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Why I Find It Easy to Admit Mistakes

Summary:
My main frustration in debates about politics and economics is the difficulty many of those I argue with have in admitting my points. Often on Facebook, for example, I will make a point, someone will respond critically, and I'll respond to that point. If I'm persuaded, my response is something like "Touche." (I learned that line from Leland Yeager when he taught a course at UCLA in 1975. Leland was, and probably still is, great at admitting it when you had a good argument against him.) And then I move on. If I'm not persuaded but I think I'm right and I seem to have answered the other person's point, a response from that person is often--nothing. No admission of a mistake on his part. I've been thinking

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My main frustration in debates about politics and economics is the difficulty many of those I argue with have in admitting my points. Often on Facebook, for example, I will make a point, someone will respond critically, and I'll respond to that point. If I'm persuaded, my response is something like "Touche." (I learned that line from Leland Yeager when he taught a course at UCLA in 1975. Leland was, and probably still is, great at admitting it when you had a good argument against him.) And then I move on. If I'm not persuaded but I think I'm right and I seem to have answered the other person's point, a response from that person is often--nothing. No admission of a mistake on his part.

I've been thinking lately about why it's so easy for me to admit mistakes and why it's so hard for many others to do so. I don't have a good answer for the latter, but I do have a good answer for the former.

I think back to two things in my childhood: (1) my learning style, and (2) a painful apology I made when I was about 12.

My Learning Style

I was interested in many issues in government policy from a very early age, starting at about age 7 or so. We didn't have a good library in my small town, so most of what I knew was from reading the Winnipeg Free Press and talking to adults around me. (I didn't learn anything from TV because my family didn't get TV until January 1961, when I was 10 years old.) I think we are hard-wired to have opinions on things. We hear a few facts and we come up with hypotheses or theories to connect them. Based on the few facts we have, the odds that we get it right are fairly low. I learned this at an early age.

So what I did was come up with my loosely held hypothesis and then test it by asking adults around me what they thought, listening to their responses, and evaluating, changing my view if I heard good enough responses. I guess you could said I was an early Bayesian. Given that I came up with this learning style in my home town of Boissevain, you could call me a Boissevain Bayesian.

That style worked pretty well. I'm not saying that I usually came out with the right answer, but that style helped me readily admit mistakes.

I remember one incident when I was about 11, living in Carman, Manitoba, where my family had moved when I was 9. The janitor at my church, an older man, had taken a liking to me, and vice versa. One Sunday, he invited me to come over to visit him and his wife in the afternoon. My parents approved and so I went. Somehow we got talking about politics. The New Democratic Party (NDP) had formed the previous year as a merger of the old Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and the Canadian Labour Congress. My friend, the janitor, dismissed them as Communists. That didn't ring true with what I had read in the Winnipeg Free Press and so I challenged him on it. He dug in his heels. I had always trusted my mother to be good on facts when she was pretty sure of the facts and so I told him I was going to call my Mom (in Canada, we said "Mum") and ask her. So I did. My mum said that that was false. I thanked her and hung up and told him that was false. I don't remember whether he admitted that he had badly exaggerated. I'm telling the story mainly to say that this was how I fact checked and learned.

It has served me well. It is so easy to check facts now and so there is even less excuse for getting them wrong. But the point is that I don't have a lot of emotional energy tied up in holding to my position. I do have a lot of emotional energy tied up in being right, but that's what makes it easier to admit mistakes. If I see that I've made a mistake, I change my view--precisely because I want to be right.

The Apology

Our family moved to Carman, Manitoba in July 1960. Within a few months, my mum formed a close friendship with a very outspoken younger woman in our town. Her name was June Staite. The Staites lived only about half a block away in a town of about 1,800 people. June was a pistol. She was full of energy and had strong views on many things. She was the first adult I ever heard call a politician by a bad name for thinking that the rules that applied to the rest of us shouldn't apply to him. That actually happened a couple of years after the incident I'm about to relate, but I found it charming.

A woman named Mrs. Durham lived in a small house beside the Staites' house. Her husband was dying of cancer and she had a tough life, taking care of him, raising her son, Johnny, and making a living. She didn't have a washer or dryer--many people didn't in those days--so one day she was hauling a basket of laundry to the laundromat. For some reason she needed to turn around and go home and so she left the basket on the sidewalk. On top of the basket was a camera. Shortly after, my friend Dirk and I came along and saw the basket. We didn't know it was hers, but that didn't matter: we shouldn't have done what we were about to do. One of us thought it would be fun to pick up the camera and take a picture of the other. I don't remember who instigated. So we took turns taking pictures of each other. Ho, ho, isn't that fun.

Then we left. A few minutes later Mrs. Durham came along and saw that the camera had been disturbed. She took the laundry back to her place and went next door to vent to June. At this point, she didn't know who had done it. But Mrs. Durham was distraught. She felt overwhelmed by her circumstances and this was the final straw. She actually talked about moving out of the neighborhood.

June let her vent and calm down somewhat and then told her that she would get to the bottom of it. I guess Dirk and I were wandering around the neighborhood because June quickly found us and asked me point blank what we had done. I had always respected her and so I quickly confessed. Then she told me what Mrs. Durham had said and how I needed to go over and apologize. I asked her if she could tell Mrs. Durham I was sorry. No, said June, you need to do it.

The prospect of apologizing felt awful. But I knew June was right and so I knocked on Mrs. Durham's door and, when she answered, told her what I had done. I told her through tears. I don't remember her reaction and it's not as if I expected that she would feel all warm and fuzzy to me for confessing that I had violated her property rights.

After apologizing, I went next door to June's house and told her I apologized. I'll never forget what happened next. I started crying and June hugged me, and that made me cry even more and sob on her shoulder. It was like having a second mother.

What I learned is that apologizing for doing something bad gave me enormous relief. And compared to apologizing for doing something bad, admitting that I made a mistake in facts or in reasoning is nothing.



David Henderson
David Henderson is a British economist. He was the Head of the Economics and Statistics Department at the OECD in 1984–1992. Before that he worked as an academic economist in Britain, first at Oxford (Fellow of Lincoln College) and later at University College London (Professor of Economics, 1975–1983); as a British civil servant (first as an Economic Advisor in HM Treasury, and later as Chief Economist in the Ministry of Aviation); and as a staff member of the World Bank (1969–1975). In 1985 he gave the BBC Reith Lectures, which were published in the book Innocence and Design: The Influence of Economic Ideas on Policy (Blackwell, 1986).

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