The psychology of (not) admitting mistakes

To err is human. Mistakes are as inevitable as death and taxes, so why do many people find it so hard to admit them? Why will they go to great lengths to avoid doing so? What predisposes them to what I’ll call “mistake denial”?

An obvious first guess is that it relates to social status. We humans are a social species, and our standing in the eyes of others depends largely on our perceived competence. Mistakes whittle away at that perceived competence, and so a person who successfully avoids admitting a mistake has avoided a real social cost. There is a flip side, however. While successful mistake denial benefits the denier, unsuccessful denial exacts an even heavier social cost than admitting the mistake in the first place. The denier is seen not only as having made the mistake, but also of dishonestly and childishly trying to cover it up. Under this social cost model, then, we would expect people to deny their mistakes only when there was a reasonable likelihood of “getting away with it” — of successfully deceiving the audience.

While many instances of mistake denial fit with this social cost model, there are glaring exceptions. We’ve all seen people deny mistakes that are completely obvious to their audiences. What are they getting out of this apparently self-defeating behavior? What is the point of the charade if no one is being fooled?

And what about people who are widely perceived as competent and have little to lose from admitting an occasional mistake? Why will they risk being seen as childish and dishonest when the cost of simply acknowledging their error is comparatively small, and no one is being fooled by the denial anyway?

The answer, I think, is that someone is being fooled — the denier him or herself. The denier is fighting to preserve a self-image which would be threatened by admitting the mistake. Even if no one else buys it, the denier — if they’re able to pull off the self-deception — has avoided facing an uncomfortable truth: they aren’t as competent as they’d like to believe.

Mistake denial, then, is not just about social standing. It’s also about defending one’s self-image against an uncomfortable reality. When you see someone denying an obvious mistake, look for a disparity between their self-image and their actual level of competence, seen objectively. If you keep this in mind, you can often make sense of cases of mistake denial that are otherwise baffling.

In searching for relevant research on this topic, I came across this book by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson:

Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me)

I haven’t read it yet, but the dust jacket copy sounds promising:

In this terrifically insightful and engaging book, renowned social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson take a compelling look at how the brain is wired for self-justification. When we make mistakes, we must calm the cognitive dissonance that jars our feelings of self-worth. And so we create fictions that absolve us of responsibility, restoring our belief that we are smart, moral, and right — a belief that often keeps us on a course that is dumb, immoral, and wrong.

I’ll post updates to this thread as I read the book.

247 thoughts on “The psychology of (not) admitting mistakes

  1. People have a hard time admitting their mistakes.

    In other earth-shattering news: Water is wet!

    Keith seems to know* a lot about the psychology of those who have a hard time admitting their mistakes.

    There may be an interesting psychology on display here, but I hardly think it’s interesting that people have a hard time admitting their mistakes. What is more interesting is the unrelenting, pathological compulsion to get others to admit their supposed mistakes even to the point of derailing the substance of the real conversation and keeping a record such disagreements for years to bring back up at every opportunity.

  2. William J. Murray: . What is more interesting is the unrelenting, pathological compulsion to get others to admit their supposed mistakes even to the point of derailing the substance of the real conversation and keeping a record such disagreements for years to bring back up at every opportunity.

    That really isn’t that interesting

  3. William J. Murray: What is more interesting is the unrelenting, pathological compulsion to get others to admit their supposed mistakes even to the point of derailing the substance of the real conversation and keeping a record such disagreements for years to bring back up at every opportunity.

    It’s a downside of the internet, William. But it’s not new. I don’t know if you’ve heard the story of Abu Hasan.

  4. If you give me your attention, I will tell you what I am:
    I’m a genuine philanthropist — all other kinds are sham.
    Each little fault of temper and each social defect
    In my erring fellow-creatures, I endeavour to correct.
    To all their little weaknesses I open people’s eyes;
    And little plans to snub the self-sufficient I devise;
    I love my fellow creatures — I do all the good I can —
    Yet ev’rybody says I’m such a disagreeable man!
    And I can’t think why!

  5. Perusing the board rules, I find this:

    “Address the content of the post, not the perceived failings of the poster. ”

    So is it a mistake or not to disparage the psychology of other posters?

    Is it a mistake or not to make demands on other posters, regardless of whether or not they are wrong?

    Is haranguing another poster for defending a position — mistaken or not — equivalent to accusing them of posting in bad faith?

    Is there a difference between arguing a position and accusing another poster of being a bad or inadequate person?

    Just curious.

  6. Robin,

    That’s a long list, Robin. And perusing it, I definitely see most of those exhibited by most other commenters most of the time. Except for me, of course! 🙂

  7. Alan Fox:
    Robin,

    That’s a long list, Robin. And perusing it, I definitely see most of those exhibited by most other commenters most of the time. Except for me, of course!

  8. Alan Fox:
    petrushka,
    I think that is a moderation issues topic.

    I was mistaken about the general intent and direction of the OP. I should have realized it was not intended to be relevant to anything happening on this site.

  9. So, just to satisfy my curiosity, Keiths, what is your field of expertise? Is it psychology?

  10. Alan,

    Do you recognize how self-defeating your question would be, were it actually relevant?

  11. keiths,

    It’s just you asked about my career history some time ago. I was happy to share. I thought it odd at the time that you never responded. I’ve been wondering for a while what your academic and/or professional background might be. If you’d rather not say what your field of expertise is, that’s fine.

    Would you rather not say?

  12. I make lots of mistakes. All the time. I think my “meta” mistake correcting mechanism is okay, though. Isn’t learning driven in part by mistakes?

  13. I remember reading some time ago (and I can’t be arsed to look it up) about an experiment where a group of people was shown some video, and then asked questions about it. If the questions were written, the errors noted, and the answers returned without anyone seeing anyone else’s answers or corrections, people had no problem correcting their answers when viewing the video again.

    But if people were questioned publicly, they would defend their wrong answers and commonly regard everyone else as wrong (who got it right). Occasionally, this “publicly marrying an answer” reached the point where the mistaken person accused the experimenter of showing a different video the second time, or of deliberately doctoring it. There was some real hostility.

    It seems clear that people do not wish to APPEAR mistaken, even when they are. And also clear that once an error is “married”, the error’s “spouse” genuinely misremembers, often vividly. People actively manufacture false memories as part of a personal defense mechanism, when the alternative is regarded as public humiliation.

  14. Richardthughes:
    I make lots of mistakes. All the time. I think my “meta” mistake correcting mechanism is okay, though. Isn’t learning driven in part by mistakes?

    Only in part.

    If making errors guaranteed learning, UD bloggers and commenters would be the most knowledgeable beings on the web.

    Glen Davidson

  15. keiths: You already know. I’m a computer engineer, and I’ve been quite open about that.

    If I did, I’ve quite forgotten. Thanks for sharing.

  16. Flint: People actively manufacture false memories as part of a personal defense mechanism, when the alternative is regarded as public humiliation.

    Which implies that public humiliation, coupled with demands to confess, are the very best means of persuasion.

  17. Richardthughes:
    I make lots of mistakes. All the time. I think my “meta” mistake correcting mechanism is okay, though. Isn’t learning driven in part by mistakes?

    Absolutely! I can vouch for that! 😉

  18. petrushka: Which implies that public humiliation, coupled with demands to confess, are the very best means of persuasion.

    Depends on what you really want.

    So yes, I’d have to say that I can’t think of any better policy.

    Seriously, though, this does sort of get to the odds of Meyer or Dembski ever publicly admitting that he wrote a crockful of nonsense. Especially since they’ve got their minions and sycophants, and would have no way of replacing them if they gave up their BS.

    Glen Davidson

  19. Rich,

    Isn’t learning driven in part by mistakes?

    Yes, absolutely. And replacing a mistaken belief requires acknowledging — at least at some level — that it is, in fact, mistaken.

    There is a self-image preserving workaround, however: correct the mistaken belief but then deny that you ever believed it!

    Cognitive dissonance is a powerful thing.

  20. My question is about the relative utility of addressing facts, as opposed to demanding surrender.

  21. petrushka:
    My question is about the relative utility of addressing facts, as opposed to demanding surrender.

    I guess that depends on what anyone wants to achieve in internet discussions.

  22. petrushka,

    You once said that admitting a mistake was tantamount to “groveling”.

    Do you think maybe you could frame it a bit more constructively?

  23. I’m tempted to repeat the story of my cousin and his ex-partner. He once bemoaned to me the pointlessness of arguing with her. On such occasions, she would invariably recite all his faults, transgressions and errors since the start of their relationship. It finished being the end of their relationship.

  24. William,

    There may be an interesting psychology on display here, but I hardly think it’s interesting that people have a hard time admitting their mistakes.

    The OP doesn’t dwell on that obvious fact. It addresses the more interesting question of why they do so when their mistakes are obvious.

    What is more interesting is the unrelenting, pathological compulsion to get others to admit their supposed mistakes even to the point of derailing the substance of the real conversation and keeping a record such disagreements for years to bring back up at every opportunity.

    “Keeping a record”? That’s a bit paranoid, William. It’s called “remembering”, and Google does the rest.

    But just to stoke your paranoia a bit: Have you considered the possibility that I am a “grey”, with superhuman powers of recall, posing as a human on the Internet?

  25. I hope we’re collectively searching for the truth, to the extent we can know it, not looking to assert *our truth*.

  26. keiths: Do you think maybe you could frame it a bit more constructively?

    Yes. I suggest that Lizzie’s rules are designed to promote effective discourse.

    1. Assume the other person is posting good faith.
    2. When the other person is obviously wrong, ask why he or she clings to the error.
    3. Make sure the error is based on error of fact and not just miscommunication. See rule number one.
    4. Address facts rather than people.
    5. If the assumed facts are irreconcilable, the conversation is done. No point in continuing, other than to state that there are no grounds for reaching a meeting of minds.
    6. Move on to another thread.

    Any resemblance to Lizzie’s rules is purely coincidental.

  27. Richardthughes:
    I hope we’re collectively searching for the truth, to the extent we can know it, not looking to assert *our truth*.

    I think there is a cachet to being the one bringing the “news”.

  28. I would argue that the propensity to deny mistakes is directly proportional to the untenability of the argument being defended. For example, someone defending the existence of objective morality will deny all evidence to the contrary. And if you bring up this evidence at UD you will be accused of being a troll by the author and banned.

    Or if you bring up the inconvenient truth that the world isn’t actually heading towards the cliff to the inevitable broken back at the bottom, people like Gordon Mullings will simply double down by accusing you of distracting from the subject and having you banned.

    In both these cases I think that admitting that they are mistaken would simply be too traumatic because of the implications it would have on their world view.

    And there are others, like Barry Arrington, who are simply too egotistical and arrogant to ever admit a mistake. With these people it is simply the result of a sad pathology.

    And there are even others, like Joe/Frankie, who know that they are wrong but simply enjoy the fight.

    And for the rare few, like myself, we never admit mistakes because we never make them. 🙂

  29. What if we change our mind? Isn’t that akin to admitting being previously mistaken? I think we sometimes need a little time and space to adjust to new information, new discoveries when they conflict with cherished beliefs.

  30. To anyone who has trouble admitting mistakes, I heartily recommend the experience of being a logic designer on a large processor project.

    On such a project, there are people — verification engineers — whose sole function is to expose the errors that you, as a logic designer, will inevitably make. There are more of them than there are designers, because the verification function is so important.

    The verification engineers are your friends. You will make mistakes, and by catching them sooner rather than later, the verification engineers are preventing your mistakes from costing the company the millions of dollars it takes to spin a high-end chip.

    Admitting your mistakes at work becomes routine, and that takes much of the edge off admitting mistakes in other venues.

    To admit an error is far less painful when it doesn’t threaten your self-image — that is, when you’re comfortable with seeing yourself as someone who makes mistakes that can be noticed and corrected by others.

  31. Alan Fox:
    What if we change our mind? Isn’t that akin to admitting being previously mistaken? I think we sometimes need a little time and space to adjust to new information, new discoveries when they conflict with cherished beliefs.

    There’s a reddit thread, currently active, called “What is a concept that despite all explanation you simply cannot grasp?”

    In my years of schooling, I’ve seen many instances where someone couldn’t grasp a concept. I’ve experienced it many times. Sometimes it pops into focus later, sometimes not.

    In any case, I think the most effective tool of pedagogy is humiliation.

  32. Richardthughes:
    I hope we’re collectively searching for the truth, to the extent we can know it, not looking to assert *our truth*.

    I agree that this may be what most of us strive for. But I think we would be dishonest with ourselves if we denied that all of us aren’t guilt of the other.

  33. petrushka,

    Is there a difference between arguing a position and accusing another poster of being a bad or inadequate person?

    Good lord, petrushka!

    Being mistaken does not make one “a bad or inadequate person”, and admitting an error is not tantamount to “groveling”.

    No wonder you’re so miserable when someone points out a mistake you’ve made!

  34. keiths: Being mistaken does not make one “a bad or inadequate person”, and admitting an error is not tantamount to “groveling”.

    You asked for a constructive post, and I responded with suggestions for improving the effectiveness of dialog.

    If one has priorities other than reaching a meeting of the minds, then my suggestions can be disregarded.

  35. Alan Fox: What if we change our mind? Isn’t that akin to admitting being previously mistaken?

    Sure, but that’s all context dependent. If you’re an early adopter (on plate tectonics, for instance) and you’re right, then you’re flexible and have good judgment. If you’re an early adopter and wrong, that looks bad, even if you had good reason to accept it, but still worse if it looks like you didn’t have good reason for accepting it.

    If you put up a good fight first, that can make it better when you concede that the new idea is correct. Well, ok, you’re wrong, but you had some pretty good reasons for your position (assuming you did). Then again, you can change your mind when everyone else is doing it, and at least you’re fine, because who can cast stones at you?

    Give up just because your position is unpopular, after defending it long after nearly everyone else caved or “saw the light,” and you’re in terrible shape socially. But you would be if you stuck to the unpopular idea anyway, and at least it’s easier to finally quit the fight, so maybe you do (unless you think they really are wrong regarding a matter of facts plus interpretation).

    If you’re a crank/pseudoscientist, and you’re wrong on one fact, switch to another. You’ve got your one idea that you’ve latched onto and it has to be right for various reasons, invariably including personal reasons (IMO). You’re already dealing loosely with the facts (how you got to your position intellectually), so surely nothing’s ever fatal to your idea, and plenty of facts can be tortured to fit your opinion. And you’re Galileo (often in some others’ eyes as well), so opposition is just confirmation that you’re right. You just don’t change your mind (except maybe on facts, of which you cared little to begin with), that’s the job of others.

    One thing I’d say is that I think that most people would not admit mistakes in particularly hostile (public) forums, or admit errors to certain people. These forums or people would just use it against you and you’d gain nothing, hence you just stick to your guns no matter what. And why not? If it really is about getting you and not about the truth, why do anything to help them get you?

    Glen Davidson

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.