Why Some People Dig in Instead of Admit They're Wrong

Here are nine reasons why many people refuse to acknowledge the facts.

Posted Oct 30, 2020

The practice of staunchly defending one’s point of view or position, despite a great deal of information and evidence that would totally disconfirm it, has become much more obvious in recent years.

Here are a few explanations for why people stubbornly refuse to change their minds, regardless of the facts. 

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. To reduce the psychological discomfort, the person will have to change either their mind or their behavior so that the inconsistency or contradiction is resolved, thus restoring mental balance and emotional harmony—that is, cognitive consonance.

People continually reduce their cognitive dissonance to align their beliefs with their actions, thereby maintaining psychological consistency and less mental stress. Fundamentally, there are two ways a person can reduce cognitive dissonance. One is to change or discard one of the beliefs. The other is to change one’s behavior so that it is consistent with one or the other belief.

A helpful example of this phenomenon is smoking cigarettes. Clearly, when people smoke cigarettes (their behavior) they are aware that they are imperiling their health (their cognition). This creates a strong mental tension that can be reduced by either changing their thinking about smoking or changing their smoking behavior (i.e., stop smoking). That is, changing their cognition that smoking is dangerous—through mental gymnastics like denial—or changing their behavior so that it’s consonant with the rational belief that smoking is hazardous would both reduce cognitive dissonance.

Unfortunately, when there is a clash of ideas and information, leading to a conflict between our attitudes and our behavior, we tend to change our attitudes to make them consistent with our maladaptive behavior rather than change our behavior to make it consistent with our adaptive attitudes.

Confirmation Bias

This is the tendency to interpret new information as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or ideas. In essence, this involves filtering out evidence that would contradict pre-existing beliefs and focusing instead only on things that would seem to support the established ideas. For example, if a person with low self-esteem doesn’t receive a response to a text in a timely fashion, they would be prone to interpret it as confirmation that they are not valued by the text’s recipient—even though a much more likely explanation is the recipient was indisposed and couldn’t reply promptly. Most concerning is the fact that this psychological phenomenon is at the root of most stereotyping, bigotry, and racism.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

This is a cognitive bias in which people with very low ability grossly overestimate their competence. It is a type of illusory superiority in which people see themselves as much more capable of a task than they actually are. Hence, instead of recognizing and accepting that they are in over their heads, people reflecting the DKE will stubbornly refuse to acknowledge their limitations and ineptitude.

Pathological Narcissism

This is a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, a constant need for admiration, an utter lack of empathy, and a deceitful tendency to manipulate others for one’s personal gain. In addition, pathological narcissists have trouble handling anything they perceive as criticism. They always have to be right, proclaim they know more than they actually do, never take any responsibility for their wrongful acts, and always blame others for their mistakes.

The Stockholm Syndrome

This is a particularly fascinating psychological phenomenon in which hostages or victims of a kidnapping develop feelings of trust and affection for their captor. The term was coined in 1973 when four hostages were taken during a botched bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden. After being released, the hostages defended their captors and refused to testify against them in court. Plainly said, this is a type of “brainwashing.“ And while considered to be generally rare, the Stockholm Syndrome's parallel to cultism is obvious and can theoretically occur to any extent (see "groupthink" below).

Groupthink

The desire for conformity or harmony within a group can result in people failing to think critically or independently and consequently make dysfunctional decisions. This "agree at all costs" attitude creates a sense of cohesiveness in a group but often leads group members to exercise poor judgment. Examples of groupthink are peer pressure, acting in a "go-along-to-get-along" manner, fear of "rocking the boat" and being a "yes person." 

Pride and Ego

Not to be confused with pathological narcissism, simple pride and ego can compel people to stand their ground even when they are clearly wrong. Whether people see being wrong as a sign of weakness, or their stubbornness is due to compensation for a massive inferiority complex, this is a very common, often self-defeating, human tendency. And, indeed, I spend a fair amount of time during therapy with people trying to encourage them to pick happiness over pride and ego. Because in most instances, I believe, it is better to be happy than right.

Ignorance

I have blogged several times about ignorance and various kinds of illiteracy—especially scientific illiteracy. The above explanations for intransigence have all involved a basic refusal to acknowledge or accept the facts. But when people are ignorant of the facts or have a very limited understanding of them, they can dig in simply because they just don’t know any better.

Simple Stupidity

This explanation requires no further elaboration.

Remember: Think well, act well, feel well, be well!

Copyright 2020 Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D. This post is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for help from a qualified health professional. The advertisements in this post do not necessarily reflect my opinions nor are they endorsed by me.