When it comes to being wrong we all agree that human nature is not infallible, that we all make mistakes, that perfection is unattainable. However, says Kathryn Schulz in her Ted Talk  On being wrong, “when it comes down to me, right now, to all the beliefs I hold, here in the present tense, suddenly all of this abstract appreciation of fallibility goes out the window – and I can’t actually think of anything I’m wrong about. And the thing is, the present tense is where we live. We go to meetings in the present tense; we go on family vacations in the present tense; we go to the polls and vote in the present tense. So effectively, we all kind of wind up traveling through life, trapped in this little bubble of feeling very right about everything.”

And this is a problem. It is a problem for each of us as individuals, both in our personal and professional lives, and it’s a problem for all of us together as a culture. One reason why we get stuck inside this feeling of rightness is what she calls error blindness. “Most of the time, we don’t have any kind of internal cue to let us know that we’re wrong about something, until it’s too late. But there’s a second reason that we get stuck inside this feeling as well – and this one is cultural.” From an early age we learn in school that, first of all, people who get stuff wrong are lazy, irresponsible dimwits – and second of all, that the way to succeed in life is to never make any mistakes.” And so, what we learn very early on is that getting something wrong means that there is something wrong with us. “So we just insist that we’re right, because it makes us feel smart and responsible and virtuous and safe.”

However, the internal sense of rightness that we all experience so often is not a reliable guide to what is actually going on in the external world. It represents a huge practical problem and it is also a huge social problem. “Think for a moment about what it means to feel right. It means that you think that your beliefs just perfectly reflect reality. And when you feel that way, you’ve got a problem to solve, which is, how are you going to explain all of those people who disagree with you? It turns out, most of us explain those people the same way, by resorting to a series of unfortunate assumptions. The first thing we usually do when someone disagrees with us is we just assume they’re ignorant. They don’t have access to the same information that we do, and when we generously share that information with them, they’re going to see the light and come on over to our team. When that doesn’t work, when it turns out those people have all the same facts that we do and they still disagree with us, then we move on to a second assumption, which is that they’re idiots. They have all the right pieces of the puzzle, and they are too moronic to put them together correctly. And when that doesn’t work, when it turns out that people who disagree with us have all the same facts we do and are actually pretty smart, then we move on to a third assumption: they know the truth, and they are deliberately distorting it for their own malevolent purposes. So this is a catastrophe.”

This connection to our own faultlessness keeps us from precluding mistakes when we absolutely need to and causes us to treat each other offensively. But as Schulz declares, what’s most inexplicable and most dreadful about this is that it misses the whole point of being human. “It’s like we want to imagine that our minds are just these perfectly translucent windows and we just gaze out of them and describe the world as it unfolds. And we want everybody else to gaze out of the same window and see the exact same thing. That is not true, and if it were, life would be incredibly boring.”


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