Admitting you’re wrong can be one of the best ways to look good and impress people.
Years ago, I was talking to my boyfriend, John, on a cordless phone, while a summer storm thundered outside. He told me we should hang up because I might get electrocuted if lightning struck nearby. I reminded him that I was on a cordless phone, so that couldn’t happen. He said, actually no, I could still get shocked.
This is completely wrong, of course. But this was a long time ago, and I thought all he needed was for me to point out the physics. I said that for me to get shocked, the electricity would have to jump through the air from the wall to the phone, and that can’t happen.
“Yes it can,” he said, unmoved by my argument.
We went back and forth arguing, until I realized logic and facts had nothing to do with our disagreement. I was up against something I didn’t understand. I ended the conversation and hung up the phone.
It’s twenty-five years later and I still remember that argument. In that one incident, John lost a lot of my respect, and that conversation caused me to feel differently about the relationship. After twenty-some years, I still remember him as the you’ll-get-electrocuted guy.
The thing was, he knew he was wrong. It was in the tone of his voice and the way he hesitated. He just couldn’t say he was wrong.
The Desire to Look Better Than You Really Are
For some reason it doesn’t bother me to cop to being wrong about facts, so I have trouble empathizing with people who can’t do that. Reaching for empathy, though, I remember cases where I haven’t wanted to admit it when I’ve done something I shouldn’t have, or when I haven’t done something I should have. In those cases, I sometimes denied the truth because I didn’t want to admit I’m imperfect, or I wanted to look better than I am.
I figured that was why John claimed electricity can arc through the air and kill me via cordless phone. Once he said it, he probably couldn’t stand to look wrong.
Of course, the result was that he looked like an absolute idiot.
Why People Don’t Want to Admit to Being Wrong
Psychologists have looked into what causes lie behind people not wanting to apologize or to admit being wrong. The main reasons seem to be:
People have trouble separating their actions from their character. To them, admitting being wrong, or to having done something wrong, would be like confessing that there’s something wrong about their essential selves. In essence, instead of feeling a sense of error or guilt — of getting something wrong or having done something wrong — they feel shame: the sense of being wrong. And shame is an intense, painful, frightening, powerless, toxic emotion. If that’s how some people feel when they’re in a position of needing to admit an error or apologize, I can understand that that would be hard for them.
Psychologist Guy Winch says that for some people it’s like, “If they did something bad, they must be bad people; if they were neglectful, they must be fundamentally selfish and uncaring; if they were wrong, they must be ignorant or stupid.” American culture probably reinforces this feeling: “In American culture, mistakes are associated with being weak or stupid,” writes Gustavo Razzetti, a change leadership consultant.
People also can feel a deep need to be or appear smart or perfect — when they really feel anything but that. Any crack in the shell, and their true fears and insecurities will well up — fears about about weakness or lack of control, and insecurity about their ability to even exist in the world. Any failure or imperfection, no matter how small, feels life-threatening because it reveals a weak link — something they don’t know or can’t do. These feelings go back to early childhood, when the person was punished or humiliated for making mistakes or not being in control, and the intensity of the shame and powerlessness still lurks in their subconscious driving this need for perfection. According to Dr. Grant Hilary Brenner, a psychiatrist, “Perfectionism often has its origins in negative childhood experiences (interacting with inherited biological traits) where such tendencies developed as a reaction against feeling out of control with caregivers who were incompetent, absent, and often abusive.”
And sometimes people don’t apologize or admit to being wrong because they feel it makes them look weak. In fact, it’s just the opposite: apologizing takes confidence and inner strength — and when someone does it, people do see it that way. Admitting you’re wrong brings on embarrassment, and researchers at UC Berkeley found that embarrassment “is a good thing, not something you should fight,” in the words of psychologist Matthew Feinberg.
So there are powerful reasons why people don’t want to admit to mistakes or wrongdoing. Those reasons aren’t true — mistakes don’t really reflect on their essential self, or threaten their life, or weaken them — but they feel true to the person who thinks they have to appear perfect, strong, and in control.
If You Want to Help…
These causes suggest that, when the person who can’t seem to admit to being wrong is someone you care about, particularly a young child, you can help them overcome this tendency by gently encouraging them to acknowledge the truth — with understanding and empathy rather than resentment or a desire to control them. Genuine gentleness and care are essential, because otherwise you’ll only increase their fear and insecurity and drive them deeper into denial.
Accepting and forgiving them and then letting them know that you still love or like them will help them see that their feelings of fear and insecurity were unnecessary.
But Some People Just Don’t Care.
One more reason why people don’t admit to being wrong: Some just simply don’t care about truth as a primary value, according to Dr. Tim Sharp, a psychologist. Instead, these people weigh facts and truth against other, often emotional considerations — and frequently, the truth loses out.
According to Sharp, people who are logical and value the truth base their decisions on facts, whereas “other people make their decisions based on much more emotion.” One imagines a person who just wants something to be true, and no amount of facts will convince them otherwise, because for them that desire outweighs everything else. Or they feel attached to a person or idea, and so they block out facts about that person or idea that would be disappointing or would break the connection.
Dr. Sharp adds, “Now the problem comes when you try to talk logic to an emotional person because it just won’t wear — you’re talking different languages.”
Ironically, the people who let their emotions outweigh facts and truth often seem to be the same people who humiliate other people for being emotional.
The Power of Admitting You’re Wrong
People who don’t cop to their obvious mistakes lose out anyway. Generally, everyone else sees what’s going on — the person’s mistakes, errors, and imperfections are clear to see. So when the person denies them, that just makes the person look like an arrogant, blind fool. In the attempt to look strong, smart, and in control, they instead come across as weak, stupid, and irrational.
On the other hand, admitting you’re wrong can be a magnificent, powerful thing to do.
It shows you have confidence and integrity. Honoring the truth means more to you than being supposedly “right” (which, given that you’re mistaken, you obviously aren’t, anyway). It means you can tolerate being wrong because you have — or are committed to developing — an inner core of self-respect.
It also shows that you’re human and you know it. You don’t expect perfection from yourself, and you probably don’t expect it from anyone else either. People can relax and be natural around you. You’re able to have real, sincere relationships.
It also means you possess self-awareness and self-control. You can notice and recognize your own negative impulses that are based on fear and insecurity, and then act differently. It reveals that you have moral ambition, the desire to be a better person.
It shows you care about the people around you. You’re not in a struggle with them to be the “most perfect” or the “most right.”
All of this adds up to being trustworthy — and people see that. Admitting you’re wrong powerfully strengthens your relationships. And that’s true at work as well as in your personal life. According to Dr. Sharp, research shows that “leaders who express vulnerability and are more open to being fallible tend to be more highly regarded.”
Admitting you’re wrong connects you to your humanity, your integrity, and other people. It’s a practice that builds self-confidence, self-awareness, and self-respect.
Admitting you’re wrong is so powerful, it’s almost like a bolt of lightning. It just can’t shock you through a cordless phone.
Patricia Sanders lived in Globe from 2004 to 2008 and at Reevis Mountain School, in the Tonto National Forest, from 2008 to 2014. She has been a writer and editor for GMT since 2015. She is currently traveling long-term and researching a book on dance. You can follow her writing on the website medium.com, under the pen name SK Camille.