Funny how things change. In that first post on Being Wrong that I wrote in May 2011, I talked about a couple that I knew, "Bob" and "Janice" and how I had gone from initially disliking them a lot to becoming good friends with them. I was using that transformation as an example of how I felt I had been wrong about them and that I thought I had been unfair. Since I wrote that post, Bob and Janice both did things that felt so unfair that I made some important decisions later in 2011 due to their actions. I make a brief reference to what the wife did in my New Year's Resolutions post of January 5, 2012.
The things that Bob and Janice did fit in with the negative things I had been told about them prior to my becoming friends with them. Over the course of nine years I went from disliking them to liking them to disliking them again and losing respect for them. It turned out that I was not as wrong about them as I had thought I was. They likely deserved the level of animosity that has been felt towards them by a number of people. They charmed me for a while and I fell for it.
I am not sure what I would do differently though. It doesn't make sense to me to go through life so cautiously that I never trust anyone enough to become friends because they might do something that hurts me. Although when someone does hurt me this much, the memory of that hurt does stay there and does make me more skeptical. Looking back on the whole process of getting to know them, I can see that their interest in me was likely more about how useful I was than a genuine interest in being friends. Things like this happen too often in life but they happen to everyone. Too often people turn out to be very different from whom we had thought they were. Our feelings get hurt and we move away from them emotionally or we keep them at more of a distance. Or we get hurt again.
So what does any of this background have to do with my desire to talk about what I learned from the book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error? I will get to the answer to that eventually. Bear with me if you can.
I apologize for my lengthy and rambling entry into this topic that feels important to me but it is difficult for me to tie all the threads of my thoughts together to get to where I want to go. I am working my way through this writing project by putting it down, piece by piece, and trusting that in the process I will be able to make my points clear to some of my readers. Maybe not all, but some.
A number of things that author Kathryn Schulz talked about in her book surprised and amazed me. These stories all relate to our ability as humans to be wrong.
One story was about a study done by Solomon Asch in the 1950's where the subject was asked to answer out loud in a room with several other alleged subjects the answer to the question which of three lines shown to them on flash cards were the same length as another line. The correct answer was obvious. The answers were given out loud by one person at a time. However, only one of the people in the room was really taking the test. The others in the room were working for the person running the test and after the first few answers, those others all gave the same wrong answers. The result was that the authentic test subjects gave the wrong answer at least once and one quarter gave the wrong answer for half or more of the flashcards! Schulz wrote: "On average, the subjects' error rate rose from under 1 per cent when acting independently to almost 37 per cent when influenced by a group."
That took me aback that anyone would be so influenced by the answers of others to a question as simple as which line matched another line that they would give the wrong answer. People's answers were affected by something as simple as someone else's wrong answer. What meaning does this have for the rest of us? Surely we are different from the subjects in that study? Surely we would give the answer without being influenced by anyone else's answer? Wouldn't we? We are different from those people. Right?
Is there something about us as humans that sometimes we choose to do the wrong thing, to believe in something that is "wrong"? Are our brains wired in such a way that sometimes, when in a group, we would provide the wrong answer? Could it be true that we actually do the wrong things as a choice while believing that we are doing the right thing? Is that possible?
The Asch line experiment was an interesting experiment but you may be wondering why an experiment like that would so capture my attention that I would think about it again and again over the last year. But that's not all I thought about that I found in that book.
This is my additional piece on the subject for today. I hope to write my next piece on the subject within the next seven days.