Skip to main content

Admitting a Wrong: The Challenge and the Reward

Kim is licensed in mental health and addiction counseling. Her education is in business, counseling, and health administration.

Why is it so hard for people to admit when they are wrong? Research says it’s because that’s the way the human brain is wired. The brain is wired for self deception and people are biased to think of their choices as correct. That is how someone can be absolutely convinced that they are right in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary. It seems that the brain does not process information as logically as was once believed.

Cognitive Dissonance

There is a psychological theory called cognitive dissonance that describes feelings of discomfort, which can range from mild to severe, that we all experience when we hold two conflicting ideas at the same time. Dissonance can occur when we learn something new that is inconsistent with our beliefs and expectations, or with earlier learning.

The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that we have a motivational drive to reduce the tension that is created by this dissonance or discrepancy. When that tension or dissonance is resolved, we experience consonance, or harmony.

There are several ways a person can resolve dissonance and reduce feelings of discomfort. Some are healthy, others not so healthy. We reduce dissonance when we change our beliefs, attitudes, expectations, preferences, desires, and actions in response to new information. We can also reduce dissonance by use of defense mechanisms, especially denial, blaming and justifying. While some use of defense mechanisms can be helpful in reducing discomfort, excessive use of defenses can prevent us from learning from our mistakes, and can enable a harmful course of action to continue unchallenged.

The Fox and the Grapes

The Aesop fable, The Fox and the Grapes, is a classic example of cognitive dissonance. The fox found some grapes on a vine that were not within reach. After several attempts to reach the grapes, the fox decided that the grapes were probably sour anyway. The fox resolved the dissonance between his desire for the grapes and his inability to attain them by criticizing them. The moral of the story, “It is easy to despise what you cannot get.”

  • Why It's Hard to Admit to Being Wrong : NPR
    We all have a hard time admitting that we're wrong, but according to a new book about human psychology, it's not entirely our fault. Social psychologist Elliot Aronson says our brains work hard to make us think we are doing the right thing, even in t

Brain Activity and Naïve Realism

Neuroscientists have shown that there are biases in thinking that are built in to the way our brains process information. They used MRIs to monitor brain activity while people were subjected to information that would create dissonance about their political beliefs. Subjects were presented with discussions on both sides of a political issue. When there was dissonance between the new information and their current beliefs, the areas of the brain associated with reasoning shut down. When subjects were able to achieve consonance, the areas of the brain associated with emotions lit up. The research confirms that once our minds are made up about something, it is hard to change.

When we receive new information that is consonant with our existing beliefs, we find it useful and confirming. When the information is dissonant, we consider it biased or stupid; and we reject it. The need for consonance is so powerful that when we are forced to listen to information that is inconsistent with our beliefs, we will find a way to criticize, distort or dismiss it so we can maintain our existing belief.

Through another phenomenon called “naïve realism,” the brain convinces us that we perceive objects and events clearly, and allows us to justify our own perceptions and beliefs as being accurate, realistic and unbiased. We assume that other reasonable people see things the same way we do. If they disagree, they obviously aren’t seeing clearly! We assume that we are reasonable people, that any opinion we have must be reasonable, that other reasonable people ought to agree with a reasonable opinion, and that if our opinion wasn’t reasonable we wouldn’t have it (because we are reasonable). Therefore, if I tell you “how it really is,” I expect that you will agree with me. If you don’t, it’s because you are biased, stupid, wrong, and possibly a despicable liberal, conservative or communist!

Responding to Cognitive Dissonance

As mentioned above, some of us have mild discomfort with dissonance, and others of us have severe discomfort. Aside from individual differences in our biological and neurological make-up, there are differences in our life experiences and skill development that can contribute to dissonance and our reaction to it. Furthermore, dissonance related to political beliefs is not likely to be as intense as dissonance related to self worth.

When a person experiences harsh physical punishment and verbal abuse as a child rather than fair, consistent consequences for wrong choices, feelings of shame and low self worth are easily triggered in a confrontation. When the person is confronted about a mistake, they are hearing an attack against their personhood. Instead of hearing that they have made a mistake, they hear that they are a mistake. Instead of considering they may have made a bad decision, they hear that they are bad and incapable. Instead of being infallible like the rest of us, they view themselves as incompetent when their mistakes are exposed. An angry, shame filled, and defensive response is likely to emerge. Sometimes, these deep seated feelings of inadequacy and incompetence are disguised in a façade of perfectionism, that has been constructed to prove the person’s worth and competence.

Thankfully, we are not all victims of our brain’s hard wiring and our early experiences! We can overcome our shortcomings and accept personal responsibility for the choices we make. We can develop skills and learn to apologize. We can develop humility to replace our need to be right. We can learn how an apology alleviates guilt and allows creative problem solving. We can let go of the need to be right and perfect, and begin to accept our imperfection and infallibility. We can learn to increase our tolerance for discomfort and frustration and develop coping skills for managing strong feelings that emerge when we experience dissonance. We can learn to delay gratification rather than demand instant gratification. We can change unrealistic expectations to more realistic ones. We can learn to be loving and compassionate toward ourselves and others. We can learn to accept consequences for our actions, even though they may be difficult, because it will lead to self respect. We can admit to making a mistake and even learn from our mistakes.

While a certain amount of compassion and understanding may be helpful in dealing with a person who has difficulty admitting mistakes, being in an intimate or close relationship with someone who shows a persistent pattern of not being able to do so can be problematic. In that case, it might be more effective to shift focus to oneself and whether or not one can meet one’s needs in the relationship and whether or not to continue the relationship. While we all have difficulty at times admitting mistakes, there are some who are seemingly incapable of doing so and have no desire to change. They can be extremely abusive and dangerous.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

There is a certain degree of satisfaction in having the courage to admit one's errors. It not only clears up the air of guilt and defensiveness, but often helps solve the problem created by the error.-- Dale Carnegie

Kathryn Schulz: On Being Wrong

© 2011 Kim Harris


RTalloni on March 20, 2017:

An interesting read that is useful for several reasons. Will be back to review it.

Kim Harris (author) on July 24, 2012:

Thank you Sunshine625. If we don't admit mistakes we can't learn from them and are destined to repeat them. I've learned so much from my mistakes!

Linda Bilyeu from Orlando, FL on July 24, 2012:

Excellent article! I used to have a problem with admitting I was wrong. I no longer do. Not in many years. I've decided I'd rather be wrong than be clueless :)

Kim Harris (author) on December 31, 2011:

I hope I do too because I get informed as part of the process too:) Thanks for reading and commenting, Dr Bill.

Bill Tollefson from Southwest Florida on December 31, 2011:

Great HUB and so informative as all your HUBs are. I gained a lot out of it and I hope you continue to inform others.

Kim Harris (author) on December 28, 2011:

thanks hhunterr. really glad you enjoyed:)

hhunterr from Highway 24 on December 28, 2011:

Worth the read here. Like.

Kim Harris (author) on December 22, 2011:

I don't know about anyone else - can only answer for myself on that. Good night rj0105:)

rj0105 from Pinehurst, ID on December 22, 2011:

In the busy worlds that we have created for ourselves; the responsibilities, and all the other 'stuffs' that crowd our daily lives, we most often neglect the quite moments of 'self checks' and 'self examinations'- only to be 'perhaps' reminded by those close to us! Ouch!! Isn't it amazing how quick we run to the Doctors when we are sick or ill, but other things are sorely neglected? I think we have forgotten how to pray and ask God for His help.. We've might have gotten too independent, thinking we might have had all the answers. What say you kimh039?

Kim Harris (author) on December 22, 2011:

I've gotten pretty good at what i call a "self check" when I'm feeling critical of others, but it's not easy:) Lately, I've been provided ample learning opportunities which I personally would prefer to skip and just throw a good old fashioned temper tantrum! Thanks for coming back rj0105. Merry Christmas.

rj0105 from Pinehurst, ID on December 22, 2011:

Oh God, how some of us, hate change!! We resist it like a bad cold! :-(

I do know how easy it is to look at other peoples faults and shortcomings, and miss my own! The dangers of becoming 'introverted' and depressed is not good either. :-)

Kim Harris (author) on December 22, 2011:

Thanks rj0105. It would take a lot of hard work but we could all get a little closer to more self awareness and personal responsibility. Corporations, governments and societies would then be made up of more self aware and responsible people and could act more responsibly as well:) Some use of defenses - blaming, etc is understandable in an imperfect world made up of imperfect people, but we can learn better ways to cope - the sooner the better! It's difficult to grow up, but it can be done. Thanks rj0105 for sharing your thoughts and insights.

rj0105 from Pinehurst, ID on December 22, 2011:

Could it be; that because of our pride and even arrogance, that we really do not care who and how we hurt somebody? The blame game is still fresh and alive today. When we fail to grow up and admit to our own weaknesses, shortcomings and faults, then we are no better than those we judge and condemn. Let us stop this nonsense and love and forgive each other as Christ forgave us.

Be Blessed, To Be A Blessing

Kim Harris (author) on December 22, 2011:

thanks annedoxia:)

annedoxia on December 22, 2011:

waw.that's nice

Kim Harris (author) on November 20, 2011:

@Penny Circle - it sounds like you are at least open to the possibility that you could be mistaken!:) This was an answer to a question posted by . I thought it would be pretty simple and straightforward to explain, but it was really challenging. I think from his comment above that he expected a simpler answer as well:) Thanks for the valuable feedback Penny Circle. I appreciate it.

Kim Harris (author) on November 20, 2011:

@jfay2011 - sometimes I envy them; sometimes I fear them; sometimes I am them! It takes some self awareness to rise above our brain wiring, but it can be done. Thanks for reading and commenting jfay2011.

jfay2011 on November 20, 2011:

So true. There are so many people out there that never think that they are wrong. They only see that they are always right.

Kim Harris (author) on November 14, 2011:

Well said, Beata Stasak. During dissonance experiences, when frustration levels are high and if a person doesn't tolerate frustration or discomfort well, anger is used to try to regain control. It's also part of maturing to learn to tolerate frustration and discomfort and to be able to delay gratification rather than demand what we want immediately and get upset when we don't get it. Some people miss this part of development in childhood if there is a lot of family stress, but these skills can still be learned in adulthood. Adults who missed these developmental milestones are known as "adult children." Thanks so much for your comment Beata Stasak.

Beata Stasak from Western Australia on November 13, 2011:

People generally, like to be in control: of the situation they are in, of their lives in admitting that we are wrong, we are losing that control...and some people to do anything to avoid it in any cost:)

It is a part of maturing and self-discovery to realise that 'that feeling of control we strive to have is just an illusion' we never really totally reach...we are in mercy of our own mortality:)

Kim Harris (author) on November 13, 2011:

It would seem wrong to admit you are wrong when you are right. It would come across as insincere. Thanks for reading and commenting SusieQ42.

SusieQ42 on November 13, 2011:

Now I know why I didn't get into the field of psychology! I don't admit to being wrong because I'm never wrong! (0:

Kim Harris (author) on November 13, 2011:

that's great sisterofdummy! i'm glad you found it to be relevant. of course it is relevant to us all at times - some more urgently than others! i appreciate your comment.

sisterofdummy on November 13, 2011:

You know what? This hub seems to be written directly towards me. I especially have a hard time dealing with admitting I'm wrong. I have almost gotten myself into serious trouble by not just "coming clean", as it were. Very well-written, and I appreciate the hub. Keep up the great work!

Kim Harris (author) on November 13, 2011:

Thanks brittanytodd. I appreciate the feedback...and the follow:) I almost cut the fox fable, so I'm really glad you enjoyed it....and took the time to say so.

Kim Harris (author) on November 13, 2011:

Thanks HBM:) It is amazing that we are least likely to be rational when we may most need to be! That's the beauty of the human spirit to me. Biology plays a part, and we don't have much say about that, but free will and choice play a bigger part; and life is so much better when lived responsibly:) Thanks for reading, commenting and rating.

Brittany Kennedy from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on November 13, 2011:

So interesting. I loved the fox fable and really enjoyed the way you broke it all down. Voted up, interesting, etc...and followed!

Gail Sobotkin from South Carolina on November 13, 2011:

Excellent comprehensive hub. I liked the way you explained cognitive dissonance and what brain activity looks like on an MRI when someone is intentionally subjected to information that would create dissonance. It's amazing that not being rational under such circumstances is the most common response.

I also like that you emphasized that we can overcome our shortcomings and accept personal responsibility for the choices we make.

Voted up, useful and interesting.

Kim Harris (author) on November 13, 2011:

Thank you John000! That's good to hear, because it takes me awhile to be able to step back and ask myself how is the reader hearing this. I mean, I do that constantly as part of the process, but at some point I lose objectivity for a while! I really struggled with that on this one. It is so liberating when someone gives up the perfectionistic facade and learns that good enough is good enough and imperfect is how we are supposed to be! And, as you point out, it takes a lot of emotional energy. Thanks for reading and commenting John000.

Kim Harris (author) on November 13, 2011:

Hi dahoglund. That's a good point. Just because no one agrees doesn't mean we're wrong! And even if everyone agrees, that doesn't make us right! Thanks for reading and commenting, dahoglund:)

John000 on November 13, 2011:

This was well-written and didn't come off as psycho-babble. It was refreshing since it made sense and was reasonable. Your line "Sometimes, these deep seated feelings of inadequacy and incompetence are disguised in a façade of perfectionism, that has been constructed to prove the person’s worth and competence" struck home. You can waste a lot of time and emotional energy trying to be perfect. It must be sad for people to need this construct to feel worthy. Your article has opened up my eys. Thanks for a good hub.

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on November 13, 2011:

"I might not always be right, but I am never wrong," so the saying goes.The fox and the grapes story is easy to identify with. I see it happen all the time. Might even do it myself.

Kim Harris (author) on November 13, 2011:

right, but if they insist they are right see the video on how to admit you are wrong! sometimes it's easier, er it relieves cognitive the short run. I'm glad you enjoyed, CWanamaker. Thanks for the great question. My guess is a lot of people are wondering the same thing, and hopefully googling for an answer, and winding up here:) Oh by the way, I forgot to add this: research shows it occurs as often in men as it does in women.

Christopher Wanamaker from Arizona on November 13, 2011:

Haha, this is interesting. I had no idea it was more than just stubbornness of that particular individual. Now I have a bit more understanding about the subject. So next time someone won't admit they're wrong, I will cite Cognitive Dissonance as the reason for it. Thanks.

Kim Harris (author) on November 13, 2011:

@Mentalist acer. That's when the fox stopped trying. When he recognized that getting the grapes was beyond his ability, he decided the grapes were sour anyway and not worth his continued efforts. The painful dissonance that had motivated him to work so hard to get the grapes was relieved when he convinced himself that the grapes were sour. Of course, the grapes weren't really sour and if he had used some creativity or technology, he might have gotten some good grapes! So, while his dissonance was relieved, he didn't get any grapes...unless he subsequently made friends with a cat or giraffe! Good point re too good to be true. Thus the expression, "anything worth having is worth working for." We can use a lack of dissonance to discern too good to be true deals. Thanks for your thoughts, Mentalist acer.

Kim Harris (author) on November 13, 2011:

Thanks, diogenes. It's more dangerous when it involves nations' leaders. The rest of us can do some harm when in dissonance, but a person in leadership and a group of leaders can do a great deal of harm. The media too. I suppose that's what happens with "mob mentality." It explains the Crusades. The book, Mistakes Were Made, goes into some detail about politics in 2007 when it was written. I experienced a great deal of dissonance while reading it! Thanks for reading and commenting, diogenes. I love your insightful comments.

Mentalist acer from A Voice in your Mind! on November 13, 2011:

Analyzing through dissonance is easier if one sees an a strategic or material advantage...if a person can see opportunity without too much sacrifice of then the dissonance is minimized...dissonance is also a healthy way to scrutinize too good to be true propositions or offers that have hidden disadvantages.;)

diogenes from UK and Mexico on November 13, 2011:

Excellent article. The explanation of cognitive dissonace is timely, and it applies to nation's as well as individuals. We only have to watch the House of Commons in Britain to see how politicians refuse to ever be wrong. I did a hub about the ego, super ego and id recently which also explains these conflicts in another way as the id tries to get immediate satisfaction despite the control by ego and superego. Freud, of course, and dated, but still true today. Voted appropriately...Bob

Related Articles