Why the habit of being right prevents us and how to manage it

Effort does not always lead to the desired result. A person can overwork, study and try to become a better person, but still not get a pay raise. The authors of the book “The Context of Life. How to Learn to Manage the Habits That Control Us,” believe it’s about our cognitive habits. If you realize them, you can fix them.

The first cognitive habit in question is the habit of being right, that is, of constantly returning to the feeling that “my picture of the world is right,” “I am interpreting events correctly.

It is quite possible that this habit is to some extent peculiar to all of us. As proponents of the theory of predictive coding believe, the cerebral cortex, by processing signals from the environment, filters them so that the final picture is consistent. It is this function that is most important: not to see and learn something new, but to put together a jigsaw puzzle with no details out of place. If the brain receives a signal that does not fit into this puzzle, most often the cortex ignores it or interprets it so as not to collapse the established picture of the world. Much less often (usually if the “detail” is repeated several times) the brain agrees to change something in the overall picture. This filter of novelty allows our psyche to be more stable.

Sometimes it is so important for us to have a correct and consistent picture of the world in front of us all the time, that this cognitive habit becomes something more than just an adaptive mechanism. Our picture of the world in any one sphere (or several at once) becomes almost unbreakable, and the signals of reality cannot change it.

We are constantly confronted with situations in which people allow the habit of being right to govern them. They simply can’t give in, and a struggle ensues between rigid pictures of the world, each of which has little to do with a flexible, multifaceted reality. Meanwhile, even in the case of a serious conflict of interest, it is always possible to come to an agreement if the parties can for a moment abstract themselves from their own rightness, to admit for a moment that the opponent’s worldview may be at least to some extent correct. This pernicious inability, even in the imagination, to take the other side is the root of the evil of many irreconcilable confrontations:

A parent demands that a teenager come home for the night, and the teenager wants to hang out at friends’ houses all night;
the bosses of two workshops accuse each other of failing to meet a deadline for producing a device, and each has his own reasons and his own picture of what is going on;
the Jews think that the land of Palestine belongs to the Jews, and the Arabs think it belongs to the Arabs.
Interestingly, the habit of being right is something like a virus: it is contagious. When our opponent insists, we are more likely to want to be just as hard on him, even if we didn’t plan it in the first place. We sense that our view of the world is being encroached upon, and we step up our defenses. This is how people, organizations, and countries get involved in the conflict. It lasts until someone stops, tries to adopt a different point of view, to hear his opponent’s arguments – in short, to get over his habit of being right, to try to control it.

Why we need the habit of being right
  • We feel not just resilient, but strong, knowledgeable, and confident.
  • We are able to cast off painful doubts before they form into some intelligible thought, and thus make decisions more quickly.
  • We actively offer our view of the world to others, convince them, inspire them, and thereby achieve our goals (e.g., selling a product or promoting an idea).
How the habit of being right can hinder us
  • We lose the ability to be flexible and to see nuances.
  • We become less empathic and less able to listen to and understand other people.
  • We are reluctant to notice our mistakes, which means we are more likely, as financiers put it, to “add to our losses.”
  • The desire to be right, like any adaptive mechanism, is neutral in itself and can serve both to create and to destroy. The question is whether we can control it, or whether it controls us.
Why we allow the habit of being right to control us
  • Fear of change. That’s why this habit is formed more often than not. It is not for nothing that some people with a rigid, inflexible worldview are sometimes called conservative (although it is not always related).
  • The desire to impose one’s vision. If a person has an idea, a passion, a mission, he/she may go straight to it, without evaluating counterarguments (which may be essential).
  • Self-assertion. Here, the phrase “I am right” emphasizes “I am.” Asserting one’s position can be a way to stand above the other, to feel better, smarter, stronger than the opponent.
  • Power Struggle. Whose picture of the world becomes dominant, generally accepted, that person is considered the leader, the one who imposes both the formulation of the problem and its solution. People fight for power at all levels, from the schoolroom and the family to the country and the world, and everywhere it is a struggle to form a picture of the world, a struggle to be right, to consider what is important and correct and what to filter out.
How to manage your habit of being right

1. The first thing we need to manage our habit of being right is openness. We need to be willing in principle to let another point of view into our consciousness that may complement or contradict ours.

2. Listen carefully to the interlocutor. Try to understand his or her position and arguments. It is quite possible that your points of view are not contradictory, but coincide or complement each other. It may also happen that after listening to someone else’s position, you will agree with it (or your opponent – with yours)

3 It is better to give up the habit of being right together with the one who is in conflict with you. To do this, each must divert themselves for a moment from their part of being right, and find their part of the common mistake.

Giving up the habit of being right is difficult because it hurts feelings. It may take an uninvolved helper (e.g., moderator in business conflicts, psychologist in marital conflicts) to start making concessions

5. People have different abilities to change. It may happen that you have to take the first step. This is especially common if you are in conflict with someone much older than you: as you age, neuroplasticity drops, the desire to defend your picture of the world increases, and it becomes harder to manage the habit of being right. Just because it’s easier for you to understand the other side doesn’t mean that you’re the only one who has to make concessions

6. Sometimes the feelings that lead to the habit of being right are much more important than what the conflict is about. That’s why the cost of the habit of being right can be prohibitive for both parties. Remembering this in time can help you take steps to get back on track.

7. In order to manage your habit of being right, to “turn on” and “turn off” it in time, it is important to understand what exactly provokes it. You can figure this out on your own, at the training or with a psychologist.

8. If the matter is not about the habit of being right, but about your values, and you are not ready to give them up, separate your right from your self-affirmation. Let the other person know your point of view and your arguments, but make it clear that you also respect their position.