What is it about the human race that makes it so hard for us to admit that we were wrong? Why do we go to the ends of the Earth to justify our behaviour and to avoid taking responsibility for our actions? When will we learn that putting our hands up and publicly owning our mistakes – admittedly the road less travelled – is by far the easiest path forward? As eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope is said to have said: ‘A man should never be ashamed to own he has been wrong, which is but saying in other words, that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.’
Taking a perverse pleasure in prevaricating
Many of us are experts at ferreting out the mistakes that others make. We’re quite capable of criticizing their errors and, to our shame, quite often take delight in it all. (Remember that old saying: gossip is when we hear something we like about someone we don’t?). We become armchair experts, convincing ourselves that if we were on that putting green, or facing that goalpost, or in front of that particular press cabal, we’d not have made the same mistake. In our own minds, we make better golfers, better footballers, and better politicians than those who are paid for their talent (or lack thereof). And yet, when it comes to engaging in some self-reflection and being honest with ourselves and those around us, we have a litany of excuses to draw from which explain what we did wrong, and why.
Academics and scientists have a label for it: cognitive dissonance. Behaviourists believe that we mainly do things for reward; economists believe that we are capable of making calculated and rational decisions. But the theory of cognitive dissonance upsets both. As we mere mortals find it incredibly uncomfortable to have two opposing opinions at the same time, we often resolve this sorry state by digging our heels in and refusing to admit that we are wrong, despite evidence to the contrary.
Sorry … a step in the right direction
Former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is on record as stating that ‘one of the hardest things in this world is to admit you are wrong. And nothing is more helpful in resolving a situation than its frank admission.’ Here in Budapest in the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen plenty of examples of excuses begetting excuses. Instead of fessing up and taking responsibility and apologising for returning convicted murderer Ramil Safarov to Baku, Azerbaijan, where he received a full pardon, pay rise, and promotion for killing Armenian Gurgen Margarjan with an axe in Budapest in 2004, our elected leaders are trotting out one excuse after the other – we had assurances, we believed, we never thought… Admittedly, an apology littered with excuses would do little to right the wrong, but it would be a start.
When the now famous audio recording surfaced in September of 2006, then newly elected Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány apparently admitted to his party: Nyilvánvalóan végig hazudtuk az utolsó másfél, két évet [we have obviously been lying for the last one and a half to two years]. Again, little consolation for the damage done by two years of lying, but it was (in my mind) a step in the right direction. Admission. Ownership. Accountability.
How does it feel to be wrong?
The list of descriptors that come to mind to describe how we feel when we are wrong is practically endless: annoyed, brainless, chastised, disappointed, embarrassed, foolish, gullible, half-witted, idiotic… Is it any wonder that we see being wrong as something to be avoided at all costs. Who among us would voluntarily choose to lumber ourselves with any of these tags? While few of us will admit to always being right, fewer still would be able to remember ten examples of when we were, in fact, wrong. We don’t want to remember. We want to forget. We want to move on. Get over it. Get past it. And yet if we’d only own up to it, life would be so much easier.
If we detonate our detractors’ thunder, then what have we left to fear? By admitting we were wrong, that we made a mistake, we effectively disarm those who desperately want to rain on our parade. We leave them with little to beat us with. And while our friends and supporters (being the imperfect human souls that they are) might take a little private pleasure from our discomfort, it will be private. It is our imperfect selves that we need to learn to live with. And our politicians need to resign their Napoleonic stance of never retreating, retracting, or admitting a mistake and instead, be the first ones to put their hands up and fess up. Perhaps then, to avoid such public confessions, they will put more thought into the consequences of their actions. Way too simplistic, I hear you say… but then, in my little world, life is a lot less complicated.
First published in the Budapest Times 14 September 2012