I watched the Ted Talk, On Being Wrong, by Kathryn Schulz, recently, and have been thinking about an analogy she presented. She explained that being wrong is similar to the experience of the Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoon: the coyote chases the roadrunner off the cliff, and doesn’t realize that he’s off the cliff until he looks down. Then he falls. Schulz said that being wrong is like this because until we realize we’re wrong, we operate as if we’re right. It’s not until we realize we’re wrong that things start to get bad for us. There is some kind of confidence in this pre-realization wrongness, because it feels like rightness.
I thought about these states of being wrong and being right, and this led to thoughts about all of the things that occur between these two states, a blurry space where learning happens and where we figure things out. And so here I consider the activities in which we engage, the thoughts we entertain, as we navigate these spaces between wrongness and rightness.
Sometimes we seek information to close a gap in our understanding (contacting the DMV to get information about the driver’s license renewal process). Other times we are instructed naturally about something new (watching other patrons at a restaurant queue at a counter, wait for the hostess, or seat themselves). In many formal settings we receive explicit instruction about what we must learn (things you must and mustn’t do on the first day of a new job). In still other situations, we happen upon information we didn’t even know that we needed to know, and it influences the way we may operate in the future. In these instances we’re not necessarily wrong, but we don’t know what’s right yet either. We’re figuring it out.
I was in a grocery store in the French Quarter one afternoon, and observed an instance of just such “figuring it out”. A man stood behind me in line with his son, about eight years old. The man was buying a 24 oz. Coke and a Sunny Delight for his son. He placed the coke on the counter, but held on to the orange drink and looked at the label. He turned to his son and said, “Oh, this’s got Vitamin C, and we need that.” The cashier was ringing up my lunch item, overheard, and interjected, “Yeah, Vitamin C is good, but that Coke is no good.” The woman, looking about six months pregnant, continued, “I just got diabetes from pregnancy and my doctor said I can’t have no more sugar like that. You know, he showed me how much sugar in a 12 oz. can o’ Coke. It was like a cup of it (holding up her fingers to show the height of the measurement). Just think what’s in that 24 oz. bottle you got there.” The man replied “Whoa! That much? Glad you told me. Never knew how much was in there.” The woman then explained that she’s not giving her other kids soda anymore, and that she’s trying to stop drinking it herself. I finished paying for my lunch and took a few moments to put my change away in my wallet. Meanwhile, the cashier rang up the man’s soda and orange drink, and he wished her a blessed day. On their way out of the line, the boy said he didn’t need any Sunny Delight.
Doctors and dentists might say that the man is wrong for giving his son the sugary drink, or for having one himself. The cashier thinks it’s probably not right either, but has the same idea and is conflicted in her own desire for the sugary drinks. The man enters the line thinking he is right in his purchase for his son, perhaps a drink his son has chosen, then begins his interaction in the situation feeling even more right after reading about the Vitamin C. The woman’s interjection makes him consider that he may be wrong, at least about how much sugar he is providing himself and his son, but she confirms his rightness about the positive effects of Vitamin C. At the same time, she recognizes the problem with the amount of sugar in the soda, but makes no mention of the sugar in the Sunny Delight. The son overhears this conversation and tells his father, after the purchase, that he doesn’t want the sugary drink. Was his father wrong in buying it? Was the son wrong in not saying something sooner? The father and son leave the store with their drinks, and likely consume them, and at the point of consumption, have they become doubly wrong in their choice – first to buy, then to drink? And to further fuzzy the situation, I, the observer and recorder of this interaction, having just finished a twenty-mile run, and my body, deplete of sugar, may have faired well by a sugary drink. It may have been just the right thing for me at that moment, but I’d have to figure that out for myself as well.
So between being wrong and being right, there are many things that happen. We obtain information. We think through it and talk through it. We compare it to past experiences and wonder what it means for future choices. We second-guess ourselves and others who give us information. The movement between right and wrong is not always an abrupt realization, but rather may take the form of a delicate, hesitant, dance of curiosity and apprehension right along the edge of the cliff. And even when that dance is finished, the decisions that are right for some of us may be wrong for others. It is here that we spend most of our time: in the blurry space between being confidently right and scared-out-of-our-wits wrong. And it is here that we experience that range of emotions, thoughts, and second-guessing – those wonderful learning behaviors – that make us truly human.
Juliette de Wolfe is a doctoral candidate in the Anthropology and Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University.