Kathryn Schulz: Wrongology In a TED Talk and Book

From Kathryn Schulz, wrongologist:

If we have goals and dreams and we want to do our best, and if we love people and we don’t want to hurt them or lose them, we should feel pain when things go wrong. The point isn’t to live without any regrets, the point is to not hate ourselves for having them…We need to learn to love the flawed, imperfect things that we create, and to forgive ourselves for creating them. Regret doesn’t remind us that we did badly — it reminds us that we know we can do better. 

The inability to experience regret is one of the diagnostic characteristics of sociopaths. 

Journalist Kathryn Schulz has been called the world’s leading “wrongologist.” A book with great reviews and a TED talk seem to back up this distinction.

From the synopsis found on the website of her Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (2010):

In Being Wrong, journalist Kathryn Schulz explores why we find it so gratifying to be right and so maddening to be mistaken, and how this attitude toward error corrodes our relationships—whether between family members, colleagues, neighbors, or nations. Along the way, she takes us on a fascinating tour of human fallibility, from wrongful convictions to no-fault divorce, medical mistakes to misadventures at sea, failed prophecies to false memories, ‘I told you so!‘ to ‘Mistakes were made.’ Drawing on thinkers as varied as Augustine, Darwin, Freud, Gertrude Stein, Alan Greenspan, and Groucho Marx, she proposes a new way of looking at wrongness. In this view, error is both a given and a gift – one that can transform our worldviews, our relationships, and, most profoundly, ourselves.

Dwight Garner highlights many noteworthy aspects of Schulz’s book in his review in The New York Times. Some of his points follow (directly quoted from the review):

  • The idea that error can be eradicated, she writes, can lead to frightening and reactionary impulses. (Gulags, purges.)
  • She charts the three stages of our disbelief at other people’s ideas when they differ from our own. (We first assume that they are ignorant, then idiotic, finally evil.)
  • She is epigrammatic. (‘No one plans to end up on the wrong side of history.’)
  • She has gobbled books and culture like Ms. Pac-Man. She’s comfortable with everyone from Jonathan Franzen to Heidegger, and from Pliny the Elder to Beyoncé.
  • Ms. Schulz notes how many of our beliefs are accidents of fate, hinging on things like our places of birth. She is pro argument, pro talking it out. She quotes the comedian Penn Jillette as saying, ‘One of the quickest ways to find out if you are wrong is to state what you believe.’
  • Most of all she is for skepticism. But she also points out that the ability to interrogate our beliefs is (in the words of a writer named William Hirstein), a ‘cognitive luxury.’ It takes time, brains and patience.
  • ‘Error, even though it sometimes feels like despair, is actually much closer in spirit to hope,’ Ms. Schulz writes. ‘We get things wrong because we have an enduring confidence in our own minds; and we face up to that wrongness in the faith that, having learned something, we will get it right next time.’

Similarly, Daniel Gilbert, also in The New York Times, gives his own positive critique and a sampling of Schulz:

  • [Schulz is] a warm, witty and welcome presence who confides in her readers rather than lecturing them. It doesn’t hurt that she combines lucid prose with perfect comic timing.
  • For most of us, errors are like cockroaches: we stomp them the moment we see them and then flush the corpse as fast as we can, never pausing to contemplate the intricate design of nature’s great survivor, never asking what it might reveal beyond itself. Schulz is the patient naturalist who carefully examines the nasty little miracles the rest of us so eagerly discard.
  • (S)he suggests that one reason people are so wildly overconfident in the accuracy of their beliefs is that being wrong has no telltale phenomenology. We know what it feels like to have been wrong in the past, perhaps just seconds ago, but not what it feels like to be wrong in the present, because the instant we realize that what we believe is wrong, we no longer believe it. ‘It does feel like something to be wrong,’ she says. ‘It feels like being right.’
  • When Schulz suggests that memory and imagination are essentially forms of error — the perception of events that aren’t actually happening — we wonder what she could be thinking, and why we didn’t think of it first.

You can see her TED talk below:

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