Why Would We Rather Be Wrong than Perceive Ourselves as Being Wrong?

Why would we rather perceive ourselves as right than be right? Why does believing ourselves to be right feel so good?

People hate being wrong. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. If we’re wrong about the world out there, we’re less likely to survive and produce grandchildren. You’d expect being wrong to feel bad, because it discourages being wrong.

But here’s what weird: what people really hate is perceiving themselves as being wrong. They hate it so much, they’d often rather be wrong — even with all the evolutionary downsides that being wrong delivers.

Example: believing that some animal is godlike and hence untouchable for food. Result: less available food, so (in aggregate, over generations) less grandchildren.

But try to tell someone holding that belief that he or she is wrong, that it’s a false belief. You’ll encounter massive, impenetrable resistance.

What in the heck is going on there? It seems completely contrary to evolutionary logic.

Why did humans evolve so that perceiving ourselves as being right is more pleasurable — feels better — than actually being right? (Remember: in general, natural selection results in “fit” behaviors — like having sex — giving pleasure; that pleasure reward is what encourages the behavior. This is using “fit” in the technical evolutionary sense: “likely to result in more grandchildren.”)

Not surprisingly, the remarkable Robert Trivers addressed this question:

The Elements of a Scientific Theory of Self‐Deception Update: Ungated version here.

And many have built on his work since. (The paper has 133 citations in Google Scholar, which is remarkably high by Google-citation standards.)

Trivers offers a few possible explanations, and suggests several avenues for further research. I’ll just share his first suggestion, and leave the more abstruse ones for those as is interested.

Explanation #1: if we deceive ourselves, it’s easier to deceive others.

Suppose you know that your proposal is bad for the person you’re proposing it to. People are good mind-readers (or more accurately, readers of facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, etc.), so if you’re consciously aware that you’re lying, they can often tell.

So what’s the best strategy? Hide that knowledge in your unconscious, where even you can’t see it. So your conscious mind believes a lie, even though your unconscious mind knows it’s a lie. Since the truth is hidden from you, it’s also hidden from others.

This gives self-deception real evolutionary advantages — it lets you convince people of things that are bad for them and good for you — so natural selection would naturally result in a mechanism that allows for that. It would also make it pleasurable to use that mechanism — to fool yourself — so you’ll use that mechanism. Hence the widely-demonstrated joys and benefits of self-delusion.

There are (at least) two problems here, though:

• Self delusion must, on average, be beneficial to individuals, or it (and the pleasure reward for doing it) wouldn’t have evolved. But once the pleasure reward exists, it could encourage self-delusions that are not self-beneficial.

• Even if the self-delusion instinct is (overall) good for individuals’ “fitness,” it’s quite possibly bad for everyone in aggregate — depending on how you define “bad.”

This subject goes far deeper and gets almost infinitely complex, but I’ll stop here and leave others to ruminate further.







4 responses to “Why Would We Rather Be Wrong than Perceive Ourselves as Being Wrong?”

  1. Zara Kublin Avatar
    Zara Kublin

    Can’t access the Trivers article, but does he discuss the possibility that thinking you’re right, even when deceiving yourself, increases (misplaced) self-confidence thus gives an outward appearance of fitness? Anecdotally, there were no shortage of students (males – sorry, ) at my university who usurped seminars and were deferred to by dint, entirely, of their bluster. See CEO’s, world leaders, etc. They get laid (also hired and re-hired) and we know how right they are.

  2. Asymptosis Avatar

    @Zara Kublin “does he discuss the possibility that thinking you’re right, even when deceiving yourself, increases (misplaced) self-confidence thus gives an outward appearance of fitness?”

    He does, though somewhat glancingly, though with a footnote to the following. It’s not exactly what you’re talking about, but similar. Would love to hear about anything you find in your travels. Thanks!

    Positive Illusions and Coping with Adversity
    Shelley E. Taylor, David A. Armor
    Journal of Personality
    Volume 64, Issue 4, pages 873–898, December 1996

    ABSTRACT We review the literature showing that positive illusions (i.e., self-aggrandizement, unrealistic optimism, and exaggerated perceptions of control) are common and associated with successful adjustment to stressful events, including conditions of extreme adversity. Using theory and recent data, we offer a basis for integrating positive illusions with the constraints of reality. We explicitly contrast the social psychological model of positive illusions with a personality viewpoint that addresses the question “Do higher levels of positive illusions predict higher levels of adjustment?” These issues are explored in the context of people coping with an array of normal stressful events, as well as those coping with more extreme stressful events, including cancer, heart disease, and HIV infection. “Life is seldom as unendurable as, to judge by the facts, it ought to be.” –Brooks Atkinson

  3. Asymptosis Avatar

    Oh and here’s an ungated version of the Trivers paper. Sorry about that.


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