There, I said it.
Right about now the hair on the back of your neck is standing up and you have already started to dig in your heels in indignation.
"What? I'm not wrong, you're wrong!" has already flashed through your mind. You're angry. But why?
1. Emotions, Not Logic
Why should the idea that you are wrong cause you to become angry? Why is it that our first response is an emotional response? Why can't you act logically, simply accepting and evaluating the statement? Maybe you can. Let's try it again, this time with logic and reason: You're wrong.
That was different, wasn't it? What was your response? Was it more like, "In what way?" or "Okay, maybe so."
If you noticed the difference in feeling between the first "You're wrong" and the second, and I imagine you did, you just demonstrated to yourself an essential feature of your brain: emotions are the first-response system. Logic and thought come later.
"Acting like an animal" is what we call someone fails to use their logic to override their emotions. It's a phrase that has its actual, if not etymological, basis in evolution. Humans evolved from lower, less intellectutally capable animals but has been more a process of addition rather than differentiation. We are that animal first. We are more second.
2. Evolution and Error
Evolution takes time. It works without purpose, plan, or guidance. There is only one rule: survival of the fittest. A lifeform which manages to spread its genes more successfully wins. It's a simple competition of numbers. There is no ethic, no reason, no 'because' in the evolutionary process. It is what it is and we are what we are because of chance and the influence of factors outside any control.
A critical side-effect of those outside factors is that many of them don't necessarily kill you. Imagine you're your ancient ancestor living in the African plains. As you walk along the path you hear a rustle in the grass. Is it the wind or maybe a lion? Logically, it is much more likely to be the wind but what if you're wrong? What do you do? You run, of course. But why?
All your ancestors ran. They ran because a rustle in the grass frightened them. They ran because someone was able to teach them to be afraid when they heard a rustle. They ran because they had evolved the ability to learn from others. And they ran because those that didn't really were the "ancestors to Fancy Feast®," they were lion food.
They ran because they felt fear. Logic and reason, and even feeling dumb when it really was just the wind, didn't override the feelings of fear. We needed then, and still need today, this response.
Being wrong most of the time outweighs the value of being right most of the time and wrong just that once.
Heuristics are sets of rules, patterns to which something might match. That rustle in the grass triggers a mental heuristic, a pre-programmed pattern, in your brain that allows you to take a shortcut from thinking directly to acting.
At its strongest and most basic level these mental shortcuts are evolved, genetically programmed responses. Animal instinct we call it. Fear of snakes, fire, or lightning, for example. Even single-celled animals have instincts. Take pain. All animals respond to physical threats with a reaction, pain is just the signal mechanism.
At a higher level we also make use of heuristics in everyday life. We sense others' feelings, decide what is right and wrong, and make countless automatic decisions every day.
These shortcuts are necessary. Imagine for a moment that you had to stop and think about everything you were doing, every choice you had to make. Even limiting that to just what you have for breakfast could turn a simple meal into a research project in which you consider the total impact of your actions. What are the implications for eating this or that food, not just on myself today but for the world, my family, and my long-term health?
We can't do it. Nobody can. Even a supercomputer would choke on the amount of information and the complexity of the interactions.
So we make choices and those are guided by what seems to have worked in the past, either learned or pre-programmed in our genes. We live by heuristic rules.
Even when the rules don't apply, we apply them anyhow. If rules were meant to be broken, we don't usually know when to do so.
Ultimately, we have no choice but to live this way and accept being wrong some of the time.
Have you ever wondered why you believe things? I mean anything. Why should you even have beliefs? Shouldn't, or at least wouldn't things be better if, you assessed the facts, made an intelligent choice, and kept an open mind to discover when you were wrong or your understanding could be improved?
Some of us are more prone to believe than others but none of us is immune. We all have beliefs, even the most ardent non-believers amongst us. How many of us believe we are "a good person?" Pretty much everyone. Even mass-murderers say this about themselves. Typically we believe we are smarter than we are, less wealthy than we are, and less happy than others. These are just a few of our beliefs.
Most of us believe in a "higher power" of some sort. The evidence for it seems sketchy, at best, to me but it doesn't surprise me that this is the case. The world is a pretty complicated place and it's only in very recent history that we have started to get some explanations that make rational sense.
Belief is not truth. It is not fact. It may, or may not, really be the way things are but your beliefs are your truths.
The reasons for belief come back to the evolutionary process, emotional "thinking", and heuristics. We are programmed to believe.
Unfortunately, our beliefs are our truths. In our minds there is no separation between fact and belief. We simply haven't had the opportunity, time, or selective pressure to evolve such a thing.
As a result we often can't distinguish between what is a true fact and what we believe is a true fact. Getting something wrong feels the same, whether it's a wrong belief or a mistaken fact. In either case, our emotions often get the better of us.
5. Following the Herd
As highly social animals we are dramatically subject to what others think and do. We are programmed to participate. We want to like and, more importantly, be liked.
We want to be liked because we want to succeed. We have evolved to try and be the fittest. For most of us that means fitting in, going with the crowd, and not causing too many problems. It means helping out when others ask us to and being a helpful participant in our families, with our friends, in our communities, and in our society at large.
The pressures to conform are large and when you deviate from the norm too far, the social response is painful.
But what if, as the occasional deviant we all are, you are right when everyone else is wrong? Can you get your message out? It's difficult, to be sure, and the more your idea challenges the beliefs of your society, the less likely you are to have your message received well.
Galileo is the prototypical example. His observation that Copernicus was right, the Earth revolved around the Sun, not the other way around as the Church and most others believed, was poorly received. All he said was "you're wrong." And they were, but that didn't help Galileo out. He spent the last 9 years of his life in prison and under house arrest. Nice way of saying "thanks for pointing out our mistakes", don't you think?
Okay, Galileo was four hundred years ago. Surely things have changed, right? Not so much.
There is something of running battle for beliefs in the realm of religion. Religious fundamentalism is belief gone wild. Each religion claiming to be the "one true religion". Failure to agree is punishable by shunning, exile, or in Islam, death. Social pressure is alive and well.
Like the other sources of wrongness, social pressure has benefits, too. Most of the time we work better together than separately. Almost no one truly lives alone. Even the meditating hermit on the mountaintop is dependent upon others for clothing and food.
Sometimes, however, a person will rise to power and bring society with him in dramatically evil ways. How can we have Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or the genocide of Rwanda? Acts of murder on such a massive scale require massive numbers of murderers. Ordinary people who would be described as "a good person" suddenly converted to rapists and murderers.
It seems like mass-psychosis but it is really just an extreme example of social pressure mixed with wrong beliefs.
6. It's All About Me
Ironically, the thing that motivates us to conform to society is selfishness.
We evolved to be social animals because those who were able to rely on others were more successful (read: had more children) than those who didn't.
That, however, works against the first nature of all living things, self-interest. No matter how generous you are, regardless of what you consciously think about your motives, ultimately you are working for yourself.
When we help others we aren't really trying to help them so much as help ourselves by making ourselves likeable. Therein lies the tension between our self-needs and our need for social belonging.
We can see this played out in the political arena with certain groups and ideas oriented towards the individual (self-needs) and others lending support to the group (social participation). Interestingly, the divide isn't between left and right.
On a personal level, how we chose to balance those conflicting needs is part of our personality, each of us taking our own path.
Ultimately what we are seeking as individuals, mainly unconsciously, is status. We want the pick of the best mating partners so we can have the best children. We want the resources to live life safely and successfully. Our society is a living testament to this reality.
Think for a moment about what it feels like to do something that reduces your status. Maybe you said something to someone that was taken badly or called someone by someone else's name. What does it feel like? It feels a lot like being wrong, doesn't it?
Being seen as wrong diminishes your status. If you are often wrong, or at least perceived to be so, it weakens your social position substantially. As a result, we protect ourselves by denying our errors. Better to dig in and hold our status then admit failure. That's the subtle pressure granted by self-interest to social conformity.
So long as status matters (and it almost always does), being right is of little help unless you can find a way to apply exceptionally ability to make being right a benefit for all members of society. Correct, good for me, and good for all, that's the rare trifecta of true success.
7. Time is of the Essence
"I really don't have the time to think about it."
And you don't, really, do you? Who has the time to find out the correct answer to the complex questions of life. I spend many hours researching and thinking about this stuff and I'm probably wrong a lot of the time. Everybody is. Some are just more wrong than others.
The problem is three-fold: life is short, problems are complex, our brains are evolved, not designed.
Our problem with being wrong might be one of the single best arguments against "intelligent design", the utter lack of intelligence given to the designed creation.
If we are like God, modeled in his own image, then wouldn't we seek, also, to create in our own image?
And yet, we don't, at least outside of science fiction stories.
We design machines, computers, and tools all of which are built to be better than we are. We want our computers to be right, to speak the truth always, and to handle massive calculations quickly. No good is the accounting system that, embarrased about an error or overloaded with too much information, covers it up with false numbers or just guesses. Useless is the machine that isn't in the mood today. Little help is the hammer that won't hit because it has a headache.
Solving truly complex problems is not required to reproduce. Heuristics handles 99% of our needs in ways that work, so why should we walk around with 3x the energy consuming brain? Evolution, so far, says we shouldn't, so we don't.
Our animal nature is only concerned with the moment. Living the "Power of Now". Our advanced brain and self-interest expands our focus to, at maximum, the needs of a lifetime, and, perhaps, that of our children.
We evolved in ways not designed to be correct, fast, or have the long view.
The sad thing is, not only do we not have the time to think about it, we probably would get it wrong if we did.
How To Learn From Mistakes
Of course just because we are often wrong, slow to think, poor at considering the long term, and woefully dependent on our status needs, is no reason not to at least try and be less wrong.
The first step to recovery is to admit you have a problem.
The second step is to find something your are wrong about and admit it to yourself.
That's the right way to approach being wrong. Take the first steps, survive the feelings, learn, grow, and move on, slowly, with deliberation.
The truly difficult part will come not in admitting to yourself the ways in which you are wrong, which is hard enough, but the ways in which your society and community are wrong.
Then comes the challenging task of finding a community in which you can acheive status without the wrong belief you were required to hold in your community before. If I am honest with myself, I know that this is what I seek by writing Wisdom Website and in the other work I do.
Yes, "the truth is out there" but it can feel very cold and lonely on the way "out". You see, the barrier works two ways. The more you move to the smart side of the barrier, the harder it is to belong to the group on the other side. The best I can offer is join other truth-seekers, like myself, as we make our way across.
You are not alone.