In its Smarter Living section on May 22, 2017, the New York Times published an article by Kristin Wong on cognitive dissonance entitled “Why It’s So Hard to Admit You’re Wrong.”. The article actually explains the confirmation bias that we all have, but I am getting ahead of myself.

First, what is “cognitive dissonance? As explained in Wikipedia,

In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. The occurrence of cognitive dissonance is consequence of a person’s performing an action that contradicts personal beliefs, ideals, and values; and also occurs when confronted with new information that contradicts said beliefs, ideals, and values.

 When we feel this discomfort, our confirmation bias takes over. Again, Wikipedia explains:

Confirmation bias, also called confirmatory bias or myside bias, is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. People also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position.

 Thus, when we do or say or feel something that we internally believe is not right (such as making a “mistake”), we use our confirmation bias to relieve ourselves of this internal conflict.  We alleviate it by justifying our mistake or looking for evidence that confirms that what we did, said or felt was correct after all.  The example given by the author: “…the car you cut off has a small dent in its bumper, which obviously means that it is the other driver’s fault.”  (Supra.)  

When we feel this internal conflict, we have two choices to reduce it; deny it by creating a confirmation bias -a justification for what we did- or accept the dissonance and admit we goofed. Most folks will choose the former. (Id.)

While much has been written on the power of apology, this article notes that refusing to apologize has short term benefits. We feel good “sticking to our guns.” And, indeed, one study found “…that people who refused to apologize after a mistake had more self-esteem and felt more in control and powerful than those who did not refuse.” (Id.)

But, the author also notes that such benefits are short- lived. As we all know from our everyday trials and tribulations, refusing to apologize does have long term consequences: it can potentially erode the trust in a relationship. (Id.) And, “… it can extend conflict and encourage outrage or retaliation.”  (Id.)

Refusing to acknowledge that you made a mistake also means that you are not open to constructive criticism and so are unable or unwilling to correct bad habits and do what is necessary to make you a better person.  (Id.)  So, as the saying goes, you keep hitting your head against the wall repeatedly, expecting a different result. But, you become frustrated, because you keep getting the same result, time and time again- a bruise on your noggin!

So- how to rectify this? The article explains that first, one must recognize the cognitive dissonance going on in your head when you do make a mistake.  Next, recognize the confirmation biases that kick in for what they are: justifications, and rationalizations. And, then … apologize!

The author notes that people tend to be more forgiving than one thinks. (Id.) And further, by apologizing, one actually builds traits such as honesty, humility and strength of character. It will put the trust back into any relationship. And… as we all know, without trust, there can be no relationship.

…. Just something to think about.




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