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The Need to Be Always Right

Between pride and self-deception.

Some people need to be right always. They cannot stand to lose an argument. They won’t admit defeat in the face of compelling evidence against their position. Even having the last word may not be enough for them if they believe the other side has gotten tired of the discussion and stopped arguing without conceding their point. In that case, they may insist on taking up the issue again later.

As most dispositions, the “need to be right” falls on a spectrum. Most of us have some of it and probably few display it either always or never. Context has a role to play here too. Camilla may admit an error when talking with her supervisor but not with the person she is dating.

More interestingly, who does and doesn’t trigger our need to be right may be unrelated to social hierarchy or prudential considerations such as a desire to be in a superior’s good graces. You may, for instance, get competitive with your older brother but be happy to defer to your younger sibling or vice versa. (Just why that is, what it is about a person that triggers one’s need to be right is an interesting question.)

But we don't all have equal amounts of this propensity, and some of us have much too much. Here, I wish to discuss its sources and consequences. I will suggest that there is something irrational about it. I begin with what the person who needs to be right always thinks.

Man smoking, looking overconfident
Source: Sammy-Williams/Pixabay

What we tell ourselves

Perhaps, the most common explanation we give ourselves of why we behave in the way mentioned is the following: we are right. If we believe we are right, what are we to say? That we are wrong? Why would we do that?

There is, no doubt, something to this point. We shouldn’t go along with falsehoods. But first, even this claim should be qualified. Sometimes, it may be quite appropriate to drop an issue despite having a good reason to believe you are right. Say your mom makes an offhand remark that’s contrary to what you’d said. If you know she’d already had an exhausting day and is not in a good position to fight with you, insisting on that she defend her view or else admit you are right might be bad manners.

More importantly, while on any particular occasion, we can plausibly tell ourselves that we insist on being right because we are, if we exhibit a regular pattern – show ourselves to be the kind of person who always claims to be right – there is probably something else going on. After all, it is unlikely that we alone don’t err. What else is there?

Powerful self-interest

In some cases, people have a strong incentive to profess being right in the face of contrary evidence. This is the likely explanation of why physicians do not acknowledge mistakes. Although taught to face up to errors, they almost never do.

The motive is not hard to gauge. As Allan Detsky et al. note in “Admitting Mistakes: Ethics Says Yes, Instinct Says No,” for physicians, “Admission of error is embarrassing and may lead to poor evaluation, censure or even termination.” I shall say no more about this type of case, because physicians who insist on being always right and refuse to admit errors are probably acting rationally, though not always ethically, and the case, therefore, presents no particular puzzle. (One may wonder what erring doctors tell themselves about not admitting errors and whether they try to persuade themselves they didn’t really make a mistake so as to preserve their view of themselves as good people, not just as rational self-interested people. But I leave that question to the reader’s imagination.) Not so in the other case, or so I am going to argue.

What we may not tell ourselves

I wish to suggest that what feeds our need to be always right is usually a misguided form of pride. Henry James, in describing one of his characters, Isabel Archer, says:

She had … a general idea that people were right when they treated her as if she were rather superior. Whether or no she were superior, people were right in admiring her if they thought her so… It may be affirmed without delay that Isabel was probably very liable to the sin of self-esteem; she often surveyed with complacency the field of her own nature; she was in the habit of taking for granted, on scanty evidence, that she was right; impulsively, she often admired herself.

Someone who impulsively admires herself and concludes she is right on the basis of scanty evidence is at particular risk of becoming someone who must always be right.

To be sure, the desire to think well of oneself and to have others do too is healthy. Some desire for superiority is perhaps unavoidable and may be healthy as well when it leads to a drive for excellence. The problem with wanting to be right always is that the want is disconnected from actual knowledge and achievement.

I said that there is something not entirely rational about refusing to ever admit you were wrong. It is time to explain. The problem is not in that the person who needs to be always right perceives mistakes and the loss of an argument as slights on the self, as undermining one's place in an imaginary hierarchy. That too may be misguided, particularly when the subject of disagreement is of no consequence, but there is something more important: we cannot, actually, fend off a blow to our pride simply by refusing to admit it landed. We can't make others see us as right by insisting on it. What they will see us as the is that kind of person, the person who won’t ever admit losing an argument.

That, however, is not what we were hoping for. It is certainly not an achievement to be proud of. We can, perhaps, try to maintain our idea of our own superiority by disregarding the effect we have on others but only at the price of divorcing self-esteem from anyone else’s view of us.

This, then, is why it is not quite rational to refuse to admit mistakes: We may end up undermining our own goal of being positively seen. Importantly, others will not think we are consistently right and that that is irritating. If that’s what they were likely to think, it may be acceptable to a person who would rather be right than likeable. What they will think, however, is that we claim to be right when we see we are not; that we are both unpleasant and wrong.

There is a final point I wish to note before closing. Such are the ways of pride that a person who admits errors may compensate for it later by becoming more prideful. This may, in fact, be true of Henry James’s heroine Isabel. James writes:

Every now and then she found out she was wrong, and then she treated herself to a week of passionate humility. After this she held her head higher than ever again.

That, though, is not a particular cause for concern as we don’t need to – nor should we – eradicate pride. The point is simply not to divorce our view of ourselves from what everyone else thinks of us. There is profound vulnerability behind the façade of invincibility of the person who always needs to be right. The road is one that ultimately leads to isolation, to a place where no one sees us as we see ourselves. To a theater where we get a standing ovation all right, but we are the only ones applauding. In extreme cases – such as that of narcissism – the result is nothing short of a delusion.

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