Blinded By Certainty

blindfoldedIn reality, very little in our lives is absolutely certain. We can be certain the sun will rise in the east and set in the west. We can be certain death will follow life. And we can be pretty darn certain Steve Jobs will wear a black turtleneck and jeans at his next public appearance.

But we’re certain about a lot more things than we should be.

A recent University of Michigan study by Brendan Nylan and Jason Reifler shows that the more certain we are about particular ideas or situations the more we become blind to facts that discredit our certainty. In fact, in many cases opposing facts are not just ignored but actually strengthen our prior beliefs.  A recent Boston Globe article provides an excellent summary of the research.

From the article:

Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information.

Both the research and the article focus primarily on our political viewpoints, but while reading I couldn’t help but think of people I’ve come across in the business world who were unbelievably certain about their viewpoints based on information or experiences that seemed less than obvious to me. I immediately thought of dozens of people, and I bet you’re thinking of many such people now.

In fact, it was so easy for me to think of other people that fit the bill that I couldn’t help but think the man in the mirror was not immune to this universal human fallacy.

In my experience in the business world, we often assume with undue certainty that past experiences will reflect future possibilities. We say things like, “We tried that before and it didn’t work” or “I know what our customers want.” While our past experiences are extremely valuable and are very important for informing future decisions, we simply don’t have enough of them to blindly ignore changes in circumstances, timing and other variables that could significantly alter results for a new effort.

So how do we overcome our natural instincts in order to make better business decisions?

  1. Be aware of the problems with certainty
    You’ve read this far, so maybe you’re awareness is already active. I know that I am reassessing all the things I “know” to try to truly separate what is fact and what is assumption. I very much value all my experience, and I know I make better decisions because of what I’ve seen and heard along the way. But I want to make doubly sure that assumptions I make based on past experiences are tested and validated before I turn them into absolute fact.
  2. Actively seek alternate points-of-view
    In my experience, the combination of multiple experiences provides a much more solid foundation for decision making than basing decisions on singular past experiences. Techniques I’ve used, like The Monkey Cage Sessions, are based on the incorporating viewpoints from people in different functional areas and levels of the organization. While it’s acceptable to discount data or opinions that are in opposition to a decision I might make, I want to be sure I’m not simply rationalizing opposing information or viewpoints solely because they are different from my biases.
  3. Envision alternate scenarios
    I addressed this some in a previous post, “Obscure and pregnant with conflicting meanings”, where I discussed a technique I called “Scenario Imagination.” I’ve since read an excellent interview with Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein where they detail a similar and better technique they call “pre-mortem” (which is also a better name than mine). Whenever we make decisions, we have a tendency to assume our decisions are going to produce the best possible results. These pre-mortem techniques have us imagine worst case scenarios to try to dissect potential problems before they occur.
  4. Be flexible and plan for contingencies
    Once we admit we’re not 100% certain, we can move forward with plans that are flexible and able to react to changing conditions. To be clear, I’m not saying we should just be wishy-washy and not make clear decisions. What I’m saying is that we should be open to new facts and be sure we have created an environment that allows us to change course when warranted.

If we’re aware of our certainty biases and take active steps to address them, I believe we can significantly improve our decision-making in our businesses.

What do you think? Upon self-examination, have you turned beliefs into facts in your mind? How would you suggest addressing these biases? Or, do you think is all a load of hooey?

2 Comments

  • By Maris Daugherty, August 3, 2010 @ 11:35 am

    Kevin,
    Great post. While working with a number of organizations on strategic planning I’ve noticed that there are two things that really help people expand their perspectives.

    – The first is looking outside the organization for input. Best practices, different models, alternative examples in areas that may apply to the subject at hand. This tends to help bring alternative scenarios to the surface and get people talking.

    – The second is the good old “pro’s and con’s” list for options and any solution proposed. We find this helps people get focused on the objective as opposed to the “certainty” of what they know.

  • By Kevin Ertell, August 4, 2010 @ 7:41 am

    Thanks for your comment, Maris.

    I think you provide two excellent tips for expanding one’s perspective. I’ve always been a fan of writing down pros and cons. There’s something about actually writing them down that really brings things home.

Other Links to this Post

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell


Home | About