Why do we need to be right?

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One of the most prevalent phenomena in our collective psyche is the need to be right. Pundits debate their views of climate change and political conflicts on television, we have arguments with friends as to who said what, and we often triumphantly proclaim: “I told you so!”

This phenomenon starts early. From a very young age, children are taught the benefits of being right. Our education system is established on the paradigm of right and wrong. Answers deemed to be correct are rewarded; wrong answers result in lower grades, which supposedly lead to a less successful life. As a student, getting the right answer quickly becomes the primary goal. This mental model gets so deeply ingrained, we keep on carrying it in adulthood.

Why we need to be right

Why we need to be right

The need to be right is rooted in our culture, feeding on natural human tendencies that power many of our societal structures. Very often, we don’t seek to be right, we seek to be “more right” compared to somebody else, whether an individual or a group of individuals. The need to be “more right” is mostly based on fear, uncertainty, and our desire to feel connected to each other:

  • Anxiety of abandonment. The need to be right can be a symptom of anxiety of abandonment. Many of us unconsciously worry that people close to them will leave. People who suffer from anxiety of abandonment are often overly sensitive to criticism, tend to take measures to avoid rejection, and work hard to please other people. Being right means being aligned with the “right” way of thinking within a particular group.
  • Fear of failure. In a study looking at the relationship between young athletes and their parents, researchers found a correlation between the parents’ high expectations for achievement and the children’s fear of failure. The more the parents showed a negative reaction to what they perceived as failure from their kid, the more the kid would fear the consequences of being wrong. These emotions are also apparent in the workplace, where many employees struggle to own up to their mistakes for fear of repercussions.
  • Avoiding disappointment. We often choose actions based on our expectations. Being right means that events go to plan, in alignment with our expectations. While the unexpected can result in good surprises, we still tend to favour the expected. In this scenario, our need to be right stems from our illusion of control.

Wanting to be right all the time can also be a form of misplaced intellectualism. The Greek philosopher Socrates defined intellectualism as the process through which “one will do what is right or best just as soon as one truly understands what is right or best.” From this definition emerges the idea that knowing what is right leads to doing what is right. Being right becomes a virtue to strive for. Being wrong becomes a moral faux-pas. However, there are many benefits to being proven wrong.

The beauty of being proven wrong

The need to be right all the time is a form of fixed mindset which hampers personal growth. As Mark Manson puts it in his popular book about managing our fears and uncertainties: “People who base their self-worth on being right about everything prevent themselves from learning from their mistakes. They lack the ability to take on new perspectives and empathize with others. They close themselves off to new and important information. It’s far more helpful to assume that you’re ignorant and don’t know a whole lot. This keeps you unattached to superstitious or poorly informed beliefs and promotes a constant state of learning and growth.”

Each time we are proven wrong is a chance to learn and grow. It’s an opportunity to embrace the scientific discovery process, where the goal is to learn from our experiments through observation, without holding on too tightly to our hypothesis. As Thomas Edison famously said: “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work.”

Because we don’t know what we don’t know, it’s easy to fall prey to the Dunning–Kruger effect when we always need to be right. Holding onto our opinions gives us the illusion of knowledge. “This meta-ignorance (or ignorance of ignorance) arises because lack of expertise and knowledge often hides in the realm of the “unknown unknowns” or is disguised by erroneous beliefs and background knowledge that only appear to be sufficient to conclude a right answer,” explains David Dunning. Being proven wrong helps us break away from the negative cycle of unknown unknowns.

The art of being less wrong

It is not easy to get rid of our need to be right—and it’s often uncomfortable—but some strategies can help to practice the art of being less wrong, mostly by embracing the mistakes that feed our personal growth.

  • Ask questions. When discussing a topic with someone else, try to ask more questions than you make affirmative statements. The goal is not to extract the answer you want. Use open-ended questions to let your interlocutor candidly share their point of view. Whenever a statement seems illogical, do not jump to conclusions; instead, keep on asking more questions.
  • Explore alternative views. Learn about arguments outside of your thought bubble. Read content from authors that do not agree with your point of view, talk with friends who seem to disagree with you. Make an honest effort to try and understand the opposite views. It doesn’t mean you have to change your own view, but give yourself a chance to get proven wrong.
  • Fail like a scientist. Embrace the experimental nature of life. Everything is an experiment, every failure a learning opportunity. Instead of being right or wrong, try to formulate hypotheses and to design experiments to test these ideas. Instead of devising ways to prove you are right, ask yourself: “How could this idea be wrong?”

At its core, the art of being less wrong is the art of being curious. Asking questions, exploring alternative views, and failing like a scientist are all ways to encourage having an open mind and to expand your intellectual horizons. To paraphrase a famous Chinese proverb, it’s better to be a fool for a minute than to be a fool for life.