How to Be Wrong
Being wrong is hard. It can feel embarrassing, especially when we have put a lot of effort into defending a belief, opinion, practice, idea, or way of life. So, how can we learn to change our opinions or beliefs when new information becomes available? How can we learn to be wrong?
Did you know red velvet cake was originally essentially a chocolate cake? Back when red velvet cake was first popularized, the cocoa powder used in it reacted with the acidic ingredients (buttermilk or vinegar depending on your recipe), and it turned the cocoa powder red. Nowadays, red velvet cake is made red with food coloring. The typical recipe has some cocoa, but run-of-the-mill cocoa powder doesn’t turn red anymore thanks to alkalizing processes.
A few years ago, one of my friends told me about the cocoa vs. acid reaction, and I snapped at her with such an inappropriately big response to such low-stakes, and honestly fascinating, information that we still talk about it to this day. I knew it was red food coloring, and in modern recipes it is, but she was telling me something true that made my understanding feel incorrect. My emotional response to my mistake made me lash out at my friend who was telling me something objectively, verifiably true. Later, I looked it up. She was, of course, correct. Technically, I was right too, but she had never told me I wasn’t.
Being wrong is hard to take in stride sometimes, but learning to be wrong can help us improve relationships, mental health, and community connection.
But I know I'm right!
Everyone has moments of feeling completely confident in a belief, opinion, or piece of information they have learned. It feels comfortable and like you are on solid ground. You share the information, and someone tells you that you have it wrong. Maybe it’s an opinion they simply disagree with. Maybe it’s a verifiable fact (like my red velvet cake). Maybe it’s a core belief you hold about how the world works.
Before you snap at the person disagreeing with or correcting you, ask yourself a few questions.
- What are they actually saying? This seems straightforward, but we often listen to
respond rather than to understand. Take a second to really hear what they are saying.
Possible Responses: “Can you tell me why you feel that way?” “What makes you say that?” “I’m hearing you say [restate what they said to you].”
- How much does this matter to me? Do you truly care about the disagreement? Maybe it’s
something very minor. If it’s not important, don’t bother getting upset about it.
Possible Responses: “Ok, it sounds like I might be wrong about this.” “You have strong feelings about this.”
- Is it possible that they’re also right? Everyone’s experiences are different, and
those experiences influence how we think about the world. Maybe they’re right too.
Possible Responses: “Wow, I didn’t know that!” “That’s very interesting.” “I can’t say that I agree, but I see your point.”
- How confident am I in my belief/knowledge/opinion? Are you sure you’re right? Before
you respond, consider the possibility that you may not be.
Possible Responses: “You know what, I think you’re right.” “Wow, I guess I learned something new!”
What if I hurt someone's feelings or behaved badly?
It can be painful to admit when we’re wrong, but it is especially important to do so when we have hurt someone. This can be as small as snapping at someone when we’re hungry or uncomfortable or as big as supporting a cause we later find out is damaging to someone we love. However big or small, learning to apologize when we have wronged someone is an essential part of building healthy relationships and healthy communities.
It takes integrity, courage, and humility to admit when we make a mistake. If someone calls you out on a mistake or you just realize later on that you messed up, a willingness to own up to it shows how much you value the relationship. And if you are a parent or caregiver, this is a great behavior to model for children. They can learn that messing up doesn’t have to ruin a relationship. Sometimes an apology isn’t enough, but it is usually a great place to start.
But that person on social media really needs to know they're wrong!
Social media can be a great place to see pictures of people we don’t see often or to learn about a local restaurant, but it’s a terrible place for sharing and responding to ideas, beliefs, or opinions. Because we cannot see the person we’re interacting with, we often react in ways we never would face-to-face. We also respond to things that don’t need responses.
Next time, think about whether you really need to post that comment or reply. Maybe even type it out and then delete it to make yourself feel a little better without truly engaging.
If what you want to say is important to the safety of the person posting or what they have shared is possibly damaging, there are other options than public comments.
- Consider a private message or in-person conversation.
Possible responses: “I noticed that you posted ______, and I think you’re mistaken about _________.” “I saw where you said _________, but this article says that information is untrue.” “You said this about me, and it really hurt my feelings.”
- If the content is something that can cause widespread damage or otherwise violate guidelines, consider reporting it through the social media app.
- Simply keep scrolling. Sometimes there’s just no benefit to engaging. If this person or account is someone who consistently causes negative feelings, unfollow.
But finding out I'm wrong feels wrong...
Nobody likes to find out they were wrong about something they feel strongly about, but let’s take a second to think of the alternative. Not finding out or admitting we are wrong doesn’t mean we are right, so knowing we are wrong is better than not knowing.
When I taught university psychology classes, one of the tools I used when teaching about controversial topics was this prompt: “I used to think ________, but now I think ________.” Students would write down something they used to think about the topic and then build on or correct it with what they learned. For example:
“I used to think red velvet cake was just red food coloring, but now I think it is made with chocolate AND food coloring. I also know that older recipes used raw cocoa powder that turned red.”
See? I’m better informed, I’m still friends with my friend, and I learned how to admit when I behaved badly. Let’s face it…we’re all wrong sometimes, so let’s work on this together. We can all learn to be wrong. I believe in us.
Fincher, Melanie. (2021). “Why is red velvet cake red?” Allrecipes.com
Riegel, Deborah Grayson (2019). “What to do when you realize you’ve made a mistake.” Harvard Business Review.
Schultz, Kathryn. (2011). “On being wrong.” TED.com