Ummm Ackchyually... What drives people to nitpick when they're wrong?

What makes people nitpick? In particular, what makes people do the Ummmm… Ackchyually… thing when they are objectively wrong, operating on a false assumption, or just mistaken about what they’re looking at?

I’m not talking about the sort of nitpick where someone volunteers some nerdy detail that, whilst probably irelevant, is at least correct; neither when someone nitpicks on some topic where the whole thing is probably somewhat debatable anyway (psychology, philosophy, matters of personal taste etc). I’m talking about when someone nitpicks, and they’re just plain wrong.

For example; someone told me the other day that I shouldn’t feed my dog anything containing peas, because peas are fatally toxic to dogs.
No, they simply are not. Peas are an ingredient in some commercial dog foods.

Or all of the ‘corrections’ I get about how I pronounce words such as Basil, Oregano, or how I spell ‘sceptical’ or ‘cheque’.

What makes people simultaneously objectively wrong, yet confident enough to administer a ‘correction’ type nitpick?

I’m assuming these people don’t know they are objectively wrong. So their motivations are probably the same as those who are objectively correct.

Correct. My wife annoys me when she treats my “being mistaken” as a moral failing, when it’s simply being mistaken. If I continue to stubbornly insist I’m right after she shows me good evidence I’m wrong, okay, that’s rude of me — but usually I’ll admit I was wrong, yet she’ll still spend a few more minutes haranguing me, as if mere error were a personality disorder rather than an inevitable part of being human.

But… but… I can’t possibly be wrong! I know in my heart I’m right. I just need you to see it. Because being wrong is a weakness, and I’m not weak - you are!

Or something like that?

For some people (and I used to be and sometimes still am among them, though I’m trying, folks, I’m trying every day) a certain amount of social status and personal identity is bound up in hte ability to be “right” about stuff - to be the person who Knows Most, or who knows the Right Way.

A good example of this is the myth about the distinction between the flag of the UK being the Union Jack or the Union Flag. Some people are very keen to tell you that it’s only the Jack when it’s on a ship, and a Flag when it’s on land. This is not true, but it’s widely believed. This blog has a good account of one interview with a genuine vexillologist who patiently debunks the myth, to no avail. But it’s also a good account of the motivations of the people who really, really want the myth to be true.

Towards the end of the programmes, O’Connell put a few listeners’ points to Bartram, including this one:

We need to know the difference between the Union Flag and the Jack because it’s useful to know how knowledgeable someone is to get an idea of whether they know what they’re talking about.

…this is the purest expression I’ve ever seen of pedantry as social ideology: that observance of fiddly little so-called rules is a marker of status.

If you know a “rule” or a “fact” then you can use it to show that you are Right and therefore Better than people who don’t know it and are therefore Wrong and Worse.

The second half of this - why do people do it when they’re objectively wrong - is that being right is hard work. In an ideal world, if we read that e.g. peas are harmful to dogs, we’d all go away and do further research or ask a vet or in some way corroborate this before we went around repeating it. Similarly, the vexilloligist in the interview above had actually gone through the royal proclamations concerning the flag from James VI & I onward and identified that the terms Flag and Jack were used interchangeably with no correlation between land and sea use, and then had traced back the origin of the rule to some Victorians who literally just made it up.

But that’s a lot of work! Some of it quite specialised. We can’t do it for every “fact” or “rule” we come across. Or we could but we’re too lazy. So if you’re the kind of person who likes Being Right then it’s far, far easier to swallow the first authoritative claim you find and latch on to it like a needy limpet and use it as social ammunition henceforward without actually checking.

Another factor is that people who like Being Right are very good at sounding authoritative and learned so when they go around saying “Oh, you absolutely mustn’t give peas to dogs” or “I think you’ll find it’s only called the Union Jack on a ship, actually” lots of people a) believe them and b) accept that it’s a Very Important bit of knowledge, so the habit tends to spread. Using pedantry to earn social status works! Or works enough to replicate itself, anyhow.

I’m very disappointed six posts in to discover that so far no one has begun with “Nitpick:”

Perhaps the causality is the other way around: it’s not that people who are wrong about things like correcting others despite being objectively wrong, but that people who have a tendency to grandstandingly correct others are frequently wrong about things because of that tendency. So it’s not that the know-nothing believes themselves to be a font of wisdom they need to graciously impart unto others, but that people in the habit of correcting others (for whatever reason—social status etc.) are themselves somewhat immune to being corrected.

There’s something like a paradox of confidence at play, here—many of those who have, say, honed their craft to a high degree are nevertheless terribly insecure about the value of their output, and of themselves, while others who produce nothing of note seem to think themselves the center of the world. But it might be that it’s really that insecurity that caused the first group to continually second-guess, criticize, and improve themselves, while the comparative lack thereof led to the talents of those in the latter remaining undeveloped. You don’t have to work on yourself if you already think you’re the bee’s knees.

That’s an interesting possibility - sort of ‘I speak; I don’t listen, duh!’

True, but given that objective right and wrong exists on the topic, wouldn’t you check yourself before going out on a limb to correct a complete stranger?

(This is the point where I realise I have very probably failed to do such checking myself in the past)

Actually, many times they do. LOL The nitpicking represents their effort to muddy the waters and convince you that their position is actually a correct one. It’s much like a defense lawyer who, because he has an obviously guilty client, tries to find issues that can distract the jury from that one salient fact.

I submit the O.J. Simpson trial as a classic example. He was guilty as hell but, because the L.A. police and prosecution did such a bad job, he got off despite that fact.

Some of these nitpicks are so common that they’re repeated by authority figures like schoolteachers, which just reinforces them even more. I’m thinking of my elementary school music teacher, who handed out little flags during a unit on patriotic music, but only after warning us, with the grave tone of a woman who had seen death itself, that if any of the flags were dropped onto the (perfectly clean) floor, she would be obligated to take them home and burn them that very day. She had been teaching at that point for 30+ years, and on the school alumni Facebook page I’ve seen mentions of her giving that same speech decades earlier, so there must have been thousands of children who were visited by the Ghost of Flag Day Future in the service of a rule that doesn’t appear in the (non-binding) Flag Code and is thoroughly rejected by organizations like the American Legion.


And there are two r’s in irrelevant.

Ackchyually, everyone knows that’s not the correct way to start a declarative sentence.

And five in “irrelevant correction, you wanker,” the first two words of which I teach to my own children and my “gifted” students alike.

There are times corrections are important. Maybe you’re genuinely unclear on what someone is trying to say. Maybe they’re writing a formal piece and have asked you to proofread. But far more common are the irrelevant corrections, like yours (except you were joking, so no worries), or like the person who makes some claim about the Union Jack–a claim which, even if it were accurate, would be completely beside the point in nearly every conversation.

I’m rereading the spectacular kid’s book Sal and Gabi Break the Universe with a fifth grade class, and there’s a quote in there, one smart kid talking about another:

This is a lesson that a lot of folks who identify as smart never learn. I plan to steer the discussion real heavily toward this quote when it comes up in book club.

I play City of Heroes, and when a raid is forming and we’re waiting for it to fill, I’ll tell Dad jokes in the chat window. I absolutely loathe the nitpickers who don’t understand why jokes are absurd. For example, if I post something like “You know why the Australian didn’t use his new boomerang? He couldn’t throw his old one away.” Inevitably, some spudhead will comment “Why couldn’t he just put it in the trash?”

This. The person who said “Don’t feed peas to your dog.” though she was doing the same as someone saying “Don’t feed chocolate to your dog!”. Would you categorize the latter as “nitpicking”?

What I think could be going in is that people who are less prone to check their own knowledge will simply have more wrong knowledge available to nitpick, so the group that is both nitpicky and never check their knowledge stands out.

I know I have. How many of the things we know would we say we have two independent sources for? Or that we’ve gone back to the primary source and checked?

Classically, if you read something in the news on a topic you know, you’ll spot some basic errors - but that doesn’t stop us taking the rest of the news at face value. If we were rigorous we’d do it for everything but that would be impossible so some things you have to take on trust. And when trusted sources - press, teachers, parents, QI* - repeat myths we will tend to believe them.

(Failing to google successfully but I’ve seen quite a few instances of the QI twitter feed getting corrected by experts for some pretty gross errors - funny, considering the point of the show is very much Ummm Ackchyually).

Why limit our discussion to nitpicking? There are plenty of ready examples of people who feel the need to be “authoritative” but are in fact factually incorrect. I would submit that often these folks get positive reinforcement for being authoritative (even when incorrect) so they continue along that path. (I’m really trying not to point to recent prominent examples.)

Summed up: the medium (authoritative speech) is the message (I am an authority). The factual details are less relevant.

The common names of herbs should not be capitalized. You spell “cheque” correctly (Americans have been spelling things wrong for 200 years just to piss off the British) but “skeptical” is spelled with a “k” by all sensible people who don’t ackchyually live in the Greenwich Mean Time zone. I have lots more objectively correct information if you want it. And even if you don’t.