Nobel prize winner, Daniel Kahneman, attended a lecture by fellow psychologist, Adam Grant, in which a belief Daniel held was refuted. How did Kahneman react? After the lecture, Kahneman told Grant, “That was wonderful. I was wrong.”
Can it really be wonderful to be wrong? And if so, why is it so painful to admit, even to ourselves, that we are wrong about an idea or belief? We hold onto our beliefs so tightly that even when faced with incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, we often remain steadfast in our wrongness.
Having the skill and the will to change your mind is one of the most powerful and important tools you can have and is essential to great decision performance. But it certainly doesn’t come easily.
Adam Grant related the above story in his phenomenal book, Think Again. He said Kahneman genuinely enjoys discovering he was wrong because it means he is less wrong now. He believes the key is detachment. “My attachment to my ideas is provisional,” Kahneman said. “There’s no unconditional love for them.”
Tags of belief
We affix a mental tag to every thought or idea that enters our consciousness. Think of it like a tag on a piece of clothing but instead of telling you the size or the price, it indicates how you feel about the idea and its merits.
It doesn’t take much evidence for us to slap on that tag - for example, studies show that first impressions are usually formed within seconds. Once attached, though, it is extremely difficult to remove, especially when the certainty we feel is high. If we see evidence that contradicts the tag we have attached, we often reject the evidence and look for different evidence that allows us to retain our tag.
As a side note, keep in mind that our level of felt certainty does not correlate well with whether an idea is actually true, but certainty and its dopamine release make us feel good.
The hardest tags to remove or replace are those that we connect to our identity. Anything that challenges our identity as a person is very unlikely to be accepted. Likewise, adopting an ideology is troublesome because it becomes a tag on a whole group of ideas that are used by you and others to define you.
Preaching a belief also has the affect of attaching it to your identity, making it more difficult it is to dislodge if proven wrong. But there is a better way. As Grant says, “Don’t let your ideas become ideologies.”
Remember - we choose our beliefs. We were not born with them. We have the power to decide what to do with them, when to keep them and when to jettison them for new beliefs that are more valid.
Studies show that people who seek out evidence that challenges their beliefs and who change their minds more frequently are better performers. For example, people who are good at forecasting future events also change their minds more often. Since decision making is essentially a process of making a prediction, the more flexible you are in your thinking, the better your decisions will be.
Tactics to improve your cognitive flexibility
Are you cognitively flexible? How different are your beliefs now than they were a year ago? Or 5 years ago? Or 10? If you are not amazed and amused by how uninformed and wrong some of your opinions were, you may not be growing much.
Changing your beliefs is tough. It’s uncomfortable and even painful to admit you were wrong and to adjust your thinking - to change that belief tag. If you want to be better at it, you will have to re-think the way you think. Ask yourself these questions:
- Is it more important to prove myself or improve myself?
- Do I welcome information and evidence that could prove me wrong?
- What would have to happen for me to accept that my belief is false?
- Am I treating my belief as a hard truth or a theory? If you regard it as a theory you are more likely to dig for and find data that can prove or disprove it.
Sometimes it is useful to adopt a default stance that your opinion is probably wrong, at least until you have more information. That is what Abraham Lincoln did when he remarked, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”
Be sure to check out Adam Grant’s amazing book, “Think Again - The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.” It will definitely make you want to improve how you hold, change and express your opinions, and find the joy in having been wrong.
Think well and be well!
- Steve Haffner
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