How to Admit You’re Wrong

Related to yesterday’s post, where the ideas are of a piece:

“Kathryn Schulz loosely defines being wrong “as a deviation from external reality, or an internal upheaval in what we believe” — with the caveat that wrongness is too vast to fit neatly into either category….

…“We’re highly motivated to reduce that uncertainty,” Fetterman says. “Oftentimes, the most common way that people get rid of it is by rejecting the new information or creating a new cognition that basically gets rid of it. Not too often do we actually change our thoughts or behaviors in order to align with the new information.” This can look like only taking in information that confirms already held beliefs, justifying the belief, or denying anything that contradicts their beliefs. “The motivation to reduce that dissonance leads us to even double down or to come back even stronger with our beliefs,” Fetterman says…

…“Over time, fact after fact after fact will start to erode people’s beliefs away.”

To come to these realizations, Brown says we have to be open to the fact that we’re capable of making errors and setting our ego aside to accept we live in a world where we’ve faltered or have changed our minds in some way. In fact, Fetterman says, just accepting our own mistakes can allow us to be more open to being wrong.

It’s natural to get defensive or provide excuses for why you were wrong, but “these strategies for deflecting responsibility for our errors stand in the way of a better, more productive relationship to wrongness,” Schulz writes. To admit erroneousness without excuse — to simply state, “I was wrong” — is a skill, Brown says. “It probably is going to come out more as an explanation of why they were doing what they were doing,” Brown says. But with time and practice, we can come to recognize our mistakes without explaining them. The key is to consistently own up to our mistakes as soon as we realize we’re wrong.”

Allie Volpe, “How to admit you’re wrong.” July 13, 2022.

In the context of “the free energy principle”, you can eliminate “surprise” by not acknowledging it. But, the irony is that you set yourself up to be “surprised” time and time again until you recognize the surprise. Being wrong works they same way and is related. Acknowledging where we are wrong and where our worldview is off and leads to surprise helps us to correct our mental model of the world into a better form. But, if we are deceiving ourselves in the interest of protecting our ego, we set ourselves up for more surprise and more wrongness.

The Free Energy Principle, Minimizing Surprise

“The concept of free energy itself comes from physics, which means it’s difficult to explain precisely without wading into mathematical formulas. In a sense that’s what makes it powerful: It isn’t a merely rhetorical concept. It’s a measurable quantity that can be modeled, using much the same math that Friston has used to interpret brain images to such world-­changing effect. But if you translate the concept from math into English, here’s roughly what you get: Free energy is the difference between the states you expect to be in and the states your sensors tell you that you are in. Or, to put it another way, when you are minimizing free energy, you are minimizing surprise.

According to Friston, any biological system that resists a tendency to disorder and dissolution will adhere to the free energy principle—whether it’s a protozoan or a pro basketball team.

A single-celled organism has the same imperative to reduce surprise that a brain does.”

-Shaun Raviv, “The Genius Neuroscientist Who Might Hold the Key to True AI.” Wired. November 13, 2018.

I found this article about Karl Friston really insightful. It has revealed a long-standing difference between my spouse and I that I never really knew how to talk about before.

My wife has a task focus. She has a list. She is working through her list. Delays are something to be avoided, and exploring any aspect of something that is not immediately solving her problem is wasted time, from her perspective.

As one might be able to tell from the content of this blog, I do not tend to focus on task or particular problems. I’m more interested in understanding how things work, finding edge cases and generally, just trying new ways of doing things to see what happens. It helps me to make a better mental model or a worldview for interpreting the world. It is not time efficient, but over time, it does help me to solve problems faster because I have a better understanding of how things work under different conditions.

It’s clear that focusing on efficiency and maximizing value tend to drive us into task focus. If we have slack, then we can use the second model or exploration to expand our understanding.

But, I think there are habits of thought at play too. If you are in an environment where you are keeping track of your time, say you a in a large law firm that bills every 15 minutes or less of your time, then your ability to switch into exploratory mode might atrophy.

It probably works the other way too. Explorers aren’t time efficient until they have sufficient experience to outperform taskers, which takes time to acquire.

There’s also the point that this might not apply across the board. For example, I might be a technology explorer. But, I might be less of an explorer when it comes to interior decoration, do-it-yourself home repair or other topics. Same is probably true of everyone.

But, I still think this is an interesting idea to have in our toolbox for understanding the world.