The Certainty Bias

A fantastic interview with neurologist Robert Burton highlights the mind’s Certainty Bias.

The mind evolved to help us make sense of the world around us, because without that understanding it’s pretty hard to know how to act.  Not many of our ancestors had time to make a list of pros and cons before making important decisions.

But in today’s context the mind’s pull for certainty has different consequences.  The mind likes nice, uncomplicated beliefs which can help us make sense of a situation.  Yet these beliefs often leave us trapped by our own perceptions:

“I must get this right”.

For important events and decisions, our mind will tell us how important it is to get this right.  Yet the mind will be far slower to identify what ‘right’ is.  The unspoken assumption is that right is perfect.  Perfection is hard to achieve… so procrastination ensues.

“I need to know the likely outcome / if I can cope before I start”

The mind likes to dictate terms and the terms are – no movement towards a new project unless certainty is guaranteed!  The trouble is this often stops us from taking action on the things we value most.  Result: the mind’s goal will be achieved…by doing nothing.

“I need to have all my things around me / complete silence / the right people to work effectively”

The trouble is we rarely get the ‘right’ environment.  Deep down we know this and that we need to start right now – even if it is with the wrong pen.

“If I was good at doing this it would be easier / life is about enjoyment”

The great happiness myth!  The problem is life isn’t meant to be enjoyable in the sense that we should enjoy each moment.  Our most fulfilling moments weren’t preceded by feeling good – far more often they were preceded by the most dreadful doubt and fear.  Our intolerance of ambiguity keeps us stuck – which eventually makes us miserable.

So what can we do about it?

As Burton acknowledges, the most important thing with such thoughts is to recognise them.  After all, you do not need “the right result” so much as you are having the thought that you need it.  Even recognising this as just a thought – not reality – is effective.

Once you’ve noticed your thoughts, bring your attention back to your behaviour.  The mind often leaves behaviour unspecified, because perfection is more certain than an imperfect first step.  This makes purpose hard to find.

So try to counteract this by getting specific about what it is you will do:

  • I’d love to get the right result – so I will make a list of what that result looks like in practice.
  • I’d love to know more about the outcome I can expect – and the most important things I need to know are what the client really wants and why they want it.
  • I don’t want to fail – and the main risk to failure is that I don’t revise properly.  Therefore, I will make a revision plan.
  • I want better working conditions – so I will make a specific list of improvements I could make,  starting right here and now.
  • I want to enjoy myself – but I am willing to experience uncertainty now in order to make progress towards my goals.

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