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. 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.

    But when an argument is science-based, one can check the facts, make observations, do an experiment.

    While it would be nice to just agree to disagree on the point and move on, all subsequent argument is then rendered moot.

    Can we agree to disagree on the boiling point of water at a pressure of one atmosphere?

    Hence the repeated harkening back to the contentious point, or mistake.

    Which is why I suggest adversarial debate is a very poor way of discovering “truth”. If you can’t agree on facts…

  2. Rich,

    To be fair, William acknowledges mistakes after the fact.

    Only after they’ve aged. The old mistakes can be acknowledged, but the recent ones — they hit a little too close to home.

    Old mistakes don’t threaten the self-image the way the recent ones do.

  3. Alan,

    I changed my mind. I wrote a comment saying I changed my mind.

    No, you left the conversation without ever acknowledging the mistakes I had pointed out. You even quote-mined yourself to avoid admitting a mistake!

    It is pathological!

    Indeed it is. When admitting a mistake is so painful that you will stoop to quote-mining yourself in order to avoid it, something is very wrong.

  4. keiths: No, you left the conversation without ever acknowledging the mistakes I had pointed out.

    Nonsense. We didn’t have a conversation. The discussion about DWFTTW was over several weeks on another thread. I can report my original first impression was the concept was a scam and I was wrong. I’m now convinced that Blackbird performed as its builders claimed.

  5. Nonsense. We didn’t have a conversation.

    Alan, you realize that anyone can click on this link and see that we did, in fact, have a detailed discussion, right?

    What do you gain from trying to pretend that we didn’t? It’s bizarre.

  6. keiths: Alan, you realize that anyone can click on this link and see that we did, in fact, have a detailed discussion, right?

    Of course. Why don’t you do that and remind yourself. Try to read my comments with comprehension. Do you really think I’m having a discussion or conversation with you?

  7. Alan,

    You’ve provided a beautiful demonstration of my thesis.

    Your self-image is so threatened by the reality of the situation that you have chosen, in desperation, to deny the reality itself.

    Anyone can click on that link and see that we did have a conversation, and that it exposed some fundamental flaws in your thinking about Blackbird. Rather than admitting that — and even worse, admitting that it was keiths, of all people, who diagnosed your errors — you’re simply pretending that there was no meaningful exchange at all.

  8. keiths: Anyone can click on that link and see that we did have a conversation, and that it exposed some fundamental flaws in your thinking about Blackbird.

    I changed my mind, Keiths. I initially thought DFTTW impossible. Now I don’t. My original impression was wrong. But your comments didn’t help in that process.

  9. keiths: you’re simply pretending that there was no meaningful exchange at all.

    Nope, I’m saying your contribution was not helpful in my coming to see how DFTTW was possible.

  10. Alan,

    But your comments didn’t help in that process.

    They probably didn’t. You were too busy denying your mistakes and quote-mining yourself to get any value out of them.

    Think about that, Alan. You actually quote-mined yourself in order to avoid admitting a mistake.

  11. keiths: You were too busy denying your mistakes and quote-mining yourself to get any value out of them.

    Think about that, Alan. You actually quote-mined yourself in order to avoid admitting a mistake.

    Well the interesting discussion was taking place elsewhere. I just had a quick glance back at the sandbox thread to remind myself and I have to concede I did address a couple of comments more to you than I recall.

  12. Alan,

    Your concession avoids the issue:

    Not only did you realize that my criticism was correct, you actually quote-mined yourself in order to avoid admitting one of your mistakes.

    When things get to that point, you know you have a problem acknowledging errors. A big one.

  13. keiths: Not only did you realize that my criticism was correct, you actually quote-mined yourself in order to avoid admitting one of your mistakes.

    When things get to that point, you know you have a problem acknowledging errors. A big one.

    Not really. Let’s consider for the moment your claim that I have a “big problem” is true. If so, it only affects any interaction twixt thee and me. I’m unaware of any other member here having similar concerns. I don’t take you seriously any more, so it seems it is you that has the problem rather than me.

    All I need to do to solve my “big problem” is continue not taking you seriously.

    And you might consider that your tendency to pounce on commenters with your routine of “admit your mistake” has been singularly effective at getting you ignored by quite a few others.

    I have droned on for several years that your commenting style, should your intention happen to be to bring others to your point of view, is counterproductive without any indication of awareness by you that this might be an issue. But I live in hope!

  14. Alan Fox: I have droned on for several years that your commenting style, should your intention happen to be to bring others to your point of view, is counterproductive

    My point, which seems to have flown completely over the cuckoo’s nest.

  15. To err is human. Mistakes are as inevitable as death and taxes, so why does keiths find it so hard to admit them? Why will he go to great lengths to avoid doing so? What predisposes him to what he calls “mistake denial”?

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

    When keiths refuses to admit a mistake it’s not because he thinks doing so would mean he is a bad or inadequate person.

    When keiths refuses to admit a mistake it’s not because he thinks doing so would amount groveling.

    That’s two down. Of how many?

  17. I’ve been wrong in the past and I’ll be wrong in the future.

    I’ve even refused to admit I was wrong at some point in the past and I’ll sure refuse to admit I’ve been wrong at some time in the future.

    But I am still better than all you blokes.

  18. keiths: As I explained earlier, I think that has something to do with my chosen profession, which provides lots of practice.

    I’m sorry, but I don’t believe you. You accept correction from people who can test your claims in your chosen profession, but you reject correction from people who can test the claims you make outside your profession.

    On what basis?

  19. An obvious first guess is that it relates to social status.

    Yeah, it must really suck for one atheist to admit being wrong in front of another atheist.

  20. The denier is fighting to preserve a self-image which would be threatened by admitting the mistake.

    Consider that no one here holds the same image of you that you hold of yourself. Why not align your self-image here with what others think of you? Or would that defeat the purpose of your self-image?

  21. Mistake denial, then, is not just about social standing. It’s also about defending one’s self-image against an uncomfortable reality.

    If the uncomfortable reality is that God exists, then it is clear why atheists such as keiths engage in mistake denial. Of special interest are those atheists who deny that they deny that God exists.

  22. keiths: Mung, echoing the OP:

    To err is human. Mistakes are as inevitable as death and taxes, so why does keiths find it so hard to admit them?

    keiths: I don’t. As I explained earlier, I think that has something to do with my chosen profession, which provides lots of practice.

    He’s just never made one here, mung.

  23. walto: He’s just never made one here, mung.

    You’re not a computer. I’m not a computer. Sadly, only a computer can identify error.

  24. Mung,

    There seems to be a correlation between being an atheist and being unable to admit error.

    Which explains the greater amount of admission of error (on technical matters, not just “I’m a miserable sinner, Lawd”) coming from the Creationist community?

  25. petrushka,

    Alan Fox: I have droned on for several years that your commenting style, should your intention happen to be to bring others to your point of view, is counterproductive

    My point, which seems to have flown completely over the cuckoo’s nest.

    Both you and Alan like to talk about the promotion of effective dialogue and productive discussion, yet you conveniently overlook an obvious point: when you deny mistakes, you are impeding effective dialogue. When you do that, it’s about ego, not about promoting productive discussion. Don’t kid yourselves.

    This is The Skeptical Zone, where ideas are fair game. Participants are supposed to point out each other’s mistakes. When someone honestly points out a mistake of yours, and you deny it while recognizing that you are wrong, then you are being dishonest. The problem is being created by you, not by the person pointing out your error.

    Is there anyone here who would argue that when Alan quote-mines himself, or displays this sort of infantile behavior, that he is promoting “effective dialogue”? The very notion is ludicrous.

  26. petrushka,

    On an earlier thread, you described admitting a mistake as tantamount to “groveling”.

    Now take a look at the language you’ve used in this thread:

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

    And:

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

    And:

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

    “Bad or inadequate person”, “groveling”, “surrender”, “humiliation”.

    You capped it off by posting this drawing, which sums up your feelings about what it means to admit a mistake:

  27. With an attitude like that, it’s no wonder you’ll fight to the death to avoid admitting an error!

  28. The solution is not for everyone at TSZ to tiptoe around the fragile egos of people like you, Alan, Sal, and William. That would defeat the purpose of the site.

    The solution is for all of you to learn to accept that you make mistakes (and quite a few of them), and that when people point them out, they are doing what they should do at a place like TSZ. You and Alan are uncomfortable with the idea of a Skeptical Zone where your ideas are subject to criticism just like everyone else’s. Why not learn to accept that you make mistakes and that you are not entitled to special treatment when you do?

    It’s up to you to take that step, but you’ll be a lot happier at TSZ if you do. Many of us actually enjoy posting at TSZ, and we wouldn’t bother with it if we didn’t. It’s a shame that you and Alan see TSZ as such a threatening minefield.

  29. keiths,

    Btw, keiths and patrick, which one of you two turned out to be wrong in the dispute you recently had regarding quantum models and unitarity?

    Oh, and Beverly, who was wrong about whether, on your view, you don’t know your own name? And who equivocated about whether that is just what one calls oneself?

  30. walto:

    He’s just never made one [a mistake] here, mung.

    What’s with the reflexive dishonesty, walto? It continually backfires on you, yet you persist.

    Remember when Alan claimed that I don’t admit my mistakes at TSZ, and I easily disproved him (link, link)? I wasn’t just admitting mistakes there — I was admitting mistakes that you pointed out.

    Here’s the first one:

    walto,

    There’s no reason to assume those answers must be predicated on that.

    You’re right. They could be predicated on other rationales, like Stephen’s. Lizzie should have said that some people (especially some Catholics) predicate their answers on the idea that personhood begins at conception.

    See how that works? If you know you’re wrong and the other guy is right, you simply acknowledge the truth and move on. Simple, clean, and honest.

    Contrast that with your reaction when your “odds that” vs “odds against” confusion was pointed out. It was such a simple and obvious mistake, yet you never managed to admit it. You even tried to palm it off on me.

    Why deny such a small error, or try to blame it on someone else? It’s dishonest and counterproductive, and it only props up your self-image temporarily.

  31. keiths,

    As you so enjoy admitting your mistakes maybe you could answer my questions instead of changing the subject, eh Charlene?

  32. I was responding to your comment, walto. What were you just saying about changing the subject?

    I also just demonstrated that your accusation was false (which you already knew, of course.) How are you going to respond?

    As for your questions:

    1) the ball is in Patrick’s court; and

    2) you were wrong, because your definition of ‘name’ was too restrictive, excluding what people call themselves. I switched to using your overly restrictive definition just so you couldn’t keep the conversation focused on an irrelevance.

    You still haven’t identified a flaw in my Cartesian skepticism or in my know/know* distinction.

    Again:
    I just demonstrated that your accusation was false (which you already knew, of course.) How are you going to respond?

  33. keiths: Remember when Alan claimed that I don’t admit my mistakes at TSZ…

    Hang on, young Jedi! I think my remark was that I couldn’t recall such an event.

    And one of the mistakes you mention

    You’re right. They could be predicated on other rationales, like Stephen’s. Lizzie should have said that some people (especially some Catholics) predicate their answers on the idea that personhood begins at conception.

    appears to refer to Lizzie rather than yourself. I could be mistaken, of course.

  34. keiths: This is The Skeptical Zone, where ideas are fair game. Participants are supposed to point out each other’s mistakes. When someone honestly points out a mistake of yours, and you deny it while recognizing that you are wrong, then you are being dishonest. The problem is being created by you, not by the person pointing out your error.

    Of course, this would be all fine and jolly if that were the issue.

    I have been complaining for the last three or four years not about the factual content in your comments but the style of delivery. I simply claim that it is counterproductive, if your aim is to persuade others to your point of view.

  35. Alan,

    And one of the mistakes you mention

    You’re right. They could be predicated on other rationales, like Stephen’s. Lizzie should have said that some people (especially some Catholics) predicate their answers on the idea that personhood begins at conception.

    appears to refer to Lizzie rather than yourself. I could be mistaken, of course.

    You are mistaken, of course. I provided a link. Why didn’t you quote the full exchange, which makes everything clear?

    Lizzie:

    All these answers are predicated on the idea that an embryo is a full human being from “the moment of conception” (which one? I ask)

    keiths:

    Yes, and not only is there no principled way of deciding what the morally binding “moment of conception” is, there’s also no compelling reason for distinguishing it from the preceding moment.

    Suppose we take the moment of contact between these two proteins as the moment of conception. Then consider the earlier moment when there was a one micron gap between the two. Does it really make sense to say that we’ve killed someone if we interfere at the later point, but not if we interfere at the earlier point?

    walto:

    There’s no reason to assume those answers must be predicated on that.

    I agreed with Lizzie, and Walto disagreed with both of us. He was right, so I acknowledged that:

    You’re right. They could be predicated on other rationales, like Stephen’s. Lizzie should have said that some people (especially some Catholics) predicate their answers on the idea that personhood begins at conception.

    Walto agreed…

    Right. I think we’re in agreement on that.

    …and the conversation continued.

    Now compare that to what happened when you pulled the childish hands-over-ears “la la la I can’t hear you maneuver in a futile attempt to deny an obvious mistake.

    Your dishonest behavior is a big problem, Alan.

  36. Alan,

    Hang on, young Jedi! I think my remark was that I couldn’t recall such an event.

    It’s a bit too late for backpedaling, Alan. You wrote:

    I must admit, on reading this from Keiths:

    When I make mistakes, I readily admit them.

    thinking that it would have been better rendered in the subjunctive:

    Were I to make a mistake, I would readily admit it.

    You made a stupid accusation that you now regret, so you are trying to pretend that you never made it in the first place. Just like your accusation that I had quote-mined Ernst Mayr.

    In both cases, your own words betrayed you.

    Anyone who has observed you over the long term here at TSZ knows that you crave respect and approval. Do you ever wonder why you don’t get it, Alan? It’s no mystery. Take a look at your behavior.

  37. keiths: Why didn’t you quote the full exchange, which makes everything clear?

    I quoted from your comment. So what do you consider was your mistake in that exchange?

  38. keiths: Now compare that to what happened when you pulled the childish hands-over-ears “la la la I can’t hear you maneuver in a futile attempt to deny an obvious mistake.

    Good grief! I disagree with your dogged misrepresentation.

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