People often care more about proving that they’re right or doing something just because they’re entitled to do it, than they do about doing the most optimal thing that they can. For example, this can happen when someone points out a trivial mistake that their partner made during a discussion, even though doing so doesn’t have any benefits and only antagonizes their partner.
This problematic mindset can cause many issues, such as less effective communication and increased interpersonal conflicts, so it’s important to understand it and how it can be avoided. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the difference between being smart and being right, and see how you can use this knowledge in practice.
Difference between being smart and right
To understand the difference between being smart and being right, it’s first necessary to understand what these terms mean in the present context:
- Being smart means doing the optimal thing (i.e., what you think will lead to the best outcome). For example, if your partner made a mistake, being smart might involve helping them without pointing out the mistake (even if you want to), because you know that doing this will help avoid an unnecessary argument, and will make them more likely to internalize their mistake.
- Being right means doing something because it proves that you’re correct or because you’re entitled to do it. For example, if your partner made a mistake, being right might involve telling them “I told you so”, even though you know that this will just cause an unnecessary argument, and will also make them less likely to internalize their mistake.
Accordingly, the difference between being smart and being right in the present context is that being smart involves doing the best thing you can do in a situation, whereas being right involves doing something because it proves that you’re correct or because you’re entitled to do it.
The following are important caveats about this:
- Being “right” in this context isn’t about doing the right thing from a moral perspective. It can even involve immoral behavior (e.g., saying something that causes unnecessary harm to others, just because it proves that you’re right).
- Being “smart” is about choosing what you think is the best course of action. It doesn’t mean that what you chose to do was necessarily the best course of action available to you.
- What constitutes the best course of action when being “smart” depends on factors such as your goals and values. For example, you might decide that the best thing to do is help someone else at a great cost to yourself, because that’s what allows you to abide by your moral values (e.g., the golden rule).
- Being smart can involve showing that you’re right. For example, in a debate, the smart thing might be to show the audience that you’re right, if that’s the best way to convince them to support your stance. The question is why you’re showing that you’re right, and specifically whether it’s because you believe that this will lead to an optimal outcome (i.e., because you prioritize being smart), or because you want to prove that you’re correct (i.e., because you prioritize being right).
- Being smart can involve finding the best way to show that you’re right. For example, being smart could involve pointing out someone’s mistake so they can learn from it, while prioritizing doing so in a way that helps them learn, rather than in a way that makes you feel better about proving you were right. Essentially, being smart isn’t only about what you do, but also about how you do it.
Note: The adage that it’s better to be smart than to be right can also be formulated as the more concise it’s better to be smart than right, or as don’t be right; be smart. It’s a literal translation of a Hebrew proverb, which is formulated in similar ways (“עדיף להיות חכם מלהיות צודק” and “אל תהיה צודק; תהיה חכם”).
Examples of being smart rather than right
The following examples demonstrate situations where people can benefit from focusing on being smart rather than being right:
- If someone makes a small grammatical error while expressing a highly emotional sentiment (e.g., pain that they’re experiencing), it’s generally better to ignore the mistake than to point it out.
- If someone benefits from a harmless placebo because they’re unaware that it’s a placebo, it’s generally better not to tell them that it’s a placebo, so that they can keep benefiting from it.
- If someone is saying nonsense on a forum, it’s generally better to ignore them rather than get dragged into a pointless argument.
- If you’re an activist who’s trying to convince people of something, it’s generally better to present your stance in a way that encourages them to listen, rather than in a way that antagonizes them and causes them to ignore you.
- If you’re about to cross a road, it’s generally better to check for traffic even if you have the right of way, to reduce the risk of your injury or death.
Why it’s better to be smart than right
Since being smart is about doing what you think will lead to the best outcome, its key advantage is that it will generally help you achieve your goals. These goals can include, for example, being more persuasive, having better interpersonal relationships, and conserving valuable resources (e.g., time and effort) by picking your battles.
Furthermore, being smart can often have indirect benefits. For example, this can include learning to think through situations rather than act on impulse, learning to exert self-control by picking the optimal—rather than easier—course of action, and making others perceive you as more competent.
How to make sure you’re being smart
The key to making sure that you’re being smart is to ask yourself: “Is this the best thing I can do right now?” before or while taking action. If you realize that your actions aren’t the best available ones—in the sense that there are alternatives that are likely to lead to a better outcome—then you should change your behavior accordingly.
When considering this question, it can help to explicitly identify the available actions and their associated outcomes, and to consider how these outcomes align with your general goals.
In addition, if you struggle to prioritize being smart over being right, the following are some things you can keep in mind:
- Just because you can do something or are entitled to do it doesn’t mean that you should.
- You’re often the one who will suffer most from not prioritizing being smart over being right.
- The desire to be right is often driven by issues such as insecurity or ego; being smart is often harder, and requires you to think carefully through situations and exert self-control.
- When deciding what to do, it can help to create psychological self-distance, for example by considering what advice you would give to a friend if they were in your situation.
Finally, all this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about being right. Rather, it means that you should act in a way that’s expected to lead to the best possible outcomes—as determined based on your priorities—rather than based primarily on the desire to be right.
Summary and conclusions
- In the present context, being smart involves doing the best thing you can do in a situation, whereas being right involves doing something because it proves that you’re correct or because you’re entitled to do it.
- For example, if your partner made a mistake, being smart could involve helping them cope with their mistake in a manner that will encourage them to internalize it, whereas being right could involve just unnecessarily saying “I told you so”.
- There are various potential advantages to being smart rather than right, including being able to achieve your goals, being more persuasive, having better interpersonal relationships, and learning to think through situations rather than act on impulse.
- The key to making sure that you’re being smart is to ask yourself: “Is this the best thing I can do right now?” before or while taking action.
- This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t care about being right, but rather that you should act in a way that’s expected to lead to the best possible outcomes, as determined based on your priorities.