More On Being Wrong

April 24th, 2011

Barry Ritholz links to Kathryn Schulz’s TED talk on Being Wrong (I wrote about her book here), and comments,

I dont know about anyone else, but I am wrong all the time.

expect to be wrong.

Which led me to clear up some of thinking that I’ve been doing since my last post on the subject. Here’s the comment I left on Barry’s blog, with some editing:

I of course expect to be wrong about particular things. I think we all do. But that’s future tense. “Some of my current and future predictions will turn out to be incorrect.” Well, yeah. Not really so interesting.

What is interesting is the human propensity for present-tense denial of even obvious reality, and the extraordinary lengths and contortions to which we’ll go to avoid admitting that we’re wrong.

The big aha insight for me in Schultz’s book was this, which she skips by, doesn’t really put across, in her talk:

There is no such thing as the real-time experience of being wrong. Present tense. As soon as you realize you’re wrong, you’re not anymore.

She just hints at this glancingly in the talk, when she says that being wrong feels like … being right. Nice line, that.

The rest of her book left me dissatisfied, though (and even more so her talk), because it didn’t answer the fundamental question: why does it feel so bad to discover that we’re wrong? Why did we evolve to be like that? Wouldn’t it be more evolutionarily fit to embrace and enjoy the discovery of wrongness, for purposes of self-correction and accurate perception of reality? Wouldn’t people with that propensity have more grandchildren?

I’m kind of astounded that after five years of thinking about these questions, she never seems to have asked, much less answered, that one. She says we don’t like discovering that we’re wrong because it feels bad. But she never discusses why it feels bad.

The best (possible) answer I’ve come across is via Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide.

Short story, it’s how the learning mechanism works. We’ve evolved so that if we are right in a prediction, we get a dopamine hit of pleasure. If we’re wrong, we don’t get our fix, and that feels really bad. (This helps explain why humans’ loss-aversion exceeds our gain-seeking.) It’s pretty straightforward behaviorism, embedded in a fascinatingly complex set of constructs.

So the the learning mechanism, ironically, makes us not want to discover that we’re wrong, because it feels bad.

I can only figure that the fitness benefits of the learning mechanism outweigh the unfitness of reality denial, and that evolution couldn’t “figure out” any other, less “expensive” way to do learning.

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