Why Some People Can Never Admit They’re Wrong

Psychological rigidity is not a sign of strength.

Posted Nov 03, 2018

WeAre/Shutterstock
Source: WeAre/Shutterstock

We all make mistakes, and we do so with regularity. Some errors are small, such as, “No, we don’t need to stop at the store; there’s plenty of milk left for breakfast.” Some bigger, such as, “Don’t rush me; we have plenty of time to get to the airport before the flight leaves.” And some are crucial, such as, “I know it was raining and dark, but I’m sure that was the man I saw breaking into the home across the street.”

No one enjoys being wrong. It’s an unpleasant emotional experience for all of us. The question is how do we respond when it turns out we were wrong: when there wasn’t enough milk left for coffee, when we hit traffic and missed the flight, or when we find out the man who sat in jail for five years based on our identification was innocent all along?

Some of us admit we were wrong and say, “Oops, you were right. We should have gotten more milk.”

Some of us kind of imply we were wrong, but we don’t do so explicitly or in a way that is satisfying to the other person, “We had plenty of time to get to the airport on time if the traffic hadn’t been unusually bad. But fine, we’ll leave earlier next time.”

But some people refuse to admit they’re wrong, even in the face of overwhelming evidence: “They let him go because of DNA evidence and another dude’s confession? Ridiculous! That’s the guy! I saw him!”

The first two examples are probably familiar to most of us, because those are typical responses to being wrong. We accept responsibility fully or partially (sometimes, very, very partially), but we don’t push back against the actual facts. We don’t claim there was enough milk when there wasn’t, or that we were not late to the airport.

But what about when a person does push back against the facts, when they simply cannot admit they were wrong in any circumstance? What in their psychological makeup makes it impossible for them to admit they were wrong, even when it is obvious they were? And why does this happen so repetitively — why do they never admit they were wrong?

The answer is related to their ego, their very sense-of-self. Some people have such a fragile ego, such brittle self-esteem, such a weak "psychological constitution," that admitting they made a mistake or that they were wrong is fundamentally too threatening for their egos to tolerate. Accepting they were wrong, absorbing that reality, would be so psychologically shattering, their defense mechanisms do something remarkable to avoid doing so — they literally distort their perception of reality to make it (reality) less threatening. Their defense mechanisms protect their fragile ego by changing the very facts in their mind, so they are no longer wrong or culpable.

As a result, they come up with statements, such as, "I checked in the morning, and there was enough milk, so someone must have finished it." When it’s pointed out that no one was home after they left in the morning, so no one could have done that, they double down and repeat, “Someone must have, because I checked, and there was milk,” as though some phantom broke into the house, finished the milk and left without a trace.

In our other example, they will insist that their erroneous identification of the robber was correct despite DNA evidence and a confession from a different person. When confronted, they will continue to insist or pivot to attacking anyone who tries to argue otherwise and to disparaging the sources of the contradictory information (e.g., "These labs make mistakes all the time, and besides, you can't trust a confession from another criminal! And why do you always take their side?").

People who repeatedly exhibit this kind of behavior are, by definition, psychologically fragile. However, that assessment is often difficult for people to accept, because to the outside world, they look as if they’re confidently standing their ground and not backing down, things we associate with strength. But psychological rigidity is not a sign of strength, it is an indication of weakness. These people are not choosing to stand their ground; they’re compelled to do so in order to protect their fragile egos. Admitting we are wrong is unpleasant, it is bruising for any ego. It takes a certain amount of emotional strength and courage to deal with that reality and own up to our mistakes. Most of us sulk a bit when we have to admit we're wrong, but we get over it.

But when people are constitutionally unable to admit they’re wrong, when they cannot tolerate the very notion that they are capable of mistakes, it is because they suffer from an ego so fragile that they cannot sulk and get over it — they need to warp their very perception of reality and challenge obvious facts in order to defend their not being wrong in the first place.

How we respond to such people is up to us. The one mistake we should not make is to consider their persistent and rigid refusal to admit they’re wrong as a sign of strength or conviction, because it is the absolute opposite — psychological weakness and fragility.

Copyright 2018 Guy Winch