Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

How To Ensure You're (Almost) Always Right

Being mindful of your cognitive biases isn't enough

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"Facts that challenge basic assumptions—and thereby threaten people’s livelihood and self-esteem—are simply not absorbed. The mind does not digest them.”

—Daniel Kahneman

There are numerous cognitive biases that threaten to lead us to incorrect conclusions as we reason our way through problems: confirmation bias (where we selectively pay attention only to evidence that supports our pre-existing beliefs), non-confirmation bias (where we selectively ignore evidence that contradicts our pre-existing beliefs), and belief bias (which predisposes us to accept that which is consistent with our pre-existing beliefs), to name just three. In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman argues persuasively, however, that if we consciously identify and attend to our biases in real-time—a feat that requires great effort, admittedly—we can lesson their affect on our reasoning (at least, to some degree).

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But there's another mistake we make perhaps just as commonly as we reason through problems that if we don't make a conscious effort to correct will cause us to leap to the wrong conclusions again and again. It's a mistake as insidious as any caused by cognitive bias, but one unrelated. In fact, it may be even more insidious, for the better we're able to reason, to free ourselves from even the least of our cognitive biases, the more likely we are to make it. The mistake I'm referring to? Failing to question our assumptions.

Like cognitive biases, we're often not consciously aware of our assumptions. But all arguments, all conclusions, rest on them. With respect to the effect our assumptions have on our conclusions, we're all like computers: GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). No matter how flawless and unbiased we may train our reasoning to be, our conclusions will only be as valid as our assumptions.

While this is undoubtedly obvious to many of us, much of the time many of us still fail to question our assumptions enough. It's just so easy not to.

The remedy? Mindfulness. We must take the time and expend the energy to examine our own thought processes consciously and continuously. If the solutions we come up with for problems don't work, we at least have a reason to question our assumptions: our problem remains unsolved (though, surprisingly, we often still won't; rather we'll go back to examine our reasoning only, not the assumptions on which it's based). But often we're merely drawing conclusions about what we believe, not about a solution we need to implement. And in that circumstance, we have little impetus to challenge—or even examine—the first step in our reasoning, the step preceded by no other and ask ourselves why we believe it's true.

And here, of course, is where our cognitive biases exert their most powerful influence, often blinding us to the fact that what we assume is true is in reality false. But if you're after the truth more than you are a comforting feeling or the satisfaction of being right about something, you may just be able to open your mind to examining an assumption you don't like or don't want to believe, and therefore make it far more likely that the conclusion you reason your way toward is actually true.

Don't believe this is an issue for you—that you're pretty good at examining and uncovering your mistaken assumptions—or that you aren't operating with as many assumptions as others in your daily life? Then try this experiment: record one of your conversations. It doesn't matter who it's with or what it's about. Then listen to it with a pen in hand and for every statement you hear yourself make and every statement you hear the person with whom you're talking make, write down the assumptions that underlie them (in two columns, one for you and one for the other person). Then examine each assumption and rate the likelihood of it actually being true (0%-100%). If you're results are anything like mine, you're in for a surprise.

 

Dr. Lickerman's new book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self is available now. Please read the sample chapter and visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today!

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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