The need to be right is a common human trait. We all want to look our best in front of others, but when does that need cross over to being more destructive than constructive? And is it useful in the first place?
Every four years, we are faced with particularly visible examples of people doing their best to “be right.” Election season has become a contentious time. People get so personally invested in their positions on candidates and issues that there is little chance of persuading someone to consider a different perspective. Rather than conceding any ground, let alone finding middle ground, we often dig in our heels or move ever closer to the extremes.
The political tension is not a figment of our collective imagination. All one has to do is watch cable news shows, listen to talk radio, or spend time on Twitter or Facebook to see just how prevalent the need to hold tight to our convictions is in this country. But if you need more confirmation, a Pew Research study shows that from 1994 until 2014, the number of Americans holding mixed political views (those in the center between liberals and conservatives) decreased from 49% to 39% and the percentage of people holding liberal or conservative views increased from 10% to 21%. Not only are people more invested in their own beliefs, they are also more certain the other side is deeply wrong. The percentage of Republicans who have very unfavorable views of Democrats rose from 17% to 43%, while the percentage of Democrats who hold negative views of Republicans grew from 16% to 38%. (Doherty, C., 2014)
Listening to what passes for political discourse these days, it’s not hard to find people twisting logic and reason into complicated knots in order to make a case for their, or their candidate’s, position. The need to be right can overshadow one’s true beliefs, values or opinions, along with compassion, respect for others and even personal happiness.
How did we get this way?
“Our educational system is rooted in the construct of right and wrong. We are rewarded for what are deemed to be correct answers… Being right affirms and inflates our sense of self-worth. As students we learn to avoid as best we can the embarrassment of being wrong,” writes Mel Schwartz, LCSW. (Schwartz, 2011)
Our core beliefs merge with our identity. Being right can equate to being smart, being good, or being successful. While everyone makes mistakes or is wrong at some time, we tend to be uncomfortable when it happens to us, and we do what we can to avoid that feeling.
In addition, there is a certain amount of security and safety that comes from adopting the shared beliefs of those around us – our families, our faith communities, our cultural heritage, and our classmates and peers. Without that security, we can feel lost and vulnerable.
“It comes down to fear, of both the known and the unknown. ‘What harm might befall me if I let go of this position?’” says Matthew Wise, PsyD, therapist at Maria Droste Counseling Center. “Human self-preservation is a powerful force that drives our need to be on one side of something.” Surrounding oneself with like-minded people increases our steadfastness. “There is safety in numbers,” says Wise, and, he continues, that furthers the idea that “either you are with us or against us.”
We need to ask the question, Wise adds, what are people protecting themselves from? Perhaps it is simply vulnerability. He explains that common thinking is, “If I move on this issue, I’m exposed. I’m by myself. I’m not with a team.” Add to that the risk of rejection from those they’ve aligned themselves with and, for many, that is enough to keep them from looking too closely at their own beliefs, or opening up to the possibility that there is more than one way to be right.
Judgment plays a role as well. We look at others who are different from us in some way and form an opinion. Often that judgment is based on nothing more than a superficial impression. How a person dresses or speaks, an attitude he conveys, or something she says is enough for us to sum up someone’s character. We make decisions about people based on the information we have, regardless of how limited that information may be, without taking any time to get to know them or understand them.
Those beliefs about others stick with us. Sometimes they are applied to whole groups of people. When we talk about a culture, or a religion, or a political party, it is easy to forget that each of those groups is comprised of individuals who may share some common beliefs, but not likely all their beliefs. We all bring a range of experiences to the table that influence who we are. Accepting that someone else has a valid argument or opinion means accepting that our own beliefs and judgments may be flawed – and that is not always easy to do.
How can we start to come together?
Coming into a situation determined to convince someone why he or she is wrong and you are right is unlikely to be successful, given the inherently confrontational nature of such an endeavor. Instead, Wise says, “Meet people where they are. Try to set judgment aside and get curious, rather than being antagonistic.”
Schwartz posits that true learning comes from the complex questions we ask. “If you think about it, the most intriguing questions are those that don’t offer simple answers. Even more, they drive our thinking into greater complexity and curiosity,” he says. Schwartz also recommends delving into what informs our beliefs as a way of inviting discussion. “Learning the art of inquiry enables opposing beliefs and attitudes to surface in an endeavor to appreciate the other’s lived experience and values. When our mind shuts down there is little chance of altering our perception. As such, our conversations aren’t generative and there is a lack of new learning.” (Schwartz, 2011)
Would you rather be right or be happy? An intractable need to be right can negatively impact personal and workplace relationships, cause stress and prevent you from communicating effectively. A better understanding of where that need comes from in your life can help you move beyond being right to being more open, happier, less judgmental and less critical of others. Contact Maria Droste’s Access Center at 303-867-4600 for more information or to connect with a therapist.
Doherty, C. (2014) 7 Things to Know About Polarization in America. Pew Research Center. Retrieved on October 24, 2016, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/06/12/7-things-to-know-about-polarization-in-america/
Schwartz, M. (2011) Why Is It So Important to Be Right? Accepting being incorrect without any loss or embarrassment. Psychology Today. Retrieved on October 20, 2016, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/shift-mind/201103/why-is-it-so-important-be-right
Schwartz, M. (2011) What Informs Your Belief? Psychology Today. Retrieved on October 20, 2016, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/shift-mind/201103/what-informs-your-belief