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. Alan,

    Are you even reading my comments?

    I wrote:

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

  2. Alan,

    I disagree with your dogged misrepresentation.

    What misrepresentation? Anyone can follow the link and see that you made a complete ass of yourself, all because you couldn’t admit an obvious mistake.

  3. keiths: What misrepresentation? Anyone can follow the link and see that you made a complete ass of yourself, all because you couldn’t admit an obvious mistake.

    Anyone can indeed. And anyone can come to their own view. Your misrepresentation was to pretend a misunderstanding about words was a misunderstanding about biology

  4. keiths: Anyone who has observed you over the long term here at TSZ knows that you crave respect and approval.

    It is sad. Alan so craves respect and approval from keiths that he allows posts by keiths which are in clear violations of the rules. 🙂

  5. Mung: Alan so craves respect and approval from keiths that he allows posts by keiths which are in clear violations of the rules.

    Point of information; I’ve relinquished moderating duties for the moment.

  6. Alan,

    Your misrepresentation was to pretend a misunderstanding about words was a misunderstanding about biology

    You got the biology wrong, Alan, and it amazes me that you are still denying it, two years later.

    It couldn’t be more obvious:

    keiths, paraphrasing Scruton:

    The ants aren’t reasoning about their sacrifice, so their behavior requires a genetic explanation.

    Alan:

    Well, no. Sterile worker and soldier castes are not the carriers of the genome. The queen is. So loss of sterile caste members is of no consequence, genetically.

    keiths:

    The sterile caste members aren’t transmitters of the genome, but they most certainly are carriers. This is important, because they get their altruistic behavior from their genes. So yes, altruism in ants has a genetic explanation.

    Alan:

    There’s no feed-back. All the genes do in a sterile caste worker is define the phenotype of that worker. It’s somatic. The only thing that can affect the alleles of a population of ants is differential survival of queens.

    At that point you finally recognized your mistake and rushed to add an ETA:

    ETA Oh sure, the colony with the feistiest soldiers is going to give the best chance of survival to its gene pool store – the queen.

    You got the biology wrong. I pointed that out. You first doubled down, then realized your mistake and tried to back out of it with a contradictory ETA.

    Why is it so hard for you to admit that you got the science wrong, Alan? It happens to you all the time.

  7. keiths: You got the biology wrong. I pointed that out. You first doubled down, then realized your mistake and tried to back out of it with a contradictory ETA.

    Why is it so hard for you to admit that you got the science wrong, Alan?

    This is rubbish. You misunderstood, or I’m happy to say that I may have not been as clear as I needed to be to avoid being misunderstood by you. I would have been and I am still happy to clarify what I understand about where the germ-line runs in eusocial hymenoptera. The germ line is only carried by the queen of the colony. The workers contribute to the phenotype, they do not pass on the genes in their own bodies. Of course workers form part of the phenotype and beneficial variation in the phenotype, the colony, will contribute to its survival and adaptation.

  8. Alan,

    You misunderstood, or I’m happy to say that I may have not been as clear as I needed to be to avoid being misunderstood by you.

    It wasn’t a misunderstanding, Alan. I understood exactly what you were saying, but I recognized your error. You thought that the sterility of the soldiers meant that their behavior couldn’t have a genetic explanation:

    Well, no. Sterile worker and soldier castes are not the carriers of the genome. The queen is. So loss of sterile caste members is of no consequence, genetically.

    You got the science wrong, so I corrected you. That was over two years ago, Alan, and you’re still denying it. Stop wasting everyone’s time. Accept your mistake and move on, like a grown-up would.

  9. keiths:
    Alan,

    It wasn’t a misunderstanding, Alan. I understood exactly what you were saying, but I recognized your error. You thought that the sterility of the soldiers meant that their behavior couldn’t have a genetic explanation:

    Absolute nonsense. There you go with your mind-reading again. You wanted to argue about the word “genetic”. I wanted to make the genotype/phenotype distinction. Workers don’t pass on their genes. Workers form part of the phenotype.

    You got the science wrong, so I corrected you.

    Nonsense. You wanted to pick a fight over a word.

    That was over two years ago, Alan, and you’re still denying it.

    Of course I am. No matter how many times you bring it up as if your misrepresentation was a reality, I’m not going to fold on the truth.

    Stop wasting everyone’s time.Accept your mistake and move on, like a grown-up would.

    You keep bringing it up. And your misrepresentation does not improve with age. You move on.

  10. walto: So…neither of you is willing to admit any error.

    Can’t we just talk about the psychology of it and leave it at that? No need to get all judgmental.

  11. The word “true” does not appear in the OP. The word “truth” appears once.

    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:

    Surely something is being left out in a discussion of the psychology of not admitting mistakes.

    I like how for keiths what is true is based on reality though:

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

    I just wonder how that works out in practice.

  12. Patrick: Without going into the details of your argument with him, deliberately or not you are attempting to control the narrative.

    Hypocrite.

  13. Patrick is not interested in the actual facts of slavery, because the actual facts about slavery might interrupt his pathetrick attempt to control the narrative.

  14. I wrote at the time:

    Alan,

    It wasn’t a miscommunication.

    I stated that the behavior of soldier ants requires a genetic explanation, and you disagreed.

    I think you’re wrong about that, and I can’t even imagine what sort of a non-genetic explanation you have in mind.

    I wrote, incredulously:

    I have no idea what non-genetic explanation Alan has in mind. Cultural? Older ants teaching their younger siblings to be good workers and soldiers?

    And if it wasn’t a mistake, then why did you withdraw your statement a week later?

    You misunderstood the biology, Alan. That’s all. Why are you making such a big deal out of this?

  15. And:

    Alan,

    It’s time to take responsibility for your mistakes.

    Joe [Felsenstein], Allan, Zachriel, Gralgrathor and I are all telling you that the behavior of the sterile castes has a genetic explanation. Are you going to continue to deny that?

    Even you recognized your error at one point, which is why you withdrew your statement!

    This is not a failure to communicate. It is a failure to take responsibility for what you wrote.

  16. Alan’s behavior is a beautiful illustration of this point from the OP:

    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.

    No one who understands the biology can fail to recognize that the behavior of the sterile castes requires a genetic explanation, and that Alan was wrong to deny this. The problem for Alan is that if he admits this, he is admitting that he got the biology wrong, and his self-image won’t allow for that. He wants very badly to be seen as biologically competent, but the evidence clearly indicates otherwise when it comes to the evolutionary biology of ants.

    Cognitive dissonance is off and running, and Alan ends up denying a mistake that is obvious to others. He is fighting against reality in order to defend a fragile and unrealistic self-image.

    The sad thing is that if Alan were honest about his mistakes, no one would hold them against him. Scientific ability varies from person to person. We all know this. Being unskilled scientifically is fine, and there are plenty of knowledgeable people here who can correct the errors of the less informed and less skilled.

    It doesn’t have to be a full-blown crisis when you make a mistake, Alan. Just relax, accept it, and acknowledge it. You’ll be much happier at TSZ if you learn to do that.

  17. keiths: You misunderstood the biology, Alan. That’s all. Why are you making such a big deal out of this?

    Not a big deal. I’m kind of used it. But you keep misrepresenting me and pretending it is an accepted fact. Now at least you are confirming that you claim my “mistake” was in the biology of eusocial hymenoptera. That’s progress, at least.

  18. keiths: It’s time to take responsibility for your mistakes.

    Oh the irony! 🙂

    Joe [Felsenstein], Allan, Zachriel, Gralgrathor and I are all telling you that the behavior of the sterile castes has a genetic explanation. Are you going to continue to deny that?

    On the specific phrase, I don’t think there is anything to deny. I’m quite happy to agree with “the behaviour of the sterile castes has an explanation” or “the behaviour of the sterile castes has a biological explanation”. As I said at the time, you are arguing semantics, not biology.

    Even you recognized your error at one point, which is why you withdrew your statement!

    Which statement?

    This is not a failure to communicate. It is a failure to take responsibility for what you wrote.

    It is your predilection for wanting to win any argument that I see as the problem.

  19. keiths: No one who understands the biology can fail to recognize that the behavior of the sterile castes requires a genetic explanation, and that Alan was wrong to deny this.

    I disagree 🙂

    Of course there is an explanation for the heritability of “suicidal” behaviour in sterile soldiers in a species of eusocial hymenopterans. You made the discussion into an argument over whether “genetic” was an equally* appropriate adjective in the phrase above. To say your point was trivial is an overstatement.

    ETA: equally to “biological” referring to previous comment.

  20. Alan,

    Your mistake is obvious and your denial is pitiful and dishonest.

    Again, if you ever wonder why you don’t get the respect and approval you crave from others at TSZ, look no further than your own behavior.

  21. keiths:
    Alan,

    Your mistake is obvious and your denial is pitiful and dishonest.

    Nonsense. I’m not lying. Please stop with the false accusations.

    A suggestion.

    I’ll make some statements and you can tell me whether you agree or disagree with them. We could then attempt to appreciate the source of the disagreement. I admit to still being baffled as to what drives you into such a frenzy of accusations.

    An example.

    The behaviour of sterile soldiers in an ant colony has an explanation.

    The behaviour of sterile soldiers in an ant colony is heritable.

    The behaviour of sterile soldiers in an ant colony is subject to selection.

    The behaviour of sterile soldiers in an ant colony is passed to future generations through the gametes of the mated queen.

    I think all the above are reasonable. Do you agree?

    Again, if you ever wonder why you don’t get the respect and approval you crave from others at TSZ, look no further than your own behavior.

    I’ll worry about my reputation. You can too, if you wish. What others at TSZ think on any particular point is for them to say. I don’t regard your opinion on what others think as reliable. 🙂

  22. Since he brought them up, I’d be curious as to whether keiths agrees with the following claim:

    Self-sacrificing behavior in the workers and soldiers is bad for their copies of these genes

  23. Alan,

    The issue was resolved two years ago. You got the biology wrong, and you acted like an ass because you were desperate not to admit it.

    It’s too late to rewrite the past.

    The behavior of the sterile castes requires a genetic explanation — obviously. You were wrong to disagree, and your reasons for disagreeing were also wrong.

    Accept it, acknowledge it, and move on.

  24. keiths:
    Alan,

    The issue was resolved two years ago.

    Nonsense. It was never resolved because you never made clear what it was you thought I’d got wrong and why you needed to keep repeating “admit your mistake”.

    You got the biology wrong…

    That you’ve never established. You just keep repeating “admit your mistake!”

    …and you acted like an ass because you were desperate not to admit it.

    LOL I’ve been learning from you.

    It’s too late to rewrite the past.

    Sure. But is it too late to establish what the hell you’ve been banging on about for the last two years? You don’t care, I suspect. You just can’t help yourself. Go on – admit it!

    The behavior of the sterile castes requires a genetic explanation

    Is this what you have nailed your colours to? There certainly must be an explanation for the innate behaviour of sterile workers and soldiers in ant colonies. Why is it important to append the word “genetic”? Why that rather than biological or evolutionary? The answer is it is a semantic quibble.

    — obviously.

    Or not!

    You were wrong to disagree, and your reasons for disagreeing were also wrong.

    I disagree on the semantic issue. “Genetic” in your sentence is superfluous. Also “requires” makes no sense.

    Accept it, acknowledge it, and move on.

    Accept what? You made a silly argument over the choice of a word and you want to shift the responsibility on to me. Well tough! You move on!

    Or you could try and clarify the difference between us on the biology by answering my questions above – or ask for clarification from me. That would be the mature thing to do.

  25. keiths:

    The issue was resolved two years ago. You got the biology wrong, and you acted like an ass because you were desperate not to admit it.

    Alan:

    Nonsense. It was never resolved because you never made clear what it was you thought I’d got wrong…

    This is where your denial, already childish and embarrassing, crosses the line into pathology.

    I’ve explained your mistake to you more than twenty(!) times, including in this very thread.

    You are so desperate to deny your mistake that you’ll pretend I haven’t even explained it to you!

    You have a problem admitting mistakes, Alan. A big one.

  26. Alan is so afraid of acknowledging a mistake that he’ll deny having heard something even after it’s been repeated to him more than twenty times.

    Petrushka is so fearful of having his mistakes pointed out that he’ll try to define mistakes out of existence so that no one can ever accuse him of making any!

    Your irrational fear of mistakes — making them and acknowledging them — is crippling you guys.

    Relax and give it a try. The world doesn’t end when you admit a mistake, and it’s the honest thing to do.

  27. keiths: Alan is so afraid of acknowledging a mistake that he’ll deny having heard something even after it’s been repeated to him more than twenty times.

    Petrushka is so fearful of having his mistakes pointed out that he’ll try to define mistakes out of existence so that no one can ever accuse him of making any!

    Your irrational fear of mistakes — making them and acknowledging them — is crippling you guys.

    They’re not just cripples, they’re bad, evil cripples. I know this because they’re in my own development for bad cripples where I’m the head evil cripple.

    And you know who else is here? KN. He’ll deny it, sure, but he’s here, baby. He’s here.

  28. walto,

    They’re not just cripples, they’re bad, evil cripples. I know this because they’re in my own development for bad cripples where I’m the head evil cripple.

    Suit yourself.

    I just think their fear of mistakes is crippling them.

  29. walto,

    Have you noticed the pattern? When someone points out an error or flaw in your thinking or behavior, your first impulse is to lie about them in order to cut them down to size.

    It might make you feel better about yourself in the short run, but at some level you must realize that you’re lying to yourself, don’t you? That can’t be very satisfying.

  30. keiths: Have you noticed the pattern? When someone points out an error or flaw in your thinking or behavior, your first impulse is to lie

    That’s actually my third impulse when the pointer outer is you, Leonardo. So I never get to it.

  31. Apologies to Keiths for not picking up on this earlier:

    Quoting Keiths:

    The sterile caste members aren’t transmitters of the genome, but they most certainly are carriers.

    They carry their own genes, sure. And those genes that they carry (inherited from their mother, the queen and her drone mate – I’m assuming we’re talking haplo-dipoid here) are necessary for the embryological development, function and behaviour of the worker or soldier caste member.

    This is important, because they get their altruistic behavior from their genes.

    Sure, they inherit their innate behaviour patterns through their genes.

    So yes, altruism in ants has a genetic explanation.

    But it doesn’t involve the passing on of those genes. The workers/soldiers contribute to (form part of) the phenotype. Their copies of their genes die with them.

  32. keiths:
    Alan,

    Just to be clear, are you finally admitting your mistake after two years of denying it?

    Finally! You made a semantic argument out of a sentence and the mistake is mine! 🙂

  33. No need to reinvent the wheel. I’ll just repost this:

    You got the biology wrong, Alan, and it amazes me that you are still denying it, two years later.

    It couldn’t be more obvious:

    keiths, paraphrasing Scruton:

    The ants aren’t reasoning about their sacrifice, so their behavior requires a genetic explanation.

    Alan:

    Well, no. Sterile worker and soldier castes are not the carriers of the genome. The queen is. So loss of sterile caste members is of no consequence, genetically.

    keiths:

    The sterile caste members aren’t transmitters of the genome, but they most certainly are carriers. This is important, because they get their altruistic behavior from their genes. So yes, altruism in ants has a genetic explanation.

    Alan:

    There’s no feed-back. All the genes do in a sterile caste worker is define the phenotype of that worker. It’s somatic. The only thing that can affect the alleles of a population of ants is differential survival of queens.

    At that point you finally recognized your mistake and rushed to add an ETA:

    ETA Oh sure, the colony with the feistiest soldiers is going to give the best chance of survival to its gene pool store – the queen.

    You got the biology wrong. I pointed that out. You first doubled down, then realized your mistake and tried to back out of it with a contradictory ETA.

    Why is it so hard for you to admit that you got the science wrong, Alan? It happens to you all the time.

  34. I have to say my opinion of you has hit an all-time low. That being said, let’s see what you are claiming.

    keiths:

    keiths: It happens to you all the time.

    [AF said]There’s no feed-back. All the genes do in a sterile caste worker is define the phenotype of that worker. It’s somatic. The only thing that can affect the alleles of a population of ants is differential survival of queens.

    which is correct and I am at a loss to see how you manage to twist my clear meaning. (Unless you have another motive which unfortunately would not surprise me) I was making a germ-line vs soma distinction. The genetic material (their copies of their genes) in the sterile caste members dies with them, just as the genes in shed human skin cells perish.

    At that point you finally recognized your mistake and rushed to add an ETA:

    Bollocks! I like the “rushed” touch. A classic Keiths brush stroke. I was truly mystified by your strident approach and offered the clarification.

    I don’t give a fuck about your opinions now and I’m wasting too much time on this comment so I’ll leave it there.

  35. DNA_Jock is still curious as to whether keiths agrees with the following claim:

    Self-sacrificing behavior in the workers and soldiers is bad for their copies of these genes

  36. DNA_Jock:

    Kind of a silly thing to be the object of a serious discussion. If a neuter member of a hive dies, any mutations he or she carried are lost, but I still think it is useful to think of ants and bees as somatic cells, and the hive as the organism. Loss of a somatic cell does not affect evolution.

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