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. Glen,

    If it really is about getting you and not about the truth, why do anything to help them get you?

    That depends on your personal scruples.

    Saying “I lied to everyone because those assholes were just going to use the truth against me” is not the best long-term strategy.

  2. I fail to see the value in being right

    It seems to me the value in knowledge is in the understanding rather than the correctness.

    Understanding involves being able to state the arguments for a proposition and being able to draw relevant conclusions.

    One need not be a blank slate. There’s value in collecting useful concepts, and that includes the concepts taught in schools and those generally regarded by experts as being right.

    But the value is in the utility rather than in the rightness. Newton’s Laws are useful, but not “right.” They are good rules of thumb for predicting orbits and the behavior of artillery, but they fail for extreme conditions and values.

    It seems to me that all knowledge follows this pattern, and that both facts and concepts are fuzzy sets.

  3. petrushka,

    Are you arguing that mistakes don’t exist? If not, then what’s your point?

    We all make mistakes, and it needn’t be a crisis when someone notices them and points them out.

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

    Management roles are also good for the ego. Not only do you own your own mistakes, you own those of everyone in your branch of the organization.

  5. petrushka:
    I fail to see the value in being right

    It’s why proofs exist. Sure, they’re contingent on the assumptions used, but, given those assumptions, the proof (presumably) works.

    It seems to me the value in knowledge is in the understanding rather than the correctness.

    Understanding involves being able to state the arguments for a proposition and being able to draw relevant conclusions.

    I might understand theosophy very well. But why should anyone else care? Theosophists would, I suppose, but I can’t see why they should.

    One need not be a blank slate. There’s value in collecting useful concepts, and that includes the concepts taught in schools and those generally regarded by experts as being right.

    What if a creationist/IDist asks why it matters anyway? Or, like Sal, you’re hardly about to use evolutionary theory for anything anyway, so why not bet on the chance of creationism being right (he seems to think it has good chances of being right, far better than the near-zero chance I think is correct)?

    But the value is in the utility rather than in the rightness. Newton’s Laws are useful, but not “right.” They are good rules of thumb for predicting orbits and the behavior of artillery, but they fail for extreme conditions and values.

    They’re “approximately right,” which seems pretty important, and I think that some really are considered to be at least as correct as anything we know about the world. F=ma. Initial acceptance of relativity theory does not seem to have often been driven by considerations of utility.

    It seems to me that all knowledge follows this pattern, and that both facts and concepts are fuzzy sets.

    Engineers usually think not.

    Glen Davidson

  6. GlenDavidson: It’s why proofs exist. Sure, they’re contingent on the assumptions used, but, given those assumptions, the proof (presumably) works.

    Proofs are fine in logic and mathematics. In the remainder of our existence, we do not have the luxury of formal proof. What we have are propositions having varying degrees of utility and varying degrees of heuristic value.

  7. keiths: Are you arguing that mistakes don’t exist? If not, then what’s your point?

    What do you think is my point? Read back over my posts on this thread and see if you can summarize them.

  8. petrushka: It seems to me the value in knowledge is in the understanding rather than the correctness.

    This has confused me. Both us and UD have an understanding of science. We have a correct understanding.

  9. The OP is about the psychology of not admitting mistakes.

    What is the purpose of this line of inquiry if it does not suggest ways of improving communication and facilitating persuasion?

    Are we engaged in a game of see how smart I am, or are we attempting to be persuasive? The evidence presented suggests that ridicule and demands for confession of error have little utility.

    I also find them rather boring, even if I agree with the point being put forward.

    What I find interesting is straightforward presentations of fact and theory. I see no point in lecturing on the shortcomings of cranks. They aren’t persuaded, and I don’t need to be.

  10. petrushka,

    My impression, from reading your comments in this thread and elsewhere, is that

    1. You see a mistaken person as “bad or inadequate”.
    2. You see admitting mistakes as tantamount to “groveling”.
    3. You see someone who points out a mistake of yours as attacking your very worth as a person.
    4. You want them to stop.
    5. You want that so much that you will accuse them of violating the site rules, when they clearly aren’t.
    6. You want that so much that you will argue, with a straight face, that there really is no such thing as right or wrong, correct or incorrect — just “varying degrees of utility”.
    7. You will unhesitatingly point out the mistakes of others, particularly IDers and creationists, without worrying about whether it threatens their self-image, but when your own views are criticized and your own self-image is at stake, it suddenly becomes a crisis.

    At TSZ, everyone’s views, including yours, are subject to criticism. You make mistakes — quite a few of them — and it is entirely appropriate for others at TSZ to point them out when you do. You don’t like that. It makes you feel like “a bad or inadequate person”. That is not TSZ’s fault, and nothing needs to change at TSZ in order to accommodate your fragility.

    The problem lies not with TSZ, but with your unsustainable self-image. You’ll be much happier at TSZ if you can accept that you are fallible, just like the rest of us, and that your views are subject to criticism here, just as everyone else’s are.

  11. Let me play a psychologist on the Internet for a moment. I suspect it it much more rewarding to the ego to give unsought advice rather than to be the recipient of it.

  12. PRIDE. I think the fear of being wrong in the eyes of others hurts the pride of a perceived status.
    I suspect its because its true. If we see error in someone after they made a careful case we do see them as incompetent. SO we knows others are judging us also.
    Its like any error is a good sample of our intelligence.
    Its not ! Whatever accurate sampling would show.
    I suspect people shown right in some point also out of proportion see it as a good sample.

    I hold the opinion error is mostly what we do and only subjects we carefully pay attention to are right. Driving, creationism, whose to blame etc.

    I pay attention to myself on this issue. I watch to see how resistent I am to a error I concluded I did make.
    Its a sting. Its illogical as sampling but it stings.

  13. Alan,

    Don’t reject good advice simply because you don’t like the source.

    Your own problem is even more severe than petrushka’s. You could benefit from learning to accept your mistakes instead of fighting to deny them.

  14. Neil,

    I think you have completely misunderstood petrushka.

    Do you have any reason for thinking so, other than simply wanting to believe it?

  15. keiths:
    Alan,

    Don’t reject good advice simply because you don’t like the source.

    Your own problem is even more severe than petrushka’s.You could benefit from learning to accept your mistakes instead of fighting to deny them.

    My aphorism seems to apply equally to both of us. 🙂

  16. Keiths, your attempt at summarizing my position does not rise to the level of ludicrous. Try again, starting with what I actually said.

  17. I think we all feel some pride at times, and admitting to mistakes is unpleasant for everyone, especially if we have doggedly defended some particular viewpoint for a long time and suddenly discover we were wrong. I think in the vast majority of cases, a person who discovers and really becomes convinced they were wrong are more likely to just leg it, than come out and admit they were wrong. It is so easy to do on the internet.
    I’ve felt tempted at times to do something similar, having been taught I was wrong about something I really believed I was right about. I’m proud to say, however, that I did actually end up admitting to being wrong, rather than just disappearing or keep arguing out of some irrational sense of pride.

    Two particular instances come to mind. In the first case, I remember having read a rebuttal to a particular version of the fine tuning-argument, and believing I understood it and believing it was a great rebuttal, presented it on another forum. Another atheist there then attempted to explain to me the rebuttal contained a fallacy, and for the life of me I just couldn’t see it. We argued about it for days and for a time it was like, I thought to myself, this person must have lost his mind. Yet at the same time, I knew him and I respected him a lot, so in my effort to really try and give his point of view it’s due attention, I discovered in an attempt to really dig into the logic of the argument and explain why he was wrong, that it was I who was wrong and the rebuttal was actually a terrible argument, obviously fallacious. That was one hard pill to swallow, but I did and admitted it. I even explained to him what made me see that he was right. An unpleasant experience to be sure, but I’m glad I managed to come around and demonstrate that I am in fact capable of changing my mind on matters when the facts and logic are against me, and capable of admitting to it publicly.

    In another case, I got involved in a rather long argument with a theist philosopher about theories of logic. In this case, it was easier for me to see that I was wrong, since it was a simple matter of empirical demonstration from the philosophical literature, but at the same time, what I perceived as arrogance from my interlocutor made it much more difficult to back down and admit my mistake. I did do that, eventually, and even apologized for having been a bit too obnoxious about it. He in turn asked what he could have done better and I explained in retrospect that I don’t even think he could have done anything differently. He was right and I was wrong, and really the main obstacle was my own irrational pride.

    Those two instances often come to mind when I think about whether I could be wrong about something and I’ve made a sort of promise to myself that if I ever discover that I’m wrong, I will just admit it. It’s an unpleasant feeling, but it will pass quickly, and what should matter is the truth, not my own ego.

  18. Those are great examples, Rumraket.

    It can be hard to swallow one’s pride and admit a mistake, particularly when you’ve publicly committed yourself to the mistaken viewpoint. Your examples show that there is also a payoff, though, in the form of self-respect. You feel better about yourself when you know you’re being honest with yourself and others.

    I’ll bet that others who witnessed your admission(s) gained respect for you as well.

  19. petrushka,

    Keiths, your attempt at summarizing my position does not rise to the level of ludicrous. Try again, starting with what I actually said.

    What specific statements of mine do you disagree with, and why?

  20. Rumraket,

    Yeah, I recognise some of that. I was involved in an extensive argument on drift, and my patient-but-sometimes-arrogant interlocutor did not make it easier to see where I’d gone wrong. One day, the penny dropped, and I went crimson. I’d wasted days being a dick, and the evidence was right there in aspic. I did admit it in public.

    (This has shades of testifyin’!).

    On the flip side, being attacked from all sides on another topic cemented in my mind that I was right and they were all wrong (including the one who said “if everybody is saying you are wrong, maybe it’s because you are wrong”). I failed to articulate my case convincingly I guess, but I continue to think I was right to this day.

  21. keiths:
    petrushka,
    What specific statements of mine do you disagree with, and why?

    Your summary or paraphrase does not reflect what I said.

  22. From my understanding of what petrushka has written on this thread (and my totally fallible and incomplete recollection of what he has written elsewhere [that’s quite the escape hatch, btw]), I would say that keiths’s impression is wrong on counts 1 thru 5 and 7, and on the imputation of motive in count 6.
    That’s The Impression That I Get.

    ETA: I have detected a certain playfulness in petrushka’s posts. This may be the cause of the dissonance between my impression and, say, keiths’s.

  23. Allan Miller: [@ rumraket]
    Yeah, I recognise some of that.

    Just recently, I stumbled across a forum thread on whether it was possible to travel downwind faster than the wind. My initial reaction was “this is nonsense” and I chipped in on those lines. There was a bit of flaming and I was even accused of being someone’s sock puppet. Over the course of several weeks in intermittent interaction, the penny dropped and I changed my mind.

    I was annoyed with myself for not getting it sooner, though some explanations given were overlaid with snark to the extent of being unhelpful. And when I posted my “oh, yes, I see it now” there were a few comments along the lines of “yeah, well, it took me a while, too.”

  24. DNA_Jock:
    . . .
    ETA: I have detected a certain playfulness in petrushka’s posts. This may be the cause of the dissonance between my impression and, say, keiths’s.

    “A certain playfulness”? You can practically see the amused smirk on his face as he writes!

  25. keiths:
    petrushka,

    What specific statements of mine do you disagree with, and why?

    Shouldn’t you first provide the evidence for your “impressions”? I ,per local custom,believe you are not mistaken that those are your impressions. The question remains why specifically?

  26. newton,

    It will save time and effort if I just address the statements that petrushka actually disagrees with.

  27. keiths: 1. You see a mistaken person as “bad or inadequate”.
    2. You see admitting mistakes as tantamount to “groveling”.
    3. You see someone who points out a mistake of yours as attacking your very worth as a person.
    4. You want them to stop.
    5. You want that so much that you will accuse them of violating the site rules, when they clearly aren’t.
    6. You want that so much that you will argue, with a straight face, that there really is no such thing as right or wrong, correct or incorrect — just “varying degrees of utility”.
    7. You will unhesitatingly point out the mistakes of others, particularly IDers and creationists, without worrying about whether it threatens their self-image, but when your own views are criticized and your own self-image is at stake, it suddenly becomes a crisis.

    1. misrepresents what I said and misses my point.
    2. I never said that. What I said was that demanding other posters confess to error is addressing the poster and not the post. It is a violation of the board rules. The image of a dog surrendering seems to fit the case, but my post is about the rule violation and not about the person in error.
    3. You are free to see anything you wish, but I have not posted anything about how I feel.
    4. I would like to see people respond to the content of posts an not characterize the character and motives of the poster. In short, I would like to see people follow the rules.
    5. Addressing the poster is a clear violation of the site rules. I posted the rule, and anyone can see it.
    6. I do not see TRUTH. Sorry. What I see are propositions that are useful, or not.
    7. I am happy to point out the mistakes of others. There is no rule against taking a position. The rule is against addressing the character and motives of other posters.

    Not on the list, but my overriding point is that personalizing disagreements is ineffectual. The OP is about psychology. I agree that most people dislike being found out wrong and resist admitting error. My question is, does this have any implications for how to conduct oneself in a dialog. I look at this from the perspective of my training for teaching and my years of experience as a counsellor.

    Perhaps we have different experiences in this regard. In my experience, managers and teachers who insist on submission are pretty ineffective.

    ETA: Reading this, I realize I have posted quite a few times about how I feel. I don’t recall posting that my worth is threatened. Do you have a quote?

  28. keiths:
    newton,

    It will save time and effort if I just address the statements that petrushka actually disagrees with.

    I see that petrushka has already replied to you, but I wish he hadn’t. Without going into the details of your argument with him, deliberately or not you are attempting to control the narrative.

    There’s a possibly apocryphal story about Calvin Coolidge who once asked his political team to spread the rumor that his opponent had carnal knowledge of farmyard animals. When one of his team protested “You can’t call him a pigfucker!”, Coolidge replied “No, but we can make him deny it.”

    Variations of this technique are used extensively by SJWs online. It’s more forthright to provide the evidence for what you’re claiming.

  29. There is no cure for the fact that we’re reluctant to admit our mistakes. What we do have are ways of dealing with (most) people, who happen generally not to like to admit their mistakes.

    So then it’s a matter of knowing how to leave people face-saving ways of admitting mistakes/changing their minds where that might work, sometimes perhaps even making it easier for them to claim that they believed the “right way” all along, knowing when to just let a matter drop, and recognizing those who will never change but will have to be managed or opposed in some manner.

    About the last thing that will get people to admit their mistakes is telling them how and why they won’t admit their mistakes. Because those issues are some of the problems that are being denied by not admitting the truth in the first place.

    I know someone who was being counseled for years, who finally realized that her problems were pretty much being caused by herself. She asked her therapist why she hadn’t just told her that she was causing her own problems. Well, it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? Telling her that would only push her into denial, while if she worked through her issues she might finally see what’s going on.

    The reasons why people are reluctant to admit their mistakes are the same reasons why any direct efforts to get them to start admitting their mistakes will typically be futile, or worse, counterproductive.

    Glen Davidson

  30. 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….

    In some circumstances, particularly those that are science-based, this is due to some part of the “real” conversation being based on a flawed premise. While it would be nice to just agree to disagree on the point and move on, all subsequent argument is then rendered moot. Hence the repeated harkening back to the contentious point, or mistake.

  31. Stormfield:

    In some circumstances, particularly those that are science-based, this is due to some part of the “real” conversation being based on a flawed premise. While it would be nice to just agree to disagree on the point and move on, all subsequent argument is then rendered moot. Hence the repeated harkening back to the contentious point, or mistake.

    Yes, and that is a very important point. It isn’t just a matter of ego when someone refuses to admit an obvious mistake. It typically stops the discussion in its tracks.

    It’s pitiful when a discussion can’t proceed not because the discussants disagree, but because one of them is too prideful to admit that they now agree and that their previous position was therefore mistaken.

  32. Patrick: I see that petrushka has already replied to you, but I wish he hadn’t.

    A one time thing. I’m pretty much done.

    Unless someone can convince me that “address the post and not the poster” doesn’t mean what I think it does.

    PPPPPPPS:
    I am a work in progress. I violate my own advice. But I’m trying to improve.

    Some months ago I vowed to myself not to respond to people unless I thought I could have a constructive dialog with that person. This effectively means that I don’t respond to some people. I haven’t put them on ignore, but I do not pay much attention to their posts unless they are quoted by someone else.

    I am extremely grateful to the knowledgeable experts who post here. They may be assured that their efforts are educating some of us, even if they are not changing the minds of creationists. And their efforts — over time — change the character and content of the debate. The goalposts move, and that is a good thing.

    But one thing I notice about experts is that their posts tend to focus on the content of the argument and are less likely to dwell on the shortcomings of the opposition.

  33. GlenDavidson: The reasons why people are reluctant to admit their mistakes are the same reasons why any direct efforts to get them to start admitting their mistakes will typically be futile, or worse, counterproductive.

    🙂

  34. keiths: Yes, and that is a very important point. It isn’t just a matter of ego when someone refuses to admit an obvious mistake. It typically stops the discussion in its tracks.

    Does it ever occur to anyone that after the arguments are made, the discussion is over?

    There are arguments over fact and arguments in mathematics and formal logic where one might need to bring in additional sources of evidence or to expand a logical proof, but these are not the typical subject of internet flame wars.

  35. keiths, to Stormfield:

    Yes, and that is a very important point. It isn’t just a matter of ego when someone refuses to admit an obvious mistake. It typically stops the discussion in its tracks.

    It’s pitiful when a discussion can’t proceed not because the discussants disagree, but because one of them is too prideful to admit that they now agree and that their previous position was therefore mistaken.

    petrushka:

    Does it ever occur to anyone that after the arguments are made, the discussion is over?

    Discussions typically proceed through several related points. It’s ridiculous for a discussion to get stuck on a particular point not because there is still disagreement, but simply because someone is too proud to admit that they were mistaken but have now seen the light.

  36. I’ve always found that after I’ve told other people how to behave, and they ignore me, I’m kind of stuck with the things that are in my power to do.

  37. Can we just get a permanent thread devoted to Keith Quixote’s enthralling attempts to bring those who will not admit their mistakes to justice?

  38. William J. Murray:
    Can we just get a permanent thread devoted to Keith Quixote’s enthralling attempts to bring those who will not admit their mistakes to justice?

    As far as I know, all threads are permanent.

  39. William J. Murray: Can we just get a permanent thread devoted to Keith Quixote’s enthralling attempts to bring those who will not admit their mistakes to justice?

    I understand you prefer to codify your mistakes for posterity in book form.

  40. I meant like the Noyau or Guano. Somewhere we can all keep track of all the mistakes we make and won’t admit without having to search through various threads. Like a quick reference guide. I’m sure Keith can populate it with the entire back history of unadmitted errors of everyone here.

  41. keiths:
    Alan,

    Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, you were unable to admit your mistakes when we discussed that topic here at TSZ.

    It is pathological!

    I changed my mind. I wrote a comment saying I changed my mind. Was changing my mind a mistake?

    And we didn’t have a discussion. We fail to communicate.

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