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Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. Psychologist (1950-2013)
California License No. PSY 10092
 
Specializing in Presence-Centered Therapy
balancing mind and heart, body and spirit

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Stuck Right, Rich Right and Dead Right—No Thank You!

Recognizing and Resolving the Right-Wrong Game

© 2011 by Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
 

"Everything you know is wrong."
—The Firesign Theatre

"I see no error made which I might not have committed myself."
—Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

"God spare me from the man who thinks he's right!" my father Mark was known to exclaim in exasperation. If you have ever dealt with a right man or woman, you know just how infuriating, unrewarding, distasteful and ultimately futile these interactions can be, since such a person is unmovable in their unshakable rightness. Taking the position of having to be right is often unproductive, socially alienating and emotionally upsetting.

Consider the Right-Wrong Game as an interpersonal transaction or social game played by two or more people acting out an ageless morality play. In this behavioral pattern one person declares and insists that his feelings, thoughts, viewpoint or actions are justified, reasonable and "right." In the face of such a positional stance, the other person has really only two options in the game: (1) fully join the right person in his or her position and be right together; or (2) deviate, even in a small way, from the right person's position and be judged and treated as unjustified, unreasonable and clearly "wrong."

Deconstructing the game, that is, pulling apart the game's roles, motives and possible roots, can reveal strategies to resolve and dissolve it. The player declaring himself right appears to be highly invested and attached to his position, and speaks and acts if he is, in point of fact, right. A variation on this role is the player who declares himself not wrong and is insistent about this position of not being wrong. Some even think being wrong can help them win, and actively support and defend this position!

Typically, the very act of digging into a position sets up or invites polarization. The other party may become emotionally put-off by being told what is right and wrong, and then take an opposite position in the name of independence, freedom and individuality. Demanding conformity usually prompts either (1) compliance or conformity, with building resentment; or (2) rebellion, oppositionality and revenge.

Speaking the moral language of the person playing the right-wrong game, ancient Roman Marc Aurel once stated, "It's better to limp slowly along the right path than walk stridently in the wrong direction." The player declaring himself right (or not wrong or wrong) usually believes and acts as if the issue at stake is a moral one, that is, one regarding right and wrong conduct. Ultimately moral issues are ones involving life and death, such as abortion, harm, the death penalty as well as good and evil, or at the least, issues of doing good and doing harm. There are only a very limited number of topics in human behavior that can legitimately be categorized as truly moral issues.

Interestingly, whether having to be right or avoid being wrong, it usually doesn't matter what the actual issue or matter concerns! Having to be right is a sure sign of fanaticism, as both Eric Hoffer 1 and Larry Dossey 2 have eloquently described. It's the form, not the content, that is crucial and worth noticing. If someone has solid backup in support of his or her viewpoint, then there would be no pressing need to be so entrenched and self-righteous about it. With such solid, secure and reasonable folks, the evidence gets laid out and the one listening can do what they will with it, all without having to take a position for or against. Clearly right-wrong game behavior only communicates the opposite of security, health, functionality, self-comfort and wholesome self worth.

I suggest that an overwhelming majority of humankind worldwide are active players in the Right-Wrong Game. One could well wonder how early and deeply these players felt the effects of shame, blame, guilt and cruel behavior by seemingly being made wrong by key authority figures behaving in such a black and white, right and wrong fashion. There is nothing quite like being made wrong, wrong, wrong to motivate someone to want to reverse roles and be right, right, right or, at least, no longer wrong. Who acting the role of a one-down bottom dog doesn't want to be the one-up top dog?

Here are three short stories that expose important dynamics of the Right-Wrong Game by portraying stuck right, rich right and dead right. Each tale also ushers in critical lessons in designing a way out of the game.

Social worker and author Lee Wallis' story "The Little Centipede Who Didn't Know How to Walk", from her book Stories for the Third Ear, is a striking example of stuck right. To be clear, this example is not related to people who become frozen and immobilized in the face of overwhelming circumstances and experience trauma. This example purely points to people who get stuck inside of procrastination, indecisiveness and over-analysis (sometimes called "analysis paralysis").

Stuck Right—The Little Centipede Who Didn't Know How to Walk 3

Once upon a time, there was a little centipede who got separated from his parents.

And he was separated when he was so young that the poor little centipede had not yet had time to learn to walk. He was in a terrible, terrible predicament trying to teach all of his hundred legs to work together so that he could walk. And he had been trying for a very long time but somehow when his front legs would go in one direction, his middle ones would go in another, and his hind legs would go yet in a third, fourth and sometimes even in a sixth direction, until finally he would just crumble into a little ball of despair wondering how on earth he was ever going to get to bed because he was so tired and his bed was all the way across the room-a long room that, measured in centipede size, looked like a hundred miles long.

And so for the hundredth time, he stood up and looked down at his two rows of feet and said, "Now, feet, you listen to me! First, the right side will move forward and STOP, and then the left side will move forward and STOP."

And both sides said, "No, that's not how it goes. It's 'Right and Wrong,' 'Right and Wrong.' And you say, 'Right and left,' and that isn't it. I don't want to be left and I don't want to be wrong. I want to be right."

And the centipede said, "OH, NO, NOT AGAIN. I've explained that to you a HUNDRED TIMES." It seems that everything that the little centipede did was measured by the number of feet he had."So, now, for the hundredth time, I want the LEFT side. . . "

"No," said the left side, "that's the wrong side."

"Oh!" said the centipede in exasperation. "All right, then, RIGHT SIDE, FORWARD MARCH, and STOP." So one side went forward and then he said, "Now, left side. . . "

"No," they said. "When will you learn? It's not that. It's 'Right and Wrong."

Everybody knows it's 'Right and Wrong.' And we're not wrong. We're Right. So you just call us 'Right' and then we'll move."

"Oh," said the centipede, "this is impossible. How am I ever going to learn to walk when these stupid feet keep mixing me up with RIGHT AND LEFT and RIGHT AND WRONG until I don't know myself WHAT IS RIGHT FROM WRONG." "Oh," he said, "even I am doing it now."

And while he was sitting down, with all hundred feet splayed out around him like a fringe, he heard a voice from above him. He looked up and there he saw a big old wise spider. And the spider said, "What's the trouble, little fellow?" And the centipede explained that his stupid feet wanted to fight about right and wrong, and would not move right and left feet in turn, and that no amount of explaining would get it through their stupid feet…heads…feet…feet…yes, that's right, feet.

And the spider began to laugh, and he said, "You know, I understand. I have only six feet, but I remember that when I was little, it was very hard for me to sort out which foot ought to go first, and which foot ought to go next, and what was the order in which they needed to go."

"Oh," said the centipede, "perhaps that will help." So he said, "Okay, everybody, stand up." And so they all stood up. "Now," he said, "right proceed forward, left. . . "

"Oh, no," said the left. "Wrong."

He said, "No, left."

They said, "No, wrong. What's right is that we want to be right. We don't want to be left. We can't be left behind. It would be stupid for you to just go forward. You would JUST TURN AROUND IN A CIRCLE. Did you ever think of that?
 

[Interlude: This scene in a microcosm is the essence of being "stuck right." Frustration, anger and exacerbation on the one side, and sad hurt, depression and resignation on the other side, are characteristic of continuing in such a vicious cycle without any seeming end. Read on for a ingeniously simple, clever and effective way though this conundrum.]

And he centipede looked in despair at the spider, and the spider was laughing and shaking his sides. "Oh, I see what the trouble is. They have mixed up HOW TO GO with what is RIGHT AND WRONG, and IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH RIGHT AND WRONG. It has only to do with going first one side then the other, one side then the other, and then they make a team. And then they go in the same direction, all together, and join in the same effort. And when they understand that, then they'll be ABLE TO PROCEED."

So the little centipede said, "But how can I ever make them understand that? You know they absolutely insist that it's what it should be or it shouldn't be, and that right and wrong is what is at issue, and I explained that it's right and left. . . "

"NO, no," said the left side, "no, no, we don't want to get left, that's the whole point. You have misunderstood us again. We are not going to get left. We want to go right with all the others. Right on, with them."

"Oh," the centipede groaned, "you hear?"

And the spider said, "Well, look, let me show you." And so he got up in front, and looked over his spider shoulder, and he said to the centipede, "Okay, now you over here, and he pointed with one of his right legs, "move forward, one, two, three, right?"

The others said, "RIGHT!"

And he looked on the other side, and he said, "Now, you over here," and he pointed to the left, "you move forward, one, two, three, right?"

They said, "Yes! Now that's it."

He said, "So, good. You're both right. Right, right. Right, right. Forward march. Right, right, GOOD. No one gets left. Everyone's right. Good."

And before he knew it, the little centipede had reached his bed, and he turned, and he said," Thank you very much, sir. That was very helpful, and I'll remember that all I need to remember is that all my feet are RIGHT, then NO ONE can be WRONG, and everyone will do what's RIGHT."

And the spider looked at him and winked and said, "Right!"

*

Lee Wallis depicts a young little centipede that had been separated from his parents at such a young age that he hadn't yet learned how to walk. When he did attempt walking, he kept referring to his right and left sides in aiming to move forward. The right set of legs cooperated just fine, yet his left set of legs wouldn't budge because they wanted to be right as well. The centipede repeated collapsed in frustrating despair of ever getting to its bed way across the room. At long last, it took a kind spider to point out how his two sets of legs had confused the practical matter of how to go ahead with right and wrong. Once the spider helped his two sets of legs alternate in unison, both being right, neither is left and neither is wrong, then they could move forward together. They did proceed forward together and the little centipede did get to his bed and finally rest.

To stubbornly insist on being right and angrily react to being left or wrong is to remain stuck, immobilized and frozen right. No one wants to be left or wrong, and most of us strongly resist this. At the same time, we do appreciate anyone who can help us work together as a constructive team. Then we're able to proceed forward.
 

Rich Right—It's My Gold!

A miner had been searching for gold for many a year. Every time it appeared within his reach, it turned out to be fool's gold or a false strike. One day he discovered the 'genuine article' in the form of finding the mother lode! He mined it for all it was worth and packed the precious gold nuggets and powder onto his donkey. The poor animal was so burdened with this load it had difficulty moving. The miner set off with his fully loaded donkey to file his claim. Coming to a bridge over a fast rushing river, the donkey lost his balance, fell into the river and was pulled to the bottom with its heavy load of gold. The miner cried, "It's my gold! It's mine, mine, all mine!" and jumped in after his treasure, knowing he was rich and right in doing this. Unfortunately, both died. He surely was right though—rich right!—and paid dearly with his very life.

*

Attachments to things leads to their loss as surely as holding anything tightly suffocates and kills what you hold. Going down with your treasure ends up being beyond simply self-defeating or even self-punishing; it is self-sacrificing, and ultimately sterile.
 

Dead Right—The VW Bug Meets the Double-Hitched Mack Truck

It was 5:34 AM on a weekday in the Mid-west not far from St. Louis, Missouri. At that moment an accountant was moving his ancient, well-maintained VW bug up the on-ramp of the interstate freeway, heading to his work in the city. Just the week before he had taken and passed the driver's test to renew his driver's license, so he knew that he had the right of way. It had plainly said so in black and white in the little booklet he had read before taking the exam. The total weight of his vehicle was about 2600 pounds.

At that same moment, on the same interstate freeway, a trucker driving a fully loaded double-hitch Mach truck was hightailing it in the slow lane, also headed to the city. He was dirt tired, bone weary, and in no mood for any surprises or anything unusual. According to one set of books he had been on the road for 7 hours. According to another set of books he had been on the road for 13 hours. All he had on his mind was a hot meal and about 12 hours of shut-eye. The total weight of his vehicle was about 120,000 pounds.

Seeing the VW bug press hard to get on the freeway, the trucker acted quickly. He would have moved over a lane, but with the growing traffic it was just not realistically possible. So he blew on his booming horn, several times. He flashed on his lights, even his brights, several times. None of these maneuvers seemed to dissuade the accountant from exercising his driving rights, which he knew he was within his rights to exercise.

The trucker refused to downshift ten or twelve gears and knew it was extremely dangerous to slow down so fast because of "this imbecile," as he yelled out. So the trucker, having done all he could do, simply set his jaw and thought, "All right, come on if you dare!"

It was only a small tap on the left front quarter panel of the VW bug, but it was enough to send the bug careening through the guardrail and over the unusually hilly terrain. Anyone within earshot would have distinctly heard the accountant's voice scream out, "BUT, I WAS RIGHT!!!," as he plummeted to his fiery demise. He was-DEAD RIGHT!

The trucker rolled down the window, spat out it and loudly cursed. He radioed in the accident over his truck's short wave, and filled out some paperwork at the local police station detailing what had happened. Getting into St. Louis, he had his longed-for meal. Shaking his head, he checked into the local motel and slept like a baby for over 12 hours.

What does it take to face and work with the world and human nature on some days? With any practical horse sense and from any perspective it's clear that the right-of-way is creatively constructed daily on the roadway of life. Anyone who values self-preservation knows that in driving a car, trucks or really any vehicle always have the right-of-way, whether it is legal, right, or in the little driver's booklet or not.

*

Before proceeding to solutions, it is worth noticing another variation on the right-wrong game: the superior-inferior game. Sometimes this is called operating by a double standard, one for the privileged party and another for the less privileged party. There are the two roles of superior one and inferior one. The superior one, or rule setter, acts and speaks as if granted special privileges in their kingdom within which they have the power, liberty and control to do just as they please, without any responsibility, unwanted costs or consequences. The inferior one, or rule follower, is expected to faithfully, loyally and even gratefully accept being less than, acting self-sacrificial, be long suffering through toiling in obscurity and taking the lion's share of responsibilities in this game.

The form of the superior-inferior game is for each to play their roles. The superior one often uses all forms of manipulation, including coercion, bulling, intimidation and guilt, to keep their entitled station, status and rewards. Of course, this is but another provocative set-up for the inferior one to react with resentment, despair and bitterness, along with passive-aggressive, rebellious, and revengeful behavior.

All evaluations between people, like the right-wrong game and its variation the superior-inferior game, share the irrational idea that comparing different people is a valid means of evaluation. Since the only valid basis for comparison is you with you, and even then only in the very recent past, all others between people are purely false comparisons.

It is worth noticing what is unworkable in always having to be right or superior, or avoid being wrong or inferior. The costs are high indeed. Having to maintain any of these positions is exhausting. Spending a majority of your energy on having to justify, defend and explain any of these positional roles will block the gathering of new information and perspectives. Taking such positions is usually shortsighted, out-of-date, and enmeshed in the old. This further blocks any openness to creativity and new, innovative ideas. Others that could become friends, allies and supporters won't because they become irritated, put-off, and alienated from conflict with you. Others may think, "I like him, but it just isn't worth the headache!" The loss is enormous for both parties.

The opportunities for health in resolving both of these games includes releasing attachments to the roles, seeing through to people's true intentions and real desires to be able to proceed, and refocusing upon what is workable for all concerned. Four uncommon strategies serve as transformative remedies: (1) focus on all-win, workable cooperation; (2) be and act in a non-positional way; (3) speak non-judgmental, non-moralistic, responsible language; and (4) know that everyone is number one and worth treating like royalty. One means to begin transforming the Right-Wrong Game is to refocus attention on all-win, workable cooperation, instead of getting drawn into a win-lose interaction.

Destructive wars, unending conflicts and unproductive arguments appear to be win-lose interactions, which has its roots in a mentality that goes back at least as far as the philosopher Aristotle. Actually, all win-lose interactions are actually slightly disguised or camouflaged lose-lose situations. Even the so-called winner loses in terms of the costs in money, lives, disruption of economics, and lost opportunities, as is seen in any battle, war, argument, grudge match or fight. There's little opening to being hooked into the game when you keep your vision and commitment on what functions for the good of everyone.

Either/or thinking pervades not only right-wrong thinking, but also a broad swath of unworkable thinking and behaving. It's can be called dichotomous, all-or-nothing, black or white, we versus they, 'my way or the highway' thinking. Author Alfie Kohn distinguishes several forms of this thinking in the context of competition, specifically structural competition (the win/loss framework) and intentional competition (the internal motive to be number one). 4

With structural competition the participants' fates are negatively linked, when one wins the other must lose. This format has been studied in the field of psychology as a "zero-sum game"-two or more people aim to achieve a goal that cannot be attained by all of them. This format of structural competition is one of mutually exclusive goal attainment. For one to gain the goal, the other must lose. These are situations and mentalities of scarcity, since what I want must be scarce if I have to defeat another in order to obtain it. As in beauty contests and college admissions, one's success rules out or decreases the success of another. A stronger version of structural competition is when one participant must force the other to fail in order to succeed, as in tennis, war and chess.

Intentional competition is an individual competitiveness with the aim to best others. This often takes the form of someone acting in a fashion to prove how worthy, attractive, generous, powerful or other socially desirable attribute they are. In observation of this behavior you could decipher that the person is insecure, feels inferior and lacks self-esteem. Kohn proposes "that we compete to overcome fundamental doubts about our capabilities and, finally, to compensate for low self-esteem." [Italics in the original] 5 The pattern of having to be right and avoid being wrong would certainly fit this description.

Social traps are a particularly salient illustration of unenlightened self-interest and all-defeating competition. Social traps occur in interpersonal situations in which the individual's self-interest in the short run is usurped by the many taking similar advantage, resulting in everyone losing. The classic example by Garrett Hardin is the "tragedy of the commons." While one cattle farmer can have access to a public pasture and keep his herd nourished and multiplying, when others see the same opportunity and avail themselves of it, then the grass becomes depleted and all lose. 6 No different is the mattress in the middle of the road blocking everyone's smooth and speedy travel. Any one person could take the few minutes to remove it and clear the roadway. Until then, all drivers on the road will continue to have their forward progress slowed down and be inconvenienced.

Kohn concludes that competition is an intrinsically undesirable social strategy and further that healthy competition is a contradiction. Different from all forms of competition is the highly sensible and successful strategy of cooperation. Cooperation is different than altruism or the desire to help others. Kohn forwards the idea of structural cooperation as the social arrangement in which a group of people have a shared goal, project results are the product of a communal effort, and each person's success is linked with every other participant's. In helping another you help yourself at the same time. Kohn makes a compelling case with extensive research evidence that cooperation is more conducive to higher achievement, people liking each other and psychological health. 7

Between groups (intergroup) and within a group (intragroup) cooperation is far more fruitful than competition as well. In the "Robbers' Cave" experiment, a classic investigation of group hostility and aggression, normal eleven- and twelve-year-old boys at a Boy Scout camp were divided into two teams and competitively pitted against each other. The outcome of this structured competition was escalating violence and hostility.

The nasty rivalry between the two teams in this experiment did end when the researcher established "superordinate goals" for the participating boys to meet. Superordinate goals are ones important to all parties that could not be achieved by either group alone. Apparently the introduction of superordinate goals permitted conflict-reduction strategies, such as increased contact, communication and knowledge of the other group, to be effective. Tasks were designed for mutual participation to obtain mutual benefits. For example, the two teams of boys cooperated to fix a breakdown in the water supply, use a rope to pull and start the food supply truck, and pool their money to rent a movie. Both teams were pressed to cooperate with each other for the good of everyone, instead of compete against each other. 8

Empowering and structuring cooperation in human interactions is a powerful and successful strategy to transform and transcend the right-wrong game. Morton Deusch, a leading research social psychologist in the field of competition and cooperation, concluded that "cooperation, as compared to competitive, systems of distributing rewards-when they differ-have more favorable effects on individual and group productivity, individual learning, social relations, self-esteem, task attitudes, and a sense of responsibility to other group members. This conclusion is consistent with the research results obtained by many other investigators in hundreds of studies. It is by now a well-established finding, even though it is counter to widely held ideologies about the relative benefits of competition." 9 Facts and findings typically oppose ideologies of any stripe.

A second remedy or means to transform the Right-Wrong Game is to be and act non-positional, that is, refuse to take a position or counter-position in this game. It is not being wishy-washy, ambivalent, indifferent, apathetic, permissive, and non-principled or laissez faire. Being non-positional can be seen in a person refusing to argue a hot political or religious issue with a friend or family member who is extremely invested in what's right or wrong about it. Since it takes two to engage in an argument, excepting those who can do it all alone, there is no argument and no game. Hearing different opinions on an issue can help clarify our own ideas. Tolerance for what appears to be different is healthy.

Being non-positional and having strong principles and values are not necessarily incompatible or oxymorons. An individual can totally disagree about a specific stance on an issue as well as give voice to their perspective, and still support the person in upholding their right to hold any position they want. Moreover, the person can do all of this without getting emotionally triggered or fixated into a position or a counter-position. "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," said by S. G. Tallentyre (and falsely attributed to Voltaire), crystallizes this perspective.

A third way of operating that is outside of the Right-Wrong Game is to speak non-judgmental, non-moralistic, responsible language. Instead of speaking the moralistic language of right and wrong, good and bad, and positive and negative, the alternative is to speak the language of what works or doesn't work, functions or doesn't function, and is fitting or unfitting. The conduct of human beings is often appropriate or inappropriate, productive or unproductive, and has a sense of belonging or not belonging.

Using this strategy, it's not that two plus two equals three is wrong, with the result that feeling badly shames the child and thereafter hates math; rather it's just incorrect or inaccurate, with no extra emotional baggage attached to learning. Two plus two equals four, not in the sense that this is right, but that it's emotionally responsible to call it correct or accurate, and its emotionally acceptable without bruising the person or fueling the game. By speaking a language that responsibly describes, not morally judges, the game ends.

The fourth strategy to transform the right-wrong game is to know that everyone is number one, treating another with all the respect due royalty. To interact on the same personal level as another is to behave like a colleague, friend and human being. Such an approach disarms, charms and powerfully influences another to match the courtesy, consideration, dignity, and humanity presented. The moment someone walks over to shake another's hand, brings them some water, or shows kindness in any form, attacking that person's character becomes much more difficult because human to human contact has taken place. Respect begets respect, and it's mutual respect that helps end the game.

An incredible quote by Terence illustrates this approach. This second century B.C. Latin playwright, brought to Rome as a slave, said: "I am a man, and nothing pertaining to man is alien to me." Conceivably each of us can be the best and worst of humanity; we can be Caligula, Robespierre and Hitler as well as Socrates, Beethoven and Einstein in our lives. With aware compassion that there but for the grace of God and making different choices go you and I, then it is very hard to condemn in another what lies dormant in oneself.

True respect for persons shows a tolerance for different points-of-view, or principled pluralism. Understanding a 'point of view' as a point from which you view something and, more specifically, choosing who you are with regard to what you observe, then to change and heal our perceptions is our golden pathway to change our thoughts and views of reality. Consciously shift your point of view, and everything and everyone in the world is not quite ever the same again. This vision is a contribution worth realizing.

References

1. Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (New York: Harper and Row, 1951).

2. Larry Dossey, "The Right Man Syndrome: Skepticism and Alternative Medicine," Alternative Therapies, 4 (3), May, 1998, pages 12-19, 108-114.

3. Lee Wallis, Stories For the Third Ear. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1985, pages 46-49. [The liberty was taken to split the narrative into shorter paragraphs]

4. Alfie Kohn, No Contest: The Case Against Competition. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986, pages 6-10.

5. Alfie Kohn, 1986, ibid., page 99.

6. Garrett Hardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons," Science, 13, December, 1968, pages 1243-1248.

7. Alfie Kohn, 1986, ibid., page 6-10, 107-108, 149-150, 217-218, 223.

8. Muzafer Sherif, O. J. Harvey, B. J. White, W. R. Hood, and C. W. Sherif, Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation: The Robbers' Cave Experiment. Norman, Oklahoma: University Book Exchange, 1961.

9. Morton Deutsch, Distributive Justice: A Social-Psychological Perspective. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1985, page 196.
 


George Demont Otis     A Quiet Cove
 

 © Copyright 2013 by Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D.
 
 


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