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Those who can't admit they're wrong

9 Post author: Zed 01 July 2011 05:09AM

The sequences cover the virtue of admitting you've made a mistake. We all make mistakes and when we do we ought to say oops and move on. I was taught this at an early age and I grew up in an environment where admitting error had no social stigma and where correcting somebody (even in public) was commended. Good times were had by all.

Needless to say, I eventually came into contact with the real world and I had to change my behavior. For instance, correcting somebody's pronunciation used to result in immediate repetition of the correct pronunciation followed by "thanks" and the discussion would continue without interruption. Or just a simple nod to acknowledge the correction. In the adult world a correction results in an annoyed look or a glare instead.

So it turns out that some people, highly intelligent and intellectual people, seem to be completely unable to admit error. Even when it concerns a trivial mistake, such as getting a factoid wrong, the best response I can hope for is a grunt of acknowledgement. I'm not talking about uneducated or intellectually insecure people here.

Okay, so a lot of adults don't appreciate being corrected. Duly noted. I could move on, but the virtues of scholarship and curiosity compel me to find out why. Predictably Irrational (Ariely) and Influence (Cialdini) don't have the answers. My non-scientific experiments indicate that prefacing a statement with "That's wrong because..." doesn't work. It seems to make people extra defensive. Standard strategies of persuasion do work, of course. Rephrasing the correction as a question? Works. Saying "Hmm" and pausing before you correct? Works. Making a suggestion that indirectly points out the mistake? Yep, works. These are all standard strategies of persuasion and they can be used to work around the issue but they don't explain why it is that some people have such an aversion to being corrected in the first place.

So where does the aversion come from?

In a group context signaling could explain it: when you correct somebody you draw attention to a mistake and this could lead to (perceived) loss of status. I don't think this is the real cause because people seem equally annoyed when corrected in a private conversation where there is nobody to signal towards. In cases where signaling takes a dominant role (e.g. when a bunch of guys are talking and a woman joins in) you clearly see a change in behavior because the guys wish to be perceived in a specific way. So in some groups signaling effects can make it more difficult to admit error but signaling is not the underlying cause that makes people averse to acknowledging mistakes in the first place.

Maybe it is an issue of ego. Is a correction seen as the role of a teacher thereby forcing the other in the student role? That would explain the aversion, but if that's the explicit thought process otherwise rational people would see it doesn't make sense and change their behavior accordingly. So there can't be an explicit (tactical) thought process underlying the behavior at all!

Maybe people don't wish to admit their mistake because they prefer to keep it all ambiguous. By admitting a mistake they know I know that they know they're wrong (youtube). This feels like the most plausible explanation, even though the explicit admission of the mistake does not change the state of the shared knowledge: the situation wasn't really ambiguous to start with.

So then I'm forced to conclude it's some knee-jerk, gut level aversion to being corrected that has no underlying logic or motivation. I cannot even begin to comprehend this. Given the effort required to find and correct (cognitive) mistakes how can we feel anything but gratitude when somebody points out where we go wrong?

Can somebody who has (or had) this aversion to admitting mistakes explain it in terms I can understand?

Comments (41)

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 01 July 2011 06:01:53PM 17 points [-]

You dismiss status/signalling concerns as the cause of annoyance on the grounds that people seem just as annoyed when corrected in private. But if we had an algorithm for being annoyed at being corrected because of the loss of status, would it necessarily check whether anyone important was around? It seems much simpler to run the algorithm "Did he correct me? If so, get annoyed" than "Did he correct me in such a way that people whose perception of me I need to care about will notice and downgrade me? If so, get annoyed." And besides that, status games don't cease just because there are only two of you.

Comment author: billswift 04 July 2011 04:44:33AM 1 point [-]

This is similar to what I thought. Status seeking behavior is rarely conscious, which is why it is based on emotional responses rather than rational thought. So it is likely an automatic response. The interesting, and unusual, situations are where admitting mistakes and accepting corrections (not quite the same thing) are the norm.

Comment author: Zetetic 01 July 2011 06:02:34AM 9 points [-]

I've asked the same thing, both of myself (I've got it, though I make a conscious effort to suppress it) and others. My conclusion? It is knee-jerk feeling of embarrassment.

Were you perhaps home schooled or brought up in some other non-traditional environment? I ask because I went to public school, and I can tell you that it isn't only in the adult world that people don't like to be corrected. Children routinely make fun of or prod other children when they make mistakes, and at the same time they might shrug off a correction or even make fun of you for making it or for knowing the fact.

There is a fairly good TED talk related to this topic here.

Comment author: Zed 01 July 2011 06:15:06AM *  4 points [-]

Thanks for the TED link.

I had a conventional education (the concept of homeschooling doesn't exist in my part of Europe) but from middle school up to university you choose who you interact with and I (small-mindedly) chose to only interact with the "smart kids" who liked math and science. Classes were also grouped by personality type and interests so that mathy kids don't sit in the same math class as the kids who detest math. I don't think I remember a single occurrence where kids socially punished each other for regular mistakes. For foot-in-mouth moments? Sure. For regular mistakes? Nope. To be fair, maybe I was just oblivious and didn't pick up on it.

Comment author: Zetetic 01 July 2011 07:20:08AM 5 points [-]

Classes were also grouped by personality type and interests so that mathy kids don't sit in the same math class as the kids who detest math.

That is quite interesting; I was not aware that such systems existed. It sounds much cleaner than the system I went through.

Comment author: Benquo 01 July 2011 02:53:56PM *  5 points [-]

I usually welcome a correction (especially on something important) but when I am annoyed by corrections here are some reasons why (could be any subset of these in any given example):

1) A more important thing is being interrupted by a less important thing. (I'm in the middle of explaining something complicated and you're interrupting to correct a mispronounced but perfectly clear word?!)

2) The "error" isn't actually wrong (lots of grammatical stuff falls into this category, like split infinitives and using "they" to mean 3rd person singular ungendered).

2b) The "correction" is a misunderstanding of what I'm saying. If what I'm saying doesn't make sense to you, why not be charitable and assume I must mean something else, rather than assuming that you don't understand because it's wrong?

3) It offends my pride to find out that I am wrong. (I don't endorse this one, just noting that it happens to me.)

Correcting in the form of a question does a lot to help with 2 and 3, 2 because it doesn't assume I'm the one in the wrong, 3 because it allows me to retain agency and be the one to determine that I've made an error, which is less humiliating than submitting to the superior judgment of someone else.

Comment author: Zed 01 July 2011 05:34:39PM *  0 points [-]

1a. Do you also get offended when a book/wikipedia tells you you're wrong?

1b. Would you get offended when a book chapter has a sidebar: "Some ignorant people believe X, which is in contradiction with chapter 1" when you, of course, happen to believe X?

2: Does your pride get offended when you're talking in a group and a person standing next to you is corrected for a belief you hold as well?

3a. You google a question and come across a Quora question that exactly explains your position the way you would have written it. The position is then exposed as idiotic by other Quora members. Pride offended?

3b. The same as 3, but it turns out you were the one who asked the question a year ago and you completely forgot about it. Assuming your pride got offended the first time, does your pride get offended the second time?

If you're offended, for whichever reason, and you then realize it doesn't make sense for you to be offended. Do you automatically stop being offended/upset?

Comment author: Benquo 01 July 2011 08:14:21PM 2 points [-]

1a: No, because the quality of "interruption" is quite different in a book or wikipedia. It's not interrupting my thoughts to make a correction, it's just doing its own thing, which happens to be a correction of my error. For similar reasons it's easier to deal with corrections in online comments than in speech because it doesn't make me stop what I'm doing to listen to it.

1b: No, unless I had a good reason to think the correction was incorrect, in which case I would be annoyed at the condescending tone.

2: Only a very little bit, out of sympathy.

3a, b: A little bit, but I would get over it quickly if I recognized the correction as valid.

Depending on how on my game I am it can take me from 5 seconds to a minute to bring my affect in line with my beliefs.

Comment author: Michaelos 01 July 2011 02:25:52PM 5 points [-]

I think I may have an answer to your question. But I'm going to warn you in advance this post may feel manipulative to be polite. I have a feeling this post will go over either very well, or very poorly. It's a bit of a gamble.


It seems like you decided to come here to ask that question instead of just asking the people you were talking to at the point they were unhappy. Think back to that specific decision. Why did you do that?

For instance, why not just profess that you don't understand to one of those people that you were talking to in person? Wouldn't it have been simpler to Hug the query? With the exception of emotional instability, people tend to be a pretty good judge of their own emotional states. It seems safe to say that in general they are a better judge then people who have never met them such as ourselves.

Now, there are a few ways you can approach this.

  • Admit that yes, people themselves are often the best judge of their own emotional states and ask them.
  • Admit you had some sort of aversion to admitting your lack of social knowledge in a social situation. This feeling of aversion will be similar to the feeling of aversion they are having. Perhaps because you don't wish to admit your lack of social skills because you would prefer to keep it ambiguous? By admitting a lack of social skills, you know they know that you know you lack social skills. This feels a plausible explanation, even though the explicit admission of the mistake does not change the state of the shared knowledge: the situation wasn't really ambiguous to start with.
  • You could also argue with me. But why would you be getting defensive? You just admitted it's something you can't begin to comprehend. Surely you should feel gratitude at every poster who posts here to point out where you went wrong?

Okay, hopefully I'm done sounding purposely manipulative and throwing your words back at you.

Basically, that was an attempt to put you in a position similar to the people who you didn't understand, to show your attitude might be misinterpreted by someone who didn't understand you. You almost certainly don't sound anywhere near that bad. But I am very serious that you should consider asking the people who seem to be reacting poorly. I am just guessing. It may be a good guess, or it may be totally off base. But it's just a hypothesis. You should still want to gather evidence from the source. Even if it's personally awkward.

Comment author: Barry_Cotter 02 July 2011 11:50:16AM *  3 points [-]

You're certainly correct that people are the best judges of their own emotions. I do not endorse the implication that people are normally aware of how and why they feel, at the desired level of granularity. That's unusual, just like being a good teacher is unusual, or being able to break down skills or patterns of action to the 5-second level is.

Most people aren't all that luminous.

Comment author: Zed 01 July 2011 05:19:02PM *  1 point [-]

Interesting idea (although this doesn't strike me as the kind of post that polarizes). Nothing you wrote came across as manipulative although it can clearly be interpreted that way. The principle of charity is by itself reason enough to give the the "manipulative middle" the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, you announced what you were up to ahead of time so I can't be certain how I would have reacted if you hadn't.

I happily admit that I get really annoyed when people maliciously manipulate me. When people manipulate me with good intentions I don't get upset.

Although I realize that the questions you asked are rhetorical they are also questions I should be happy to answer when taken at face value.

Why not ask them at the point when they're unhappy? Because at that point they're going to be least receptive to my arguments. Why not ask them later? It's the kind of subject that is difficult to bring up without coming across as judgmental/accusatory. Why ask LessWrong? Because my own speculations are unlikely to be good (I shouldn't assume other people think like me) but personalities fall into rough categories and probably some in the the LessWrong community are familiar with the behavior.

I have to disagree with your conclusion though: why gather evidence from the source? Well, in the best case I end up extrapolating from 3 data points and in the worst case I end up alienating people unnecessarily. I want to gather evidence from the source, but the act clearly has negative expectation! Rationality is not an excuse for self-destructive behavior. So given my options I'd much rather learn from the experience of others.

Comment author: fiddlemath 02 July 2011 08:17:25AM 2 points [-]

Why not ask them at the point when they're unhappy? Because at that point they're going to be least receptive to my arguments.

Wait, this doesn't follow. You're not trying to get them to accept your argument, when you ask. You're trying to understand why they're angry or threatened.

Comment author: Emile 01 July 2011 08:24:47AM *  5 points [-]

So then I'm forced to conclude it's some knee-jerk, gut level aversion to being corrected that has no underlying logic or motivation. I cannot even begin to comprehend this.

Looks like pretty standard conditioning to me - people dislike things that are followed by negative feelings, and realizing you're wrong is a negative feeling (though you can probably learn to take it positively).

Whether one attributes positive or negative connotations to being corrected probably strongly depends of your education, of how your parents and teachers taught you things, of how often the things they taught you turned out to be useful afterwards, of how often being corrected helped you learn things you wanted to learn, of how often the correction went along with mocking or a harsh put-down, of whether there was any reason to "oppose" the correction (for example if another group is trying to impose a certain social norm (way of speaking for example) to your group, and your group opposes that change) ... and all that may vary from domain to domain.

(Somewhat unrelated to the above) When I was learning Chinese, one problem I had was that Chinese people wouldn't correct my pronunciation and grammar often enough, either because they were being polite, or because they were used to my way of speaking and din't want to go through the trouble. That's a case where I would welcome corrections, though I can't guarantee I carry it over to other domains (I'm not as patient when people criticize my driving, and are much more likely to come up with excuses and explanations, and manifest annoyance).

Comment author: MixedNuts 01 July 2011 02:30:20PM 4 points [-]

I'm currently studying a wonderful case of "No! I'm right! Lalala I can't hear you!". It seems to be completely about status. She used to have huge self-esteem issues, and she uses what she calls "confidence" as a protective shell. Changing her mind about something (not admitting to it, just stopping defending it) would destroy it, so she just doesn't. And believes a lot of weird crap as a result, even in her own domain.

Rephrasing the correction as a question? Works.

That's annoying. What do you do if you're genuinely unsure if they're making a specific mistake and want to know? That's like the one where any expression of preference is a demand, so you can't express weak preferences. I hate people.

Comment author: Zed 01 July 2011 05:23:29PM 4 points [-]

That's annoying.

I think so too. But if I were to treat others the way I wish to be treated I wouldn't be able to function in society. I'd drive everybody crazy.

Comment author: MrHen 03 July 2011 01:51:02PM 0 points [-]

That's annoying. What do you do if you're genuinely unsure if they're making a specific mistake and want to know?

How does phrasing a correction as a question limit your options? I don't understand how the specific mistake part ties into the correction as question part.

Comment author: MixedNuts 03 July 2011 03:54:21PM 1 point [-]

If "You're making <mistake> at <point>." is rude and you should say "Hmm, can you explain <point> some more? It looks like it might be making <mistake>, but I'm not sure.", what should you say when you mean the latter?

Comment author: MrHen 03 July 2011 03:58:04PM 0 points [-]

Oh, okay. I guess my form of "correction as question" is more like:

Is <mistake> correct?

Comment author: MixedNuts 03 July 2011 04:06:25PM 1 point [-]

Same problem! If "No, you're wrong, Swedish isn't the official language of Sweden." should be phrased as "Is it correct that Swedish is the official language of Sweden?", then what do you say when you vaguely remember something about Swedish not being the official language of Sweden but aren't sure and think the other person is likely to know?

Comment author: MrHen 03 July 2011 06:20:14PM 1 point [-]

Eh. I guess I don't see a problem with how the language works here. "Correction as question" probably takes longer but if people are getting confused by the process then I consider that a weakness of the particular implementation.

For example:

  • Each of the apples are green.
  • Should "each" be used with "are" or "is"? As in, "Each of the apples is green."

Your challenge is that this is now ambiguous with regards to whether or not I know the answer. Except, the point isn't what I know. The point is that there is a contention of each+are and the two separate goals of "teach correct grammar" and "learn correct grammar" can move forward in the conversation:

  • Each of the apples are green.
  • Should "each" be used with "are" or "is"? As in, "Each of the apples is green."
  • It should be used with are.

If you needed to know the answer, you got as much information as you could from this speaker. If you have questions you can continue down that path.

If, on the other had, you happen to know the answer, the conversation now forks into a direct confrontation:

  • Each of the apples are green.
  • Should "each" be used with "are" or "is"? As in, "Each of the apples is green."
  • It should be used with are.
  • I was told that each is always treated as singular and, therefore, it should be "each of the apples is green."

So, other than the inconvenience of having to insert a few sentences into the conversation, we haven't lost anything. There isn't any ambiguity and this transition was much smoother than simply saying:

  • Each of the apples are green.
  • "Each" be used with "is": "Each of the apples is green."

There are plenty of reasons why phrasing the correction as a question is helpful &mdash; your point (as I understand it) was that the ambiguity between "correction as question" and "query for information" makes the former not worth it. My counterpoint is that the ambiguity isn't a necessary component of "correction as question".


For what it is worth, I am mostly thinking of corrections that are not direct claims of fact. For instance:

  • Swedish is not the official language of Sweden.

I don't see any advantage to responding to this with a question and, personally, favor the more direct approach:

  • Swedish is not the official language of Sweden.
  • Yes it is.

If I felt obligated to take the less direct approach, I would do as such:

  • Swedish is not the official language of Sweden.
  • Oh? I thought it was.

This can stall out if the other person doesn't offer anything useful in response. (And, by the way, Swedish is the official language according to Wikipedia.)


Also of note, this all changes depending on who is making the mistake. If I happened to be talking with someone I knew favored a direct approach, I would just point out the error because they are more likely to consider that polite than beating around the bush.

Comment author: Hyena 02 July 2011 12:53:04AM 8 points [-]

In grade school, I would not admit mistakes. Ever. As Zetetic pointed out, it was a good way to invite additional torment. If you stood your ground, you looked douchey but you never conceded and so the frustration was less.

In college, I admitted mistakes frequently because admission of mistakes actually brought benefits instead. People didn't torment you and your admission opened up new pathways. Being humble was a pragmatic virtue.

When I left college, I found out that adults are <I>the worst people I've ever dealt with</I>. Status competition was fierce--especially at my government job--and so I never, NEVER, admitted a mistake unless I had planted the mistake for that purpose. If you admitted anything, if you hadn't staged everything perfectly, it would all be used against you. I learned that there was nothing positive in the world, only negatives. Life as a series of demerits until demise.

I think that's why people have hardened so far in their positions, even in private: they have learned that admitting mistakes will bring them harm and learning from them will gain them comparatively little.

Just another reason I live on welfare instead of work, I guess.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 02 July 2011 12:59:57AM 2 points [-]

This isn't universally so, you just need to look for other environments. Ask people you know to figure out how things are where.

Comment author: Hyena 02 July 2011 01:05:52AM 2 points [-]

Sadly, in this economy, my best bet is to use my last job to get a new government job. It only gets worse with permanent positions.

Comment author: loup-vaillant 01 July 2011 08:59:32AM 3 points [-]

Is a correction seen as the role of a teacher thereby forcing the other in the student role?

My girlfriend often say "why do you go out of your way to convince me?", or "It feels like you always want to teach". I can't really respond to that because I can't see how this would be bad. Not at a gut level, at least.

Comment author: Benquo 01 July 2011 02:57:06PM 5 points [-]

Probably because it feels like you're trying to assert too much dominance by controlling her thoughts. People often prefer it if you wait until they ask questions. Of course this may mean you never teach them some things you want to show them, so it's a tradeoff.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 01 July 2011 07:20:55AM 10 points [-]

Meta: There are many correct answers to this question and I'm sure Less Wrong folk will give at least five or ten. However, I've noticed that Less Wrong folk don't seem to be much better than other reasonably smart people at noticing which causal factors contribute most to an outcome when there are many plausible causal factors. Insofar as my perception is evidence this might be a good thing to keep in mind. (Representative datum: The ridiculous number of hypothesis-like-things that attempted to explain large swaths of "akrasia". One should be pretty damn suspicious when ones explanation posits that a single causal factor largely explains the lack of a complex thing.)

Comment author: Bongo 01 July 2011 07:23:59PM *  0 points [-]

Could it be that the whole business about causal factors is just a pretense to tell everyone about how virtuous you are in being ready to admit you're wrong and to commiserate about how most people aren't as virtous?

Comment author: Will_Newsome 01 July 2011 08:27:55PM 0 points [-]

Is the "you" in your comment singular? I can't tell. If so, I don't see how an answer to that question would be pragmatically discovered or particularly informative.

Comment author: Bongo 01 July 2011 11:15:24PM *  1 point [-]

Um, I guess it's the "you" and you use as an informal "one".

Comment author: CaveJohnson 01 July 2011 09:20:41AM *  0 points [-]

One should be pretty damn suspicious when ones explanation posits that a single causal factor largely explains the lack of a complex thing.

So you're saying the pareto principle heuristic isn't good for those kinds of situations? That makes some sense, I suppose.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 01 July 2011 10:39:09AM 0 points [-]

I tried to remain agnostic; on the meta level it could be that 20% of choices of distribution account for 80% of my consternation caused by choices of distribution, or that I am optimizing my message to influence the 20% of people who make 80% of such errors instead of the general Less Wrong populace. I'm advocating a decision policy, much of the epistemic support is swept into the "insofar as my perception is evidence" clause. I can't easily reflect on the intuitive calculus that my brain does to determine the utility of collecting or propagating certain information given many sources of uncertainty.

Comment author: cwillu 02 July 2011 07:20:49AM *  2 points [-]

I think you're leaving out another possibility: that they actually think they're right. This obviously doesn't apply to all cases, but I do think it's more common than you would think.

There's also a (related?) strong desire for consistency, which is explored in "Influence - Science and Practice" (Cialdini), which I found sheds some new light on the material in "How to win friends and influence people".

[Also, welcome to lesswrong]

Comment author: Will_Newsome 01 July 2011 07:06:32AM 4 points [-]

Tangential: I have never seen an algorithm that I'm comfortable using---and therefore doesn't make me stammer or seem less intelligent---for interrupting group conversations to correct something or adjust the conversation to take a more productive path.

Comment author: MrHen 03 July 2011 01:54:03PM 1 point [-]

Also tangential: Have you tried simply getting up to get another drink or go to the bathroom? Chances are high that (a) others will join you (b) the conversation will experience a natural segue and/or (c) the people who still care about the subject will stay behind to continue on their own.

Just a thought. I don't really know what environment you were referring to.

Comment author: saturn 01 July 2011 08:11:03PM 1 point [-]

In a group context signaling could explain it: when you correct somebody you draw attention to a mistake and this could lead to (perceived) loss of status. I don't think this is the real cause because people seem equally annoyed when corrected in a private conversation where there is nobody to signal towards.

People can't be absolutely certain you won't try correcting them again later in a group context, right? So it's better for them to get offended in hopes of discouraging you from doing that.

Comment author: TrE 01 July 2011 08:29:28AM 1 point [-]

Maybe we can tackle this with Transactional Analysis, although I have only a layman's grasp of that (video). If you correct others' errors, the other one might perceive that you are going into "adult state". The other one is not amused by this and goes to adult state as well, leading to "Cross Transaction", which is unstable and might be what you perceive.

Comment author: nate_the_great 14 January 2013 06:58:25PM 0 points [-]

The main reason why people can't or don't want to admit that they made a mistake or don't like to be corrected is because they lack humility. Being humble and willing to learn or improve will allow an individual to see that they made a mistake and find out how not to make the mistake in the future. People who don't accept that they made a mistake are living in their own world thinking they are right about everything when they are really not. They are living in ignorance with no ability to make improvements. They could have also learned this behaviour from friends and parents. But their bevaviour is mostly because of their own attitude and not being humble enough to say " oh i'm sorry" or "wow i didn't know that. thanks." Its just a part of some people's personality to be that way. People who are wise know that we learn by making mistakes. We learn to walk by falling many times. So there is nothing wrong with making a mistake. A mistake just lets you know what doesn't work or how not to do something to get the result you want. Then you can change your actions to get the desired results.

Comment author: Michaelos 01 July 2011 02:25:58PM *  0 points [-]

And I accidentally double posted. An Ironic time to make a mistake.

Comment author: atucker 02 July 2011 09:09:54PM *  0 points [-]

In a group context signaling could explain it: when you correct somebody you draw attention to a mistake and this could lead to (perceived) loss of status. I don't think this is the real cause because people seem equally annoyed when corrected in a private conversation where there is nobody to signal towards.

People could also interpret corrections (particularly ones uncorrelated with what they're talking about, like pronunciation) as signals of dominance, thus making them something to be disliked or resented.

Comment author: endoself 01 July 2011 11:07:40PM -1 points [-]
Comment author: sketerpot 01 July 2011 11:29:42PM 3 points [-]

The page you linked to has a whole section noting that "factoid" has acquired a secondary definition that applies to true little facts.