There’s a fascinating new BBC Radio 4 series called The Human Zoo, looking at the ins and outs of who we really are – are we led by the head or the heart? what are the quirks and qualities that drive human behaviour? Episode 4 focuses on why human beings find it so difficult to admit when they are wrong, especially when they are part of groups. I’ve contributed some thoughts to the programme on The Tyranny of Group-Don’t-Think, which you’ll find in written form below…
‘I’ve got something to tell you – I’ve made a mistake.’ Why do these words feel so hard to say? At home, at work, in the news, in parliament, we humans are notoriously bad at owning up when we get it wrong.
In 1610, when Galileo pointed out to the Catholic Church that the Earth revolved around the sun, and not vice-versa, rather than admit their error they put him on trial for heresy. It took them two hundred years to officially recognise that he was right and that therefore…they were wrong.
The Church no doubt worried that owning up to the error would undermine its authority. But it also faced the follies of group denial. If the Pope had admitted to the mistake, it would have undermined his personal power. Equally, if one of his Cardinals had secretly agreed with Galileo, it’s unlikely he’d have raised his voice for fear of the papal wrath. Dominant personalities in groups too often crowd out rational discussion, making others feel inclined to go with the flow rather than to disagree.
So jump from the 17th century into the 21st. Why, in the course of our daily lives, are we so reluctant to admit to our mistakes? It’s usually because we think it will make us look foolish or incompetent. At work, if we happen to make a clanging error, most of us will do our very best to cover it up or shift the blame to someone else. We overshoot the project budget, so we tell the boss that it was the accountant’s fault. The product we design fails to take off, so we argue that it wasn’t marketed properly.
That’s personal denial for you. Shift to a group situation, and the dynamics become more complicated. If you admit to a shoddy product design, and you were working as part of a team, then your admission of error implicates the whole group. That’s a fast way to lose friends, so the chances are you’ll keep quiet.
What’s more, groups have a tendency to cling even to dangerously false beliefs. The Wall Street bankers who fuelled the 2008 financial collapse were driven by the promise of profits to keep telling each other that the sub-prime mortgage lending market was sound. Many eventually came to believe their own story. That kind of groupthink – or rather group-don’t-think – can destroy people’s lives.
The curious thing is that we actually often respect people who have the courage to admit that they have made a mistake. Their display of vulnerability comes across not as weakness, but as a sign of strength and openness to learning. During the Great Depression, the economist John Maynard Keynes was criticised for changing his views on monetary policy. He came right back with the reply, ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?’ That, in my book, is a response we should admire.
Listen to the Human Zoo Episode 4 on BBC Radio 4 – my bit starts at 23.00 min.
Copyright © 2013 Roman Krznaric