The habitual need to be right

Updated: May 14, 2020

Michael Jordan is the best basketball player ever. Donald Trump is the worst president ever. Pizza is better than tacos. Coke tastes way better than Pepsi. The safer at home policies are stupid. Guns are bad. Abortion is evil.

Some of the above topics may have raised your heart rate, changed your breathing pattern or spurred an emotional thought. Our visceral reactions are deeply programmed habitual behavior. These programs have been running in our subconscious since before you can remember. Many of these programs you have created before you were mature enough to know what you were doing.

One of these programs we all are running on some level is the need to be right. From 4-18 we test our kids weekly, not usually with critical thinking tasks but with right or wrong answers. Right answers means higher grades and higher grades affirm our self worth. Getting the “right” answer has become the ultimate measure of who you are. On top of that, being right has been a necessity for thousands of years. Whether there is a lion in the long grass is not an argument you want to lose.

When we need to defend our “rightness,” the logical side of the brain, the prefrontal cortex gets hijacked. Our limbic system sends out cortisol and we respond to it like we run to the ice cream truck as a kid. Our emotions kick in and you can forget empathy, trust building, active listening and compromise. Without awareness, the program you developed to be right takes you down the path you have always been.

So, it seems to be the need to be right is a good thing, end of story. Well, as with all my blogs, there is no right answer, just something for you to think about. Here are a couple points of view one of which may resonate with you.

Camp 1: There is right and wrong just like 1+1=2. These are facts. There is right and wrong data. What isn’t measured isn’t managed, and we as a civilization need structure. Critical thinking may have its place but my son or daughter will not be receiving any participation medals for sitting on the sideline just thinking. Math is fact, history happened, and science is all around us. People that argue against the facts are just plain dumb and probably a millenial.

Camp 2: Data is just as good as it’s interpreter. Critical thinking is essential for life's troubles. We can never plan for every situation so lets teach principles and the why. Science is ever changing, look at Newtonian physics vs quantum physics. Teaching our kids that there is a right and wrong keeps us in a binary world and we live in a quantum world. To push humanity forward, we need critical and independent thought.

Which of these two camps do your actions suggest you fall into? Does it differ from your thoughts as you are reading this? Is it possible both of these opinions hold significant weight?

Here is my opinion, which is no more valuable than yours. It is my belief that to be in the first camp is to be intelligent and the second camp is wise. They both have value and work best when paired together. From a camp one point of view, it is intelligent to learn from others and apply that knowledge in ways that we know will be beneficial to you and your family. It is not smart to consistently just think about abstract ideas that don’t put money in your pocket or food on the table. You know what is on the path that others have blazed. These already blazed trails offer you more security than other paths and ultimately security is something most value above all else.

Camp 2 is to be wise. Being your own judge of information allows you to take control of the direction of your life. People that follow the paths most travelled will end up in the same place as everybody who travels that path. The outliers of the world who push their agendas think outside the box. The people who have contributed the most to the sciences don’t just look to prove people right, they use creativity to think about alternative answers. It is not safety that they are after but self actualization.

The next time you get into a debate, and you find yourself with a craving to be right, challenge yourself to step back and actively listen. Is it possible that you are thinking in a concept that likely has no plausible, real world application? Could your point of view be short sighted, missing a key perspective that could change the dynamic of your views? Is trying to be right more important than getting the best result?


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