News Flash: After decades of getting people to trust their gut, build confidence in themselves, and stand up for what they think, the world of psychology has a new message: Don’t Be So Sure.
In fact, the more certain you are, the less likely it is that you’re correct.
And I’m really certain about this.
This is particularly important news for people with obsessive-compulsive personality traits because their tendency is to be so convinced they’re right that they’ll insist stubbornly on their way of thinking and doing things no matter how dire the consequences.
(One type of compulsive personality, the thinking/reflecting/obsessive type, is so afraid that they could be wrong that they never allow themselves to take a stand. But that’s not our subject for today.)
For most compulsives, being right becomes more important than being happy or being close to others. It also means that you’re not open to new ideas, self-correction, or growth. And this leads to lots of problems.
As Jeff Bezos is reputed to have said: “If you don’t change your mind frequently, you’re going to be wrong a lot.”
Let me give you a sampling of the some of the ideas that are coming out of the world of research psychology that encourage us to slow down and question our thinking:
Self-deception is hard-wired
Psychologist Robert Trivers explains in his book The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life that deceiving ourselves has given us evolutionary survival advantages. Self-deception allows us to deceive others. It’s not something we do consciously. Rather, like much of what happens in the human mind, it goes on below the surface of consciousness.
Let’s go back 20,000 years. We’re trading furs for beads. If I can convince myself my beads are rare, valuable and even magically powerful, I’m more likely to be able to convince you that they are as well, because I look so certain. For a pittance I get your furs that make my survival more likely. This behavior is more likely to get passed down to my offspring.
Carmine convinces himself
Fast forward 30,000 years. Let’s imagine that Carmine feels a need to control a situation due to his own insecurity and anxiety. Let’s say it’s about the family budget. He thinks they should be more frugal, and that they should rarely go out to dinner.
In truth he just wants to hang onto money because it makes him nervous to let go of anything. And it makes him nervous to do things that simply feel good, like indulging in creamy crawfish pasta. Further, Carmine has a tendency to think catastrophically that leads him to think they need to have lots of money in the bank.
He will use this evolutionary capacity to convince himself that he’s right in order to convince his partner that he is right. Fights ensue.
Being certain and rationalization
This evolutionary capacity has led to us be remarkably skilled at rationalizing—trying to make things that aren’t so true look like they are true. Like how valuable that bead is, or whether you can ever go out to dinner. This tendency to convince ourselves we’re right for some short-term gain often makes us wrong.
And this tendency operates in the background even when we’re not trying to convince others that we’re right.
You may say, “But it doesn’t work. Just because I convince myself doesn’t mean I convince you.” True, but it doesn’t matter. If you’ve ever seen a dog trying to dig a hole in a linoleum floor you know what I mean. These evolutionary capacities can take over even when they aren’t effective.
If you’re certain, think again
In his book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at The Wharton School, gives us more reason to pause. He tells us that the more adamantly we cling to an idea, the more likely it is that we’re wrong.
As a behavioral economist, Grant is interested in what makes people successful. His research indicates that we are more likely to lack competence when we are brimming with confidence.
This has led him to conclude that if we want to succeed we need to question our confidence in our specific ideas, and have confidence in the process of questioning those ideas and our ability to learn.
In other words, Kill Your Darlings.
Too often we confuse our ideas with our identities, and this gets us stuck. We confuse the heroic determination to persist with the insecure need to prove we’re good because we have good ideas. Doubt makes us uncomfortable, but it’s more likely to lead to better solutions.
Grant encourages us to be actively openminded, to frequently consider where we could be wrong.
Gary kills a darling
Let’s take an example to apply Grant’s ideas.
Let’s say Gary is about to write a post. He’s excited about an idea he has. He thinks it’s pretty original and could be helpful to others. He’s getting puffed up and he’s off to the races. This idea could help prove that he’s really smart, and save the world at the same time. He’s getting proud. This is his idea.
The problem is that Gary didn’t really slow down enough to question the idea first, to see what could be wrong about it. It became part of his identity. And he was like a dog with a bone.
One good sign that Gary was making progress would be that he didn’t take himself too seriously—that he could laugh about his wild idea and work with it to see what aspect of it might be accurate, rather than work so hard to justify it in its original form.
This takes adopting a different value system: questioning himself and discovering that he’s made a mistake becomes a good thing, something he can really be proud of, rather than cause for defensiveness.
Intuitions can suck too
And if you thought that even if your thinking wasn’t so good, you could at least trust your intuition, think again. I shouldn’t go so far as to say they suck. You just can’t always trust them.
Psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman has spent much of his life researching and documenting how our intuitions are vulnerable to bias and inaccuracy. He points out in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, that intuition tends to automatically look for the quickest answer possible. It’s actually pretty lazy.
Often enough it works fine. If an animal looked like a lion, it served you well to run even before you could accurately assess all its body parts to be sure it was a lion. Intuition saved the day.
But too often we assume it’s accurate when it’s not. We think it’s a lion when it’s not. We imagine that we’re using thinking when we’re really just going with intuition, a shortcut system using unconscious preferences and associations from the past.
Once again, a great evolutionary tool is over-used. More often than we like to admit, we look for decisions in all the wrong places.
Monica jumps to intuitions and jumps on her daughter
Let’s imagine Monica responding to her daughter Debbie’s report card. Yes, there were two B’s this quarter, not one but two!
Her intuition tells her this is dangerous. It’s a lion, for sure. Her daughter’s future is in jeopardy. Monica feels compelled to do something to control her. It’s as if her daughter has just picked up a poisonous snake and Monica has to protect her or else something terrible will happen. She just knows it deep in her bones.
Monica doesn’t stop to think that Debbie’s best friend has asthma and was in the hospital with COVID and that Debbie is scared to death she’ll get it too. It doesn’t matter to Debbie that her COVID tests have been negative. She’s distracted and can’t do her best work.
Kahneman’s point is that we all rely too much on intuition, or what he calls fast thinking. Slow thinking, deliberate conscious assessment, requires more energy and is too often neglected. It’s especially challenging for people who are driven and want to get somewhere yesterday.
You were wrong about what makes you happy anyway so let go of your certainty
Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert convincingly shows how bad we are at knowing what will make us happy. In his book Stumbling on Happiness, he quotes heaps of research to show that what we think will make us happy is likely to change in the future.
Stumbling on Happiness, by the way, is probably the book that I most often recommend to my compulsive clients. It’s particularly helpful to compulsives who think there’s only one road to happiness. They’re certain they know what that road is, and they’ll drive on it no matter how miserable it makes them.
Melissa’s Certainty Drives her to Discontent
Just as a brief example…Melissa was very driven and had imagined that going to law school and getting a good job was the ticket to happiness. She studied hard and busted her butt once she got a job to reach partner. Now? Meh. At best.
She had assumed that her drive would take her to a place where she could finally be content. She hadn’t considered that less pressure could make her happy, and that status and money would not.
This might all seem disorienting and discouraging at first. But it can be liberating to give ourselves permission to acknowledge mistakes, let go of old ideas, and move on to new, more effective ones.
For those of you who are driven, the key to progress is usually to use the alchemical solution: have the snake bite its tail. To regenerate, turn the energy of the problem onto itself.
The same determination that goes into proving you’re right can be rechanneled to question whether you might be wrong. And thereby increase your chances of being right.
The value of reflection for leaders, workers and servers
In May last year I posted a piece about actualizing the compulsive personality by balancing its four different aspects. The fourth aspect, the reflective part, thinks about what’s right and how to accomplish it. The compulsives who live solely in this aspect can’t get anything done because they’re too obsessive and perfectionistic. But this capacity for reflection and questioning is often just the what the other three types–leaders, workers and servers–need to achieve balance.
What if we redefined the good thing, the strong thing, the admirable thing, as the capacity to acknowledge that we’re wrong and to change our mind? What if we used our compulsive determination to challenge our own thinking rather than the thinking of others?
Rather than lead us to depression, questioning ourselves might actually led us to a better life. As C.C. Chang wrote in The Practice of Zen:
“The greater the doubt, the greater the awakening; the smaller the doubt, the smaller the awakening. No doubt, no awakening.”
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