How Certainty Tricks Us
Most of us like to think of ourselves as open-minded. That faced with new information we’ll carefully consider it, even if it challenges our existing beliefs. Research, however, consistently suggests this is wildly untrue, especially in cases where those beliefs hold emotional weight within our existing identity. Cognitive science has a number of terms to describe different flavors of this phenomenon, such as confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and belief perseverence. At Talentism we group these under the term “Certainty” – those narratives around which we are 100% sure we are right and the people questioning us are idiots. While certainty is often regarded as a positive thing in business circles (and to be clear, sometimes a leader needs to pick a direction and help people stay together through it when it gets rough), the certainty we are talking about is an underlying emotional-cognitive phenomenon; an attachment to a way of seeing the world that brooks no room for learning or dialogue. Certainty is about a way of being more than some abstract confidence interval — it’s that internal sense of righteousness (or hopelessness) we feel most often as a response to threat. It’s not hard to spot certainty in others; when we’ve run trainings on the topic nearly everyone immediately sees examples of coworkers and family members who exhibit certainty around one (or many) areas. The problem is how hard it is to see it in ourselves. The challenge comes because certainty feels so *right*. In our model, certainty typically emerges as a way to feel better in the face of things that confuse us. It’s not that we don’t know how to manage — it’s that stubborn jerk who never listens. It’s not that we’re attached to a strategy that makes us feel clever and just so happens to put our department front and center — it’s that the other executives are playing politics and refuse to focus on what matters.
As an outside observer in executive meetings, it’s often remarkable to watch the way people’s certainties play off each other. I’ve watched groups of brilliant people blow four (expensive) hours spouting position statements back and forth at each other without ever actually engaging with what anyone else is saying, while calling it “debating to get to the truth.” That’s the trick certainty plays on us — that if we can just bulldoze the naysayers, or work around the people who don’t get it, we’ll be safe and happy and successful. While it might feel good in the moment, it rarely gets us what we actually want. Learning, awareness and clarity are what do that — and that is most often found at the edges of our beliefs where it’s painful to go.
But hey, maybe I’m wrong. Tell me what I’m missing. And in the meantime, enjoy a good article and a fun comic on certainty and how it can manifest.
Key quote: “Humans, they point out, aren’t randomly credulous. Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own.”
An entertaining look at “the backfire effect” and why facts that hit our worldview trigger such a different reaction than facts that don’t (contains profanity)
What’s something you hold as a self-evident truth in your business that someone else on your team strongly disagrees with?
What feels good about believing it’s true? (Not *why* you believe it’s true)
Imagine that you turn out to be wrong about this thing (REALLY imagine it – as if you’re going to go the person you disagree with and tell them they’re right and you’re wrong and you’ll mean it)
What feels at risk or dangerous about this belief being untrue?
Pick 1-2 areas you feel deep conviction around. Politics is the easy one, but it could also be about your business, an interpersonal conflict, etc.
For the next month, seek out the most compelling arguments you can against your position, and avoid anything that reinforces it. Try to find the best sources you can on the topic – the most thoughtful intellectual defenders (not the demagogues)
Track how you feel