Why Hillary Clinton Was (Psychologically) Right Not to Admit She Was Wrong

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Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Yesterday’s "Fresh Air" got as close as NPR will ever get to a cable-news-style clash, when Terry Gross repeatedly asked guest Hillary Clinton whether her views on gay marriage had evolved since the early 1990s. Gross never really got a straight answer out of Clinton, who, essentially, was refusing to admit when she'd changed her mind and decided her opinion on gay marriage back in the '90s was wrong. The thing is, Clinton may have had the right idea, psychologically speaking. Digging in and refusing to admit an error in judgment feels pretty great, recent research suggests.  

Your parents probably told you that you’d feel better when you owned up to your mistakes; conventional wisdom holds that admitting when you were wrong will relieve your guilty conscience and clear the air. And that’s still true — but an Australian study published last summer found that when people refused to admit that they were wrong, they reaped more psychological benefits than those who copped to their errors. This study found, via self-reported surveys of more than 200 Americans, that when people refused to admit wrongdoing, they felt greater self-esteem and more in control than those who did apologize.  

Scientific American covered the research last year and offered this as an explanation for these findings:

No one wants to admit to being a hypocrite. Inherent in an apology is the admission that one's behavior failed to align with personal values and morals, as people generally don't apologize for actions they believe are right and just. Thus when we admit that we are wrong, we expose the fact that we may talk the talk, but we do not walk the walk. By refusing to apologize, we deny any incongruity between belief and action, thus preserving a sense of authenticity and self-worth. 

Constantly refusing to admit responsibility for stuff you screwed up is probably not a great way to go about life, of course. And the study’s lead researcher, Tyler G. Okimoto of the University of Queensland, told NPR last year that he thinks his results are more about finding ways to make people feel safer, and less threatened, about apologizing. Still, the research suggests some hidden psychological wisdom to a recently popularized phrase; as they say on the internet, Sorry I’m not sorry!