All of us have probably known or at least encountered someone who is simply unable to accept responsibility when he makes a mistake or to admit when he is wrong. We have probably all, at some point, known the frustration of dealing with someone who is "always right" and "never wrong." We may have experienced the futility of trying to reason with someone like this; even when presented with irrefutable evidence to the contrary, the person continues to insist that he is right. In situations where it is apparent that a mistake has been made (or an offense has been committed), he will blame someone else; it is NEVER his fault. If backed into a corner, a "never wrong-er" will, for example, insist that his behavior was a justified response to being abused or treated unfairly. (i.e., Yes, he was wrong, but it wasn't really his fault). A person like this will not even accept responsibility for his own emotions; he will, for example, insist, "Well he shouldn't have made me angry."
Nobody likes to admit to being wrong. However, most of us recognize that it sometimes need to be done and we do it, even if we don't want to. So what makes the people who cannot or will not admit to being wrong different from the rest of us? Is there away to get them to acknowledge when they are wrong and to admit when they've made a mistake?
I started thinking about this because of my own frustration dealing with someone who insist on always being right. For me, the worst thing about having a conflict with this person is that since he is "always right" then I always have to be wrong. I quickly started to resent being blamed for every problem that arises. Like most people, it's very hard for me to admit when I've done something wrong. Sometimes it takes a little while for me to recognize that I've made a mistake. Whenever someone I care about points a finger at me to tell me I'm wrong, however, I always take some time to think about it and to reconsider my actions. If, after consideration (and sometimes even consultation with someone I trust), I see that I've done something wrong then I admit it. I apologize and try to identify what I need to do to avoid making the same mistake again. Ideally, the other person involved in the conflict will also examine his behaviors and will accept responsibility for whatever part he played in the situation. It is discouraging when this doesn't happen.
So I wanted to know why it is so difficult for some people to admit they are wrong. After doing some research, it became clear that different people have different reasons for doing this. I am going to list a few of these reasons. However, this list is by no means exhaustive.
I think that most people who always insist on being right do so unconsciously. Denial of wrongdoing is a defense mechanism that kicks in automatically whenever they are accused of doing something wrong. When you confront them with evidence that they've made a mistake they become defensive (hence the words defense mechanism). Exactly what is it that they are defending? They are defending their egos from overwhelming emotional tension and anxiety. A discussion on the theory of ego defense mechanisms is beyond the scope of this little blog post. Suffice it to say that people get defensive when asked to admit they are wrong because admitting they are wrong would deal a serious blow to their self-worth and sense of identity. The person could be a perfectionist who equates making a mistake with being a failure. The person might have underlying fears of being stupid or worthless; these fears are triggered when hey are accused of being wrong. Whatever the reason, these people unconsciously view being wrong as a threat to themselves and their identities.
It is sometimes possible to reason with a person like this. The general rule is to proceed gently and to adopt a non-accusatory tone. You want to address the problem without attacking the person. If the person feels like he's being attacked he is going to become defensive and you will get nowhere. If possible, try to give some positive feedback or point out strengths before bringing up the problem. If the person's mis-behavior seems to be a reaction to difficult external circumstances then acknowledge these circumstances. Let him know you understand how difficult the situation is and try to brainstorm better ways to handle it. If there is a clear way to make amends or end the conflict then let the person know this and offer to help him with whatever needs to be done. Make sure you choose the right time and place to have the conversation. Let the person know you want to talk and ask him if it's a good time. If not, find out when he's available and agree to talk with him then.
What are other reasons people won't admit they are wrong? Well, some who refuse to fess up when they've done something wrong are motivated by the desire to avoid facing negative consequences. Maybe the mistake was an honest one or maybe it was an intentional act of wrongdoing; either way, getting caught means suffering undesirable consequences. How to deal with this really depends on the circumstances. Some criminals, for example, maintain their innocence even after being convicted of a crime. Chances are, the less you are able to prove beyond doubt that the person committed an act of wrongdoing/made a mistake/etc. the less likely he is to admit that he did it. After all, why tell the truth if there's still a chance of getting away with it? If you have irrefutable evidence then ask yourself this: Do you really need for the person to admit guilt? The evidence provides sufficient grounds for implementing consequences, even if the person refuses to admit he did anything wrong.
Then there are the manipulators. These people define right and wrong a bit differently than the rest of us. For a manipulator, something is right when it benefits him. Something is wrong when it causes discomfort for him. In other words, as long as an action benefits him there is nothing wrong with it. It is quite possible that the manipulator intentionally engaged in the act that you consider to be wrong in order to gain something for himself. You cannot convince the manipulator that his actions were wrong because he simply doesn't see it that way. If it benefits him then it's not wrong, remember? The manipulator also has a vested interest in persuading you to accept his alternate version of reality. His primary motivation is to get whatever he wants; it helps is he can recruit others to assist with this goal (or at least prevent them from interfering). Manipulators are often quite charming. A manipulator's endearing nature tends to put people at ease, which makes them more easily persuaded (i.e., manipulated). You will never get a manipulator to admit he is wrong; do not was time trying.
As I said, this list is far from exhaustive. If anyone has any other ideas about why people can't or won't admit when they are wrong please feel free to share.