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The Virtue of Doubt

Three ways thinking twice can enhance your life.

Key points

  • Suspending judgement and opening our minds can enhance our relationships.
  • Doubt can help us peel away layers of self-deception to live more authentically.
  • Learning new things requires us to be willing to look past old beliefs or ways of doing things.

Confidence is often honored in American culture. Yet, as demonstrated by the Dunning-Krueger effect, confidence does not always mean competence. Social psychologists have discovered that those who are often unskilled at something are also the least aware (Schlösser et al., 2013). Similarly, when someone knows little about a topic, they are more likely to feel certain of what they think they know.

Some fear that doubt must mean a total loss of security. Yet, a reasonable questioning of ourselves can serve as a gateway to learning new things, exploring ourselves, and ensuring we are on track in living our values. As much as confidence is, doubt can also be celebrated.

These are three ways that doubt can enhance your life.

1. Enhance Relationships

In mentalization-based therapy, there is something called a 'not-knowing' stance wherein the therapist listens to understand while suspending assumptions (Bateman et al., 2018). Often, our sureness in what we believe we know about other people can get in the way of us truly relating. When we step away from our judgments, recognizing that we do not have access to each other's inner worlds unless others grant it to us, we prime ourselves to relate. Similarly, when we have already made up our minds about what someone has to say before they have said it based on the prejudices we have toward them, we automatically create distance.

2. Challenge Self-Deception

Self-deception is something we all deal with to one extent or another. It can be in small matters like telling ourselves we're enjoying a carnival when we aren't, or greater issues, such as unawareness of an addiction. Taking a moment to reflect, gives us space to face ourselves, including parts that may be more difficult to accept. This can help us to take action on difficulties we may have previously been denying.

3. Learn New Things

It's easy for us to get trapped in old beliefs or ways of doing things. Sort of like a path in a field; the more we tell ourselves something, the easier it is to fall into that way of thinking. Doubt is hard. It's like taking a new path in the field. Still, that path can end with us gaining new perspectives, updating our ideas, and gaining new skills.

In Closing

While doubt may not often be revered in our culture, it holds many benefits. Doubt of ideas does not have to mean doubt of our value, but rather upholding our value high enough to question ourselves so that we can move toward what is most central. Ideally, we might seek to strike a balance between doubt and confidence, with both holding value.


Bateman, A. W., Fonagy, P., & Campbell, C. (2018). Mentalization‑based treatment. In W. J. Livesley & R. Larstone (Eds.), Handbook of personality disorders: Theory, research, and treatment (2nd ed., pp. 541–554). The Guilford Press.

Schlösser, T., Dunning, D., Johnson, K. L., & Kruger, J. (2013). How unaware are the unskilled? Empirical tests of the “signal extraction” counterexplanation for the Dunning–Kruger effect in self-evaluation of performance. Journal of Economic Psychology, 39, 85-100.

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