Scott H Young

Why I’ve Decided to Be Wrong More Often


How often do you find that you were completely wrong about an idea you’ve had?

If you’re like most people the answer is probably not very often at all. Psychologists even have a name for it, the confirmation bias, or the tendency of humans to seek out information that confirms their beliefs. People search for more certainty, not less.

This bias has never sat well with me. Every mistake you make becomes a double one. Not only will you end up being wrong about the major idea, but you’ll waste a lot of time and energy trying to defend that false belief. Living in a self-made bubble of certainty is a pricey delusion.

Given this, I try to adopt an attitude of deliberate wrongness–that is allowing, and even encouraging myself, to be wrong about major ideas frequently.

Deliberate Wrongness – You Need Certainty, But it Also Traps You

The standard rationalist approach I’ve seen to the problem of the confirmation bias is to rarely have certainty about anything. Always hedge your bets, wait until more evidence comes in and be agnostic about every major idea in life.

While this rationalist answer may appeal to philosophers and scientific critics, I don’t think it’s a useful solution for anyone who actually wants to do anything. Taking action requires a degree of certainty. If you’re constantly doubting yourself, you’ll often lack the boldness to get started.

The mind lacks the Bayesian ideal of perfectly calculated likelihood percentages weighted on evidence. Instead it tends to fall into two largely fuzzy emotional states of confidence and certainty on the one hand, or doubt and questioning on the other. Never letting yourself be confident means you lack all the positive traits of that mental state of boldness, drive, ambition and enthusiasm.

If you’re launching a business, once you’ve reviewed your options, you need to have almost an obsessive belief that you can make it. The world will provide you with plenty of doubts, so you need to have certainty to get yourself to work hard every day.

Same is true if you’re writing a novel, starting a charity or setting any goal. If you don’t believe your writing will reach people, your mission will impact the world, or you’ll achieve you’re goal, you won’t have the resolution to keep showing up, every day.

The Price of Certainty

But with this certainty comes the trap of the confirmation bias. You’ll see the world through your preconceived ideas, and this often traps you.

I would argue that most plateaus and persistent obstacles in life are not overcome with more discipline and willpower. Yes, discipline is important for kicking yourself over the obvious fences that hold you back. But when you’ve tried everything and still make no progress, what works then?

In almost all of these cases, it’s the unimagined third alternative that provides the answer. Something you hadn’t considered because it violates your beliefs about what is possible and how the world works. Sometimes more hard work is the answer. But hard work can’t help you if you’re in a dead-end of your own false assumptions.

Running this business has been a perpetual example of this.

When I started, I thought the way to succeed was through advertising. I put up ads and tried to make money off them. I started earning about $40 per month, and after several months of work I was able to get up to $100-$250 per month but the ads were clogging the website and I was burning myself out trying to write articles to generate enough traffic.

What got me out of this problem wasn’t writing more and more, and hunting more traffic, but to start writing ebooks. With that step I was able to move from my $200 per month to $700-$1500, after several months of work. Eventually this peaked and I was stuck once more.

Getting out of this step had several dead ends, but setting up a service-based monthly program turned out to be a great solution–going from $1000 per month and worrying about the bills, to $3000-$5000. I don’t know when this direction will eventually peak, but I know that if I wanted to create an even larger business that could impact more people–it will be from doing something I haven’t even considered.

Each of these shifts didn’t just require trying something new–but also fixing incorrect beliefs I had about how my business worked. If I had never revised those beliefs, I’d still be under the assumption that I should be chasing traffic and advertising dollars. And I’d probably be preparing to look for a day job after I graduate.

Practicing Deliberate Wrongness

The rationalist answer to the certainty problem–that you should refrain from being too certain without proper evidence, fails to spur action. Especially in environments where taking action is the only way to get more evidence.

But the stubborn approach of certainty doesn’t work either. Never being wrong almost guarantees never being right. In any interesting pursuit, you’ll almost certainly be wrong from when you start–if those beliefs never get updates, you’ll be like I would have been–struggling to make pennies on advertising dollars.

I believe the alternative to these two extremes is to practice deliberate wrongness. First–to be certain and confident, enough to take actions and pick sides. Second–to celebrate being wrong frequently. Being wrong therefore isn’t a fatal weakness but a sign that your system is working. You can’t escape being wrong, so a lack of bad ideas usually indicates you’re simply protecting your established viewpoints.

What Can a 21-Year Old Know About Life?

I’ve taken the deliberate wrongness as a stance when writing at this blog from Day 1. Where I have strong opinions, I argue them to the best of my ability.

But I’m also acutely aware that any life philosophy developed by a twentysomething will almost certainly have holes. I simply don’t have enough experience. I don’t let that prevent me from sharing my ideas–on the contrary, I think the only way to really make progress on big questions of life is to make big statements and wait for other people to disagree with you.

With each of these ideas though, I also leave myself open to being wrong, and seek out ideas that disagree with me. I try to read books from authors with whom I disagree with. I pay most attention to commenters who argue against an article I’ve written.

The Pursuit of Deliberate Wrongness

There are two parts to the pursuit of deliberate wrongness. First, celebrate whenever you’re wrong about an idea. This goes against the natural bias towards confirmation, so it isn’t an easy practice. Being happy about being wrong takes some effort in the first place.

The second part is to actively seek out the dissenting opinions. I’m not suggesting all opinions are equal and that you should consider the rambling of a deranged cult leader in the same arena as a Nobel laureate. But, if you haven’t read a book which you disagree with in the last few months, you probably aren’t trying hard enough.

Wrongness isn’t always being wrong about stated beliefs. I’d say most of our assumptions go unarticulated. My assumptions about my business model weren’t written down anywhere. They were simply underlying all the actions I took.

Overturning the unstated wrongness is a matter of exposure. If you frequently get outside your circle of influence, then you’re more likely to see those assumptions exposed. Travel allows you to temporarily escape your culture. Also, not all culture is geographical and not all travel needs to change locations.

Be Wrong on One Big Idea, Every Month

Deliberate wrongness applies to the little mistakes in reasoning we make every day, as much as big ideas. But I believe it’s the big ideas where it matters most. These are the ideas that shape the way we live and are the most stubborn to replace.

My goal is to be wrong about one big idea in my life, business or philosophy every month. I know if I’m not having big moments of wrongness at this frequency, it’s almost certainly because I’m ignoring other perspectives, not because I’m infallible.

Ask yourself whether you’ve ever changed your mind (that is, held one opinion strongly and then either had that belief overturned or seriously weakened) on any of these huge ideas of life:

  • Abortion
  • Vegetarianism
  • Atheism
  • Political party
  • Whether humans have free-will
  • Capital punishment

I wouldn’t expect people to change these colossal, often identity-defining, beliefs every month. However, whether you’ve ever flopped or seriously doubted yourself on one of these big beliefs is probably a thermostat for how often you find yourself wrong on smaller issues.


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23 Responses to “Why I’ve Decided to Be Wrong More Often”

  1. Dave says:

    Love this article. Especially because I myself have changed opinions on all your listed issues at least once in my life. My attitudes towards things are always reevaluated, even the smallest issues, but I tend to live with a pang of uncertainty. If I assume I’m right for the time being, but am also willing to reevaluate at a later time, I’d imagine I could save myself much unnecessary anxiety.

  2. Tassia says:

    This is a tough one!

    Tough to even SEE, let alone acknowledge and do. If a person has a fixed mindset, it could even be dangerous, while a growth mindset would have this sort of self-examination built it (ideally; there are lots of gradations). I’m using Carol Dweck’s terms from her book Mindset because they speak to me most clearly.

    Good luck with this, and please report back about your experience.

    I remember reading a while back that those who accomplish the most tend to NOT have the clearest perception of ‘truth,’ and your comments about us not always needing to see through our bias is in sync with that.

    Any suggestions how to best shake off the fog of our assumed perceptions? How to even see that the bias is there?

    Or, a more important question, any suggestions on how we should decide WHEN we should shake off those perceptions? About how to tell when it’s in our best interest to challenge the bias and when it isn’t?

    (Just started reading Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide. Perhaps my own fog will clear a bit after finishing it. The Heaths’ Switch was helpful in this regard, and led me to the one that has helped me the most: Dweck’s Mindset.)

    Thanks for making me think about this from a ‘celebrating being wrong’ perspective.

  3. Wendy Irene says:

    This was my favorite line “leave myself open to being wrong”. There is a lot of wisdom there! Have a good week!

  4. Dan says:

    I’m always having my opinion changed on things, the biggest one I’ve seen on your list is abortion. Kinda, I was pro-choice and I still am, what changed is the answer the whether I would do it or not, It was a yes but these days it is a very firm no.

    I’ve noticed my own ideas are becoming more conservative but I remain liberal, the last thing I would do is force those beliefs onto someone, at least not knowingly.

  5. paurullan says:

    It is funny because I am having a really down-hill college year and seriously considering dropping out. This post made me realize that maybe I should not have joined college in first place or that I should switch universities.

    Thanks for the thought-food!

  6. It’s a bit like the scientific method – you take an idea and try to prove it wrong, if you can’t, then then you’ve proved your theory! In my 63 years I’ve managed to DISPROVE alot of my theories, and that has made me alot more adaptable.
    Not being willing to be wrong can lead to bigotry and judgementalism – and they lead to injustice. I’ve tried hard to keep learning, and you can’t learn if you’re not willing to be wrong and change your mind.
    Thanks for another fine, thought provoking post, Scott, you help me to recognise my own wrongness!

  7. Hey Scott,
    I’m wonder, what do you do when you find out you were wrong or changed your mind about an important concept in a previous post ?

    Tristan

  8. Anil Sethi says:

    [snip]…but setting up a service-based monthly program turned out to be a great solution–going from $1000 per month and worrying about the bills, to $3000-$5000…[snip]

    Could you explain this “service-based monthly program” a bit better? Thanks so much.

  9. shreevidya says:

    i just bumped into another great discovery by shy(if u don’t mind i address you like that:) ). It is really adventurous and i m really going to start with it and have fun.

  10. [...] of the blogs that discuss confirmation bias, I’m pleased to see Scott H Young’s post “Why I’ve Decided to Be Wrong More Often”, in which he discusses what you can do to be less biased in life. He recommends deliberately [...]

  11. AH says:

    quote : you can’t learn if you’re not willing to be wrong and change your mind

    this one is beautiful !!!

  12. Definitely have changed my mind and my priorities in life, especially after losing my brother to cancer. My husband and I sat down and made decisions on what we each wanted out of life and the way we could achieve them. It’s worked. Still a work in progress though.

  13. Scott Young says:

    Anil,

    It’s Learning on Steroids — here: http://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/learning-on-steroids-pre-launch-mailing-list/

    Tristan,

    For the most part I leave them as they are and simply update my writing in the future. Trying to ensure nothing contradicts in my writing would be an impossible task and I think somewhat misleading to a reader who assumes I’ve somehow come up with a final answer.

    -Scott

  14. I think people are too caught up in being right. Being wrong is what everyone who become successful was before they got it right. They did the wrong thing over and over again until they succeeded. It may have taken them years sometimes even months, but they persisted. Never be afraid to be wrong, because if your wrong enough times, the right answer will come along when you least expect it.

  15. [...] Why I’ve Decided to Be Wrong More Often [...]

  16. Ben Tien says:

    Hi Scott,

    It’s remain me when I was in college.. There are one poster in our class room, written “I’d rather confess I’m wrong and be right, than confess I’m right but be wrong”

  17. clare says:

    super insightful. this shows a lot of intelligence: “I also leave myself open to being wrong, and seek out ideas that disagree with me. I try to read books from authors with whom I disagree with. I pay most attention to commenters who argue against an article I’ve written.”

    thanks for this great article, really got me thinking more about how im exploring my world.

  18. Aaron Kerr says:

    Good thoughts. I might sum it up this way.

    Know what your beliefs are, and cling to these things with passion. At the same time, understand that much of what you currently believe will change in the next 10, 20, 30 years.

    People who find contentment have strong beliefs and can enunciate their reasoning clearly. They also maintain the stance of reasonableness, where they regularly reevaluate their beliefs based on all information available.

  19. Haider says:

    Hi Scott,

    Rather than aim to make mistakes, I find it useful to make distinctions between: myself, my ideas, and reality.

    My ideas don’t define who I am. Therefore, I take no offense in being told that I’m wrong, or discovering that I’m wrong.

    My ideas aren’t reality. There could be (and there often is) a gap between my ideas about reality, and reality itself. Since the two aren’t identical, I’m willing to consider evidence that reveals the gap, and hopefully help me build a bridge over it, so that my ideas are more consistent with reality.

    I’ve made some massive ideological changes in my thinking, and these distinctions tend to serve me well in minimizing the risks of confirmation bias.

  20. [...] Scott Young has a great post on how being deliberately wrong can keep your own biases in check. It’s a bit like role-playing, and it is effective. How can you know what it is like to be wrong unless you practice it? And how can you be gracious when you are right if you are not gracious when you are wrong? [...]

  21. [...] Maybe so, but we seem to recognize the idiots in ourselves more. We are able to laugh at ourselves more and thus maybe even admit when we are wrong. [...]

  22. Louche says:

    Dude, I’m trying to disagree with you here, but it’s not working. :P

    “I think the only way to really make progress on big questions of life is to make big statements and wait for other people to disagree with you.”

    I’m going to have to quote you here because I LOVE this. ‘Tis a big statement. And I’m sure someone’s going to disagree with it! :D When I first got into politics, I knew SO, SO little. Like, pretty average American little! When I say “first got into politics,” I mean when I became passionate about it… it was this intensity, driving me to, indeed, make big statements. It was painful as hell going through madly believing in something and constantly questioning it and disagreeing with the whole wide world, but I learned so much because I just had this burning desire fueled by a belief I was mad to defend! My beliefs changed so much over time (it’s been more than two years), and it feels embarrassing to change your belief about something that once so defined you, but that time has so shaped who I am and how I view the world now. I think I have far more political wisdom than I would have without that time of trial and error.

  23. Jeff Schneider says:

    Interesting and insightful, finds parallels with the Buddhist concept of a beginner’s mind. I’ve been a long time practitioner and have always found catharsis in unloading the weight of ideas that have through time become mindlessly hard coded narratives linked to my ‘self’. As my two year daughter says, ‘goood dtjjzzzob’

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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