Being Wrong — Overcoming Mistakes Ain’t Easy (part 2)

*note — this is a sequel to an earlier post on Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz.

To pick up where we left off, our problem with “being wrong” is twofold:

(1) we are often in the position of the Road Runner (from the cartoon)  who learns too late that the ground is no longer below him, and

(2) employing ways that accelerate the learning process   — which in the abstract we all agree makes sense –collides with our blindness toward our errors,  a blindness that we go to great lengths to maintain.

If I have an optimistic view of error, error as the source of improvement, creativity, or entertainment (a comedy of errors), probing my beliefs for error  receives a boost.  On the other hand, if I view error as an embarrassment, degrading,  or worse, as sin or  evil, being wrong  is perilous to my reputation.  Realizing that I am wrong is a real kick to my  sense of self-worth.

Although subscribing to the optimistic view of error helps out, we nonetheless face daunting challenges in recognizing our own mistakes.  Kathryn Schulz recounts numerous studies and illustrations of our gullibility and blindness before our own beliefs. Visual and perceptual tricks, false sense of certainty about memories of key events, our uncanny ability to make things up and argue on the basis of very little experience and knowledge all leads us astray.

Our ability to bullshit, or more politely, to confabulate, (and less politely, to act the role of the Modern Jackass, a reference to a segment of This American Life) Schulz ties back to a theory-making instinct which has/had survival value.   But first, an example of confabulating from Being Wrong (pages 80-81).

Two psychologists, Robert Nisbett and Timothy Wilson, asked customers in a department store to compare what they explained were different varieties of pantyhose.  In fact the pantyhose were not different.  Nevertheless,  store customers not only had preferences, they were able to explain them in terms of differences in color and feel.  And, when the psychologist revealed the experiment to the customers, many refused to back away from their initial assessment, insisting they found differences among the pantyhose.

Schulz puts emphasis on the first misstep of the store customers, assuming that there had to be detectable differences in the pantyhose.   It is not hard to imagine that their insistence that the pantyhose were different follows from embarrassment and wanting to avoid admitting to oneself that one was fooled.  Why the problem with saying at the outset: I don’t see any differences at all in the pantyhose?  Yes, I have been told that there are differences, but couldn’t the psychologists be wrong?

Schulz says something very interesting. “The problem…. is that we are confused about what ignorance actually feels like. At first blush, it seems that the feeling should be one of blankness, of nothing coming to mind when an answer is required.”  “Sometimes this is how ignorance feels.”

Ask me about a specific fact (her example, who is the president of Kyrgyzstan?), I will have no trouble telling you that I have absolutely no idea.  Ask me to compare pantyhose,  opine on the Cubs chances to go to the World Series in 2011, or on countless other subjects, I will feel compelled to say something plausible and come up with a story that I will even  believe is true.   And typically this story will be constructed without much evidence, if any.


We are dependent creatures in yet another way. Not only does it take a village to raise a child, for us  to know when we are wrong, we appear to require other  people who are willing to contradict us.  However, to be able to “hear” criticism  we need to be open to experiences/knowledge which contradicts our beliefs.  How is that possible? Yes, there will be a part 3.

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1 Response to Being Wrong — Overcoming Mistakes Ain’t Easy (part 2)

  1. Fathead says:

    I like the notion of an optimistic view of error. I wonder, for example, what other conclusions could be drawn from the pantyhose experiment? Could it not be that the apparently confabulating pantyhose folks may have more tactile or visual acuity than the two psychologists? Were controls for that built into the experiment? And were the pantyhose tested in a laboratory for equivalence? While the same brand and model, the fabric could come from different lots manufactured in different countries, with slight differences in the fabric. Lastly, did the psychologists unconsciously give the volunteers subtle clues that “helped” them see differences? Clever Hans (Google if you don’t know the reference) or an American Jackass?

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