How to deal with chronically stubborn people

We asked experts how to reason with a stubborn colleague or lover... and understand what's going on in their brains

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published April 9, 2023 4:30PM (EDT)

Man pulling stubborn donkey (Getty Images/Tony Arruza)
Man pulling stubborn donkey (Getty Images/Tony Arruza)

The United States has reached unprecedented levels of political polarization, and the trend seems to only be getting worse. Whatever bipartisan comity existed in the twentieth century seems to have largely evaporated; indeed, polling shows that Americans are even moving away from places where they feel their political views aren't welcomed.

While the issue of polarization is certainly a social problem, on an individual level it may also reflect a phenomenon of American stubbornness. Individuality is as American as apple pie, and stubbornness may be an attempt to preserve one's sense of individuality. Certainly few people like to admit to defeat or to being wrong — but some will go to the most extreme lengths imaginable in order to save their pride. Take, for instance, Donald Trump — who is currently in legal peril because his perennial stance that he only loses if the winning side cheats culminated in him attempting a coup after being defeated by Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

Though Trump is one of the most conspicuous examples of stubbornness, he is far from alone. If you are reading this article, chances are that you have encountered at least one infuriatingly stubborn person in your workplace, home or friend circle — or perhaps you fear you yourself are the stubborn one.

Those struggling with stubborn people in their life may be apt to wonder what is happening psychologically that makes some people act as if admitting they are wrong is the equivalent of psychic death.

While most people have some degree of pride, and therefore will at least initially resist acknowledging error, usually those same people also have the capacity to be reasonable and humble out of logic, self-interest or both. Yet a substantial minority lacks even these rudimentary instincts. What ticks in the brains of the "never wrong" crowd?

Salon spoke with psychologists and psychiatrists about what is going on in the heads of the chronically stubborn. Notably, experts differentiate between the situationally stubborn and the pathologically stubborn — meaning people who maintain their position to prove that they are "stronger" than their opponents. The nature of this behavior is proof that something unhealthy is going on.

"You make the correct distinction between 'normal human stubbornness' and recalcitrance to an 'excessive degree' — or at least what psychiatrists such as myself concern themselves with, since distinguishing between health and disease is important," explained psychiatrist Dr. Bandy X. Lee in an email interview with Salon. "This is because healthy personality features will be life-affirming, no matter their direction in the marvelous tapestry of human diversity and resilience."

People who refuse to admit when they are wrong past the point of reason, by contrast, engage in maladaptive behavior that harms themselves and others. At that point, Lee notes, "it can be defined as pathology."

"A healthy person has the mental stability and foundation to be able to admit it when one is wrong, and the importance of learning and responding to the truth will generally override any primitive drive to be 'right' all the time."

Dr. Jessica January Behr, a licensed psychologist who practices in New York City, further unpacked the various diagnoses that can explain that kind of pathological behavior — in particular, personality disorders tend to be linked with stubbornness.

"When it becomes an immutable trait, this may fall under a diagnosable category," Behr wrote to Salon. "People who meet criteria for Cluster B personality disorders such as NPD, Histrionic PD, or Antisocial PD may be more likely to display characteristic stubbornness, denial of fault/responsibility, and manipulation of facts to support a fixed belief."

Of course, people who are not certified as mental health practitioners cannot diagnose a "never wrong" on their own, and it is often difficult to convince a stubborn person to sit down in a psychiatrist's or therapist's chair for an official diagnosis. This does not mean, though, that ordinary people can't use effective techniques to figure out if someone else is being stubborn to a pathological degree.

"A healthy person has the mental stability and foundation to be able to admit it when one is wrong, and the importance of learning and responding to the truth will generally override any primitive drive to be 'right' all the time," Lee explained. "This allows one to become resilient, resourceful, and responsive to the needs of the situation." Those who disregard contrary evidence and cling to their professed beliefs for emotional reasons will display this through unstable behavior, including reacting with hostility to any outside information that challenges them. They will ultimately respond with "stubborn insistence, with doubling down, and in extreme cases — as one's belief is increasingly threatened — with violence."

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"Being aware of your perceived shortcomings and developing awareness around their origins can help protect against using anti-social behaviors."

From a neurochemical perspective, "the psychological mechanisms behind 'never wrongs' include a complex web of defensive processes, most commonly the over-use of primary, or lower-order, defense mechanisms," Behr added. "Primary defense mechanisms are developed in earlier periods of life and tend to involve the denial of reality. The most likely mechanisms at play in those who struggle to admit fault are denial, omnipotent control, idealization and devaluation, splitting and introjection."

If all of this science jargon is intimidating, there is a simple way to break down its implications.

"The reality of an event or circumstance is so dangerous for the person's psychic experience that it must be defended against to protect the integrity of the individual's perception of reality," Behr explained. "Therefore, pre-logical convictions are held, such as 'If I don't acknowledge it, it isn't real (denial)' or 'I can make anything happen by believing it (Omnipotent control)' or 'This object (person/idea) that I value could not possibly be fallible' (idealization or a misinterpretation due to overidentification out of a desire for safety and security with negative aspects of another  —introjection)."

Psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula added that "impulsivity may also play a role, which relates to executive functioning and an incapacity to stop the stubborn stuckness."

Durvasula added that "stubbornness could be viewed as a form of perseveration, again, an executive function in the brain."

If you know for a fact that you are interacting with an irrationally stubborn person, your situation is not hopeless. According to Dr. David M. Reiss, a psychiatrist and expert on mental fitness evaluations, the key first step is to manage your expectations — namely, accept that you are not going to convince this person to change their mind. If doing so was possible, it would have happened already. Instead you need to first anticipate how they will likely respond to your inconvenient truths, and then prepare yourself accordingly.

"Expect the person to be increasingly angry, punitive, hostile when confronted, especially if confronted with objective evidence that they cannot logically deny, but still must be denied on an emotional level," Reiss told Salon. At that point, "protect yourself. When possible, disengage and exit the relationship. When disengagement is not possible, set limits and boundaries to whatever extent possible to avoid interactions with the person; and if interaction is not avoidable, while it may be extremely difficult, avoid emotional engagement as totally as possible."

"Protect yourself. When possible, disengage and exit the relationship. When disengagement is not possible, set limits and boundaries to whatever extent possible to avoid interactions with the person."

It is not your responsibility to be, as Durvasula put it, "an opinion missionary." Instead, to quote Reiss, your priority is to "take stock of, check yourself, and check with those you trust, to see if you are overtly or covertly maintaining false hope that there will be some logical or some 'magical' positive solution to the situation. It is almost always unlikely, and very often impossible. The best to hope for is damage control."

Finally, if you want to rise above the "never wrong" people in your life, the best way to do so is practice humility in your affairs. After all, since no person wants to be wrong, every human has the ability to act like a "never wrong."

"This is where mental hygiene is important," Lee wrote, referring to tips from her 2020 book "Profile of a Nation." "The advice I regularly give to medical or law students as they go into 'battle' with disease or in defense of their clients is: 'In an emergency, first check your own pulse.' It follows the dicta: 'Physician, heal thyself' and 'Know thyself.'" 

Behr also said that old-fashioned self-awareness and humility have a useful place in keeping us from joining the "never wrong" crowd.

"What can help to protect against this is the awareness of our limitations, our vulnerability and sensitivities," Behr wrote to Salon. "For instance, if we feel ashamed about our competence in a particular area, that may be a place where we risk being overly-defensive. Being aware of your perceived shortcomings and developing awareness around their origins can help protect against using anti-social behaviors."

Finally, as Durvasula added, we can strive to create a society which recognizes the pathologies behind "never wrong" behavior — and strenuously works to not reward them.

"I think it would be great if decision-makers understood personality styles like narcissism a little better," Durvasula wrote to Salon. "The problem with these styles is that their shapeshifting, lack of empathy and arrogance can result in short-term success, but in the long-term people like this will sink a company, country, organization. Simply knowing that — what it is, and to stop rewarding folks like this — is a start."

Yet there is an ugly catch, namely, that the stubborn seem to get ahead in life too often.

"The problem is that folks like this run the world, so I don't think they will line up to deny power to them because it means their heads may roll too," Durvasula adds.

The answer may lie in education and teaching critical thinking, as Durvasula noted. 

"At this point, the way the world is changing, timetables seem outmoded," she said. "We need to teach children to think critically about media, leadership, anything but the more we use rote and repetition and standardized tests as an assessment. We are creating a group of people who can't understand multiple positions and build mental flexibility."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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