Despite your best intentions and efforts, it is inevitable: At some point in your life, you will be wrong.
Mistakes can be hard to digest, so sometimes we double down rather than face them. Our confirmation bias kicks in, causing us to seek out evidence to prove what we already believe. The car you cut off has a small dent in its bumper, which obviously means that it is the other driver’s fault.
Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance — the stress we experience when we hold two contradictory thoughts, beliefs, opinions or attitudes. For example, you might believe you are a kind and fair person, so when you rudely cut someone off, you experience dissonance. To cope with it, you deny your mistake and insist the other driver should have seen you, or you had the right of way even if you didn’t.
“Cognitive dissonance is what we feel when the self-concept — I’m smart, I’m kind, I’m convinced this belief is true — is threatened by evidence that we did something that wasn’t smart, that we did something that hurt another person, that the belief isn’t true,” said Carol Tavris, a co-author of the book “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me).”
She added that cognitive dissonance threatened our sense of self.
“To reduce dissonance, we have to modify the self-concept or accept the evidence,” Ms. Tavris said. “Guess which route people prefer?”
Or maybe you cope by justifying your mistake. The psychologist Leon Festinger suggested the theory of cognitive dissonance in the 1950s when he studied a small religious group that believed a flying saucer would rescue its members from an apocalypse on Dec. 20, 1954. Publishing his findings in the book “When Prophecy Fails,” he wrote that the group doubled down on its belief and said God had simply decided to spare the members, coping with their own cognitive dissonance by clinging to a justification.
“Dissonance is uncomfortable and we are motivated to reduce it,” Ms. Tavris said.
When we apologize for being wrong, we have to accept this dissonance, and that is unpleasant. On the other hand, research has shown that it can feel good to stick to our guns. One study, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, found that people who refused to apologize after a mistake had more self-esteem and felt more in control and powerful than those who did not refuse.
“In a way, apologies give power to their recipients,” said Tyler Okimoto, an author of the study. “For example, apologizing to my wife admits my wrongdoing; but apologizing also gives her the power to choose whether she wants to alleviate my shame through forgiveness, or increase my shame by holding a grudge. Our research has found that people experience a short-term increase in their feelings of personal power and control after refusing to apologize.”
Feeling powerful may be an attractive short-term benefit, but there are long-term consequences. Refusing to apologize could potentially jeopardize “the trust on which a relationship is based,” Mr. Okimoto said, adding that it can extend conflict and encourage outrage or retaliation.
When you refuse to admit your mistakes, you are also less open to constructive criticism, experts said, which can help hone skills, rectify bad habits and improve yourself over all.
“We cling to old ways of doing things, even when new ways are better and healthier and smarter. We cling to self-defeating beliefs long past their shelf life,” Ms. Tavris said. “And we make our partners, co-workers, parents and kids really, really mad at us.”
Another study, from the Stanford researchers Carol Dweck and Karina Schumann, found that subjects were more likely to take responsibility for their mistakes when they believed they had the power to change their behavior. This is easier said than done, though, so how exactly do you change your behavior and learn to embrace your mistakes?
The first step is to recognize cognitive dissonance in action. Your mind will go to great lengths to preserve your sense of identity, so it helps to be aware of what that dissonance feels like. Typically, it manifests as confusion, stress, embarrassment or guilt. Those feelings do not necessarily mean you are in the wrong, but you can at least use them as reminders to explore the situation from an impartial perspective and objectively question whether you are at fault.
Similarly, learn to recognize your usual justifications and rationalizations. Think of a time you were wrong and knew it, but tried to justify it instead. Remember how it felt to rationalize your behavior and pinpoint that feeling as cognitive dissonance the next time it happens.
Mr. Okimoto said it also helped to remember that people were often more forgiving than you might think. Traits like honesty and humility make you more human and therefore more relatable. On the flip side, if it is undeniably clear that you are in the wrong, refusing to apologize reveals low self-confidence.
“If it is clear to everybody that you made a mistake,” Mr. Okimoto said, “digging your heels in actually shows people your weakness of character rather than strength.”