The Danger of Certainty: Why Being Wrong Can Be Right
One day, I came to talk about Buddhism with the principal of one of the schools we have built in Thailand. While he was teaching me as a wise old man and a well-read Buddhist, he told me that Buddha was born in Thailand. For me, this was remarkable because I just came from Cambodia and had heard a completely different story there. According to the Cambodians, I spoke to, Buddha was born in Cambodia.
The most remarkable thing was that when I had been in Delhi four months before, the local people there assured me that Buddha really came from India. Why do so many people stick to their version of reality and what makes this so often unjustified or even annoying?
It’s not just about being right in spiritual or religious matters. It’s about wanting to be right in order not to be wrong. Kathryn Schulz, a writer for the New Yorker, has written a great book about this: “Making mistakes”.
Why is being wrong uncomfortable?
According to Kathryn, it seems that we are often trapped in a bubble of our own truth. According to her, this has to do with the feelings that are released when we are wrong. When you ask people how they feel about not being right, most people will answer that it creates a sense of shame and discomfort.
However, these are excellent answers to another question. Namely: How do you feel when you realize you are wrong? The feeling that arises when you are wrong is an entirely different feeling. That feeling has more to do with the fact that you have learned something and satisfaction.
Does our education teach us to be right?
From our childhood in primary school, we learn that we shouldn’t make mistakes. Children who make mistakes are stupid, irresponsible, lazy, and don’t do their homework. You learn from an early age the wrong lesson that you shouldn’t make mistakes if you want to be successful.
Actually, we learn always to overachieve and become a perfectionist. The result is that sometimes we can go completely crazy when we find out that we are doing something wrong or that we have or share incorrect information. Doing something wrong or believing something wrong gives us the feeling that we are wrong. We want to be smart, knowledgeable, well-read, and responsible because it gives us confidence.
Is our reality real?
But what does wanting to be always right actually mean? It means that your rightness perfectly matches reality. The way you see the world then is the absolute truth.
If that is the case, there is much to explain. Namely, how do you explain all those people who disagree with you?
How most people deal with people who disagree with them is the following: They get lost in their crooked assumptions. The assumptions we make are as follows:
Assumption 1: Other people are ignorant
If people disagree with us, we tend to believe that they are ignorant. The moment they have the same sources of information as we have, they will join our camp and agree with us.
Unfortunately, this is usually not the case, and when we find out, we stick to a new assumption.
Assumption 2: Other people are idiotic or stupid
We are going to believe that the people who disagree with us while having the same information are stupid. They have all the pieces of the puzzle but are not able to make the complete picture.
If all the effort to help people who disagree with us to see the picture though, and they still disagree with our idea of reality, then the third assumption is made.
Assumption 3: Other people are evil and selfish
These people only want to believe what makes them better themselves through denial. They don’t dare to see reality differently for fear of getting worse of it themselves.
Wanting to be right hinders creativity
The problem is that our attachment to our own truth keeps us from making mistakes and facing our mistakes when this is crucial to learning and treating our environment with respect.
What is most tragic is that not wanting to make mistakes completely ignores being human. As if we all have to look out of the same attic window and then also have to see and experience the same thing. That would make life very dull.
The miracle of being human is that we can see and experience the world as we want. However, we do not see the world as it is, but as it is not! Our ability to see something wrong is not a system error of human nature. It is nothing we can prevent. It is fundamental to who we are as humans.
We have to make mistakes to learn and be creative. That’s why we have to let go of our false truth and be open to what we don’t believe yet.
The Dunning Kruger Effect
The Dunning Kruger effect is about people with little knowledge about a subject overestimating their knowledge while experts often underestimate their knowledge. Time and again, experiments are carried out that demonstrate this. It goes so far that when you ask people on the street about how great they think a non-existent artist is, they start lying pontifically.
They can invent the most amazing stories or the non-existent artist just to avoid admitting that they don’t know something. And once faced with the fact that the artist didn’t exist, they can persistently cling to “their own experience” and that the artist does exist.