Why You Think You're Right -- Even if You're Wrong

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Ability to admit error – and ability to learn from those mistakes – is critical to success. So why is it that we have such difficult time seeing when we're wrong? In 1894, officers in the French general staff discovered that someone was selling military secrets to Germany. They quickly settled their suspicions on Alfred Dreyfus, an officer with a sterling reputation. The officers interpreted lack of incriminating evidence to Dreyfus’s deviousness, and ignored exculpatory evidence. Dreyfus was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison.

Why?

"Motivated reasoning shapes the way we interpret information," says Julia Galef in her TEDxPSU talk "Why you think you're right – even if you're wrong." "Our judgment is strongly influenced – unconsciously – by which side we want to win."

In 1894, the French army was highly anti-Semitic. Dreyfus was Jewish.

Even when a colonel investigated further and found additional exculpatory evidence, like the fact that the espionage continued after Dreyfus's imprisonment, military superiors "came up with elaborate rationalizations to describe his findings," says Galef.

It took 10 years for Colonel Picquart to exonerate Dreyfus. During part of that time, he was imprisoned himself for efforts. Picquart was also anti-Semitic. "He had the same prejudices, the same reasons to be biased, as his fellow officers, but his motivation to find the truth and uphold it just trumped all of that," says Galef.

Why?

Gale argues Picquart used a different mindset than his fellow officers: "The drive not to make one idea win or another lose, but just to see what's really there. As honestly and accurately as you can. Even if it's not pretty or convenient or pleasant." (It would have been good if he applied the same mindset to his anti-Semitism.)

Again, why could Picquart find this mindset when the other officers didn't? Galef says people with Picquart's "scout mindset" are more often:

  • Curious: They love solving puzzles and finding new information

  • Open: They think it's virtuous to be able to change your mind when faced with new information

  • Grounded: Their self-worth isn't tied to being right.

Research shows this cluster of traits is a predictor of good judgment. Not surprisingly, these are also traits employers look for in job interviews. That's why employers ask you questions about your weaknesses and about times when things didn't go your way – they want to see that you're capable of learning and self-reflection, which are cornerstones of good judgment.

Julia Galef is president and co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality, as well as a writer and public speaker on the topics of rationality, science, technology and design.