On being wrong

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

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It’s become a kind of truism these days that we all need to get more forgiving about making mistakes.

Perhaps what needs more attention is noticing that we may have made them. I’ve often thought about starting a meeting showing this page from Wikipedia: List of cognitive biases. It’s an astonishing reminder of how easy it is to be mistaken.

Now instead I might quote the experiment reported by Johann Hari today. Here’s the set up:

Perhaps the best place to start her story is with an experiment first staged in the University of Berlin in 1902 by Professor Frank Von Liszt. In a classroom two students began to have an angry argument, until one pulled out a gun. As the panicked students around them drew back, a professor tried to intervene – and a shot was fired. The professor collapsed to the ground. The witnesses, unaware that all three were actors following a script, were then taken outside and quizzed about what they had seen and heard. They were encouraged to give as much detail as possible.

And basically everybody got it wrong

They put long monologues into the mouths of spectators who had said nothing; they “heard” the row as being about a dozen different imagined subjects, from girlfriends to debts to exams; they saw blood everywhere, when there was none. Most people got a majority of their “facts” wrong, and even the very best witness offered a picture that was 25 per cent fiction. The more certain the witness, the more wrong they were. Every time the experiment is run, the results are the same.

I especially liked that bit:the more certain the witness, the more wrong they were.

Hat tip: Tweet from @caitlinmoran

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