During the COVID-19 pandemic, a Facebook “friend” of mine posted something about COVID being no deadlier than the flu and questioned the need to take protective measures or get vaccinated. He supported his argument by providing misleading graphics from a blogger with a clear anti-masking, anti-social-distancing agenda.
When I mentioned that this information conflicted with data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—and that, perhaps, he should look more closely at his sources—he refused to admit he might be mistaken. Instead, he doubled down, creating a rift between us.
Sadly, this happens a lot on social media—especially when people take controversial stands on social or political issues. Users get into (sometimes heated) discussions and refuse to concede they might be wrong, even when presented with solid evidence refuting their position. Perhaps they worry admitting to mistakes will ruin their reputation—that they’ll look foolish or lose others’ respect.
But a new study suggests the opposite is true. People who admit to being wrong are considered more competent and likable than those who refuse to do so.
In the study, participants were shown a fictitious online argument between two anonymous users on Facebook. The argument centered on the safety of a (made-up) food additive and was designed to look like actual Facebook discussions on dieting and health, with users accusing each other of bias or logical fallacies, citing blogs as sources, and attacking each other personally. However, the discussion was designed so that user B had a more compelling argument supported by facts, while user A didn’t.
Near the end of the post, user B provided links to scientific papers supporting their position, and user A responded in one of three ways: by posting, “So, I read through the sources you posted…The evidence is pretty strong. Thanks for posting those links and thanks for the conversation!” along with “I guess I am wrong and you are right on this” or “I still think I am right and you are wrong,” or by not responding at all. Participants were randomly assigned to read one of these scenarios and then report on how nice and competent they found user A, as well as how much they’d like to interact with user A in the future.
Results showed that when user A admitted being mistaken, people thought more highly of them, saying they were more likable, competent, and worth interacting with in the future than in the other two scenarios. This suggests showing humility makes people like and respect you more.
“Oftentimes, we’re trying to save face, especially on social media networks, where a lot of people can see our interactions; so, we might refuse to admit we’re wrong, because we’re afraid people are going to look down at us,” says lead researcher Adam Fetterman, director of the Personality, Emotion, and Social Cognition Lab at the University of Houston. “But, instead, what people like is intellectual humility—that someone is willing to change their opinion when they’ve heard new information.”
These findings extend past research on the benefits of intellectual humility in conversations to online settings. Previously, studies had found that showing humility in conversations helps you appear more agreeable and open-minded, less arrogant and dominant, and more satisfying to talk to. Intellectually humble people also tend to be more tolerant of challenging learning situations and people who are different from them.
Putting humility into practice
It may be harder to admit you’re wrong on social media compared to offline, says Fetterman. When you’re wrong on Facebook or Twitter, you’re not just conceding your mistake to one person; there could be lots of people watching and judging you.
“Admitting I’m wrong to potentially hundreds of other people forming impressions of me could lead me to be a bit more afraid to do so,” he says.
Still, it’s important to admit you’re wrong online for many reasons, he says—not just to improve your reputation. Correcting yourself can help those who read your posts to stop spreading misinformation, leading to improved conversations and new learning.
“The ability to admit we’re wrong helps us to update our beliefs in a more fact-oriented manner,” says Fetterman. “So, let’s say, if we find out we’re wrong about COVID-19 or vaccines and can admit we’re wrong, maybe we’re going to end up in a better place.”
Does that mean we should always admit we’re wrong? Fetterman says not necessarily. There are some cases where it wouldn’t be right or beneficial to do so. For example, if you admit to being wrong as a knee-jerk reaction or only admit being wrong to improve your reputation, manipulate others, or stop an argument, it’s likely to backfire.
“If someone admits they’re wrong very quickly, you might think, ‘Hey, wait a second. We haven’t really even talked about this; you’re not even thinking or really engaging in this conversation,’” he says. “That’s probably not a good idea.”
While Fetterman believes that intellectual humility is generally a good thing, he cautions that these findings are preliminary and may not mirror real-world online discussions in some ways. For example, many online discussions are not anonymous, and knowing who the players are in an argument or having a strong feeling about a particular issue or person may affect how we view those who don’t act with humility (although, as Fetterman’s unpublished research suggests, even opponents of Trump appreciate when he admits being mistaken).
Unfortunately, most people don’t seem to recognize the value of humility. Fetterman hopes that by showing people how admitting they’re wrong can benefit their reputation, he can encourage more people to do just that. Currently, he is studying ways to nudge people toward correcting themselves, including simply informing them about the results of studies like his or using role models who can point the way.
In the meantime, it’s good to know that we may benefit by admitting our mistakes, showing openness to others’ ideas, and practicing some humility. Perhaps, by doing so, we can tamp down some of the hostile rhetoric we find on Facebook.