Don’t go out with your hair wet, you’ll catch a cold. Be careful with sugar – that stuff can be as addictive as drugs. Oh, and while we’re giving out advice, stop cracking your knuckles – after all, surely you know that causes arthritis?
The three assertions above probably qualify as “things that everyone knows”. But are they true? Catching a cold is entirely dependent on being in the presence of a cold virus; brain scans show none of the signs of chemical dependence arising from sugar consumption; and, while annoying to those around you, knuckle-cracking has no proven ill-effects on the anatomy. However, you will still hear people repeat these statements – and others like them – as though they were deeply-researched scientific facts.
It’s possible that the reason these lines have gone from “blind assertion” to “everyone knows,” is simply because people state them with such confidence. And it’s a problem that while we seem to be comfortable stating inaccurate information, we have difficulty admitting to having gotten something wrong.
Why don’t we want to admit we’re wrong?
There is something pleasurable about passing on information that someone else doesn’t know; it’s why we gossip, and it’s why humans love telling anecdotes. It’s all the more fun when someone finds the information we’ve told them to be exciting, amusing or useful. If we have to then admit the information was false, we feel like we’re having to hand back the status that we gained through sharing. We worry that people will look at us as frauds. Also, all too often, while people may have cheerfully passed on the errant information, you are unlikely to see them being as eager to pass on the correction.
Why is it so important that we do admit it?
It’s often said that we learn from our mistakes. But this doesn’t paint the full picture. When we make a mistake, we are inclined to keep trying until we get something right. Study after study shows that we learn best from getting something right. The learn, unlearn and relearn process of learning is beneficial precisely because you need to go through each step to build reliable knowledge. First, you need to show a desire to learn. Then, you need to discard that which is wrong. Finally, you need to replace the incorrect information with the truth.
The power of admitting when you’re wrong
The fact is that we’re all wrong sometimes. It’s not possible to always get it right, and if you are never willing to back down in debate or any other exchange of information, then you can gain a reputation for being not only wrong about things, but pig-headed about being wrong. That’s not a reputation you want to gain. Better yet, it means your certainty carries credibility. If you are prepared to start a sentence with “Now, I may be wrong…” and then prove to be right, people will trust that you do your due diligence. From that point on you’ll be hard to accuse of spreading falsehoods or bias, and that’s no small thing.
No-one wants to be wrong with information that they pass on, but the ability to admit when you are wrong can actually benefit your credibility. We live in a world where people are often not wrong but supposedly misquoted, taken out of context or repeated in bad faith. But when you can actually admit you may be wrong, you stand to gain a lot of respect.