Nobody’s perfect, and everyone’s bound to commit mistakes. However, sometimes, the hardest part is admitting those mistakes. Granted, some of them are more impactful and harder to forgive than others; however, regardless of the gravity, we must learn to admit the wrongs that we commit humbly. People can be wrong about many things, from misremembering the name of a ’90s pop song to incorrectly casting blame onto a friend during a heated argument. Mistakes happen on scales big and small, tangible and moral or ethical topics. Author Kathryn Schulz loosely defines being wrong “as a deviation from external reality, or an internal upheaval in what we believe” — with the caveat that wrongness is too vast to fit neatly into either category.
Regardless of its definition, people are often afraid to experience it or hesitant to admit it. From a young age, society instills in children the message of “it’s wrong to hit your sister” and “it’s right to say please and thank you.” As time goes on, this “creates this level of perfectionism where it’s really hard to be wrong because it feels like your whole person is inherently wrong,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Moe Ari Brown. “It just puts these value-based labels on every single thing that we’re doing.” In recent years, an entire cottage industry has emerged, devoted to revisiting history in an effort to point out past wrongdoing, showcasing just how much society likes to be right and castigate those who were not. Accepting we’re capable of being wrong and moving on from blunders relatively unscathed can provide solace for a society squeamish about slip-ups.
Barriers to Recognizing Error
What prevents us from realizing our wrongness is the psychological theory of cognitive dissonance, says Adam Fetterman, assistant professor and director of the Personality, Emotion, and Social Cognition Lab. Cognitive dissonance is when two beliefs or behaviors conflict or when a person’s actions contradict their beliefs. (Examples include smoking despite knowing the health risks or telling a lie despite considering yourself an honest person.) This conflict usually results in anxiety or feelings of uncertainty.
“We’re highly motivated to reduce that uncertainty,” Fetterman says. “Oftentimes, the most common way that people get rid of it is by rejecting the new information or creating a new cognition that basically gets rid of it. Not too often do we actually change our thoughts or behaviors in order to align with the new information” This can look like only taking in information that confirms already held beliefs, justifying the idea, or denying anything that contradicts their beliefs. “The motivation to reduce that dissonance leads us to even double down or to come back even stronger with our beliefs,” Fetterman says.
The irony is how wrong we are about the perception of being wrong. Fetterman’s research shows admitting wrongness actually improves our reputation. By owning up to our errors, others see us as friendlier and more agreeable.
The Wake-Up Call
Acknowledging errors can happen as quickly as realizing we tapped the wrong person on the shoulder at an event to a years-long process of slowly determining how we previously saw the world was wrong.
Sometimes we form new beliefs that replace old ones, or we’re alerted to signals pointing out our wrongness, like a two-hour road trip turning into a seven-hour one thanks to a few wrong turns. Just the systematic presentation of evidence defying our beliefs can help move the needle toward a wake-up call, Fetterman says. “Over time, fact after fact after the fact will start to erode people’s beliefs away.” To come to these realizations, we have to be open to the fact that we’re capable of making errors and setting our ego aside to accept we live in a world where we’ve faltered or have changed our minds in some way. In fact, just accepting our own mistakes can allow us to be more open to being wrong.
It’s natural to get defensive or provide excuses for why you were wrong, but “these strategies for deflecting responsibility for our errors stand in the way of a better, more productive relationship to wrongness.” To admit erroneousness without excuse — to simply state, “I was wrong” — is a skill. “It probably is going to come out more as an explanation of why they were doing what they were doing.” But with time and practice, we can come to recognize our mistakes without explaining them. The key is to consistently own up to our mistakes as soon as we realize we’re wrong.
Use Mistakes as an Opportunity to Model Wrongness
Normalizing wrongness can help people more easily come to realizations of their own fallibility. Fetterman is studying what happens when we see someone else admit they’re wrong, especially if they’re in a position of power, like a politician, influencer, or professor. If we see people own up to mistakes and move on from them, it may be that we’re more likely to admit fault ourselves.
Four Steps to Say You’re Wrong and Move on
- Agree with the accusation or judgment against you.
- Give your rationale for what you did (but make sure it doesn’t sound like an excuse). If there is no rationale for your behavior, or if the words would be inappropriate, simply comment on your “lesson learned.”
- Let the other person have the final say.
Admitting you’re wrong is not as much fun as, say, closing a $10 million contract, nor as easy on the ego. But it’s certainly much quicker for clearing a conflict and improving the relationship. Often, committing a mistake is more painless than admitting it. That’s why we should work harder in learning how to humble ourselves and admit our wrongdoings. Remember, admitting you’re wrong is not tantamount to you admitting that you are a weak or irredeemable person; contrary, taking ownership of our shortcomings is a sign of courage and readiness to improve.