Why it's so hard to admit you're wrong, according to science

Our mental wiring makes it difficult to own up to our mistakes, but there are ways to make it a little easier—and research suggests we can all stand to benefit from acknowledging our errors, Kristin Wong writes for the New York Times' "Smarter Living." 

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Why it's hard to admit you're wrong

You can chalk up that niggling feeling you get when you're wrong to cognitive dissonance, Wong writes. According to Wong, cognitive dissonance is "the stress we experience when we hold two contradictory thoughts, beliefs, opinions, or attitudes." 

As Carol Tavris, co-author of "Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)," puts it, "Cognitive dissonance is what we feel when the self-concept—I'm smart, I'm kind, I'm convinced this belief is true—is threatened by evidence that we did something that wasn't smart, that we did something that hurt another person, that the belief isn't true."

It's an uncomfortable feeling, and according to Tavris, the only way to resolve it is to either "modify the self-concept or accept the evidence"—and research suggests the latter is a lot easier than the former. For instance, research from the 1950s explored how a small religious group coped with the cognitive dissonance of having their belief in aliens and the impending apocalypse proven wrong by reframing the situation. It wasn't that they were incorrect in their beliefs, the group argued; rather, God had merely decided to spare them.

And on the flip side, "research has shown that it can feel good to stick to our guns," Wong writes, citing a study showing that "people who refused to apologize after a mistake had more self-esteem and felt more in control and powerful than those who did not refuse."

It's better to apologize, research says

But there are downsides to standing your ground, Wong writes.

For instance, Tyler Okimoto, author of the apology study, pointed out that refusing to apologize can undermine "the trust on which a relationship is based," lengthen conflict, or encourage retaliation. According to experts, it can also make you "less open to constructive criticism, ... which can help hone skills, rectify bad habits, and improve yourself over all," Wong writes.

How to make a change

So how can you learn to admit error and change your behavior? Wong breaks it down into three steps:

  1. Recognize what cognitive dissonance feels like so you can accurately assess your response. According to Wong, cognitive dissonance often plays out as feelings of confusion, stress, embarrassment, or guilt. "Those feelings do not necessarily mean you are in the wrong, but you can at least use them as reminders to explore the situation from an impartial perspective and objectively question whether you are at fault," she writes.

  2. Familiarize yourself with your "usual justifications and rationalizations," Wong continues. She recommends thinking of a time when you knew you were wrong, but you tried to rationalize or justify the situation regardless. "Remember how it felt to rationalize your behavior and pinpoint that feeling as cognitive dissonance the next time it happens," she writes.

  3. Lastly, remember that people are often more willing to forgive than we think—and that a steadfast refusal to admit error likely reveals low self-confidence, according to Okimoto. Okimoto pointed out that not only do traits like humility and honestly make you more relatable, but "if it is clear to everybody that you made a mistake, digging your heels in actually shows people your weakness of character rather than strength" (Wong, New York Times, 5/22).

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