Tuesday, June 30, 2015

On Being Wrong

How does understanding the nature of error help me parent my kids?  Let me count the ways . . .

Kathryn Schultz, the author who wrote On Being Wrong,  says she is "optimistic about error".  As I wrote in a different post (one about stereotypes and my kids), she explains that we often make mistakes for exactly the same reason that we're fantastically amazing at learning new things.   When we're young, we pick up on grammar and social conventions and such from amazingly few cues; that same quick-pick-up ability can occasionally lead us woefully astray.  

An eight-year-old N-son falls asleep on "Elmo",
his favorite stuffed animal.
Here's a cute example of this misplaced generalization:  when N-son was very young, he didn't watch much television at all; in particular, he hadn't seen Sesame Street.  Someone one day showed him an Elmo doll.  After that, N-son called every stuffed toy "Elmo", and his favorite stuffed panda, the one  that hasn't left his bedroom in 15 years, bears--no pun intended--the name "Elmo" to this day, even though it looks to our eyes nothing like the red, fuzzy Elmo who enjoys being tickled.

The book is far-ranging and philosophical.  Some other tidbits from the book that delighted me:
  • The word "error" comes from the same root as the Spanish word "ir", or "to go".  Erring is etymologically the same as wandering.  
  • Many people confessed to Schultz, as she was writing the book, that they had often been wrong.  But when she pressed them for a quick instance of a specific example, almost everyone blanked.  It's much easier for us to remember instances of being right than to remember the specifics mistakes we've made.  (Guilty! I am very good at forgetting my own mistakes, but I hang on like velcro to the times I correct other peoples' mistakes).  
  • Depressed people have a more accurate view of the world than happy people.   Delusion makes us happier and more productive.  (Think of Don Quixote, who was very happy until he turned sane, at which point he dissolved into a puddle of misery, poor guy).  Schultz argues that our goal shouldn't be to hold more accurate beliefs, but rather to hold more functional beliefs.
But for me, the most illuminating chapter, from my child-rearing perspective, was her chapter on Confabulation.

Confabulation -- making up stories, or making up fables -- is what happens when people don't know the answer to a question, so they make up an answer on the spot . . . and then believe it.  Schultz gives some rather amazing examples (a blind woman who confidently described a book her doctor was holding in his hand, even though of course she couldn't see anything and he was actually holding up a comb).  She also describes more mundane but closer-to-home examples (people who assertively choose one set of pantyhose as better than all the others in the sample, giving all sorts of reasons for their decisions, even though all the pantyhose were identical).

Why do we confabulate?  Because we search for answers; we are story tellers; we try to make sense of the world.  If the sense isn't there, we make it anyway.  We think that if someone asks us a question, we answer it by searching our brain, figuring out which of the many facts in our brain gives us the answer, and then either give the answer or admit we don't know.  But in fact, often the process is more like this: our brains first create a story from the odds and ends floating around in our head, and then we fact-check it.  Evaluating (and then possibly rejecting) the story is a second layer on top of the first, and it's a harder task than the act of creation . . . so sometimes we just skip that part.  

And this make-up-an-answer-and-then-believe-it scenario describes my sons so well.  When I ask them a question that they really want to give me an answer to, they just give me an answer.   Any answer. 
"Where are your glasses?"  "They're in my bedroom".   (Except they're not.  My son lost the glasses; he just didn't know it yet). 
"What happened to your retainers?  Why aren't you wearing them?"  "I gave them back to you, remember?" (said a half hour before he found them under the radiator in his bedroom).
It'd be easy to think of these as deliberate lies, but I think they are really just self-deceptions.  They slip out of the mouth too quickly for the child to have deliberately thought them up -- I know how hard it is for my boys to come up with an answer that they actually have to think over.  But, having said the answer out loud and hearing themselves say it, they begin to believe it.  

Do armadillos eat cheese?  This is a question Schultz asks by way of example.  We're suggestible people, and the mere fact of hearing (or reading) the words makes people more likely to believe that whatever those words said is possible.  My boys, answering my questions off the top of their heads, begin to believe their answers.  They've created their own reality by stating it out loud.

I've learned to back off of these questions quickly rather than to challenge the kids with more pestering.  I don't want to cement the answers in their brains or to begin an argument that will just be a He Said/She Said volley of words.  If my kids answer too quickly and glibly, I change tactics.  I go with their words ("The glasses are in your room?  Good!  Go get them and show them to me!") or I put an end to the conversation ("No; I didn't get your retainers.  I think you need to clean your room just to show me they're not there.")  I try to turn words into action.  

What kinds of things do my children (okay, and me, and for that matter probably you, too) make errors on?  We make errors about what we see, about what we remember, about what we understand, about our own abilities, and about how things happened.  That's a lot of areas to be wrong about!  More on that when we get to the Invisible Gorilla.

But to sum up:  the basic lesson that I got from this book (reinforced by the other two books in this series) is this:  if I doubt the answer that I'm hearing, I should stop asking questions and try something else.  An error gives us the chance to go wandering for the truth -- to be knights errant.  Quests are probably more successful than questions.


  1. This is so fascinating. Thanks for summarizing the book---I'm going now to see if our library has it. This may change how I approach things with my kids (much younger, but definitely big on confabulating!)

    1. Thanks! Actually, I think all three of the books I'll be writing about are great, in different ways. And "Spy the Lie" is probably the most practical of the three . . . so definitely check that one out, too. (Book reviews forthcoming tomorrow and the next day). G'luck with your kids, too!

  2. love all the mention of new to me books, I will have to request from library as well, interesting about girls underestimating themselves, that has been lifelong trait for me, often feel unequal to the task

  3. love all the mention of new to me books, I will have to request from library as well, interesting about girls underestimating themselves, that has been lifelong trait for me, often feel unequal to the task, whatever that might be

    1. True fact. Sometimes when I sit down to do my taxes (especially in the days before Turbo Tax), I would have to talk myself up to get through it. As in, "You can do it. You have a PhD in math. If you can't do this, then it would be impossible for other people, but it's not impossible for them, so you can do it."

      So *feeling* unequal to the task and *being* unequal to the task aren't the same thing. Determination helps a lot.