The United States has reached unprecedented levels of political polarization, and the phenomenon seems to be only getting worse. Whatever bipartisan courtesy that existed in the 20th century seems to have largely evaporated; indeed, polls show that Americans are walking away even from places where they feel their political views are unwelcome.
If the phenomenon of polarization is certainly a problem of society, it can also, at the individual level, reflect a phenomenon of American stubbornness. Individuality is as American as apple pie; and stubbornness may be an attempt to preserve one’s sense of individuality. Granted, few people like to admit defeat or being wrong, but some will go all the way to save their pride. Take, for example, Donald Trump – who is currently in legal jeopardy because his perennial position that he only loses if the winning side cheats resulted in his coup attempt after being defeated by Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.
Although Trump is one of the most notable examples of stubbornness, he is far from the only one. If you’re reading this article, chances are you’ve met at least one annoying and stubborn person in your workplace, home, or circle of friends – or maybe you’re worried about being yourself the stubborn person.
Those who struggle with stubborn people in their lives may be monkeys wondering what is going on psychologically that makes some people act as if admitting they are wrong equals psychic death?
Although most people have some degree of pride and therefore at least initially resist acknowledging error, usually these same people also have the ability to be reasonable and humble out of logic, self-interest, or both. Yet a substantial minority lack even these rudimentary instincts. What ticks the brain of the “never wrong” crowd?
Salon spoke with psychologists and psychiatrists about what goes on in the heads of chronically stubborn people. Notably, experts distinguish between the situationally stubborn and the pathologically stubborn — that is, people who maintain their position to prove that they are “stronger” than their opponents. The nature of this behavior is proof that something unhealthy is going on.
“You are making the correct distinction between ‘normal human stubbornness’ and recalcitrance to an ‘excessive degree’ – or at least what concerns psychiatrists like me, because it is important to distinguish between health and disease” , psychiatrist Dr. Bandy X. Lee explained in an email interview with Salon. “It’s because healthy personality characteristics will be life-affirming no matter where they turn in the wonderful tapestry of human diversity and resilience.”
People who refuse to admit they are wrong beyond the point of reason, on the other hand, engage in maladaptive behavior that hurts them and others. At this point, Lee notes, “it can be defined as pathology.”
“A healthy person has the mental stability and foundation to be able to admit it when one is wrong, and the importance of learning and responding to the truth will usually outweigh any primitive will to have” reason “all the time.”
Dr. Jessica January Behr, a licensed psychologist who practices in New York, detailed the various diagnoses that may explain this type of pathological behavior – in particular, personality disorders tend to be linked to stubbornness.
“When it becomes an immutable trait, it can fall into a diagnosable category,” Behr wrote in Salon. “Individuals who meet criteria for cluster B personality disorders such as NPD, histrionic PD, or antisocial PD may be more likely to display characteristic stubbornness, denial of fault/responsibility, and manipulation of facts for support a fixed belief.”
Of course, people who aren’t certified as mental health practitioners can’t self-diagnose a “never wrong,” and it’s often difficult to convince a stubborn person to settle into the chair of a psychiatrist or therapist for an official diagnosis. That doesn’t mean, however, that everyday people can’t use effective techniques to determine if someone else is pathologically stubborn.
“A healthy person has the mental stability and grounding to be able to admit it when one is wrong, and the importance of learning and responding to the truth will usually outweigh any primitive desire to be ‘right’ all the time,” Lee explained. “It allows you to become resilient, resourceful and responsive to the needs of the situation.” Those who ignore evidence to the contrary and cling to their professed beliefs for emotional reasons will show this through unstable behavior, including reacting with hostility to any outside information that challenges them. They will eventually respond with “stubborn insistence, redoubled efforts and, in extreme cases – for belief is increasingly threatened – with violence”.
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“Being aware of your perceived shortcomings and developing an awareness of their origins can help protect you from using antisocial behaviors.”
From a neurochemical perspective, “the psychological mechanisms behind ‘never wrong’ include a complex web of defensive processes, most commonly the overuse of primary or lower-order defense mechanisms,” Behr added. “Primary defense mechanisms are developed in earlier periods of life and tend to involve denial of reality. The mechanisms most likely to be at play in those who struggle to admit blame are denial, controlling omnipotent, idealization and devaluation, splitting and introjection.”
While all this scientific jargon is intimidating, there’s a simple way to break down its implications.
“The reality of an event or circumstance is so dangerous to the person’s psychic experience that it must be defended to protect the integrity of the individual’s perception of reality,” Behr explained. “Therefore, pre-logical beliefs are held, such as ‘If I don’t recognize it, it’s not real (denial)’ or ‘I can make anything happen by believing in it (omnipotent control)’ or ‘This object (person/idea) that I enjoy could not be fallible (idealization or misinterpretation due to over-identification out of a desire for safety and security with the negative aspects of another – introjection).’
Psychologist Dr Ramani Durvasula added that “impulsivity may also play a role, which relates to executive functioning and an inability to stop stubborn blocking”.
Durvasula added that “stubbornness could be seen as a form of perseverance, again, an executive function in the brain.”
If you know for a fact that you are dealing with an irrationally stubborn person, your situation is not hopeless. According to Dr. David M. Reiss, psychiatrist and expert in mental fitness assessment, the first key step is to manage your expectations, which is to accept that you are not going to convince this person to change their mind. If it were possible, it would have happened already. Instead, you must first anticipate how they are likely to react to your uncomfortable truths, then prepare accordingly.
“Expect the person to be increasingly angry, punitive, hostile when confronted, especially if confronted with objective evidence that they cannot logically deny, but must when even be denied on an emotional level,” Reiss told Salon. At this point, “protect yourself. When possible, disengage and leave the relationship. When disengagement is not possible, set boundaries and boundaries where possible to avoid interactions with the person; and if the interaction is not avoidable, while it can be extremely difficult, avoid emotional engagement as much as possible.”
“Protect yourself. When possible, disengage and leave the relationship. When disengagement is not possible, set boundaries and limits where possible to avoid interactions with the person.”
It is not your responsibility to be, as Durvasula says, “a missionary of opinion”. Instead, to quote Reiss, your priority is to “take stock, check yourself and check with those you trust, to see if you openly or covertly harbor false hopes that there will be a logical or “magical” positive solution to the situation. It is almost always improbable, and very often impossible. Best to hope for damage control.
Finally, if you want to rise above the “never cheated” people in your life, the best way to do that is to practice humility in your business. After all, since no one wants to be wrong, every human being has the ability to act like a “never wrong”.
“This is where mental hygiene matters,” Lee wrote, referring to advice from his 2020 book “Profile of a Nation.” “The advice I regularly give to medical or law students when they are ‘fighting’ disease or advocating for their clients is: ‘In an emergency, check your own pulse first.’ He follows the dictates: “Doctor, get well” and “Know thyself”.
Behr also said that old-fashioned self-awareness and humility have a useful place in keeping us from joining the “never wrong” crowd.
“What can help protect against this is being aware of our limits, our vulnerability and our sensitivities,” Behr wrote to Salon. “For example, if we are ashamed of our competence in a particular area, this may be a place where we may be overly defensive. Being aware of your perceived shortcomings and developing an awareness of their origins can help protect you. against the use of antisocial behavior.”
Finally, as Durvasula added, we can strive to create a society that recognizes the pathologies behind “never bad” behavior – and works hard to not reward them.
“I think it would be great if decision makers understood personality styles like narcissism a little better,” Durvasula wrote to Salon. “The problem with these styles is that their shape shifting, lack of empathy and arrogance can lead to short term success, but in the long term, people like this will sink a company, a country, an organization Just knowing what it is, and stopping rewarding people like that, is a start.”
However, there is a nasty catch, namely that the stubborn too often seem to get ahead in life.
“The problem is that people like that rule the world, so I don’t think they will line up to deny them power, because that means their heads can roll too,” Durvasula adds.
The answer may lie in education and teaching critical thinking, as Durvasula noted.
“At this point the way the world is changing, schedules seem outdated,” she said. “We need to teach kids to think critically about media, leadership, everything, but increasingly we’re using rote tests, rehearsals and standardized tests as assessment. We’re creating a group of people who can’t not understand several positions and develop their mental flexibility.”