History is filled with adages and famous quotes about certainty from Voltaire to Fromm to Michael Crichton. They are not flattering to those who feel certainty.
- Certainty is the mother of fools.
- Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.
- I am certain there is too much certainty in the world.
- Inquiry is fatal to certainty.
- The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.
Wow. Yet so many people are certain about so much.
But when it comes to explaining other people’s behaviors, we can rarely if ever be 100% certain. Even if we ask them and they tell us the “truth,” or even if mind reading and telepathy were real, these individuals might not know the true reasons for their own behavior. According to Timothy Wilson (author of Strangers to Ourselves) and Malcolm Gladwell (author of Blink), sometimes we don’t know our own selves.
So how can we as observers be certain when even the individuals we observe, who live with themselves 24-7, can get it wrong about themselves?
According to some of those quotes above, certainty is practically the definition of bias and inaccuracy. But empirically speaking, certainty is more a contributor to or solidifier of bias, because it reduces deeper thinking and consideration of other possibilities.
In the fundamental attribution error (FAE), most of us quickly focus on an individual’s personal characteristics and intentions to explain that individual’s behavior. And then our thinking stops. We’re certain. No need to keep thinking. So any situational factor that contributed to the behavior gets little or no attention.
This pattern especially includes cases in which an individual acts negatively against us or mistreats us in some way. After being mistreated, most of us are certain that the mistreater has bad characteristics and meant to hurt us.
Indeed, mistreaters may be bad people with bad intentions, but can we always be certain that’s all it is?
(As always, remember Slogan #2: Explaining does not mean excusing. I certainly don’t mean to excuse anyone who has mistreated you or the group to which you belong. That’s your call.)
One likely sequence is the following:
Mistreatment → anger → initial biased interpretation plus certainty → more biased interpretation → more anger → desire to retaliate with harsher punishments (Lerner & Tiedens, 2006; Sadler et al., 2005).
Based on several experiments, doctoral student Troy Campbell and social psychologist Justin Friesen recently wrote in Scientific American that bias is like a disease and that being exposed to facts cannot cure it. Instead they wrote that “societal immunity is better achieved when we encourage people to accept ambiguity, engage in critical thinking, and reject strict ideology” (Campbell & Friesen, 2015).
Accept ambiguity. Accept uncertainty.
One admitted drawback to accepting uncertainty is that it can increase your fears and anxieties about the world (e.g., Lerner & Tiedens, 2006). You can decide which is more important: Being accurate or being fearless. And note that there are ways to reduce fear/anxiety without sacrificing accuracy.
I’m not certain if any research has explicitly documented how to reduce certainty. Possible strategies can include providing counterexamples to your 100%-certain beliefs, or providing examples of famous smart people who have been 100% certain and then turned out to be wrong.
Or maybe you can try a little self-talk the next time someone does something that upsets you and you feel the FAE coming on.
“I could be wrong.”
“I could be wrong.”
Reducing certainty probably won’t be this simple. But note that you’re not admitting to actually being wrong. You’re just acknowledging the possibility (and only to yourself!). That acknowledgement should knock down your certainty a few percentage points and reduce the risk of bias in the long run.
And if you’re in a disagreement with someone, hopefully they can acknowledge that they might be wrong as well.
Campbell, T., & Friesen, J. (2015, March 3). Why people “fly from facts.” Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-people-fly-from-facts/
Lerner, J. S., & Tiedens, L. Z. (2006). Portrait of the angry decision maker: How appraisal tendencies shape anger’s influence on cognition. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 19, 115-137.
Sadler, M. S., Lineberger, M., Correll, J., & Park, B. (2005). Emotions, attributions, and policy endorsements in response to the September 11th terrorist attacks. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 27, 249-258.