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Are you as happy to be wrong as Danny Kahneman is?

I just finished reading Evan Nesterak’s Behavioral Scientist interview with Wharton organizational psychologist Adam Grant about his new book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. Grant discussed an interaction he had with Danny Kahneman that has given me much to think about.

After a talk Grant gave, Kahneman, who was in the audience, came up to him afterward and said, “That was wonderful. I was wrong.” Grant found the reaction unexpected. Upon later inquiring what Kahneman meant by that, Kahneman replied (Grant’s paraphrase), “No one enjoys being wrong, but I do enjoy having been wrong, because it means I am now less wrong than I was before.”

I was immediately reminded of an email I received from a student from a recent course. After receiving a lower-than-typical score on an assignment, she emailed me to thank me for the explanation of a particular concept in the rubric. She was glad she got that concept wrong because now she understands the concept much better than she did before. Like Kahneman, she “enjoy[ed] having been wrong, because it means [she is] now less wrong than [she] was before.” Since this is not the kind of email I usually receive from students, I wrote her back, and asked how she came to take that view. She said when she first went to college years ago, that was most certainly not her attitude. Instead, her primary reaction to being wrong was to be defensive. It was after she dropped out of school she realized how much her defensiveness kept her from learning. In her job, she started seeing that every time she was wrong, she learned something new, so she started seeing being wrong as a good thing. Being wrong is evidence of learning. And it was with that attitude that she came back to college. You may not be surprised to learn that she earned an A in the course.

Again, Adam Grant paraphrasing Danny Kahneman, “Finding out that I was wrong is the only way I’m sure that I’ve learned anything. Otherwise, I’m just going around and living in a world that’s dominated by confirmation bias, or desirability bias. And I’m just affirming the things I already think I know.” What helps is that, as Grant reports, Kahneman separates himself from his ideas. Ideas are just ideas, not who he is. Ideas are easy to ditch; our identity is not.

Early in my career, I learned that it was freeing to say, “I don’t know.” I teach a lot of Intro Psych. Students can come up with a lot of questions about people and why we do what we do. While I know more now about psychology than I did then, I still don’t know everything. Heck, our science of psychology does not know everything. My identity as a psychology instructor was not wrapped up in knowing absolutely everything about psychology. As a bonus, saying “I don’t know” made it easier for students to trust me when I did respond to a question with something that I knew. Or was pretty sure I knew.  

Next, I learned that it was freeing to say, “I don’t know, but I would guess…” and then provide my guess, while also sharing my thinking about why I was guessing that. I love this kind of thinking on my feet. And, by pulling in content previously covered in the course, previewing content coming up, and content not covered in the course, students get to see how different areas of psychology are connected – or, rather, could be connected if my guess is correct.

If a particularly motivated student did some research into the question, and reported back a different answer, I got practice is saying, “Thanks! I was wrong.” In recent years, I’ve gotten more comfortable saying that. I can’t say that I’m to the point of embracing “wrong” like my student and Danny Kahneman are, but I’m closer than I used to be.

Psychologist Paul Meehl was renowned for telling his students near the beginning of a course that half of what he was going to tell them was wrong; he just didn’t know which half. That’s science. With every study, we learn where our ideas are wrong, which ideas need to change. For Danny Kahneman, learning where he is wrong is just another data point. Talk about the scientific attitude!

Now the million dollar question. While I can work on reframing my own thoughts around being wrong and what it means to be wrong, how can I help my students do that same important reframing? While it’s important for learning, it’s much bigger than that. Kahneman has it exactly right—when we can admit we are wrong, confirmation bias, belief perseverance, <insert just about any bias>, cognitive dissonance all disappear. If those who believed the rhetoric of QAnon could say, “I was wrong,” like Lekka Perron has done, imagine how freeing it would be for them.

Perhaps the best way to help our students see being wrong as learning something new is to model it ourselves. “I believed X, but the preponderance of the evidence points to Y. I was wrong, and now I’m less wrong than I was before.”

Source: macmillan psych community