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Don't Mistake Certainty For Correctness (Newsletter 010)

We can be just as wrong about something when we are absolutely convinced it's true as when we're uncertain.
Don't Mistake Certainty For Correctness (Newsletter 010)

Greetings friends. James Bellerjeau here.

It is easy to see when someone else is being pigheaded. The most obvious sign is that they disagree with you. The ones who particularly get our goat, though, are the ones who zealously defend their position against all reason. These people refuse to be swayed by all the facts and evidence that point to them being wrong. Don't they see how their certainty just makes them foolish?

No matter how often we observe this in others, I find it fascinating that the fewest among us make the link to how we must look when we ourselves are certain about something. After all, when we're certain it's because we're right. When other people are certain it's because they're idiots who don't know how to think.

I suppose it is possible some people are true savants, making correct assessments of all situations all the time. Based on decades of careful observation, I'm guessing the number of such persons is small. Sadly, the odds are good that you and I are not among the perfect savants. For starters, anyone who has been married must readily concede that no one is right all the time. You need only consider all the times your spouse correctly pointed out you were wrong about something to know the truth of this.

And we can be just as wrong about something when we are absolutely convinced it's true as when we're uncertain. Our spouses happen to be around us the most, so they have a firsthand view of the phenomenon. I do need to add one small caveat for the women readers: many men have learned the wisdom of the phrase "Happy wife, happy life." This generates in men a greatly increased propensity to use the phrase "You're right, dear." Your spouse saying you are right does not necessarily mean that you are right in fact, although you probably are if I'm being honest. But that is a topic for another day.

Being convinced we're right, however, carries with it several heavy burdens:

  • we become closed to new inputs, and tend to seek out evidence to confirm our existing belief (confirmation bias);
  • we make worse decisions, because we stop seeking out new or contradictory information; and
  • to justify our bad decisions, we shift blame to other people and factors outside our control.

I have had the good fortune of having my many errors happily pointed out to me by friends and family. And they've been doing it for years! Interestingly, I find my conviction is still as strong as ever, no matter how many times I am proven mistaken. When we think we are right, we can't help but think we're right. Knowing the dangers implicit in this facet of human nature, is there anything we can do?

In my case, the frequent reminders of my fallibility have brought me one very useful practice that I try to apply whenever I can: I leave open the possibility that I may be wrong. I still believe what I believe is true, but I will now often add to the end of a statement the words "but I could be wrong." That phrase is almost magical in its import. It accomplishes many things. When you add "... but I could be wrong" to the end of a statement:

  1. It means in your mind you are not committed to the absolute truth of what you just said. As a result, you are able to listen to what others say.
  2. It means that the person you are talking with does not consider you closed and is more likely to listen to you. This creates the condition for a dialogue in which you are as interested in learning something as you are in making a point.
  3. Because you are less emotionally committed to what you said, it means you are less likely to feel compelled to defend it against all attacks. If it is just something you are discussing and not a personally-held belief, an attack on the statement is not an attack on you.

If you like the idea that being certain is no guarantee of being correct, then you are already on the path to better decision-making. If you further agree that small changes made consistently can create great results (continuous improvement), then perhaps you will try out saying "but I could be wrong" yourself.

I give you encouragement to do so from one of this week's letters, Moral Letters 020 On Consistency:

It is not enough to think good thoughts, you must transform thoughts into deeds. The lessons of philosophy are hard won, and their proof is in the pudding. Though you think your thoughts pure, if your actions are compromised, your lessons will have availed you little.
020 - On Consistency - Moral Letters for Modern Times
The way to identify a wise person is to observe the one who maintains consistency in the face of passions all around them.

It has helped me a great deal that I studied three fields where the science of thinking and decision-making are at the forefront: psychology, economics, and law. After my studies, I spent decades observing how the lessons play out in real life. Each interaction with other people is a sort of everyday laboratory to check one's hypothesis against reality. Here's what I observe.

From psychology, I have learned that we are largely emotional creatures who like to think we are rational. We make decisions for emotional reasons and justify them. This means facts and logic are utterly ineffective at changing a person's mind.

From economics, I have learned that the rational person is everywhere in decision-making, except in real life. We are irrational, but predictably so. Rather than looking at facts and cold logic, incentives are what drives human behavior. Positive incentives drive behavior, and negative incentives drive behavior. If you learn to look for the incentives in a given situation, you will find they accurately explain almost everything of what people do. Looking at incentives is certainly a much more reliable indicator than looking at what people say. (For more on this, see Incentives Are Everything.)

And from the law, I have learned that people are prone to errors, but never doubt. The good things that happen to us are the result of our efforts and agency. The bad things that happen are someone else's fault, always and without exception. If you want to establish a healthy contractual relationship between two parties, remember that decisions after signing will be made on the basis of emotions not facts. As a result, design incentives in your agreement to encourage the behavior you want, and discourage the things you want less of.

Be well.