Saturday, September 29, 2012

Why are we all so Stubborn?

Once we form an opinion, it is usually harder than it should be to shake us out of that position. Once we've decided "I'm going to do X" or "I believe X is true", it is difficult to get us to decide that X was a bad idea, because admitting that means that we were wrong. And let's be honest, being wrong sucks, it does not feel good, so we try to avoid it. So even if you have seen enough evidence that would convince you that X is wrong had you been impartial, now that you have picked a side, more evidence than that is going to be necessary.

We are all stubborn, once we pick a team, it is easy to highlight the good and downplay the bad. Admitting that your team is wrong means in some way you were wrong, again, this doesn't feel good and we try to avoid it. Once we realize we generally agree with someone, it can be hard to admit when they say something we disagree with. It breaks that little story in our mind that says "this guy knows what he is talking about". Once we have made a decision, it is hard to reevaluate and change our mind. Doing so is admitting to ourselves that our first decision was wrong.

Knowing how stubborn people are can make debating seem like a fruitless endeavor, I have 2 main reasons for thinking this is not the case. First, I know my transition from Christianity to atheism took quite a long time.  I have plenty of debates with people and I just brushed them off, probably called most of them idiots too. I wouldn't be surprised if they walked away thinking I was a lost cause. But the good points stuck in my brain, even if I didn't really acknowledge them at the time. They all built up slowly over time and I eventually realized that my previous position didn't hold water. Secondly, there are often other people listening to the conversation. If you refute someone's point, they themselves might stick to it very stubbornly, but someone watching might be able to see how silly your opponent is being.

I thought I would end this post with an example of someone being extremely stubborn. This is a conversation I had on twitter a short while ago. I thought about linking the actual tweets, but I'm not really sure of the etiquette so I figured I would just type them out. It would probably be fine to link to them as posting to twitter is inherently public, but it still seemed like it might be rude to do without permission, so I will leave the other party anonymous.

It started with a tweet that included the following:
You have a 50% chance of dying now! 
I figure that the way I'm reading this must not be what she means, so I ask
What do you mean by 50% chance of dying?
She replied
It means there are 5 births to every 2.5 deaths per second. 
So she has done a simple calculation, and determined that 5 births for every 2.5 deaths means that every person has a 50% chance to die every second. We go back and forth, me trying to explain the mistake she has made, and her just showing me the arithmetic she has done. She even told me I need to learn some math :) I try a different technique to highlight the absurdity of what she is saying with the following
think about the consequences if that were true. The odds of living a minute are the same as flipping 60 heads in a row
Then I say
regardless of the math you did to get there, can't you see that there has been some kind of an error?
of which she gives he final reply
No. The math is accurate. And No,it would not be similar to flipping for heads on a coin.You have a bigger chance landing tails 
So what really happened here? I think part of it is she knows that I'm an atheist, and therefore I am wrong. No matter the topic, she has it in her mind that I am wrong. I don't think she even entertains the idea that I might be correct now and then. And once I declared her statement wrong, she decided to double down. I think she could see that the coin thing I said was obviously wrong, but was unable to see that it was equivalent to the statement she made. Perhaps part of her knew that she was wrong, and that is why she tried to deflect the conversation.

So the question becomes, was this conversation a waste of time? I think no. I think that perhaps she will realize later that she had made a mistake, and maybe she will in the future entertain the thought that she might be wrong now and then. That alone would be a little progress. (If we can't accept that we might make a mistake how will we ever learn anything?) Also, anyone following either of us might have seen the conversation. I'm assuming it is crystal clear for any observer to see how ludicrous her statement was, if nothing else they might realize how easy it is to make such a mistake and they will be careful in the future as well.

I can dream right?


  1. I saw an interesting TED talk about being wrong. The speaker asked "How does it feel to be wrong?" Most people said something along the lines of embarrassed, or ashamed, or just generally bad. She then corrected them with something like: "No, that's the way you feel when you find out that you are wrong. Up until that time, being wrong feels exactly like being right."

    I'm with you though. I've had some frustrating debates, especially lately, but I don't necessarily think of them as wasted time. For one, I feel I learn a little more about myself each time, and my own emotional fallacies. But for another, just as you dream, I too think that you never know if you have planted a seed in their minds which will someday grow into better understanding.

    1. I really like that take on it. Being wrong and being right do feel the same in the moment.

  2. So by that logic, you have two to one odds of being born or dying? I'm trying to follow her logic.. I guess you could say that for every person that dies, two are born. Playing her "odds" half the planet would die every second? Oh well, what the hell do you know about math? You only have a PhD in it /s

    TWF that sounds like an interesting talk. Do you have a link?

    I don't mind finding out I was wrong. It means that I become aware that I was, and I can change to be right. That's why I try not to be dogmatic about anything. One can only come up with answers based on what information they have been given or have had access to. There is a certain liberation that comes when you let go of having to be right. It's okay to say "I was wrong."

    1. Probably this one

      I haven't watched it yet though, part of the reason I'm posting it here is so it is easy for me to find it again later.

      You are right, allowing yourself to be wrong is liberating. It makes it so much easier to learn new stuff if you aren't always struggling against new information.

  3. Strange conversation. Reminds me of when I tried to explain to my wife why it would always be better to switch doors in the Let's Make a Deal scenario. She didn't get it, which is much more understandable then not getting what you were trying to say, but still... I'm a profitable poker player, so probability must come natural.

    1. I love the monty hall problem. I love math stuff that is counter-intuitive at first but accessible to anyone. Maybe I should do a post on it at some point.

  4. JKerber, I don't have a link, as I watched it on Netflix. However, you can probably find it online via Google or at the TED website with the info that it was Kathryn Schulz and titled "On Being Wrong".


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