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.