It’s hard to be wrong, isn’t it. I admire the people who make it look easy—those who take in information, furrow their brow, look over the piles of life experiences and drawn conclusions in their brain, realize this new thing doesn’t quite fit anywhere, and yet manage to move things around enough to find just a little bit of space for this new thing to rest. There might be dust and noise as they adjust their brain to receive the new information. But when things settle down, it’s like it’s always been there. It’s integrated into the cracks and spaces and perhaps even taken the place of some old notion, forming a new worldview.
It is so hard to do this.
It is instinctual to balk at being wrong.
Most of us associate being wrong with shame and humiliation. That sinking in our chests and gut, burning cheeks, feeling small and stupid. Our brains want to protect us from being humiliated, and so want us to push off this humiliation. One way to do this is to defend ourselves—in this case, by convincing others that we’re not wrong. We all do it to some degree, we all know people who seem constantly on the defensive or, worse, who preemptively put others down so they appear right. I find myself needing complicated justifications for decisions or opinions—not because anyone asked, but my brain paints these pictures just in caseI’m asked to explain myself. Like I’m studying to be a character witness. “We find the defendant not guilty because it’s clear she had a very good reason for doing what she did.”
My association between being right and being a good person is obviously a rabbit hole, and one for another day.
What I want to explore is the fact that this inner monologue, in the end, isn’t to justify to others that I’m wrong. It’s to convince myself that I’m not wrong.
I almost hate to throw out the phrase “cognitive dissonance,” because it seems to be such a buzzword these days.
In case you’ve been living under a rock lately (lucky you), cognitive dissonance is when your brain is struggling to hold two contradictory facts in the same space. For example, “I believe the world will end on November 13, 2017” and “the world didn’t end on November 13, 2017.”
Or, “I love Kevin Spacey’s acting” and “Kevin Spacey assaulted a boy.”
Or, “I supported the candidate who ran for my party” and “The candidate did something illegal.”
Or, “I like my lifestyle with my SUV and daily meat portions” and “Scientists agree that climate change is caused by humans.”
The list goes on. It can even include very small things. “My training plan says to run today” and “I’m exhausted and worn down and my foot hurts.” “I’m in a hurry” and “there are people in front of me who got here first.”
As I witness the dialogue around me these days—even amongst friends—it is amazing to me that it is easier to deny the fact than to change our opinion
Think about this. It is easier for us humans to reframe our worlds to fit with our opinions, than it is for us to take in the new information and adjust our opinions.
We truly put ourselves at the center of our own personal solar system, in which everything revolves around us. It requires less effort and is therefore more comfortable to stay static and cling to our predispositions than it is to let them mold and shape us.
This has two huge implications.
The first is that it doesn’t allow change and growth. Avoiding the discomfort that cognitive dissonance brings means we spend a lot of time also avoiding changing and evolving. I believe we can go a long way by just admitting that it’s hard, admitting that we may be resistant to it, but find ways to do it, anyway. This is especially challenging because this resistance to being wrong is such a knee-jerk reaction that it’s hard to even realize we’re doing it. In a fast-paced world, it’s hard to stop and notice when we’re in that space. But it is so vital for us to do, otherwise we’re careening along our tracks in danger of falling off completely or running into another similarly out-of-control train.
And that brings me to the second implication: the obvious collateral damage from me trying not to be wrong is that it necessarily implies that others ARE wrong.
I’m with you, I fight this at every turn. It’s quite meta, actually: convincing myself that I’m not wrong about the fact that me being wrong doesn’t mean others are wrong.
But, there it is. If Newton could define it, he’d say something about two entities occupying the same space (he’d leave out time, because Einstein would do that later) cannot be in opposition and still occupy the same space.
The more I witness the world around me, and deal with my own cognitive dissonances, the more I am convinced that this battle of egos is underlying the division we’re all feeling right now. How crazy is it that this thing we all do, this thing we all have in common, is the force driving us apart right now? If we let this need to be right drive our every action and decision, we will by definition always be at odds with those around us, always be contradictory and defensive.
And because we live in a world of online forums and instant gratification, we don’t communicate in a style that allows space for others struggling with the same issues. We try to convince everyone that we’re right and that of course makes others hold even tighter to their beliefs, because it’s yet another threat of being wrong. We very rarely say, “Hey, how are you feeling about this new piece of information? How can I help you make space for it?” Even more rarely do we say, “Hey, I’m having trouble finding space for this new piece of information. Give me some time and I’ll try to get there.” Instead, we lash out and defend our territory.
Our internal struggle to be right and to force the world to change around us is, for me, the true definition of entitlement. Another word that is flying around these days, but one I keep coming back to.
What if we all held each other in a space that allowed grappling with these issues instead of making it a black-and-white, right-and-wrong issue?
What if we held ourselves in this space?
I don’t think it’s against Newton’s law above (the one I made up) to say that two entities can occupy overlapping space if they take on a slightly different shape. If they’re malleable into the space of truth rather than both being so rigid that neither one can fit.