The perils of certainty

Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide explores committee decision-making as a metaphor for what goes on inisde our minds when we make individual decisions. He gives the example of a New Hampshire newspaper editorial board choosing its preferred candidate in the last Democratic primary. Differing individual preferences end up presented in the newspaper as a unified decision. But the simple presentation belies the underlying dissonance. Our minds work in a similar way: presented with a choice, different bits of the brain fire off differing signals, and somehow out of the conflict a choice is made. Experiments suggest strongly that we then rationalise the choice and deny the internal dissonance, in order to get the comfort of certainty.

It’s not easy to make up your mind when your mind consists of so many competing parts. This is why being sure about something can be such a relief. The default state of the brain is indecisive disagreement… certainty imposes consensus on the inner cacophony.. Being certain means you’re not worried about being wrong.

Lehrer examines how partisan political supporters unconsciously reinterpret factual information to confirm their prevailing world view, which is why they very rarely change allegiance. He also cites Philip Tetlock’s research on the general fallibility of experts. Mark Earls described that here. And Bob Sutton had a good post recently suggesting that, if anything, confidence in self-evaluation tends to correlate with being wrong.

Many people want their meetings to work like this: listen to many opinions and then reach a confident, united decision. I think the danger of such ideals is that they may increase the likelihood of being wrong.

My own hunch is that good teams can function with greater tolerance for dissonance and don’t force “positivity” and decisiveness. I also find that when meetings take place within rigid hierarchies, the shadowy need to give the boss something certain (the “measurable, implementable, deliverable“) can completely sabotage that kind of high quality functioning.

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