirmed in your own views?? Prepared to accept his admission in the sincerely remorseful spirit that, let’s assume, he intended? Or furious that he had the temerity to acknowledge an error two decades too late to do anything about it?
I suspect – and past evidence suggests – that a whole lot of people would go with “furious.”? And I’m sympathetic to that choice.? When our public officials make mistakes, the costs (which are often not borne directly by them) can be horrifying. It seems reasonable to demand not just an acknowledgment of error but some effort at ameliorating the consequences.? Sometimes, though, this is simply impossible.? No one can bring back the war dead; no one can unspill the oil; no one can compensate a child for twelve years of bad schooling. All that truly contrite leaders can do in such a situation is work off their public debt the best way they know how – and live with the torments of their own conscience.
But are those torments real?? Many people doubt it, and therefore find the idea of forgiveness galling.? As one commenter observed after listening to a conversation about wrongness over at The Takeaway, “A lot of people’s admitting to being wrong is little more than a PR ploy.? Public apologies do not impress me.”? In the acid bath of cynicism that is contemporary American politics, it is all but impossible for public figures to convincingly establish their sincerity. And fair enough: sometimes, political changes of mind really are craven or self-interested or simply for show.? But sometimes, presumably, they are not.? Even if sincere admissions of error are rare in politics, surely we can’t afford to foreclose the possibility of real reflection and change – in our leaders, our citizens, and our society as a whole.
Yet that is precisely what we are doing when we go ballistic about public acknowledgments of error.? You cannot in good faith insist that people acknowledge their mistakes if you intend to shower them with moral outrage when they do so.? Do that, and you become complicit in a political culture of denial and blame. Just as you will not encourage your spouse to say “I was wrong,” if your usual riposte is “I told you so,” you can scarcely expect your president to admit error if you routinely pillory him for doing so.
Finally, and even more problematically, jeering at admissions of error violates humanity’s most basic and broadly shared ethical precept – the one that calls on us to treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated.? It’s comforting to imagine that only horrible people make horrible mistakes, but it is simply not true.? Plenty of honest, thoughtful, intelligent and well-intentioned people have blundered into massive and costly mistakes. Maybe you are one of them.? Or maybe, one day, you will be. Ask yourself: if that happened, would you stand up and say, “I was wrong”?? And if so, in the fearsome moment that followed, what would you hope to hear?