Is Certainty Bias Limiting Your Clout? Don’t Be So Sure

 man looking at camera with arms crossedHave you ever been so sure about something that it seems impossible to see things another way? Perhaps you’ve chosen a preschool for your kid, decided to buy a certain kind of car, or are attached to a particular viewpoint in politics, sports, or just at home with your partner.

Our opinions and preferences shape who we are. For those in leadership roles, they can influence the direction of a company or even a country.

That’s why it’s so important to acknowledge certainty bias. It can lead well-intentioned people astray. Whether we are presidents, partners, or parents, we must not be so dedicated to our viewpoints that we are unwilling to consider alternatives, no matter how far-fetched they may seem.

For most of us, our certainty bias comes out in arguments with coworkers or romantic partners. For example, we might decide to purchase something or go somewhere based on a “gut feeling” or “a sense.” We might argue with a partner about a way to do something that we think is best. We become entrenched in the notion that our way is “right,” overlooking the reality that most approaches are not subject to empirical testing and are simply ideas we have ventured. Certainty bias means that we take as fact something that is based at best on a hunch.

All hunches (especially those that involve other people) need to be checked out. Of course, most of us are not going to rigorously test the best way to load a dishwasher or keep to a budget. Even if there is truly a most efficient or cost-effective approach, we are entitled to our preferences and the freedom to believe in how we like to do something. What is important is the humility with which we assert ourselves, especially with those we love. If we can maintain an open mind when discussing something we fervently believe in, it will strengthen our ability to influence. People respond to flexibility and appreciate someone who can tolerate viewpoints other than his or her own.

How do we stay aware of our certainty biases? Solution-focused therapy helps alert people to the times they limit themselves by becoming too rigid in their thinking or behavior. During therapy sessions, we discuss why they are so stubborn about their viewpoints and what happens to their moods or interactions when they have trouble maintaining flexibility. As with all solution-focused therapy, we try to focus on the exceptions to these difficulties—the times when it is easy to maintain an open mind, and what allows a person to do so in one situation and not another.

We are entitled to our preferences and the freedom to believe in how we like to do something. What is important is the humility with which we assert ourselves, especially with those we love.

We can never eliminate certainty bias, but we can choose to listen and try to understand other viewpoints. For some people, reminding themselves that they need only listen when another person is talking is good enough. If you’re not busy trying to come up with a response, you can better hear what your partner or your coworker is saying. Sometimes that person is saying something you can agree with—what a relief!

Since most of us are not scientists who develop and test theories with practice and precision, we can relax knowing that we aren’t supposed to have the answers to everything. This isn’t a natural response for many people; to relax in the face of not knowing can seem impossible. But there is enlightenment in what we don’t know. In therapy, we explore why we prefer things one way to another. We seek to discover more about our tendencies and comfort zones. The more we know about when and why we assert ourselves, the better we can offer open-mindedness to the world around us.

There is nothing so secure as knowing our preferences but being able to tolerate (or even embrace) another approach. So the next time you are looking for fortitude in decision-making or improvement in problem-solving skills, let your certainty bias become a strength. Seek the guidance of a mental health professional if you want support.

For a more in-depth exploration of certainty bias, check out Robert Burton’s book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lindsey Antin, MA, MFT, therapist in Berkeley, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Haven

    Haven

    April 6th, 2015 at 10:28 AM

    tHese are those people who refuse to see a different point of view, and who argue that the sky is green just to try to make their point! Really I have no patience for people like this. I am entitled to my opinion and you are entitled to yours, sure, but at what cost? I refuse to have everything turn into some major argument just so that you can “win”.

  • Andrew A.

    Andrew A.

    April 6th, 2015 at 1:09 PM

    This was eloquently written and very straightforward. There are practical ways to manage uncertainty. On a real fundamental level, Mindfulness assists in actively not attaching to thoughts and beliefs. It is much easier to listen to someone when you are not preoccupied by your own thoughts.

  • mason d

    mason d

    April 6th, 2015 at 2:39 PM

    I have been with those people who just have to always be right about everything. It really leaves no room for the rest of us when they insist on acting that way.

  • Tucker

    Tucker

    April 6th, 2015 at 5:01 PM

    I like a confident person and that’s how I like to come across to other people

  • mari c

    mari c

    April 7th, 2015 at 10:25 AM

    How timely now that the story written by the Rolling Stone journalist has been proven to be false!
    I am sure that in many ways while doing this story she thought that she was saying the right things and getting the right information but she was so sure… and n now so much of what was reported and published has wound up being shown to be a lie, or at least a strong exaggeration of the truth.

  • LazyDaisy

    LazyDaisy

    April 8th, 2015 at 10:15 AM

    Um I am thinking that this could have been written about my boss? He is so tunnel vision on the fact or supposed fact that everything that he believes and says is the truth that he is never willing to look at something from another point of view. It can be frustrating to the rest of us because no matter what you say, what he thinks is always right. You sort of feel like there will never be any winning or even any wiggle room with him.

  • Piper

    Piper

    April 10th, 2015 at 10:47 AM

    It is always good to stay open to other possibilities. This can be hard, especially for those of us who already struggle with having to be right all the time. But that possibility is out there and it is so much better to concede when you could be wrong or that there could be another point of view to consider versus being stuck in your ways and losing friends because of that misled certainty.

  • kel

    kel

    April 12th, 2015 at 7:48 AM

    Of course it limits you because if other people are like me then the LAST person that I want to listen to is that one person who acts like they already know everything.

  • Izzy

    Izzy

    April 13th, 2015 at 6:20 AM

    Real growth is shown when you finally see that there are far more solutions available and right answers out there than just Yours.

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