[Fear of Being Wrong; from the Latin, Agnoscere, meaning I acknowledge and Erro, meaning error or wrong. Suffix is from the Greek, meaning fear. There is probably a better word to define what may also be categorized as the stupidity of stubbornness, but until I find it, my made up word will have to suffice.]
As an observer of human behavior I watch the news, read newspapers, listen to the radio, note the interaction of friends and strangers and absorb stories from those around me. In as objective a manner as possible, I struggle to put all these myriad pieces into a meaningful and comprehensible jigsaw puzzle, readily admitting this is still a long way from the notion of a purely disengaged, pragmatic viewer, but it’s an attempt.
One common characteristic I’ve noticed in almost all of us (with a few notable exceptions) is our inability not only to admit an error, but also our extreme fear of that admission. As if by saying, “I am wrong” we will be diminished or even shrivel up and blow away.
When Socrates addressed the leaders of ancient Greece he told them he knew nothing, basically inferring they knew even less than nothing because they believed they knew everything. He was then sentenced to death. The wise men of Athens were so afraid of looking at their own errors of judgment, they just ridded themselves of the person who held up the mirror instead of assessing their own behavior.
This scenario has been playing out over and over again through recorded history; heretics burned at the stake for decrying the dictates of illogical religious dogma; dissidents who stood up for rational understanding are “disappeared” into the bowels of Soviet or Chilean prisons; hundreds are exorcised from the creative arts by paranoid Un-American Activities committee members who believed their own insanity; plus hundreds of thousands of other examples.
What is it about the vast majority of our species who finds the admission of error so horrifically frightening?
I have heard stories about Albert Einstein’s enthusiastic desire to be proven wrong. “Please”, he would beg, “show me where I’ve made a mistake.” This was not some stunt, but a true desire for knowledge that went beyond ego or insecurity. He longed for complete comprehension of a subject so if he erred in a calculation, he wanted to know so he could move forward with greater understanding.
This should be the mantra of every politician, scientist, laborer, teacher, accountant, lawyer, parent and businessperson on the planet. Don’t we all want to know what we’ve done wrong so we can improve and become better at whatever we do? By pretending our mistakes were made by someone else or by sticking our collective heads in the sand or even worse, by punishing the people who point out an error, are we not diminishing ourselves by an even greater degree than by admitting our faux pas?
We have this propensity to make a decision or come to some conclusion and stay with it despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This behavior may be based on ego, loss of power or a dread of perceived defeat, but regardless of the reasons for our debilitating and irrational fear of being wrong, if we were able to more readily admit our mistakes, we could alter destructive paths and avoid situations leading to disastrous outcomes. So many people are unwilling to admit the human role in climate change because the facts are, as Mr. Gore pointed out, inconvenient and the acceptance of such obvious science is admitting to a decades old misconception.
I cannot count the number of times I’ve read an article in The New Yorker or watched a segment of 60 Minutes that discussed new, creative ways of teaching or of showing a method of running businesses in a more efficient manner. Each time these remarkably effective concepts run up against brick walls as the organizations noted in the presentation find reasons to stay with “tried and true” outdated formulas despite the success of innovative ideas. If these school boards embraced the best and most current methods of education, it would be tantamount to admitting prior erroneous behavior. YIKES! Imagine efficiently run schools actually educating the children of our country.
Of course there are exceptions, but in most cases they are based on minor admissions. For instance if we respond to a clue incorrectly while watching Jeopardy or get the time of an appointment wrong, we can fess-up to these kinds of mistakes with only a slight amount of embarrassment. It is the larger issues, when credibility is at stake, where we balk at waving a white flag.
The bravado of winning, of being right despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, runs through the veins of our species. Before we can stop the pandemic of self-destructive behavior, humans must first admit fallibility and unfortunately I don’t think that’s possible. Though I hope I’m wrong.