Scams, conspiracy theories and being wrong

Right wrong.
Admitting you're wrong isn't easy.

Admitting you’re wrong isn’t easy. It can be especially difficult if we have acted in a way that has hurt ourselves or others.


Often, it can seem easier to rationalise, to justify or explain away our mistakes. However, that can lead to all kinds of trouble. Instead of learning from mistakes, we may double down on them and make a bad situation worse. We’ve all heard the old line that if you’re in a hole, stop digging, but sometimes people do just that – they dig a bigger hole for themselves.


For example, imagine an elderly relative of yours is being scammed by someone. In the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson note that concerned loved ones will naturally plead with their relative in a case like this, basically saying: can’t you see this is a scam? Can’t you see you’re being ripped off, that this guy is a thief?


This kind of lecturing is perfectly natural and understandable, but it’s also a really bad idea. It makes the victim more defensive and more likely to come up with reasons why the scammer isn’t in fact a con artist.


‘Shouting "What were you thinking?" will backfire because it means "Boy, are you stupid”, the authors note. ‘Such accusations cause already embarrassed victims to withdraw further into themselves and clam up, refusing to tell anyone what they are doing.’ Not only that, many elderly people ‘are already worried that they are "losing it" – their competence as well as their money’. Nor will they want to give their grown children grounds for taking control of their finances or other aspects of their lives. Thus, raised voices and lecturing is only likely to make them dig themselves further into the hole they find themselves in.


Any victim of a scam – not just an elderly victim – needs to feel respected and supported if they are to inch back from the precipice, note Tavris and Aronson. In this case, that would mean encouraging the relative to talk about their values and how those values influenced their behaviour. Con artists exploit people’s best qualities – their kindness, politeness, their desire to help out. Praising the victim for having these good values will offset feelings of embarrassment and insecurity. So don’t say, “how could you have believed that creep?”; say, “tell me what appealed to you about the guy that made you believe him”.



People can have a lot invested in their beliefs.

This advice applies to all kinds of situations. For example, say a friend is entertaining what you consider to be wild and dangerous conspiracy theories. Shaming them and telling them they’re being ridiculous or stupid (common responses on social media) won’t help. Instead of being angry or dismissive, try to be calm and empathetic. Try to establish some common ground.


Instead of asserting that they’re wrong because of XYZ, maybe ask them questions that encourage them to question their own beliefs. You might say, “It’s clear you have done lots of research and I agree it’s healthy to be sceptical. Are you equally sceptical towards your own sources? Can you think of evidence against your beliefs?”


Will your friend change their beliefs? Probably not any time soon. However, it’s important to not back people into a corner. It’s important to allow them a way out.


People can have a lot invested in their beliefs. The more committed you are to a belief, the more you will disregard contradictory evidence. The more time and effort you put into a particular belief, the more you become wedded to it.


This is true of everyone, by the way – not just scam victims or conspiracy theorists or political ideologues. Admitting you’re wrong isn’t easy, so we often rationalise obvious mistakes and try to justify the unjustifiable.


Try a different approach. Hold your beliefs lightly and embrace the inevitability of wrongness.


Take the advice of Tavris and Aronson and say to yourself: ‘When I, a decent, smart person, make a mistake, I remain a decent, smart person and the mistake remains a mistake. Now, how do I remedy what I did?’