The Perils Of Certainty

Don’t Be So Sure: The Perils of Certainty

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I was certain that my flight to Chicago was at 10:30, so I aimed to leave for the airport by 9:00. But at 8:30 when I checked to verify the exact takeoff time, my chest seized up. My flight was leaving in less than an hour! I yelled for my husband to take me to the airport now. By the time I made it through security, the boarding gate had closed. I watched my flight take off without me.

Maybe something like this has happened to you. You felt so utterly sure of something that you did not consider the possibility that you were wrong, not bothering to check, but instead plowing ahead feeling right until the moment you realized you were wrong.

This experience is at the heart of Kathryn Schultz’s exploration of being wrong. As she points out, until you realize that you are wrong about something, it feels just like it does when you are right. You feel certain, confident, convinced of your rightness. We tend to think of certainty as the product of rational thought. But according to Robert A. Burton, certainty itself is actually a feeling—an involuntary mental sensation of the accuracy of one’s belief. It isn’t a thought but a feeling about a thought. You feel that you are right. And it turns out that we all tend to feel that we are right a lot, walking around in a bubble of certainty. As Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking Fast and Slow, we are prone to “excessive confidence in what we believe we know” and an “apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainty of the world we live in.”

For leaders, the feeling of certainty or “rightness” is highly problematic for a number of reasons. First, as in my example, sometimes we are actually wrong and we do dumb stuff like not double check and then we miss the flight or take a wrong turn. But more importantly, when leaders are sure that they are right (or if they are afraid of being proved wrong), they lose their open-mindedness and curiosity. And in a world of ever-increasing complexity, it is essential that we not close our minds in this way. Leaders today are facing a world in which their experience and their mental models are often not equal to address the challenges they face or predict the results of their actions. It is therefore essential that they not jump to a feeling of certainty but remain open to a diversity of thought and ideas, as well as continuing to look for more data. Certainty stifles curiosity, and curiosity is key to innovation, creativity and success.

When leaders stop taking in new data or ideas, they lose their capacity to innovate. Instead, they get stuck in what Jennifer Garvey Berger calls a “mindtrap.” In her new book, Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps, Berger identified five such mindtraps that stifle our thinking, each of which causes us to miss opportunities to learn, deepen relationships and embrace complexity. When you are “trapped by rightness,” you close yourself off and fail to question your own beliefs and assumptions. You stop really listening to others and instead “listen to win” or “listen to fix,” both of which keep you trapped in the sense that you know better than the other person. 

The way out of this trap is simple—but not easy. Instead of regarding certainty as a rational assessment that you have conducted a thorough and reasoned review of the evidence and come to an unbiased conclusion, you need to begin to regard your own certainty with skepticism. If you find yourself feeling sure that you are right (a sign of this is when others look wrong to you), ask yourself: “What do I believe?” This question helps shift you out of the language and mindset of knowing and creates space for other beliefs. Then ask, “How could I be wrong?” This second question explicitly welcomes uncertainty and requires that you surface the collection of assumptions upon which your certainty is based. Finally, you need to “listen to learn”—suspend your judgment and allow your thinking to be shaped by the thinking of others. In this way, you can climb out of the trap of your own making and improve your thinking.

Far from fearing being wrong, Schultz urges us to embrace our capacity for error because—if we recognize it and incorporate it into our process by not getting too attached to rightness—it is essential to our capacity to learn, grow and improve.