Published on November 13th, 2017 | by Harmonist staff14
Why Being Certain Means Being Wrong
By Ted Cadsby
Of all the headwinds we face as decision-makers, the power of one overshadows all others: our need for certainty. It is typically more important for us to feel right than to be right — a difference that didn’t matter much in the lives of our ancestors but now matters a lot.
Certainty is the feeling of confidence we have when we’ve figured things out. Our physiology is geared to move us quickly to eliminate the uncomfortable tension of not knowing — the mild stress response our bodies trigger when we perceive that we have lost control because we don’t understand. It is this tension that motivates us to figure things out like the mysterious rustle in the bush, the confusing betrayal of a friend, the promotion we didn’t get — all the minor and major problems that confront us every day. Only certainty, in the form of the calm feeling of knowing, can replace the tension of not knowing. Settling on an explanation triggers a “lockdown” of our minds, in the same way, that a fertilized egg locks out competing sperm.
As the female ovum floats down the fallopian tube, a few thousand sperm (of the 300 million that initially began the journey) search it out. One sperm will be the first to pierce the egg’s outer wall, triggering a chemical reaction that makes the egg’s wall harder and impenetrable to competing sperm.
The mind is like an egg; the sperm are the myriad possible explanations for any given problem the mind tries to solve.
Just as the few thousand sperm are stronger than the millions that perished along the way, some ideas are favored over others: our “fittest” explanations are those that cohere with all of our other beliefs and values — they are easily integrated with everything we already “know.” But just as one sperm will get to the egg first, even if more genetically fit sperm are available, the urgent drive to reduce the tension of uncertainty pushes us to accept the first reasonable explanation we craft. Our mind becomes “fertilized” and the calm feeling of knowing instantly infuses us, stopping our search for alternative explanations.
The lockdown of our minds serves an important purpose: Generations of our ancestors wouldn’t have survived had they constantly second-guessed their conclusions. In a harsh environment characterized by straightforward challenges that demanded quick responses, an indecisive caveman was a dead one. The rush to certainty became our standard operating procedure for two reasons: i) because we needed speedy thinking, and ii) because speed did not force a significant tradeoff in accuracy. The risk of interpretive error is low when you are confronted by a charging tiger or bush of lush berries because the cause-effect relationships in these straightforward situations are not convoluted or ambiguous. Even today, the majority of micro-decisions we make every hour are fairly straightforward, so there is no reason to second-guess or reflect on the limitations of our senses and intuitions.
But the whole speed-accuracy tradeoff falls apart in a world that tosses up complex problems. The need to be certain gets in the way of accuracy when it comes to problems that have multiple, interwoven causal factors that are difficult to unbundle. Complex problems require exploration, multiple perspectives, and a variety of possible explanations before it is safe to draw any conclusions. Many complex problems can only be tackled with experimentation because they do not converge to definitive solutions. But a mind that is “fertilized” by the first satisfying interpretation is closed to the more subtle and complicated explanations that are often better. It is our mind’s lockdown feature that makes certainty the #1 enemy of effective decision-making in the face of complexity. Think of all the business failures that were avoidable if it wasn’t for the hubris of leaders who were unwilling to revisit their faltering strategies, or the public policy failures that could have been mitigated, or our personal relationships that would run so much more smoothly if we weren’t so certain that we were right all the time.
But there is an antidote to premature certainty: Adopting a mindset of “provisional truth.”
Provisional truth requires that we think of our explanations as hypotheses — always subject to replacement based on new information or alternative ways of structuring existing information. Provisional truth means challenging our interpretations with disconfirming evidence and alternative perspectives. Provisional truth does not preclude drawing conclusions or taking action, but it demands that we be skeptical about our first reasonable explanations in the realm of complex problems. It keeps us humble and mentally flexible, constantly asking ourselves if we’ve really got everything figured out and responding, “Probably not.”
Complex decision-making requires we defer the feeling of being right, by tolerating the tension of not knowing. It is hard to fight our physiology — the product of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution — but our innate craving for certainty undermines us in a modern, complex world. We are not hardwired to suspend judgment. We are not designed to explore multiple interpretations after arriving at one that appears to work. We are not constituted to resist concluding. We operate on the assumption that our thinking is objective, thorough, logical, and penetrating to the extent that it quickly and reliably gets us the right answers, no matter how complex the challenge is. If only it were so.
This article originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review Blog.