No one enjoys mistakes, but we all make them. Did you ever think it could be beneficial to admit to them? Kathryn Schulz, the author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error writes about the good side to being wrong in this article.
Is there anything at once so routine and so loathed as the revelation that we were mistaken? Like the exam that’s returned to us covered in red ink, being wrong makes us cringe and slouch down in our seats. It makes our hearts sink and our dander rise. Sometimes we hate being wrong because of the consequences. Mistakes can cost us time and money, expose us to danger or inflict harm on others, and erode the trust extended to us by our community. Yet even when we are wrong about completely trivial matters – when we mispronounce a word, mistake our neighbor Emily for our co-worker Anne, make the dinner reservation for Tuesday instead of Thursday – we often respond with embarrassment, irritation, defensiveness, denial and blame. Deep down, it is wrongness itself that we hate.
I remember sneakily throwing away my corrections when I did a program similar to Gideon as a middle schooler. What’s worse than redoing something you already did wrong? It shouldn’t seem overwhelming as you did many more problems in the first time through. You now only have to redo a fraction of them; however, those remaining with the Xs seem like too much. Students occasionally will get upset when they make a lot of mistakes usually when they are working on something new. I always remind them, “We are learning right now! If I make mistakes every day, isn’t ok if you do too?”
As ashamed as we may feel of our mistakes, they are not a byproduct of all that’s worst about being human. On the contrary: They’re a byproduct of all that’s best about us. We don’t get things wrong because we are uninformed and lazy and stupid and evil. We get things wrong because we get things right. The more scientists understand about cognitive functioning, the more it becomes clear that our capacity to err is utterly inextricable from what makes the human brain so swift, adaptable and intelligent.
[Humans] care about what’s probably right, based on whatever we’ve experienced in the past. This guessing strategy is known as inductive reasoning, and it makes us right about vastly more (and more important) things than giraffes. You use inductive reasoning when you hear a strange noise in your house at 3 a.m. and call the cops; when your left arm throbs and you go to the emergency room; when you spot your spouse’s migraine medicine on the table and immediately turn on the coffee, turn off the TV and hustle your tantrumming toddler out of the house.
In situations like these, we don’t hang around trying to compile bulletproof evidence for our beliefs – because we don’t need to. Thanks to inductive reasoning, we are able to form nearly instantaneous beliefs and take action accordingly.
Psychologists and neuroscientists increasingly think that inductive reasoning undergirds virtually all of human cognition – the decisions you make every day, as well as how you learned almost everything you know about the world. To take just the most sweeping examples, you used inductive reasoning to learn language, organize the world into meaningful categories, and grasp the relationship between cause and effect in the physical, biological and psychological realms.
This instinctive feeling and confidence for math is what we aim for at Gideon. This is why we insist students be able to do the addition or multiplication facts within a certain time. If they haven’t memorized it enough to trust what their brain is telling them instantly, then we should do more practice. Similarly, great readers will read a steady, quick pace as they trust their brains are telling them the correct word for the what they see.
But this intelligence comes at a cost: Our entire cognitive operating system is fundamentally, unavoidably fallible. The distinctive thing about inductive reasoning is that it generates conclusions that aren’t necessarily true. They are, instead, probabilistically true – which means they are possibly false. Because we reason inductively, we will sometimes get things wrong.
Instead, it suggests that we should work with rather than against our natural reasoning processes to try to prevent mistakes and mitigate their consequences. This is doable. In fact, it’s been done.
Aviation personnel are encouraged and in some cases even required to report mistakes, because the industry recognizes that a culture of shame doesn’t discourage error. It merely discourages people from acknowledging and learning from their mistakes.
Embracing our fallibility is the only way to build effective backup systems to prevent or mitigate mistakes – whether those systems are as sophisticated as the cockpit of an airplane or (as surgeon and writer Atul Gawande has convincingly argued) as simple as a checklist in the operating room.
We insist all corrections be done at Gideon in both subjects. The students learn what their weaknesses are such as determining if the mistake was careless, improper method, or didn’t understand what to do at all. Then they can create their back-up systems appropriately: slowing down, relearning the method, or rereading the directions or asking help from an instructor. With too many errors, the students are required to redo the booklet. They then can implement their back-up systems and usually make their weaknesses stronger with each repetition. Our thought is that this will also transfer into other subjects and areas of their lives.
Moreover, as it turns out, paying attention to error pays. When the University of Michigan medical system implemented a systemwide policy of admitting medical errors, apologizing to those affected and actively working to explain and compensate for the error, its annual legal fees dropped from $3 million to $1 million. Implementing computerized monitoring systems at every hospital in the country would not only prevent 200,000 adverse drug events each year, but save an estimated billion dollars, according to the RAND Corp.
Once we recognize that we do not err out of laziness, stupidity or evil intent, we can liberate ourselves from the impossible burden of trying to be permanently right. We can take seriously the proposition that we could be in error, without deeming ourselves idiotic or unworthy. We can respond to the mistakes (or putative mistakes) of those around us with empathy and generosity.
Take away the ability of an intelligent, principled, hard-working mind to get it wrong, and you take away the whole thing.
Read the rest of her article here.