Julia Strand was confident in her scientific findings when they were published in 2018. Strand’s research showed that when a circular beacon of light was present in a noisy setting, people expended less energy listening to their conversation partner and responded quicker than without the light. The feedback was positive and Strand, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, had received grant funding to continue her research.
Some months later, however, Strand was unable to replicate her results. In fact, she found the opposite to be true: The light forced people to think harder. Strand had crossed her t’s, dotted her i’s, and showed her work — and still she was wrong.
“The bottom dropped out of my stomach,” Strand says. “It was terrible to realize that I had not just made a mistake, but published a mistake.”
Being wrong is an unavoidable aspect of the human condition. Defining what constitutes “wrong,” however, can get messy. People can be wrong about any multitude of things, from misremembering the name of a ’90s pop song to incorrectly casting blame onto a friend during a heated argument. Mistakes happen on scales big and small, topics tangible and moral or ethical. In the 2010 book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, author Kathryn Schulz loosely defines being wrong “as a deviation from external reality, or an internal upheaval in what we believe” — with the caveat that wrongness is too vast to fit neatly into either category.
Regardless of its definition, people are often afraid to experience it or hesitant to admit it. From a young age, society instills in children the message of “it’s wrong to hit your sister” and “it’s right to say please and thank you.” As time goes on, this binary “creates this level of perfectionism where it’s really hard to be wrong because it feels like your whole person is inherently wrong,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Moe Ari Brown. “It just puts these value-based labels on every single thing that we’re doing.” In recent years, an entire cottage industry has emerged, devoted to revisiting history in an effort to point out past wrongdoing, showcasing just how much society likes to be right and castigate those who were not.
For Strand, much of her anxiety about her research error centered around not having a model about how to own up to mistakes. However, accepting we’re capable of being wrong and moving on from blunders relatively unscathed can provide solace for a society squeamish about slip-ups.
Barriers to recognizing error
As Schulz writes, “It does feel like something to be wrong. It feels like being right.” Only after a lightbulb moment — like Strand’s after examining her past research — are we enlightened to the error of our ways.
What prevents us from realizing our wrongness is the psychological theory of cognitive dissonance, says Adam Fetterman, assistant professor and director of the Personality, Emotion, and Social Cognition Lab. Cognitive dissonance is when two beliefs or behaviors conflict or when a person’s actions contradict their beliefs. (Examples include smoking despite knowing the health risks or telling a lie despite considering yourself an honest person.) This conflict usually results in anxiety or feelings of uncertainty.
“We’re highly motivated to reduce that uncertainty,” Fetterman says. “Oftentimes, the most common way that people get rid of it is by rejecting the new information or creating a new cognition that basically gets rid of it. Not too often do we actually change our thoughts or behaviors in order to align with the new information.” This can look like only taking in information that confirms already held beliefs, justifying the belief, or denying anything that contradicts their beliefs. “The motivation to reduce that dissonance leads us to even double down or to come back even stronger with our beliefs,” Fetterman says.
When we err, we might risk social ostracism or embarrassment. As social beings, we’re constantly looking for acceptance within groups. Being wrong about something opens us up to criticism from members of those groups. “What I’ve seen in my own research and with other people’s research on the topic of being wrong is that the No. 1 concern people have is that they’re going to be embarrassed or that people are going to think they’re stupid,” Fetterman says. “Admitting that you’re wrong, even to yourself, you have this fear that you’re going to be rejected by your fellow humans.”
The irony is how wrong we are about the perception of being wrong. Fetterman’s research shows admitting wrongness actually improves our reputation. By owning up to our errors, others see us as friendlier and more agreeable. In his lab, Fetterman is studying whether knowing the reputational impacts of admitting wrongness will determine whether people will be more willing to admit they’re wrong in the future. “So we’re trying to subtly teach people about our own research, and then seeing if that affects whether or not they’ll admit they’re wrong in a different situation,” he says.
The wake-up call
Acknowledging errors can happen as quickly as realizing we tapped the wrong person on the shoulder at an event to a years-long process of slowly determining how we previously saw the world was wrong.
Growing up, Anna Chiranova had a specific set of beliefs: “I thought poor people were lazy and the government was full of a bunch of socialist bureaucrats sitting around trying to play Robin Hood with my money,” she says. When she graduated from college, the recession was at its peak. Chiranova worked three jobs, none of which offered health insurance, rented an apartment with roommates, and made instant ramen stretch to last two meals. “I learned pretty quickly that sometimes, no matter how hard you work, there are systemic failures working to keep you down,” Chiranova, who now runs her own video production company, says.
Sometimes we form new beliefs that replace old ones, like Chiranova, or we’re alerted to signals pointing out our wrongness, like a two-hour road trip turning into a seven-hour one thanks to a few wrong turns. Just the systematic presentation of evidence defying our beliefs can help move the needle toward a wake-up call, Fetterman says. “Over time, fact after fact after fact will start to erode people’s beliefs away.”
To come to these realizations, Brown says we have to be open to the fact that we’re capable of making errors and setting our ego aside to accept we live in a world where we’ve faltered or have changed our minds in some way. In fact, Fetterman says, just accepting our own mistakes can allow us to be more open to being wrong.
It’s natural to get defensive or provide excuses for why you were wrong, but “these strategies for deflecting responsibility for our errors stand in the way of a better, more productive relationship to wrongness,” Schulz writes. To admit erroneousness without excuse — to simply state, “I was wrong” — is a skill, Brown says. “It probably is going to come out more as an explanation of why they were doing what they were doing,” Brown says. But with time and practice, we can come to recognize our mistakes without explaining them. The key is to consistently own up to our mistakes as soon as we realize we’re wrong.
The negative ways we view ourselves in the midst of admitting wrongness can be the biggest barriers to moving forward. “We stand in our own way more than anyone else, with shame and regret and fear,” Brown says. “Do we forgive ourselves for not getting it right? Sometimes we can beat up ourselves worse than anyone else. And can we release that need to be right? Can we allow for the fact that we had to apologize?”
Then, if an apology is necessary, Brown says to first acknowledge the wrongdoing and then to apologize without shame by saying, “I know I said hurtful things to you during our argument. I was wrong and I apologize.”
Evan Cruz was so steadfastly dedicated to making his blog a success that he asked his mother, who he lives with, to financially support him, paying for his living expenses and training while he built his platform. Instead, his mother told him to get a job. Tensions came to a head last October when he accused her of not supporting his goals. “She got very angry at me about it and imposed living expenses for what seemed to be just to show me the lesson of appreciation,” Cruz says.
After a few days, Cruz says he began to see things from his mom’s perspective: “I can see why she doesn’t want to support my blogging ventures considering that I haven’t generated a profit yet. Any parent would not support that.” He told his mother he was wrong; she told him to show it in his actions. Cruz got a full-time job as a civil engineer at the Florida Department of Transportation and picked up slack around the house. He says their relationship has since improved.
Use mistakes as an opportunity to model wrongness
Normalizing wrongness can help people more easily come to realizations of their own fallibility. Fetterman is studying what happens when we see someone else admit they’re wrong, especially if they’re in a position of power, like a politician, influencer, or professor. If we see people own up to mistakes and move on from them, it may be that we’re more likely to admit fault ourselves.
When Strand informed her co-authors, the editor of the scientific journal where the study was published, the granting agency, and the committee reviewing her tenure of her mistake, she was relieved that she didn’t lose her grant, and she still got tenure. “My fears about how terrible the consequences of this could have been didn’t play out,” she says. “Seeing that could be useful for other people because if you’ve done something wrong, and you haven’t seen anyone else do that before, it’s very easy to assume that the consequences are going to be terrible.” In an effort to normalize mistakes in scientific research, Strand published an account of her experience and was blown away by the response. “I have been contacted by about a dozen other people who have found mistakes in their own work and said, ‘This actually was really useful for me in figuring out how to deal with this and inspired me to do the right thing.’”
Despite the resistance toward it, wrongness can be cause for celebration. When we own up to the fact that our snide remarks hurt our partner, we can revel in having a productive conversation about it and thus becoming closer. Getting a question wrong in class presents an opportunity to learn. Uncovering a mistake in your work allows you to grow.
“Here’s an opportunity for me to learn something,” Strand says. “Here’s an opportunity for me to fix something.”
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