Why being wrong makes us angry

Christie Aschwanden is a science journalist. Last month, she joined a lot of other science journalists at the National Association of Science Writers conference and gave a short Ignite presentation about why people get angry when presented with evidence that their beliefs are wrong. She's posted a storyboard of the presentation to The Last Word on Nothing blog. It's definitely worth a read.

I’m married to an amazing guy. Dave is like those honeybees that always know the way back to the hive. Me, I’ve gotten myself lost in the Hearst building. We’ll be hiking and we’ll come to a split in the trail and I’ll point one way and say, we need to go here. And Dave will say no, actually, this is the right way (as he points in the opposite direction). And I’ll insist that, no, this is the way.

And then he’ll point out that my way peters out below some cliff face. Which only pisses me off. The more evidence he shows me that I’m wrong, the more insistent I become — I’m right and he’s wrong. And it’s not just me. This political scientist named Brendan Nyhan at Dartmouth has documented what happens when you show people evidence that their beliefs are wrong.

So when Dave tells me that his way is right and mine is straight up a cliff, I think, oh yeah? Well I’m smart, independent and capable, so therefore I’m correct. I would never point us in the wrong direction. See, it’s never really about the hiking trail. It’s about some bigger story you’ve told yourself. I’m not taking issue with Dave’s direction. I know he’s right. But the factual mumbo jumbo he’s showing me clashes with the story I’ve told myself. I don’t like what it says about me.

Ouch. I know I've had experiences very much like that one before. I'm sure you have, too. What we believe about ourselves affects how we react to people who show us that we are wrong about something.

What's interesting to me about this, though, is that I don't react this way when I prove my own beliefs wrong. For instance, when I hear about a new study, and then have to dig into the evidence that presents a different perspective than the one I originally came up with. In fact, I kind of like doing that. But, then, challenging my own beliefs makes me feel more capable. It fits the story I tell me about myself.

I came away from this thinking two things. First, maybe we all need more opportunities to comfortably challenge our own ideas. (Although, I'm not sure how to create that space. Especially to cover the things that really matter.) Second, we all (me included) need to remember that being questioned—and being wrong—doesn't mean there's something wrong with us.


  1. But don’t forget that people also get angry when presented with false evidence.

    Just because you made somebody angry doesn’t mean you proved that guy wrong.

    1. I don’t think false evidence makes people truly angry so much as disgusted (especially if you feel that they know it is false also) or resentful.  This is more along the lines of “I know I’m wrong here but I won’t accept it.”

    2. I would add to this that sometimes, people approach things with an “I know something YOU don’t know!” manner that alienates others. They present their information, backed by evidence or not, in a rude manner meant to make their opponents feel rather stupid. I’ve noticed with my students *that’s* what gets them worked up. When they hear a polite clarification with new facts, they handle being wrong much better.

  2. I have a standard reply when someone points out that I am wrong, and it works for me.
    “That’s just like your opinion, man”

  3. Nobody knows how to admit defeat…we’re all entitled to be successful ALL THE TIME.   Look what that mindset has done to congress, for instance.

  4. The ability to be wrong and admit it is one of the key requirements for a good marriage. But only if both parties can learn to do it.

  5. A big reason why people react this way is that very few folks understand the difference between criticism and judgment. Most people only criticize when they’re upset, angry, or feeling some sort of “negative” emotion. When they’re feeling okay, they’re quite content to not be critical of anything, because it’s not affecting them at that moment. So when they are criticized, their assumption is that you, the critic, are doing it for the same reason they would be, which is to judge, to attack, to put down. Hence, they react defensively rather than openly.

    If we fostered a healthy, critical culture where everyone was used to questioning and analyzing everyone else, and themselves, all the time, we would save a lot of wasted time and energy, and get more shit done. Of course, people being a complex lot, it’s not always clear (even to yourself) whether your motives are 100% pure or 30/70 impure/pure when you criticize… and so we remain in the same dumb mess we’ve been in since the beginning.

    1. Most people only criticize when they’re upset, angry, or feeling some sort of “negative” emotion. 

      and other people are scientists.

    2. If we fostered a healthy, critical culture where everyone was used to questioning and analyzing everyone else, and themselves, all the time

      In theory, I see where you’re coming from. In practice, humans just can’t live that way. We’d be reinventing the wheel at every discussion, and we’d get less shit done. Even scientists don’t question everything all the time. At some point, they have to take certain things as a given.

      I understand you don’t think we should all be extremely skeptical all the time, I don’t think you were proposing anything so ridiculous. Unfortuneatly we get by in this world and make decisions without knowing a great deal. When you have people questioning complex concepts that they don’t have a lot of information about, all is not beauty and light. It becomes a confused mess where no one’s ignorance is a factor in discussion.

      Look at science reporting in the media. The problem there isn’t the inability to ask questions and challenge everything, but to assess the relative value of claims being made and the credibility of the spokespeople. Hence, the “debates” we see like: “Astronomer vs. Astrologer! Who’s right? Who’s wrong? We don’t know! We’ll let the laity decide!”

      1. I’m all in favor of getting less shit done. But I’m an environmental chemist. I see where the waste goes when we do so much shit.

  6. what i find interesting/ironic about this article is my belief that scientists seem to be relatively good at being proven wrong (gracefully) as it happens daily even hourly.  or maybe we’re just better people.  ;-)
    of course this also means it’s really hard for many of us to effectively communicate problems to others as our “evidence” just pisses them off. 

    1. “scientists seem to be relatively good at being proven wrong (gracefully) as it happens daily even hourly.”

      Haha!  Scientists are people, too, and with that mind set I bet you can be even worse at it than average.  There are plenty of scientists that are really, really awful at accepting contradictory evidence about everything from trivial matters to actual research points.  Science may be rational and evidence based, but scientists are every bit as arbitrary, capricious, and emotional as any other human on the planet.  Claiming otherwise is anti-science.

    2. “what i find interesting/ironic about this article is my belief that scientists seem to be relatively good at being proven wrong (gracefully) as it happens daily even hourly. ”

      Maybe in academia.  Some PHDs I work with will abandon a bad idea without a second thought once it is proven faulty.  Others get their ego involved in precisely the way identified in this article.  When the data doesn’t conform to the theory, either the theory was flawed, or the experiment that produced the data was flawed. There are some scientists that will scrutinize either the theory or experiment (whichever they don’t own) to ridiculous levels before they turn their scrutiny on the other.

      Other times, you get theoreticians that will defend an approach even after another theoretician has exposed flaws in it.  I will say that the really impressive thinkers I have met never have this trait, although plenty of people who smarter than me do.

  7. Right on, greenberger.

    The writing program I went through in college was designed to wipe this internal, self-focused bias away as much as possible. As one of my profs put it, “Before you can even get better as a writer — to say nothing of being any good — you need to abandon the idea that your ego is in any way a helpful creature.”

    The problem — as was demonstrated to us time and time again — is that as soon as you write something, you feel as if you’ve committed to it in an emotional way. “This came from inside my brain, I’ve invested thoughts and emotion in it, my thoughts and emotions are valuable to me, therefore this product must be valuable.”

    No. Not so much. Sorry. Start again.

    Our process involved doing some very deliberate, often very painful things, in order to minimize the role of ego in our writing and (more importantly) reviews of our writing. One of the biggest lessons was that the writing (verb) *and* the writing (noun) are both part of the process. That is, the “thing itself” (pages with print on them) is not the goal.  Becoming a better writer is.

    That attitude has been hugely helpful to me in many other areas of my life. I have very little problem admitting ignorance on a subject I know nothing about (because the process of learning inherently has to admit ignorance), and don’t mind being wrong when someone else has good reasons or evidence. It’s a focus on the goals of communication, rather than the pieces/parts.

    Not that it’s always easy. Especially since I’m right all the time to begin with   ;-)

  8. If it doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong, why don’t I be right and you be wrong? :P

    (Seen in a New Yorker cartoon, but probably plenty of other places *cough* relationships *cough* too.)

  9. I think I’m a little bit better at taking some kinds of criticism in some contexts than average. I’m learning-disabled, so there are some types of tasks and activities where I just mess up pretty often, and I’m pretty good natured about correction in those areas where I’m habitually error prone. It’s pretty dang normal for me to misspell things, or be completely unable to find something out in the open on an otherwise empty counter-top, or whatever.

    I certainly don’t like being wrong, but I’m so used to needing assistance in these areas that correction is just how I go about getting these things right. If I get corrected, I end up more-right than I was before.

    But instead I get angry and frustrated when I can’t get it right on my own and someone won’t correct me.

    And outside my problem areas, I know I’m “just like everyone else” on this part.

  10. I love being wrong. Or rather, I love learning I am wrong. 
    What makes me angry is assholes who claim I am wrong but can’t prove it.

    1. I think the most important thing to remember here is that EVERYONE IS DIFFERENT. And I don’t mean “everyone is a unique snowflake.” That is also bullshit. I know people that get downright violent when proven wrong. Know what I do? I stay away from them because they’re what I like to call “irrational morons.” I personally love being proven wrong. I don’t like to allow it, but I do like when it actually happens. It means I was misinformed somewhere down the line and my view of things is now a little more accurate. So please stop lumping us rational folk in with idiots by writing stories about “new research shows people get angry when they’re wrong.”

  11. One way to defuse this instinct to feeling attacked (and therefore angry) is what she pointed out in her article.  You briefly point out why they might believe what they do before making your case.

    Maybe you have a friend who thinks it is a good idea to take megadoses of vitamins.  “Yes, I know we need vitamins to live, and I can understand the feeling that ‘if a little is good more must be better’, but there is an optimal level of them your body will try to maintain.  That amount isn’t very large.  Any more than that will probably be excreted and waste them or can even be toxic.”

    You reassure the person that they aren’t dumb and their beliefs are understandable but that you have more information to share that they should take into account.  How easy this is depends on how much emotional capital they have invested in it.  A person who has dedicated their whole life to a cause is unlikely to be turned from it too easily.

    In the case of the casual hiker who thinks they might know the right route you could just simply state your case “I know that mountain was on our left coming in and I remember that rock over there.”  They would probably quickly defer to you without too much hurt feelings since they never were too invested in their beliefs anyway.

    1. Of course, anonymous people who suggest massive doses of vitamins may also be financially invested, not just emotionally. 

  12. We’re conditioned to think that being wrong is ‘bad’ and a failure. Just looking at how school works: If you’re wrong, you get a bad grade in red ink. In most settings, you’re a ‘top student’ only if you’re right all the time. There is very little room for experimentation and errors get treated as things you have to avoid like the plague. Once that gets drilled into your head, it’s normal that people get defensive when they are proven wrong: They’re basically being told (however indirectly) that they are failures. Here’s that big red x again…

    It certainly is a problem when people can’t admit they’re wrong, but it’s also bad when people are so afraid of being found wrong that they actively avoid making judgement calls, taking charge or making their ideas heard (I encounter a lot of the latter).

    1.  This is a very good point and also explains why people have such trouble embracing uncertainty. Our entire education system inculcates simplistic binary thinking that compels people to cling to their beliefs out of fear. Wrong is bad, I must be good so I must never be wrong. If you tell me I am wrong you are telling me I am bad.
      We are raised to be stupid.

  13. Sometimes being angry makes someone feel he or she is right…but most of the time we’re just angry and rarely right.   I guess we just have to aske ourselves.  Are we angry because we’re wrong or are we right because we’re angry?

  14. This is why the one global warming skeptic-turned-believer who’s been in the news so much lately isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind but his own. It doesn’t matter that he was a prized skeptic, and it doesn’t matter that his research was partly funded by the Koch brothers, other skeptics are just going to react angrily to him.

    He was able to admit that he was wrong because he did the research that proved him wrong. As Maggie says, this feels completely different than seeing someone else’s evidence, even though logically it shouldn’t be.

    But as one quote in one of those articles said it, other skeptics will simply be angry that he’s turned on them, exactly as if a much-loved Red Socks player had gone to play for the Yankees.

  15. Interesting isnt it? It is when we identify ourselves with our ideas that we feel we need to defend them. We get angry when what we consider ‘our ideas’ are challenged cause we simply see it as an attack on what we believe to be us. 

    The root of it is really this; this association of a self with ideas. We think of ourselves as noble, or funny, or independent and capable, etc … not realizing that the association is the source of our suffering. 

    Dont take mine or anyones word for it, find out if it is true… its when we believe, or when we follow that we are lost. What do you associate yourself with? Great post.

  16. You have hit on a big change in the thinking of how we educate students on science.  If we just tell them what they believe is wrong, we will not cause a change in their understanding.  BUT if we allow them to discover it themselves by playing with the data and coming to conclusions, there is a much greater chance that we will help bring about that change.

  17. I think there is an underlying problem imprinted on us by society (as someone pointed out with the school example – being wrong is seen as being inferior).

    As people mentioned scientists, I think even there it is very difficult to not be personally invested in your own claims and beliefs. While on an intellectual level most scientists will be fascinated by anything they don’t understand or were wrong about, the current reality of science works heavily against that. You either have to be an established (retired?) professor or a student to be free.

    What I mean by that is that the system expects a certain number of publications each year, a PhD thesis after an often fixed amount of time (3-4 years), annual progress reports on research projects, etc. You are forced to be successful – while scientifically a falsification is actually far more interesting than a positive result, negative results rarely get accepted in journals, and grant-funded projects never “fail” – they always have to be presented as a “success” somehow (in stark contrast to business, where everyone knows that 80% of startups or R&D projects will not succeed).

    What I see sometimes is that people are stuck in multi-year projects even though it turned out that it might not be the greatest approach, or won’t really work. But somehow it just has to become a thesis, or a success.

    In this light, being shown to be wrong is actually an existential threat – for a PhD student it might mean they will fail and have wasted 4 years for nothing. For a Post-Doc on a 2-year grant-funded project it could mean the end of the career in academia. This is the downside of more and more competitive, “market-driven” research funding – if people cannot relax about their income, career and future for the next 5 years or more, they cannot tackle risky research where there is a probability of being “wrong”. It is psychologically difficult to be unattached to your statements if you know that your career and existence depends on “being right” (publishing positive results, delivering on promises made in grant applications, etc.).

    This is a shame. Just consider that a great many break-through discoveries were complete accidents while doing something else – you need the freedom to drop what you’re doing, and pursue something completely different. Also, according to Karl Popper, science is about making falsifiable statements (theories that can be proven wrong), and anything stands only until proven otherwise. This is the only statements we can make in science. This also means that big, fundamental progress always happens when a statement/theory is proven wrong. I think this is somewhat at odds with the current academic reality of “publish-or-perish”, competitive grants mostly being awarded on track record of the applicant instead of the idea, and generally planned-out, project-based research.

  18. My friend once said, “When someone is being stupid, you can’t say to them, ‘Hey, don’t be stupid.'” He said this to me when I wouldn’t listen to his advice against me doing one of the stupidest things I ever did. I went ahead and did it anyway, not because I didn’t want to listen to my friend, but, sometimes ya just think ya gotta. And he was right. But we’re such good friends his advice didn’t tick me off any more than me thinking it myself.

  19. I was expecting something about why induced cognitive dissonance stimulates anger circuits. This did not deliver. 

  20. People, including me, are wrong a lot.  There is no real way of knowing when you are right and it’s a good idea to be ready to re-evaluate your supposed ‘facts’ at every opportunity.  I assume that half my facts are wrong, forcing me to put some effort into figuring out which half that is.  This mind-set keeps me open to changing my positions.  This is sort of  like science.  My viewpoints and facts are falsifiable and thus open to change.  But hey, I could be wrong.

  21. There is also, of course, the psychological effect knows as the ‘Backfire Effect’, where people become more entrenched as they feel more threatened.  How to defeat it is the topic of much discussion and research, and one researcher (arg, whose name escapes me, despite much googling) has posited that the problem is that people do not feel they have a way to change their minds while saving face.  Providing them that would allow them to change their minds.

    Also, I think there’s a huge difference between being wrong in terms of an opinion/how one feels about something, being wrong about a possibly hypothesis/strategy, and being wrong about the facts.

    Thanks so much for the heads-up on this storyboard, though!  It inspired a post :)


  22. There’s new research showing no difference in the brain reaction between how the brain responds to a fact and how it responds to a belief.

  23. It’s the same reason why newbies in poker always call – they have committed themselves and are reluctant to let go. Strong people know when they have been wrong and are willing to admit it easily. The best poker-players are those who know when the time has come to fold a full-house – they can overthink their own position with every new piece of information that comes in and always look forward.

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