Do We Really Want to Hear Someone Say 'I Was Wrong'?: A Guest Post

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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?


Eric M. Jones

Let me be the first to say, "Okay, I was wrong."

jared

good article, but you might try and set your political beliefs aside. It grew pretty distracting being hit over the head with all the negative Bushisms.

Abhishek

While the above may be true, I think that I would give much more credence to a person who is willing to admit his mistakes then one who would defend his mistakes.

Richard Davies

The rare bookseller with the George Bush 'Whoops I Was Wrong' ad was AbeBooks.com and not Alibris.

http://www.abebooks.com/docs/10-anniversary/not-books.shtml

Richard Davies
AbeBooks.com

AaronS

Many years ago, I learned the importance of a good apology. We're all used to those feeble non-attempts like, "If I by some chance possibly hurt your feelings by calling you a lazy, good-for-nothing-jerk, I'm sorry."

But I found that when my apology was more than the obligatory "Mistakes were made," but FULLY acknowledged my culpability, did not try to put ANY of the blame on the other person, etc., not only have my apologies been 100% accepted, but they have been accepted without rancor or nastiness.

We rightly mistrust politicians. We have learned that they will do and say anything to achieve some part of their personal agenda (usually re-election). Therefore, when they apologize, it has to rise to a place of such elegance that it convinces us it is sincere, and not just a way to sell books, stay in the news, bolster reelection chances, or so forth. They have to GROVEL, I'm afraid (fortunately, it couldn't happen to nicer people).

Lastly, I once hurt a friend of mine's feelings. I called him shortly thereafter and humbly apologized. He told me years later that although he could REMEMBER the offense, because I had apologized so sincerely, it no longer had any power or sting to it. That's the power of a good apology.

I'll probably have to make many more in my life, but if I'm going to do it, I want it to be real enough to destroy any remnant of hurt or bitterness in the other person.

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Imad Qureshi

Robert McNamara says "My bad" after 30 years when there is nothing at stake for him. Diane Ravtich a known Republican is definitely now against the programs she once supported because Obama is supporting those programs also and as a good Republican she must oppose/criticize everything coming out of the current White House.

Bo

One thing implicit in some public apologies, which is infuriating to me, is the notion "I'm still going to continue performing my function, even though I myself admit that I screwed it up last time."

OJ

No use crying over spilt oil

RampantRedsFan

I really think that the difference between an acceptable and an unacceptable admittance has to do with 3 factors:

1. Believability
2. Sincerity
3. Externalities

To show my point I think we should consider Jim Joyce's blown call last week that cost Andres Galaraga his perfect game. Joyce came out within minutes of the game with a heartfelt apology in which he was nearly in tears. He also had nothing monetary gain (no externalities of apologizing) by apologizing. Because of this Joyce was not even booed when he took the field the next day.

Granted, part of the reason he was not booed was because of the grace in which Galaraga handled the situation.

Philippe

At least with regards to the political apologies, you seem to gloss over a common thread among the "outrage" camp: time. When a person in control of an advent does the "wrong" thing and does not "repent" for a long period of time, this is what I would say causes the "outrage". This is magnified by doing the wrong thing for a long period of time, and magnified even greater if the wrong-doer is aware of the "wrongness" of their actions for a period of time before admitting their failure.

I would say that this hubris (perceived or real) is what makes "outrage" occur. And waiting until no one cares to admit you were wrong, or worse feign you were wrong, only makes the apology worth less to society, as there is no cost. At some point, others would rather you live with the knowledge you were wrong internally and suffer with the pain and problems you caused instead of "getting off the hook" with a simple apology when it's become convenient for you.

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Brian S

I think the culprit here is hubris, as always. We will except "you were right" but not "I was wrong" precisely because we want to make sure everyone gives us credit in some way. That's part of the reason why so many scathing "I told you so" editorials come out even when a public figure admits wrongdoing - authors are quick to remind the general public that they were right.

Others have pointed out many additional and valid considerations with respect to public figures.

Rudiger in Jersey

We will all be proved wrong at some point in our lives.
How we deal with it determines character.
If you are proved wrong conclusively, and refuse to correct it, you are making TWO errors.

How long does it take for someone to change their mind. For some it is under 30 seconds and they are viewed as flippant.
For others is is a lifetime plus. And they are seen as stubborn.

Ask Dick Cheney how long it takes to realize when he is wrong. World Unilateralism, American Hegemony, Afganistan, Iraq, Bin Ladin, Global Warming, Wall Street, Drill Baby Drill, and Halliburton. One man can really wrong a whole planet.
And the irony is : HE BELIEVES HE HAS NOT MADE ANY MISTAKES!

Sushi

Interesting, but I disagree about the public response to admission of error.

Unless the apology is seen as tactical or self-interested -- Tiger Woods -- the credibility of the apologist is enhanced and not diminished by contrition.

(My favourite is the non-apology that transfers blame to the victim, "I'm sorry if you were offended by [WHATEVER I SAID OR DID]".)

Examples can be found among the numerous corrections published in the NY Times every day, more than any newspapers I've seen.

To me, these bolster the paper's credibility because it shows a commitment to good journalism.

This is unusual Freakonomics, though. The Times admits that it has produced a product -- accurate reporting -- of a lower quality than it should in the hope that doing so will compel consumers to buy more of it in future. I can't think of any other industry that does that.

Joe D

The Roman Catholic sacrament of Reconciliation has two parts: the confession and the penance. (That is, on the human side; the Divine has absolution and conferral of grace.)

It is insufficient to simply admit error; one must atone. We drill this into our children: Admit your mistake, and tell what you're going to do about it (or accept the punishment).

MikeM

Comment #9 makes a really good point with a perfect example. I would also like to include:

4. Timeliness

Waiting 25 years for the consequences to dissipate is cowardly and people see through that sort of apology. In the Comment #9 example, if Joyce had waited until the next day, gotten booed and had beer thrown at him, then apologized, it would have meant less.

Mike B

I think that what complicates the issue are the multiple flavours of being wrong. One can be just plain wrong. They take position A, position A is shown to be incorrect, they may or may not admit they are wrong. The other type of being wrong is where the person takes position A and a cover for a hidden agenda B. Position A is shown to be incorrect yet if hidden agenda B is untenable there will be an incentive to stick to Position A (or a related position) to shield the hidden agenda.

The reason that people become furious over long delayed admissions of being wrong is because they suspect the person ALWAYS knew their position was wrong, they just maintained their support of it to protect their hidden agenda. Bush might well admit that he was wrong about WMD's in Iraq, but if his reason had been to get revenge on Saddam and finish his father's war the WMD rationale would be less an error and more a deception.

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PaulD

As it applies on an inter-personal level, it shocks me how often my wife insists on my admitting that I was wrong about something I did. And there are two levels on which I could say that I was wrong:
1. When I made my decision at the time it was a bad decision and I knew it to be a bad decision -- that I willfully pursued anyway; or
2. When I made my decision it was the best decision I could make based on what I knew at the time -- but subsequent events have proven it to have been a bad choice.

Invariably my wife wants me to admit to No. 1 when in all honesty it was a case of No. 2. I would rather be considered inept than malicious!

luke

So, does this mean the Freakonomics guys will admit to being wrong about the whole Global Cooling thing, particularly given how solidly it has been debunked?

Tim Dellinger

I'll add an extra dimension to what "I told you so" actually means. Not only does it say that (1) I was right; (2) you were wrong; and (3) I was right that you were wrong, but it also implies that (4) You should listen to me next time.

In many relationships, we feel the need to bolster our reputation as the person being right, hence we Rub It In, and we Never Let The Other Person Forget.

There's probably also a testosterone aspect to this. (Testable hypothesis: give pairs of people a task that includes an ambiguity likely to result in a difference of opinion. Amount of gloating upon being right will correlate with both baseline testosterone, and with the testosterone spike that accompanies being proven correct.)

Tim Dellinger

Stan

I agree with many of the points made above suggesting that the manner in which one admits error is at least as important, if not more so, than the very act of apology itself. The above reference to the recent Jim Joyce 'blown call' apology illustrates this perfectly. We immediately accepted and forgave Joyce for his mistake because of the contriteness and sincerity with which his apology was made. It was made clear by him that not only was he sincere in his admission of error, but also that he personally suffered due to his own mistake. He made no effort to reduce his own pain and guilt, rather he attempted to reduce that of the pitcher who's perfect game he had 'stolen.'

It is when this self-punishment is most evident that we are likely to accept and applaud an apology. I would posit that due to our innate sense of justice we need to witness this suffering before we can forgive someone for their error. The problem with the apologies in the article is that the authors seemingly didn't attempt to bear the burden of their errors. They admit fault, but attempt to minimize their own personal pain and suffering for their actions, not to minimize that of those affected by their mistakes. In this way, their apologies couldn't really be seen as sincere, selfless apologies at all, rather they appear as selfish acts intended to alleviate the guilt and responsibility felt by the author.

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