Admitting we’re stumped

Photo credit, Adrian Midgley, via Flickr Creative Commons license

Photo credit, Adrian Midgley, via Flickr Creative Commons license

We are so sure that we are right.

Even when we are so completely not.

My kids are like this, often.

My youngest son, in particular, almost never says ‘maybe’.

He is very, very confident. Even when he is very, very wrong.

And, apparently, he is not alone.

Decisive discusses this at length, describing the phenomenon this way: “A remarkable aspect of your mental life is that you are rarely stumped” (2).

Even lacking crucial pieces of information that we would need to make informed decisions doesn’t stop us from feeling quite sure that we have everything we need to proceed. We are even certain in our own predictions, despite the obvious fact that we don’t even know very much about the current reality, let alone the future (17).

And our confidence, of course, can be very misleading.

I see this (of course, I would) in our policymaking, and, really, in how we advocate, too.

We face challenges that we truly don’t know how to solve. Acknowledging the uncertainty that surrounds them and the implications of those doubts for successfully approaching them is a critical step in building a process that will take us to a sound resolution, but, instead, we tend to plow right through.

And, here, I really do mean ‘we’. It’s not just members of Congress or state legislators who are loathe to admit when they’re perplexed, when they might need some help to assemble the right information and consult with the best advisers and just reflect a while.

As advocates, I believe that we often perceive expressions of uncertainty as signs of weakness instead of honest recognition of complexity and unavoidable limitations of knowledge.

In one of my projects, I am constantly having to force myself to say that certain outcomes ‘may’ result, or that particular advantages ‘might’ be realized. It’s not natural to me, having spent most of my career asserting in the most compelling way possible the near-certain gains to be secured if we just follow my policy prescriptions.

If this was all just a matter of ensuring that we are being intellectually honest and ethically responsible, that would be one thing. Instead, it’s quite clear that failing to admit when we’re stumped leads to worse decisions.

We are literally suffering from our false certainty.

So, I believe, if we are to succeed in equipping ourselves to take on the big challenges, we have to create spaces in which we can admit our questioning, own our uncertainty, and actively seek out the additional knowledge and insights we need to craft the best decisions, as well as build structures that allow us to choose different paths if new information points us in another direction.

It will mean getting a lot more comfortable with hedging, and leaving room for asking and wondering.

But this culture shift can help us avoid some bad decisions and change the conversation about the limits of our own omnipotence.

No doubt.

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