Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error

By: Kathryn Schulz

Star Rating:



Spoiler Disclaimer


It’s inevitable that we’re all going to get things wrong sometimes. After all, it’s part of being human. Yet so many of us regularly reject the notion that we could possibly be wrong. In Being Wrong, author and journalist, Kathryn Schulz, explores the reasons why we find it upsetting to be wrong, and yet so satisfying to be right. Drawing from classic literature, history, and personal stories of people who got things wrong, she helps us see how being wrong is part of life and that if we embrace wrongness, we can learn from our mistakes to become better people by altering the way we view the world around us, our relationships, and ourselves.


If not for it being our latest book club read, I'm not sure I would have picked up Being Wrong on my own, not because it didn't sound interesting (it did and was one of my top picks among the choices we voted for this month), but because I may not have found it without someone else bringing it to my attention. It's simply not the type of book that probably would have come up in my day-to-day browsing of reading recommendations. But I can't deny that it ended up being a very interesting read. As a psychology geek, who's fascinated with the inner workings of the human mind, I was intrigued by all the many different ways in which we can be wrong, and more importantly, how we can delude ourselves into thinking that we're right even when we aren't. This was an extremely well-researched and well-written book that engaged my intellect, while also bringing me to the realization that perhaps I need to more closely examine my beliefs and sense of rightness in various areas.

One of the main things this book does is delving into the various reasons why we can be so wrong about certain things. Some of it is rooted in a seeming quirk of human nature that drives us to have a need for beliefs. We being theorizing about the world around us as infants and by childhood we're beginning to develop our beliefs. We all must believe in things, whether it's as benign as what color of paint looks best in a certain room to something as momentous as the existence of God. And throughout life our beliefs may change, but usually we have trouble letting go of one belief until we have another one to replace it. Otherwise, we might find ourselves in an existential crisis. Whether we realize it or not, we also have a need for certainty in our lives. That's why when someone seems so certain about something, it can be very appealing and lead us toward a belief in that thing whether it's true or not. As humans, we additionally tend to have a tribal mentality, the sense that if the majority of the people in our social circle are going along with something, then it must be the right path when sometimes it isn't. I was also intrigued by the ways in which our memories can be so fickle and faulty. I know that the next time someone insists that something happened a certain way, I'll be taking it with a grain of salt, even if that someone is me.:-)

One of the major strengths of the book for me was all the true stories of people who've been wrong in various ways. I think I'm the type of person who learns and understands better when I have concrete examples, so these stories really helped the message of the book come alive for me in a way it might not have without them. The author includes so many stories of ways in which people have been wrong, even phenomenally wrong, throughout the ages, even though they thought they were right. One that stood out was the Millerites in the 18th century, who claimed to have calculated down to the day when Christ was going to return. Many of them didn't plant crops that year and/or sold off all their worldly possessions, believing they were going to be swept up to heaven on that day. But of course it didn't happen. Some then left the faith altogether, while others readjusted their beliefs and what they thought they knew into something else, and still others doubled down on their beliefs. This movement later grew into the denomination known as Seventh Day Adventists. Another stand-out story was that of two contrasting rape cases. In both cases, the men convicted of the rapes were misidentified and later exonerated through DNA evidence. In one case, the woman who was raped was very accepting of the results and tried to reconcile with the man she misidentified. In the other case, the prosecutor, apparently unable to come to terms with the fact that he'd tried the wrong man, tied himself up in knots trying to explain away the scientific evidence while insisting the man was still guilty. There were so many of these great stories throughout the book that helped make it a fascinating read.

I had a really hard time rating Being Wrong. It truly is very well done. The author is clearly an extremely intelligent, erudite, and articulate writer, who did her research well and organized this book in a way that made sense. I was constantly amazed at how she was able to tie everything together cohesively, and sometimes temporarily drop a thread, only to deftly weave it back in later. The absorbing, tantalizing, and sometime humorous anecdotes made the book more accessible, and there was much that I learned from its pages with regards to the human mind and how we can be wrong, but at the same time, I felt like there were things that I was missing. I freely admit that this may have been a failing of my own brain to grasp what was being said, but I can't help feeling that if I had trouble with parts of it, others might as well. My book club is a pretty smart group and yet most of them agreed that this was definitely not an easy read. I think this is my main reason for dropping the star, but feel free to take that with a grain of salt. Just know that it will require a sharp mind and good concentration to grasp the contents.

I will also leave with this last thought. Despite the author saying that she didn't set out to write a self-help book, I felt that it did in many ways help me to better understand wrongness. I might have wished for a step-by-step guide for combating the reasons for wrongness, but I was still able to glean some strategies for this from within its pages. At the end of the day, that's a win for me. If it makes me (and others who read it) look more carefully at my (their) assertions, then IMHO, the book will have done its job. So for that I definitely recommend it. In our current age, when so many people are entrenched in political or other divisive belief systems, I think delving into our wrongness is a great place to start the difficult work of change.


The Official Being Wrong Website