Ready for The Real Truth About Certainty?


By Yvonne Milosevic

By now, you’re likely familiar with the term confirmation bias. That’s our tendency to seek out—and favor—information that supports our existing beliefs. It pretty much rules our lives these days as we orbit only within like-minded knowledge bubbles. We’re so convinced of the correctness of our positions that we often have no interest in considering opposing viewpoints. The problem is, certainty can lead to close-mindedness.

While certainty makes us feel secure in our opinions, it closes all roads to greater insights. It also makes us incurious, which is not good for anyone striving to live their best life. “Being certain about the rightness or wrongness of others’ decisions leaves little room for us to grow or expand our understanding,” explains University of Michigan professor Morela Hernandez.

Hernandez is an organizational psychologist exploring the intersection of leadership and diversity. Her recent article in MIT Sloan Management Review provides a primer on how to get better at hearing out people with whom we disagree.

If we can’t control our knee-jerk reactions, says Hernandez, we limit our ability to make personal and professional progress. “We get stuck as individual citizens, and we get stuck as managers and leaders.” But making a conscious effort to become more comfortable with uncertainty can open up infinite possibilities.


How to get un-stuck from chronic certainty.

Here is Professor Hernandez’s three-step process for becoming more open to points of view that boggle our minds.

Step One: Embrace the tension. The world is ever more interconnected. As a result, the ability to speak thoughtfully and respect people of different backgrounds and opposing opinions has become vital. “In life and in business, this involves engaging with issues constantly and fully from multiple perspectives — even the points of view with which we disagree,” she notes. “Embracing a full range of views allows you to keep testing your own perspectives and assumptions.”

Step Two: Don’t run from stress. The importance of having a growth rather than a fixed mindset cannot be understated. Even if we disagree vehemently with one another, learning to listen without shutting down is paramount for understanding. “Acknowledging and leaning into the experience of disagreement will stretch (and squeeze) your patience and tolerance,” Hernandez says.

If you’re up for a true test of restraint, she suggests the following exercise. “Switch to a news channel or radio station that makes you mad. Listen long enough to allow your emotional reaction to stabilize (or subside) so your mind can process what’s being said.”

Step Three: Address the tension. Confronting your certainty provokes a stress reaction. “Addressing the damage caused by stress involves a purposeful process of recovery and growth,” Hernandez explains. But repair can’t happen without effort, and you may have to call in reinforcements. She suggests asking others to help you work through a perspective you’re having a hard time processing.

“By seeking out different challenges, greater nuance and care in how we characterize points of view that are different from our own,” adds Hernandez. “We become stronger and more flexible as both individuals and organizations.”

Can we learn to love being wrong?

“Beware of conviction masquerading as knowledge. The illusion of certainty can be intoxicating. The hill you’re willing to die on may be one you shouldn’t have climbed.” —Organizational psychologist Adam Grant

Wharton Professor Adam Grant released a new book this year called Think Again. In it, he investigates why we struggle to update our ideas and opinions and how we can get better at it. Grant argues that our ability to rethink and unlearn matters much more than raw intelligence.

“Saying ‘I was wrong’ isn’t an admission of incompetence,” Grant explains in this interview with Behavioral Scientist. “It’s a sign that you have the humility to recognize your mistakes and the integrity to learn from them. The faster you acknowledge when you’re wrong, the faster you can move toward being right.”