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The Benefits of Letting Someone Be Wrong

Think carefully the next time you try to expose someone for being wrong.

Key points

  • Individuals who try to prove others wrong often have particular personality characteristics.
  • Rightness-prone individuals should ask themselves a few key questions before they engage in such a conflict.
  • Because proving someone wrong often causes intense emotion, such individuals set themselves up for an increased release of the stress hormone.

One of the most common sources of social conflict is an argument in which one or more of the parties seek to be right, which often requires proving the other person wrong. While there’s no true winning in an argument because an argument has no discrete, agreed-upon rules or scores, it’s often still tempting to prove one’s rightness.

How Personality Ties to a Tendency to Prove Others Wrong

Some personalities are more oriented around winning an argument or proving another wrong than others. Consider the following types of people who are prone to rightness:

  • Individuals who have narcissistic personality features are often driven by the need to assert and sustain superiority over others.
  • Individuals who have borderline personality features often have intense emotional feelings, and they may confuse the intensity of their feelings as an indicator of their rightness.
  • Individuals who suffer from a trauma history may overcompensate for past vulnerability and victimization by over-asserting themselves, telling themselves that doing so makes them less likely to ever be subjugated again.
  • Individuals who developed an overly empathetic caretaking style due to early dysfunctional parent-child dynamics may be prone to fight for fairness and justice, and fight for rightness because their sense of value is linked to that role.

If, as a clinical psychologist, I were to conduct a clinical interview with members of these groups, I’d pose a question: “Are your efforts to prove another person wrong usually successful?” I’d continue: “Does that person usually admit they were wrong and change their perspective and behavior as a result?”

Why Proving Someone Wrong Almost Always Fails

In social situations, most people aren’t looking to be educated by others. In general, they have enough demands in their daily life and grow tired of having others—bosses, spouses, even children—tell them what they need to do. Accordingly, they aren’t open to much criticism or admonishment in their unstructured free time. Those who are prone to proving others wrong should be honest with themselves about the fact that their arguments typically don’t change anything.

How Proving Someone Wrong Works Against One's Own Interests

Because proving another person wrong is usually met with resistance, right-prone individuals often find themselves getting angry or otherwise upset in the interaction, and mentally exhausted from formulating and reformulating agenda points to win. What most people don’t ask themselves when stuck on the must-be-right hamster wheel is whether this behavior is good for their mental health.

If I were to continue my interview, I’d ask the right-prone individuals, “In general, what’s the best use of your mental energy?” I’d follow that with the most important question: “How much do you think about the importance of preserving your energy and directing it toward the people and activities in your life that matter most?”

Does Proving Someone Wrong Partly Reflect a Need to Control?

Proving someone wrong is not necessarily a malicious behavior because the underlying intention can be good: to advocate for fairness; to bring objectivity and reality when another person betrays both; and to point out another person’s denial or narrow-minded thinking in favor of encouraging greater self-awareness.

Yet while such motivations may be well-intended, proving others wrong as a pattern in social interactions can also be a way of controlling others—and their thinking, in particular. If you are someone who has a history of needing to expose others’ wrongness, unfairness, or ineptitude, ask yourself this: "Am I emotionally flexible or am I someone who needs to control situations?"

While you may tell yourself that being in control makes you feel better, the truth is that needing too much control often results in feeling frustrated and distressed, and those feelings aren’t regularly good for your mental health.

The Benefits of Pausing and Listening

The next time you find yourself in a social interaction in which you are tempted to explain to someone how he or she is wrong, pause and listen. Pausing and listening to the other person doesn’t have to mean that you agree or that the other person is right.

But in the past, you likely told yourself that proving someone wrong was the right thing to do or that it was somehow your job. In those instances, you inevitably drained some of your emotional energy and likely activated your Central Nervous System, causing an increased release of the stress hormone, cortisol. Stressing the mind and body in this way, especially when the other person doesn’t end up changing their perspective or behavior anyhow, exposes how illogical and unproductive most efforts to prove another person wrong are.

The Ultimate Benefit is Greater Humility

While the desire to be right or to enforce fairness and objectivity is understandable, any individual operating from such a perspective is also at risk of grandiosity and arrogance. It’s true that one individual may be more correct or fair with respect to a given issue, but our human value does not depend on how right we are in any one situation. Most people cope and make sense of the world in the best they can with the emotional information they have, and each person will evolve to the degree they are open to change and to self-reflection.

If you can allow others the occasional right to be wrong—barring major violations—the modesty and openness you model may be more impactful than any potential rightness. Operating from this attitude, you practice a respect for your fellow community members as opposed to condemning them for their differences.

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