People often care more about proving they’re right or doing something they’re entitled to do than they care about doing the most optimal thing they can do in a situation.
This problematic mindset can cause many issues, such as unnecessary 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 or right
In order to understand the difference between being smart and being right, it’s first necessary to understand what each of these terms means 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 so will help avoid an unnecessary argument, and will also make them more likely to internalize their mistake.
- Being right means doing something mainly because it proves that you’re right 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 willing to internalize their mistake.
As such, the difference between being smart and being right is that being smart involves doing the best thing you can do in a situation, whereas being right involves doing something mainly because it proves that you’re right 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 thing that’s right from a moral perspective. It can even involve immoral behavior (e.g., saying something that causes unnecessary harm to others).
- Being “smart” is about choosing what you think is the best course of action. It doesn’t mean that this 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.
Finally, note that in some cases, the smart thing to do is to be right, so these two priorities aren’t mutually exclusive. For example, in a debate, the smart thing might be to prioritize showing the audience that you’re right, if that’s the best way to convince them to support your stance and if convincing them of that is your goal.
Note: The principle that it’s better to be smart than to be right, as presented here, comes from a related Hebrew proverb.
Examples of being smart rather than right
The following examples demonstrate situations where it’s better to be smart than right:
- If someone makes a small grammatical mistake 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 to not tell them that it’s a placebo.
- If someone is saying nonsense on a forum, it’s often better to ignore them than to 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 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 for you, its key advantage is that it will generally help you achieve your goals. These goals can involve various things, such as 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, such as learning to think through situations rather than acting 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 actions 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 prioritizing being right over being smart, so you shouldn’t dismiss the importance of this by saying things such as “if people don’t like what I said then that’s their problem”.
- Being right is often easier than being smart, and is often driven by issues such as insecurity or ego; by being smart you’re demonstrating your ability to think through situations and exert self-control.
- It often helps to create some psychological self-distance, for example by considering what advice you would give to a friend if they were in your situation.
Finally, note that all this doesn’t mean that you should never 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 on the desire to be right.
Summary and conclusions
- Being smart involves doing the best thing you can do in a situation, whereas being right involves doing something mainly because it proves that you’re right 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, while being right could involve simply saying “I told you so”.
- There are various potential advantages to being smart rather than right, including achieving 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 should never 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.