The Problem with Being Right

8 Sep

I’ll start with a general example- When you are involved in research then a lot of emphasis can be placed on defending your work, on trying to demonstrate you are “right”. This is especially the case during public presentations of research work, a PhD examination or a conference presentation for example. No aspiring researcher wishes to give in to rigorous examination and have to resubmit their PhD thesis and no researcher wishes their research findings to look so flimsy that they withdrawal their conclusions under questioning. Saying “I don’t know” is not expected in these situations, on the other hand, rigorously defending your work is expected. And besides technical competence there is emotion involved, these events mean a lot to the participants, they are heavily invested. Being able to technically argue the rigour of research findings is all part of the skill set, but how far does this attitude stretch before it becomes a problem? What is the line between technical competence and emotional investment?

Karl Popper (1994) argued that the challenge and focus of science is to prove theories wrong. In other words, effort should be directed at disproving hypothesis. This is the opposite to many of our instincts, as we (human beings) are frequently pulled toward proving ourselves right (Kahneman, 2011). We are more likely to dig in and defend current beliefs and this can result in an emotional, political and cultural solidifying of positions. This solidifying was well expressed and observed by Thomas Kuhn whose work on paradigms illustrated how a current scientific norm was not simply replaced by a “better norm”, but instead replaced by the surviving result of cultural, political and technical war between the “old” and the “new”. The investments which go into establishing a position are hard to walk away from, and the desire to be right is a psychological means of protecting that investment.

Holding onto positions is something most people will have seen, experienced or read about in business. Many of us have been in meetings in which someone refuses to let go of a project or strategy, even though the majority can see it’s time to move on. Frequently, there has been a large investment in this strategy or project, consisting of time, expertise, reputation and sheer belief. And at its inception, the architect of this project\strategy spoke eloquently of its merits, sold it to the room, and convinced everyone they were right. It’s understandable that someone who feels they have so much to now lose wants to hang in and prove they are right. Unfortunately they are simply sinking more costs into what has become a bad deal.

The above psychology might be familiar to anyone who has had to reluctantly walk away, or dragged kicking and screaming, from an investment gone bad, whatever the nature of that investment. A plan, a relationship, a business deal, anything which has meant something and is now being taken away. But where does this leave us between the ability and skill to rigorously defend and sell our ideas to our peers and the perils of holding onto ideas just to prove we are right? This isn’t just arrogance being discussed, it’s the psychological concept of loss aversion (see again Kahneman, 2011). It’s the emotional difficulty of letting go of things, concepts and people which have meant a lot to us-I’m really trying to stress this point! In my previous article on this site I discussed the book What I learned Losing a Million Dollars (by Jim Paul and Brendan Moynihan, 2013), and within it the authors provide a useful framework for assessing when “proving” you are right has become toxic.

Paul and Moynihan identify the difference between the following activities and the psychology which drives these same activities, I’ll summarise them below

Betting- proving you are right

Gambling- enjoying the thrill of risk

Speculating- researching information and making informed decisions

Trading- Looking to achieve a positive result in a relatively short amount of time

Investing- Looking to achieve steady returns over a relatively long period of time

If you are trying to “prove” you are right you are essentially saying you have mastered uncertainty; that “what we don’t know” won’t trouble your current position, your position will not turn out to be wrong. So, what might start off as speculating- researching, hypothesis creation and speculation, could turn into betting if the position solidifies and becomes emotional. In other words, if a contradiction to your current position starts to feel like an emotional attack on your sense of self (that the investment feels like slipping away) then you are being flung into a betting state of mind. Although this is hard to avoid, Paul and Moynihan share a simple three stage frame work which can potentially dilute this effect. I’ve adapted and summarised this framework below-

Determine your conditions for making the original choice- why is it being done?

Determine the conditions which would make you change your mind- how could I be wrong?

What are the levels of losses I can endure- What is the worst case scenario, and can it be contained? At what point of loss do I call it quits?

The above are conditions to put in place before a plan starts, or after a hypothesis has been generated. They are also useful to evaluate a strategy and to determine which lessons could be applied to other domains, creating the conditions under which a plan could and could not work- what would need to go right and could we handle what could go wrong?

The above framework could be used in conjunction with cognitive research methods such as prospective hindsight (Klein, 2007) which require decisions to be imagined as catastrophes and the reasons for the catastrophe to be written down; this would help establish the conditions for changing your mind and the “stop\loss” condition relevant to the worst case scenario.

This has been a very simplistic argument on the errors of being right, but the framework offered by Paul and Moynihan is a useful, and potentially vital, method for stopping speculation from sliding into betting.


Karl Popper

Notturno, M.A. (1994) Knowledge and the Mind-Body Problem: In Defence of Interaction (edited Mark Amadeus Notturno)

Thomas Kuhn

Kuhn, T.S. (2000) The Road Since Structure: Philosophical Essays, 1970-1993. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Kahneman,D. (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow. Penguin

Paul, J. Moynihan, B. (1994) What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars. Columbia Business School Publishing

Klein, G. (2007) The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work. Currency

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