I still remember the day. I was an undergraduate student in my final semester, and I was eager to have a graded paper returned to me. I had spent almost two weeks researching and writing a paper on cognitive dissonance, and I was sure that I had earned an A despite its being approximately 500 words over the 2,000-word requirement. In fact, I thought the extra 500 words would demonstrate my command of the subject matter and impress my professor.
Unlike the auditorium-sized classes in my freshman year, there were only 15 other students in this class. Accordingly, we had a more intimate setting and a closer relationship with our professor. I remember feeling excited as he called us up to his desk and returned our papers. However, my excitement vaporized a few moments later when I saw the grade. I threw myself back into the chair and glared at the B. This had to be a mistake.
I flipped to the back page and read my professor’s comments: “Excellent work. Well written.” Huh? If it was excellent, why did I receive a B? This just didn’t make any sense. He was wrong.
In between classes the next day, I made a detour to my professor’s office to let him know about his mistake. Surely, he would remedy the error and give me the grade I deserved. I walked into his office and we exchanged platitudes. Without wasting a breath, I told him about the B and expected him to immediately write something down, somewhere, that changed the grade to what I thought it should have been. Instead, he told me (without wasting a breath) that he gave me the grade I deserved; the paper was longer than it should have been. The assignment called for a 2,000-word paper, and I wrote a paper with 2,500 words. I was wrong. He was correct.
The irony in this experience surrounds the subject of the paper—cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the process we all use to justify a conflict between a belief and a mismatching behavior. As a senior, I knew that the best grades resulted from executing an assignment according to a set of instructions. Despite knowing this, I wrote a paper that did not meet the requirements. However, I also believed that the more effort I put into a paper, the better the grade. And this personal theory usually proved to be correct. The grade pinned my beliefs and my behavior against each other. Therefore, as a defense mechanism to protect my ego, I assumed the grade was wrong.
When your ego is involved, your mind does some funny things to make sense of the conflict. This is when you gravitate toward blaming others or projecting your mistake onto someone or something else. It’s a normal response, but one you must acknowledge to put things in the correct order. If you don’t, negative emotions will bubble up and make chaos out of this inner conflict.
Some Secrets for Critical Thinking and Mistakes
- Everyone makes mistakes. Yes, this is a cliché, but it’s true. You can be wrong. In fact, we are all wrong more often than you think. Tell your ego to deal with it.
- Before you project the mistake outward, stop and think about the details. Did you listen to the instructions? Did you follow them, or did you go in another direction based on a belief?
- Examine the outcome and consider that you might be facing a cognitive chasm. Examine your belief and your behavior. Do they match? Are you sure? This can be tricky, as we tend to distort one or the other to relieve the pressure on the ego.
- When you are able to admit to being wrong, you gain clarity. It takes much less time to fix your own mistake than it does to redirect blame onto other people or things. Life is much simpler when you are able to accept the inevitable mistake, learn from it, and move on.
View the rest of the 52 Tips in 52 Weeks series here!