SPP: First I guess want to just talk about your book “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error”. I was hooked on it. I read the initial part the preview on Amazon and I was like I got to look further into this. Because I never thought about how badly, I in particular and people in general, want to be right. And what kind of caused you to come across that thought process?
Kathryn Schulz: Well you know it was kind of a strange thing. I wished that I could tell you that I had sort of one huge formative experience of wrongness and that’s what launched the book, because it would be a good simple story. It’s like oh you know I was 29 years old and I certainly learned that I’d been adopted or something.
Unfortunately, I mean fortunately in that case, but it wasn’t like that at all. My background is in magazine journalism and at the time I was working on several different articles and they just appeared to be absolutely unrelated to each other. I mean one was about a political convention in Texas and one was about the work of a cognitive psychologist, so really seemingly very different stories. And at some point, and this part really was an epiphany, I just was walking home and I realized oh all of these five or six different stories that I’m thinking about have this kind of unspoken subterranean theme, and that theme is Wrongness. And I knew right away from there I was really interested and that this was something I wanted to write a book about.
SPP: Well, can you give us and our listeners kind of an overall summation of what you are trying to cover in the book, in terms of being wrong in general?
Kathryn Schulz: Sure. I often describe this book as being about how we as a culture thing about wrongness and how we as individuals feel about it. So I look at both what I think of as almost the intellectual history of error. How has this idea taken shape in our culture? What are the different models we have from philosophy and science and theology and psychology for thinking about human error? And then how given that close real context do all of us respond when we’re in a situation where we make a mistake or where we’re in a disagreement with someone when someone thinks we’re wrong and we think that person is wrong. So that’s kind of the very broad brush overview of the book.
SPP: What do you think causes us to be incorrect?
Kathryn Schulz: Well you know fundamentally we are deeply fallible species. We have these amazing, amazing human minds, they’re very, very good at a lot of things, but they’re also tasked with a really complicated job which is to make sense of the world around us. And the world around us turns out to be a confusing place. It is a noisy information environment. There’s lot of different kind of evidence that we take in all the time on a daily basis from a lot of different sources.
Then there’s a lot of evidence that we never do see that’s excluded from us either because of our own particular emotional setup or the community we live in or just because there’s information that human beings can’t detect in the world around us. And given that of course we’re going to get stuff wrong. We are simultaneously driven to explain the whole world. We fundamentally love to invent theories and stories to account for the world around us and we don’t have direct complete immediate access to it, so there’s a lot of wiggle room for error in there.
SPP: It’s interesting because people have always claimed that you learn the most from your mistakes and I kind of believe that that was just a way of trying to make me feel better after I made a big mistake. Do you agree with that statement? Do you think that that’s how we learn?
Kathryn Schulz: I absolutely think that error can be a really wonderful and important learning tool, but the thing is for that to work you have to actually be willing to sit with the error; you have to be willing to think about it a little bit. I mean if you make a mistake and your impulse is to deny it or ignore it or run away from it or blame it on someone else, you probably aren’t really going to extract a lesson from that.
On the other hand, if you really can kind of face the mistake, yeah absolutely. I mean when you think about it what’s happening when something goes wrong? You’ve had this belief about the world and it suddenly collapses out from under you. And what you have to do in that moment is reevaluate the world or that piece of it that you were wrong about. So it’s this real opportunity to suddenly see everything around you in a new light and you have to put together the picture in a new and different way. And to be honest we don’t get that kind of opportunity that often in adult life. But our mistakes are that rare moment when suddenly we get a chance to actually have a really new fresh outlook on our environment.
SPP: While you’re mentioning that I was thinking when I’m wrong if I could only look at the other side and learn from it, where if I too often all I want to do is prove my own side regardless of if I’m right or wrong. It seems so difficult taking a step back and go, okay I’m wrong, now let me learn from it.
Kathryn Schulz: Yeah absolutely. If it’s any comfort I’m not alone in it. One of my favorite stories about wrongness early on I the process of working on the book I was telling a kind of acquaintance who I had met at a party had asked me about it and I was telling him what the book was about and he confessed to me that very often when he’s in the middle of arguing with his wife and he suddenly realizes that actually she’s right and he’s wrong. Instead of just backing down in the moment and saying “Oh sorry sweetheart you’re right here”, he starts spontaneously inventing facts to support this. I just love this story because I feel like we all do this. We have this weird impulse to shore up our rightness, even when we actually know we aren’t right. It’s so hard in that moment to just step back and say “You know what I blew it.”
SPP: Do you know why we do that? Why do we have to try and be right, even knowingly being wrong?
Kathryn Schulz: Well I think a lot of things are going on. I think one is that we associate being right with being intelligent, with being worthy, with being responsible, with having a good memory and good judgment, and all of these things. Conversely we associate being wrong with some kind of mark of intellectual or moral inferiority. We think that getting something wrong means that there’s something wrong with us.
So given that that’s the sort of loudest lesson about wrongness that we pick up from our culture it’s not very surprising that we have trouble owning up to it. It feels like a blow to the ego. But I also think that one thing that’s happening that it’s surprising to be wrong. We do have this kind of default assumption that we’re right and so we move to the world that way, and when we turn out to be wrong about something, especially if it’s interpersonal contact like the situation this guy who’s arguing with his wife, what you’re called upon to do in that moment is quite challenging.
You have to both realize your error, make your own internal peace with it, which is stuff because you’re so thrown it is confusing. You thought you were right that’s why you’re kind of making the claims you’re making and you have to suddenly readjust everything, and at the same time externally handle it and take responsibility for it and some hopefully grace the way. So that’s actually quite a lot of intellectual emotional work to do in a very small amount of time. So in some ways I think it’s not that surprising that we aren’t good at this. Also we don’t practice, but if anything you don’t practice.
SPP: I watched a discussion you gave at Pop Tech and you were talking about how feeling wrong if we learn to accept it and recognize it and what it can do for us actually feels just as good as feeling right. Do I have that?
Kathryn Schulz: I think that some of the times that’s true and I want to be a little bit careful because obviously there’s situations where being wrong does not feel good and should not feel good.
Kathryn Schulz: Medical mistakes, misidentifying a suspect in a criminal trial, problem with deep water oil rig, just to give a random example.
Kathryn Schulz: The stakes are so serious that no it doesn’t feel good and it shouldn’t feel good. But outside of those kinds of very high risk domain yeah a lot of the time I think that being wrong can and should be really pleasurable. And the reality is we actually already experienced this but we don’t realize it. I mean when you think about it. People love things like optical illusions. We love magic shows, we love suspense, we love surprise endings. I mean think about the movies and the literature that you and yourself are most drawn to. All of these, a lot of them, really function and pivot on the pleasure of you the reader or the listener or the audience being wrong. That’s what’s so delightful about much of what we consume culturally. In our sort of day to day lives we really struggle with that experience of being wrong. Whereas, I think that often when the stakes aren’t so steep if we could let go of it there are a lot of ways that the experience of error is a pleasurable one. It is as I said this moment to really reconsider the world.
Just to be a little bit more concrete, my background before writing this book as I mentioned in magazine journalism and a lot of it was as an international journalist, and so I traveled a lot. The thing about traveling is that I mean you’re wrong hourly. You’re wrong about absolutely everything from like how to conjugate a verb or what a certain word means, to how an entire culture works, or how you thought your culture worked. That kind of wrongness to me is so pleasurable it just shakes everything up and we reconfigure the picture and it’s so invigorating it’s so thrilling. I think that they’re often wrongness gives us a moment to have a kind of little micro experience like that, but we very seldom avail ourselves of it.
SPP: As you mentioned with some things when being wrong is pleasurable it’s easier to kind of look at it that way, but I know that the decisions that I’ve worried the most about primarily things like maybe what college to go to, or what job to take if you have a couple of options, or what career path to follow, which most people I feel like don’t even know until it’s too late anyway. But given all your studies with being right versus being wrong, do you have any advice on how to be right more often?
Kathryn Schulz: Well I mean I should say upfront that I didn’t set out to help people be more right. Mainly because I think that all of culture encourages us to be right and praises us and rewards us when we’re right, from the time you’re in first grade taking a spelling test on. Look I’m not trying to knock being right I think that there are contacts as I said where it’s really important, but for the most part I think that we really could stand to get better at being wrong at handling mistakes and errors and doubts and indecision more gracefully.
Paradoxically I think that the more that we can embrace the possibility that we’re wrong the less likely we are to make a mistake. So while I’m not trying to write some kind of manual about how to be perfect and make fewer mistakes I think the healthier attitude toward being wrong can actually help us prevent mistakes where it matters and embrace them where it doesn’t. In situations like the one you’re describing which college, which career, those are interesting examples because what is the right decision? How would you know at 17 which of three schools was the right one for you and what makes you so sure there is a right one. These are really different paths they’re going to take you to really different places.
There’s also not endpoints. It’s not like you make that choice and oh you’re done choosing. They unfold into many, many more choices, including the possibility of changing your mind and transferring and going somewhere else. And this is true I think for a lot of the decisions we agonize about in life that, yeah it’s tough to make that call because we can sense that we’re foreclosing opportunities, but life is long and complicated and a lot of those opportunities remain open or new ones open up to us. I think making peace with that element of uncertainty can save us all a lot of anxiety.
SPP: That’s a good way of kind of summing up your book. You can be wrong but you can learn from it. It makes the decision making process easier.
Kathryn Schulz: Absolutely and I think as long as you do learn something from that mistake all is not lost.
SPP: Right. Do you think that as a person experiences more things, kind of become more worldly, perhaps read more, travels more, they become wrong less often because they have more experiences to draw from?
Kathryn Schulz: Probably not. Sure I think that as you develop expertise in the field, I mean someone most famously quipped that an expert is someone who’s made all the mistakes you can make in a very narrow field. So yes there’s ways that in that very literal sense we do learn from our mistakes. You make a mistake you think wow I’m never going to do that again, and so you don’t. You don’t repeat that same mistake hopefully. Eventually you have made a lot of the available mistakes and then they are arranged.
So in that sense, yes I think that the longer you do any one thing the more you rule out certain errors just by virtue of having already made them. On the other hand, I think that just experience in the broad sense, traveling, reading, meeting a lot of different people I would say that that kind of experience doesn’t make us less error prone, but it makes us more at peace with wrongness. I mean I often thing that this idea of wisdom is fundamentally about sort of embracing the likelihood of the error, embracing uncertainty, embracing multiple points of view and not having this kind of fear or shame based reaction to it. So I wouldn’t say that we make fewer mistakes I would say that we spend less time agonizing over them.
SPP: I like your description of wisdom there. It’s one that’s not too common but I agree with that. I think that that’s interesting. What do you think about technology in the way it has changed the inability to be wrong. For example, Jon and I oftentimes will get in an argument about God knows what. It could be football statistics or something but before either of us even go to formulate our own point of view we just pull out the iPhone, go to Google and we know the right answer right away, I mean it’s changed the way that we want to be right. So often that we don’t even formulate our own opinions sometimes.
Kathryn Schulz: Yeah I think about this a lot actually, the Google example’s a really interesting one. All of a sudden we have a kind of instant adjudicator available to us. I see both a loss and a gain there. On the loss side I miss that experience of kind of arguing it out and thinking things through and sort of dredging through your memory and trying to come to your own conclusions. I think there’s something very beautiful about that process.
I think there’s something beautiful about that process even when we’re wrong or even, and I write about this extensively in the book, when we have no idea, when we’re making it up, when it’s all sort of an exercise. Well I know three facts about string theory and now I’m going to expand them into some giant claims that I have no grounds for making. Obviously, take into a logical extreme that kind of behavior can be problematic, but as a sort of human interchange I think that process of just testing the waters, testing theories and hashing things out is a great one. I do think that we do that less often now that it is so easy to just turn to a theoretically accurate source of authority like Google.
On the other hand, I can imagine that instantaneous access to so much information could teach us to be a little bit better at being wrong. In that it’s a feedback mechanism. I think it’s really important to have feedback mechanisms. I mean there’s a reason that people like meteorologist and sportscasters are actually in my experience really humble and frank about mistakes, because they make a judgment call as to who’s going to win the game. And like oops the Steelers didn’t win they had trouble. They just know right away I blew it, I got it wrong.
That kind of feedback mechanism of oh I thought I was going to be right, and actually I was wrong really does keep people connected to their accountability in the way that I think is very healthy. So there’s a way that I think that Google and just sort of the vast quantities of information at our fingertips in general could in theory remind us all to be a little bit modest in our claims to perfect knowledge.
SPP: That’s so true I mean you can’t go making stuff up. I remember before the Smartphone if somebody asked me statistics oftentimes I’d know I was close and I would just say it anyways, because what are they going to do.
Kathryn Schulz: Exactly.
SPP: I did want to again mention your book “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error”. It’s terrific. It’s on Amazon and we’ll have a link to it on our site so our listeners can just click and buy. Did you have somewhere else you would like to also let our listeners led them to?
Kathryn Schulz: Well there’s certainly welcomed to check out my Web site which is just www.beingwrong.com. I adore Amazon but as a longstanding fan of Indy Bookstores I’ll also just say it’s available on all of those too. You can scroll into one or look it up online it’s another great way to get the book.
SPP: All right. Well Kathryn thank you so much for being on the show and best of luck in the future. Kathryn Schulz: Thank you so much I really enjoyed it.
SPP: All right bye-bye.
SPP: Have a great day.