Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Certainty, Part 1... Just when you think you're right, you're wrong

Have you ever been just so certain of something only to find out you were completely wrong? Research shows that 40 to 50 percent of the time our assumptions are spot on right, but that also means 50 to 60 percent of the time our assumptions are dead wrong. What's interesting about this to me is we're typically so CERTAIN about our thinking and perspective that even in the face of proven, contrary evidence, we STILL tend to hang on to our original belief.  

Over the years, I've had tons of conversations with people and done a lot of thinking and research about the subjects of certainty and decision-making. I thought I'd share my perspective and get yours through publishing a series of posts that explores the needs, influences, impact, and result of certainty on decision-making. 

The following bullet statements are what I plan to consider, but as your public and private comments roll in, I'll likely change this up a bit to reflect your input. As always I'll fold it into stories I hope you'll enjoy, and I'll step up my publishing schedule so I don't leave you hanging. ;-)
  • Part 1: Our mind's need for certainty
  • Part 2: What influences certainty in decisions
  • Part 3: Quick decisions: weighing the impact
  • Part 4: Gut checking certainty then moving on

Part 1: Our mind's need for certainty 

Stone Mountain in NC
Best laid plans... 
Last week the kids and I hiked Stone Mountain in Roaring Gap, NC. We can see the big bald spot of the mountain from our cabin in Sparta so we wanted to make an effort to experience it first hand. Setting out for what we thought would be a brief one hour hike ended up being a four hour adventure with only an early breakfast on our bellies and no food or water. As you can imagine, dear reader, by the end of it there were some tired, grumpy ones among us.

There are always warning signs.
How it happened: Certainty strikes!
It was a beautiful day. Mild temperature, dry mountain air, and enthusiasm for enjoying nature complete with lush forest, towering waterfall, and busy creatures getting ready for autumn. We parked at the upper lot and made our way down the 200 feet of stairs to enjoy the waterfall and pool at the base of it. 

After our brief moment of Zen, my daughter looked back at the stairs, and said, "Uh-uh, I don't want to do it." It was then we noticed another option, a nice, flat winding path that followed a creek flowing from the waterfall. When I wondered aloud if we should go that way, she jumped on it with a very committed, "Yes!" 

Hutchinson Homestead
Following the path of uncertain certainty... 
We made our down the path with a questionable map but a lot of determination. The hike was lovely. We took pictures, chatted about the wildlife, toyed with a children's story about the mountains that we've been adding to off and on for the past year, and frequently consulted the map. 

My daughter was our self-appointed trail boss and navigator. Ever logical, she considered the signage along the way and synched it up with where she thought we were on the map. Her gut was telling her we were on the right path back to the upper parking lot. My gut wasn't so sure, but her rationale for our whereabouts seemed to make sense so we kept walking. After a while, the path led us to the Hutchinson Homestead and the base of Stone Mountain. Although it was a nice walk back in time under the shadow of that very present mountain, the correctness of our course was becoming questionable.  

Long climb up
My gut continued to rumble with doubt as we moved through the homestead. At one point I asked my daughter if she was sure we were on the right path, and she said, "I'm 100 percent certain this is the right way to go." I studied the map, looked at her, and concluded again that it seemed logical so again we kept walking. 

The need to stick with our "certainty"
Why did we hang with that decision even when intuition and evidence along the way said we shouldn't be so invested in our certainty? Apparently holding tight to that investment is pretty important to many of us. One study found, for example, that 34 percent of people keep fighting even when they know they're wrong. Sounds kinda stubborn, but there's a bit of science behind it. 

Simply put, reaching a conclusion of certainty makes us feel better. Feeling uncertain can cause anxiety and stress so our first order of business is to ditch those feelings ASAP because they don't feel good. We search for rationale, logic, evidence, history, anything to quell the butterflies that flit ever faster in the pit of one's stomach the longer we face the situation. Under extreme amounts of stress and pressure, we tend to default to dichotomous thinking where we opt for an all or nothing approach just so we can step up the process and get it over with. This usually results in hasty decisions that at times can work to our benefit and at other times not so much particularly when it comes to relations with others.

Next time we'll look at what influences our certainty. What do you draw on to make your decisions and what things move you to change course? This could be personal or professional. Look forward to hearing your thoughts.

1 comment:

  1. good questions to ask of people- hmm under extreme stress hard to make decisions.. and I agree you become almost black vs white and try to rush the decision - moments like this I look for something to ground me .. a person, a movie,a glass of wine- a place to escape too. but when I am passed being grounded ... I close down and have no energy and retreat into my head to give me some stength- and to date I have been able to get back out of head and back to reality.. but constant battle and been like that my whole life LOL.. but good questions