Joseph Cramer, M.D.: Being right doesn't make us mighty — only correct

Published: Monday, Jan. 13 2014 7:18 p.m. MST

People, nations and bullies are not right because of might. Neither are they mighty solely because they are right; they are only correct.

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"Might makes right" is the creed of schoolyard bullies.

However, what about "right makes might"? The medieval Christians crusading under the sign of the cross got it wrong. They assumed their supposedly righteous cause would be victorious. Their fantasies of might did not compensate for overextended supply lines and inferior numbers fighting against superior generalship.

Modern nations often fool themselves into thinking their military arsenals are manifestations of their rightness. Think past and present. However, this article is not geopolitical, but personal.

Believing we are right imbues us with the sensation of might. It’s a brain buzz. You "win" if you clarify the color of the dress was Carolina blue and not Duke blue. Winning is surviving. Just as jets eject flares to confuse heat-seeking missiles, know-it-alls protect themselves by spewing forth corrections.

Knowing facts and figures is only the tiniest part of the equation of right makes might. The right that is mightier than mere information is correctness. Correctness is both being right and informing others of their mistakes. Correctness is all about us. It is being right and letting the world know it.

Blame it on the brain. For self-preservation, our intellect goes out of its way to be selective on details and arguments so we will feel we are correct even when we are wrong. Our mind, filled with emotions, will filter what it wants based on sensations, not science.

Being correct is especially important if a person’s emotions whisper repeated doubts or fears. If negatively energized with self-criticism, our neurons neutralize the doubt with the might of being correct. We amplify to support our side and dismiss those pesky details that say otherwise. It is a mental process called confirmatory and non-confirmatory bias. It happens even if we are not looking.

Politics is the prime example, but it happens everywhere. In medicine, we can grab on to a diagnosis and then build a case of evidence confirming our bias, dismissing contrary observations. The lab was wrong, not the doctor. The blood pressure wasn’t high; the nurse didn’t take it right.

Feeling-fueled biases are quicker than worded thought. Their speed comes from their housing in primitive limbic cells dedicated to survival. That is why we unconsciously pick and choose our reality to match our point of view in conversations of high intensity. We confirm our prejudices. Being right, we have might.

Think how many times in our lives being right was more important than breathing. My mother would say, “It is better to be right than president.” To be correct makes us feel mightier than the commander-in-chief with the nuclear football. To be in charge is not to impart truth, but to silence the unvoiced issues of our self-worth. Statistics become the musical instrument that plays a thousand songs. Facts, if any, are merely window dressing.

Many times, people are completely unaware of their practice of correctness. They have worked so hard to cover up their weakness that any pulling back of the curtain is like the painful ripping off of tape covering a wound. When approached, they are offended if one informs them of their insecurity. How can I be so insecure if I know so much, they ask. The unrecognized, insatiable appetite to be correct is assumed to be merely providing a helping hand to the confused or ill-informed. They are detail-oriented people who are burdened by the sloppy folks who somehow can’t get it right.

If right makes might, then in turn, might gives rights. A person is right; that bestows upon them the right to criticize. He or she has the right to inform others. Yes, a person may be correct to be impatient. However, the need to broadcast one's discontent with others is no more than the brain's feeling the need to be mighty.

People, nations and bullies are not right because of might. Neither are they mighty solely because they are right; they are only correct.

Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician, fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing physician for 30 years and a hospitalist at Primary Children's Hospital and the University of Utah. Email: jgcramermd@yahoo.com

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