Let’s say you’re invited to participate in a simple perceptual study. When you show up, you find other participants too.
Once all of you sit at the table, the experimenter explains the experiment to you. He’ll hold up a card that has a target line on it and three comparison lines. You simply need to figure out which comparison line matches the target line.
Sounds incredibly simple, right? But you must’ve guessed by now that there’s a twist.
When the first trial starts, everyone including you gives the right answer. The second trial goes on like the first. The third trial is where things get tricky.
The correct answer is as obvious as the previous trials. But the first participant gives an incorrect answer. Okay, you think, maybe he’s just messing with the experimenter because he’s bored. But the second participant gives the same answer. So does the third and everyone else until it’s your turn.
What would your answer be?
If you’re like most people, you might think that you’d give the correct answer, that you wouldn’t make the same mistake as the rest of the group. Right? To be honest, I think I’d do the same thing as you.
But it was not what Gestalt psychologist Soloman Asch found when he conducted the above experiment in the 1950s. Instead, he and his team found the following.
Participants answering without a group made errors less than one percent of the time. But in a group, 75 percent of the participants gave the incorrect answer at least once.
Here’s the twist in the tale. The other members of the group were accomplices of the experimenter. They gave incorrect answers because he asked them to. The real purpose of this study was to tell whether the individuals would conform to the group or hold their own. The participants who signed up for the experiment knew none of this.
There was no pressure on them to conform with the group either. No incentives or penalties for doing the experiment well or poorly. Yet, their answers matched that of the group though they knew it was wrong because of the most deep-seated fear in human beings—the fear of looking foolish.
Appearing foolish during the experiment may not have had consequences. But in the real world, it does. Or so we think.
If we conform with a group, we get accepted. If we don’t, we could get rejected. And though most of us have never consumed a physical drug in our lives, we’re all addicted to the most powerful drug: approval.
That’s why we’d rather do foolish things than take a stand and appear foolish in front of others.
We let bosses decide what we should work on. We let companies decide how we should spend our money and time. We let others take advantage of us in relationships. We do things we don’t want to.
In all this, we lose sight of who we really are and what’s important to us. We end up living a life on others’ terms.
Of course, society is still not happy. But neither are we. In fact, we feel miserable. Being miserable is the price we pay when we try — and fail — to make everyone happy.
The Un-Foolish Individual
The fear of looking foolish doesn’t just affect how we behave in a group. it also affects our individual behavior.
We race to come up with explanations for things we don’t have explanations for. We reject outcomes our limited understanding cannot comprehend.
We believe the things we want to be true instead of validating them with facts and data… in politics, work, and any other topic that appeals to us. When we come across evidence that challenges our beliefs, we cover our eyes and ears and hum nursery rhymes loudly, hoping that a magical wind will sweep away what we don’t want.
Most people, when their beliefs are challenged, hold onto them as though they are a life vest on a sinking ship.
The problem is that often times their beliefs are the sinking ship. — Mark Manson
Actions where the possibilities of failure are high, turn into phobias. Math Anxiety is an example. A large number of people feel anxious about their ability to do mathematics because they’re scared of looking foolish. If you think about it, stage fright occurs for the same reason. Thus, we avoid anything that could lead to mistakes.
But mistakes are important. Each new mistake, no matter how tiny, is a sign that you’re making progress. Each failure makes you a wee-bit better at appreciating small wins, taking nothing for granted, and building resilience.
Think about it. How would your diction be if you stopped growing your vocabulary after the age of four? Or if you still pronounced words the way you did when you were four?
Nobody does that, right? We openly admit that we were foolish then, and that we know better now. Why can’t we do the same with our thoughts and beliefs as adults?
Let’s rekindle the curiosity that made our childhoods fun. Let’s stop trying to be right all the time and instead, try to be slightly less wrong today than we were yesterday, and be slightly less wrong tomorrow than we are today, and so on. Each time we experience a strong belief, let’s ask ourselves, “What am I missing here that I should see?”
There’s a lot we don’t know. And we’re often wrong about most things we do know.
Admitting you’re wrong is the first step towards improvement. It opens your mind to improbable possibilities because you realize that improbable is not the same as impossible.
This leads to mental and emotional growth. You keep evolving and changing yourself instead of trying to change the world. And since the world is just a mirror, it changes when you do.
In other words, the more you’re okay with looking foolish, the wiser you become. And wisdom shines so bright that it illuminates the world around it. Not like a candle that burns up in the process, but like a lamp that spreads its light far and wide.
If you want to improve, if you want to achieve wisdom, you have to be okay to look strange or even clueless from time to time. — Ryan Holiday
Many people are okay with being part of the herd to not appear foolish. If that works for you, that’s fine too.
But if you want to live a life that opens you up to new perspectives and wonders, if you want to do something remarkable, allow yourself to get cracked open once in a while.