Why we Usually try to Prove Ourselves Right
Many of us suffer unknowingly and unwillingly of a little cognitive bias called the Confirmation Bias.
It’s defined as follows:
“[A] bias that results from the tendency to process and analyze information in such a way that it supports one’s pre-existing ideas and convictions.” Source: Dictionary.com
When analyzing data to prove or disprove a theory we tend to put more weight on what supports our opinion. We focus on the evidence for whatever we believe in even if there is far more evidence against it.
“See I told you I was right!”
We also don’t like being inconsistent so struggle to change or say something different from what we originally did even though deep down we realize we might not be right.
Imagine if rather than looking to confirm our opinions that we:
- Constantly look to disprove them instead?
- Are sceptical of our own beliefs and always strive to understand both sides?
- Are our very own Devil’s Advocate?
Search for the Truth Rather than Being Right
When we place the priority on truth rather than being correct only then do we take a step towards believing in the right thing. Even though it is hard to know what the truth is at times, that focus enables us to weigh all information equally and develop a more informed position.
The great philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, understood this. He said the following:
“If anyone can prove and show to me that I think and act in error, I will gladly change it- for I seek the truth, by which no one has ever been harmed. The one who is harmed is the one who abides in deceit and ignorance.” — Marcus Aurelius
It is worth repeating:
Rather than seeking to be right, we should seek the truth. It is about valuing the truth above your own belief, your own… ego.
A more recent role model for this was Stephen Hawking. Hawking had one of the highest IQs in the world. Yet, he didn’t believe in his theories about the universe with a 100% certainty. Rather he was very open about what he didn’t know and was actually always looking for information to disprove his theories. You can see this in his books, he is extremely humble and even excited when one of his theories are disproved by himself. He preached for thirty years that information concerning matter that enters a black hole disappears forever only to discover thirty years or so later that it actually only temporarily disappeared.
Rather than be embarrassed by this or dispute the new information, he enthusiastically and very publicly shared these findings in front of colleagues.
If two of the greatest minds that ever lived can be that humble, why can’t we?
Why can’t we be curious and humble about our approach? Why can we not be more hungry to understand opposing views and considering whether we could indeed be seeing things wrong? That there may be an approach we haven’t even considered before.
The Benefits of Trying to Disprove Yourself
Taking this mindset on when learning has two benefits.
The first is that we don’t force our opinion through and do not become blind to the other potential solution.
There is a saying I always think of:
“If you torture the data long enough it will confess.” — Unknown
The same goes for our everyday experiences: If you focus on what proves your opinion you will always find some data to support it. By looking for data that doesn’t support our view or looking for other solutions we ensure we have a far more holistic approach. Usually resulting in a far more robust solution.
The second benefit is that it opens our eyes to the different ways of looking at things. There is rarely one path or one right way of doing things. There are multiple. It is rarely a black or white situation but with many varying shades of grey.
When I write articles I sometimes google the opposite just to see what the different opinions that are out there. For example, I believe strongly in being data-driven but I have also read multiple articles about why being data-driven is bad. It helped me understand the risks of blindly following data and not involving the context. To understand why the data is showing what it is rather than blindly following numbers.
What is this like for a Growth Hacker?
As a growth hacker I practice this too. It is easy to be excited and happy that my experiment seems to have won. However, what really caused the lift? Could there be other reasons for it? What truly caused the change? Though you can’t rule out every potential cause diving deeper into the data has often shown me a completely different reason for the changes I thought were due to the experiment.
Taking this approach, of trying to try to disprove yourself, will result in a more holistic view of the world and may even change your opinions. Not because you jump from one belief to another but because your overall understanding is improving, and you are giving yourself the chance to be wrong.
It really is not about changing your mind every minute and swaying with whatever you are told. That is just being fickle rather it is being sturdy and open. It is about not being afraid to be wrong. Actively looking for information that disproves your belief.
Why Don’t More Individuals Take This Approach?
There is one tricky thing that stands in the way of searching for the truth over being right: one’s ego. Our ego is what makes us what to be right. Our ego is what makes us not want to be wrong.
The following quote from Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday sums this up perfectly:
“You can’t learn if you think you already know. You will not find the answers if you’re too conceited and self-assured to ask the questions. You cannot get better if you’re convinced you are the best.” — Ryan Holiday
Ego prevents us from looking for answers. We like being right, we like being able to tell others how to do things and show them what the “right” way is. As the saying goes, “Pride comes before the fall”.
I might sound high and mighty preaching the above now but it is the result of letting myself be driven by my ego or to be right only to have it backlash. It still happens at times and ‘karma’ usually gets me back for it.
I had one meeting (ok, several meetings) where I would be so determined in pushing my view that the other person had no choice but to, rather publicly, show me how wrong I was and the other side of the story. Ah, nothing kills the fire of an ego than an ice-cold shower of public humiliation.
This approach has taught me to listen more, to ask questions, to strive for the truth. To embrace being wrong as a good thing. To eagerly learn from those around me. Most importantly it taught me to strive to be humble. To realize I knew far from everything and I needed those around me.
Once again I must quote Ryan Holiday because he sums it up so beautifully, that any attempt to paraphrase would be criminal:
“Do you know how you can tell when someone is truly humble? I believe there’s one simple test: because they consistently observe and listen, the humble improve. They don’t assume, ‘I know the way.’” — Ryan Holiday
How can you Start Practising This Approach?
Without action, you may just think, interesting and never try to prove yourself wrong in the future. Please try to do this now or in the coming week:
- Think about something you feel strongly about, for example, a religion, a political view, a standpoint on a hotly debated issue. Choose something where you can think of the opposite/different viewpoint, e.g. left vs right wing, prolife vs prochoice.
- Now spend 15–20 minutes researching the opposite standpoint and write down the points you find. Do this as if you would have to argue the opposite point of view.
- Once you’ve done this, think back to your original point of view. Try to set yourself open to the opposite viewpoint. What good points does the other side make?
Did your viewpoint change? Do you at least understand a bit better the other side? Did you realize how little you actually knew about the other side or how what you knew had been shaded by your viewpoint?
I urge you to be more open to being wrong. I’m still practising this every day.
- Be humble.
- Be eager for the truth.
- Love the fact that you learned you were not right and learned something new.
- Love understanding one level deeper than before and appreciating all sides to the story.
- Don’t be afraid to put your ego on the side to change and improve your perspective.
Do that and you’ve already taken another huge step in your learning journey. It is a daily challenge but it is well worth the more open and broad perspective you gain as a result of it.