None of us like to be wrong. I’ve tested this with many audiences, asking them “how does it feel when you’re wrong?” “Embarrassing”, “humiliating” or simply “bad” are among the most common answers. Stop now and try and think of your own list of words to describe the feeling of being wrong.
These common and universally negative answers are great from a teaching perspective, because they are answers to the wrong question. “Bad” isn’t how you feel when you’re wrong; it’s how it feels when you discover you were wrong! Being wrong feels exactly like being right. This question and this insight come from Kathryn Schulz’s TED Talk, On being wrong. Schulz talks about the “internal sense of rightness” we feel, and the problems that result. I think there’s a puzzle here: we’ve all had the experience of being certain while also being wrong. If the results are “embarrassing”, why do we continue to trust our internal feeling of certainty?
My answer comes from Thinking Fast & Slow. That sense of certainty comes from our System 1, the fast, intuitive, pattern recognition part of our brain. We operate most of our lives listening to System 1. It is what allows us to brush our teeth, cross a street, navigate our way through a dinner party. It is the first filter for everything we see and hear. It is how we make sense of the world. We trust our sense of certainty because System 1 is the origin of most of our impulses and actions. If we couldn’t trust System 1, if we had to double check everything with the slow expensive analytical System 2, we would be paralyzed. So we need our System 1 and we need the sense of certainty it provides. We also need to be aware it can lead us astray.