New Year's resolutions are all about self-improvement, setting targets and doing the right thing.
Kathryn Schulz has a refreshing account of human error
It's the time of year when we all start to think about the things we'd like to do better. New Year's resolutions are all about self-improvement, setting targets and doing the right thing. But what if the route to personal happiness isn't bound up with things we want to do right, but embracing what we get wrong?
That's the idea behind a fascinating new book by the self-styled "wrongologist" Kathryn Schulz. Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error has deservedly won praise (and award nominations) for its fantastically readable exploration into our capacity for making mistakes. Although it features psychology, philosophy, scholarship and research, it's not some dry, academic investigation into the reasons behind our errors. Being Wrong is instead a drily witty and endearingly wise book, which also revels in referencing Jonathan Franzen and the merits or otherwise of rhubarb pie (Schulz loves the former and hates the latter - and cannot abide the thought she might be wrong). A hugely enjoyable investigation into what we're really like and how we could be better, it's perfect reading for this time of year.
"I hope so," says this American journalist of her first book. "Everybody, myself included, should spend some time in 2011 saying 'you know what, I'm so sorry, I'm wrong on this one. I have no idea what I'm talking about'. I genuinely think it would not only make us all kinder to one another, but also happier.
"Only half an hour ago, for example, I had a proper argument with my partner about the plural of dwarf! We all waste so much time getting into these disputes about who's right and wrong, getting into power struggles about the most insignificant things. And what does it do, apart from make the 'victor' momentarily gleeful? So yes, we should definitely resolve to embrace our inner fallibility."
But being wrong, Schulz says, is not something we're very good at. It might be a deeply human characteristic - we're all familiar with the cringeing moment when we realise we've done or said something completely ridiculous - but that doesn't mean we know how to deal with it. No one is perfect, and yet for the most part we all wallow in an unshakeable belief that we're right.
"Absolutely. And that's an enduring source of fascination to me," says Schulz. "We all understand that to be human is to make mistakes, to be wrong sometimes. But I'm interested in what happens to that understanding when our own specific beliefs are on the line. To a great extent, the book is about trying to work out that gap: we know we're wrong, but somehow we can't or won't accept it."
Or, indeed, we deliberately forget we were wrong in the first place. Try asking a friend if they make mistakes - they'll probably say, self-deprecatingly, that they have erred countless times. But ask them the specifics of the last mistake they made and it's highly unlikely they will recall it.
"We have an amazing, sophisticated bag of tricks to ward off that sense of our own fallibility," agrees Schulz. "I was round a friend's house recently and we were talking about cooking. She told me she really enjoyed it because she made mistakes in the recipe all the time, but she was 'never wrong'. And that stopped me in my tracks.
"I think she was trying to say that cooking was a domain in which it was acceptable to make mistakes because she was experimenting, she was learning something. For her, that stopped her from being wrong. I actually disagree with that: I think we need to admit we are wrong but retain the good things that come out of it. Maybe we could handle our mistakes better that way."
So much for the humdrum errors we make every day. The 21st century has been characterised by major mistakes on a global scale; the hunt for the non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction; Bernie Madoff and the billion-dollar fraud; the financial crisis. The beauty of Being Wrong is that it tackles these issues too, linking them into the main narrative without ever becoming an encyclopaedia of famous mistakes. So is there a sense that we're becoming, for want of a better term, "wronger?
"Wronger! I love that term," laughs Schulz. "I've called it a wrongness zeitgeist before, and I do feel like there's perhaps a moment of fascination about all this. And yes, it's probably because, as you point out, there have been a series of mistakes so shocking they're grabbing our attention.
"Are we 'wronger', though? That's more difficult to measure. Part of our make up has always been that we're susceptible to errors of a vast range, and that hasn't changed. There's a steady state of wrongness and fluctuations within that across the decades and centuries, of course. But, you know, I do think we live in a culture that cares about at least trying to get things right."
Despite everything, though, Schulz isn't about to give anyone determined to revel in making mistakes a get-out clause - much like happiness, wrongness isn't something you can chase. It just happens. So, with this book, Schulz isn't encouraging people to be wrong, just not to worry about it so much when they are.
"Yes, that's right," she agrees. "I mean, it's inevitable that we're going to be wrong, and frankly we don't need encouragement to make mistakes! But when we are wrong, we can think of it as a precursor to our own advancement, to better insight. To progress. That awareness of wrongness is invaluable in terms of what we can do with it."
Which is a nice thought to start the year with. Just don't give Being Wrong as a gift - unless you think the intended recipient can handle its rather obvious implication.
Ÿ Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error is out now