The Perils of Certitude and the Joy of Being Wrong

While it might be human to make mistakes, we are often reluctant to admit to them. When it comes to taking responsibility, we waffle, come up with excuses, or point the finger at someone else.

Avoidance and denial are frequently the default response. We worry that admitting we were wrong will damage our reputation, diminish our standing, and perhaps even raise questions about our character. But research suggests this is not the case at all. In fact, acknowledging mistakes increases forgiveness and enhances perceptions of intelligence, competence, and decency. A study found that doctors who acknowledged wrongdoing were less likely to get sued.

Along these lines, researchers asked participants to imagine they had been hit by a bicyclist. They compared participants who received no apology or who received a sympathetic apology from the bicyclist — I am so sorry that you were hurt. I really hope that you feel better soon — with those who received a responsibility-accepting apology — I am so sorry that you were hurt. The accident was all my fault. I was going too fast and not watching where I was going until it was too late. Participants who received a full apology felt less anger and more sympathy towards the bicyclist. They were also more willing to forgive the person.

Put simply, saying “I’m sorry” is nice but not enough. Taking responsibility makes a difference for both parties.

Admitting when we are wrong is important in our close relationships too. “Admitters” have healthier connections with their nearest and dearest. When your partner or parent says, “I was wrong,” the process of repair can begin. If you haven’t seen clinical psychologist Becky Kennedy’s Ted Talk on why learning to make amends is the most important skill a parent can have, please watch it. Not only will Kennedy help you find the the language to make things right after losing your temper, she provides the tools to navigate everyday parenting challenges. She also reminds us that it is never too late for a parent to make amends. Here is a blueprint for initiating the process of repair even years later:

Hey, I know this sounds out of the blue, but I’ve been thinking a lot about your childhood. And I think there were a lot of moments that felt really bad to you. And you were right to feel that way. Those moments weren’t your fault. They were times when I was struggling, and if I could have gone back, I would have stepped aside. I would have calmed myself down and then found you to help you with whatever you were struggling with. I’m sorry.

And if you’re ever willing to talk to me about any of those moments, I’ll listen. I won’t listen to have a rebuttal. I’ll listen to understand. I love you.

There are things we can say and actions we can take to heal our relationships after we have damaged them. Reconciliation usually begins with those three key words: “I was wrong.”

Not surprisingly, people who take responsibility for their mistakes and behavior tend to believe that people change and develop over time whereas those who avoid taking responsibility tend to believe that people “are who they are.” Admitters separate bad behavior from being a bad person and believe in the possibility of growth and transformation.

In addition to taking responsibility for one’s actions, saying “I was wrong” signals an openness to learning and a willingness to change one’s mind. There is peril in certitude. Being convinced that you have all the answers leaves little opportunity for growth or discovery.

I am a big believer in the joy of being wrong. I have learned first hand how liberating it can be to let go of knee-jerk assumptions about others and also myself. Years ago I had a patient who I believed would never stop drinking. I was not optimistic about his future. Not long ago, I bumped into him on the street with his wife and new baby. He told me he had been sober for ten years. Being wrong never felt so good.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman