Wisdom or certainty?

Both wisdom and certainty are valuable, but if you have one, you can’t have the other

henever we decide to spend money on something, we are doing what economists call allocating a scarce resource one way rather than another. We could have chosen to buy a book, but we bought a coffee and a piece of pie instead. In fact, every time we buy something, we make a trade-off, whether we realize it or not.

When they involve money, such decisions are relatively easy because money is easy to quantify, and allows us to compare perceived values. We can play around in our heads with how the trade-off would go if the price of various things was a little lower or higher. We can also easily imagine what else we could do with the money we’re about to spend. This enables us to rationalize the choice: even if we don’t always do so, we can work out whether whatever we want to buy is actually worth the corresponding sacrifice.

But sometimes trade-offs take on a more dramatic shape. Then they are not about whether a book or coffee and pie is the best use of a scarce resource like money, but about the inevitable loss that goes together with a particular choice. If you choose X, you can’t have Y — and if you choose Y, you lose X. Such trade-offs can be pretty painful. Picture this: your best friend invites you to her wedding, but it falls in the weekend of the F1-Grand Prix for which you already have bought tickets (at great expense) and to which you had been looking forward so much. Or you get this job offer of a fantastically paid job, but you would need to move to a different continent, leaving behind the friends and family to whom you have been so close all your life. Money doesn’t help much here.

Trade-offs outside the sphere of economics

And such hard trade-offs also arise outside the sphere of economics. A couple of weeks ago, early on a Saturday morning, I came across a tweet that highlighted another kind:

Perhaps, Dan Sacks, who is an economist, is atypical, and most of us think changing our mind is no big deal, but somehow I suspect we are a lot like him. We don’t easily really change our mind, because there is a trade-off at work here — a situation where changing our mind means we gain something, but we also lose something that we are loath to give up.

The benefit of changing your mind is evident: we replace an old belief with a new belief, because it is right and the old one is wrong, or at the very least because it is superior and fits the facts better. So what might be the downside? Maybe there is some endowment effect and loss aversion: we own the old belief, and we resist giving it up. That would explain some of the discomfort we feel when a view is challenged, and our attempts to hold on to it, sometimes in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

But the bigger consequence of changing our mind is that we grow wiser. And while we may consider wisdom as an unconditionally positive feature in isolation, it is incompatible with something else that we highly value: certainty. For wisdom encompasses the ability to see and understand nuance. When you see the nuance in any picture, few certainties persist. We spot ever more exceptions to any rule that looked so solid before.

Certainties are so valuable because they allow us to make choices without having to go through annoying and difficult trade-offs. If you are certain that vaccines are evil, then you don’t need to agonize whether or not to go for a flu jab, or whether or not you should ensure your children get the MMR vaccine. (The same thinking applies if you are certain vaccines are good of course.) We continually call on heuristics to help us choose — and they are encoded certainties. As consumers, we rely on ‘rules’ like German-built equals better quality, big brands are trustworthy, or E-numbers are to be avoided. In politics, we apply heuristics too: the Tories want to dismantle the NHS, or Labour cannot be trusted with the economy, and UKIP voters are all racists; or perhaps the Republicans only care about the rich, or the Democrats want an ever bigger state, and Trump supporters are all racists.

Much of the time, even though these certainties are in reality nothing of the kind, as long as we believe them to be certain, they can serve us well. The problem arises when we change our mind, and we grow wiser. This can be gentle, for example we read an article suggesting that the best scoring washing machines come from the Far East rather than from Germany, or we can learn more abruptly that even popular brands can slip up. While in some cases the old certainties can live on as probabilities and likelihoods, the new knowledge certainly provides nuance and conditionality.

Devil’s advocate

Interestingly, a tension between wisdom and certainty seems also to exist in the functioning of our brain. Earlier this week I had the privilege of spending an evening in the company of Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist with a profound knowledge of the brain, in particular of the study of the two brain hemispheres. His insights are captured in one of the many wonderful RSA videos:

As the pudding was served, he entertained and (mostly) educated the assembled company with fascinating insights of the left and right brain. One part of his talk that stuck with me is that the two brain halves observe the world in different ways, and cooperate to develop a composite picture that is the best suited for our purpose. The left brain has a narrow focus, and tends to look for precision and accuracy (the ‘certainty’), while the right brain adduces context, connections with the rest of the world, and shades of grey (the ‘nuance’). The right brain often acts as the devil’s advocate, Iain explained, exploring possibilities and offering multiple alternative explanations.

But despite the balancing hardware of our brain, the attraction of simplicity and certainty is huge. You only have to look at the ease with which claims from the social sciences are adopted, as some popular examples suggest. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist, and author Malcolm Gladwell gave the world the 10,000 hour rule (practising for that amount of time is what it takes to develop expertise); psychologist John Bargh and colleagues showed that priming people with and elderly stereotype walked out of the room more slowly; and psychologist Amy Cuddy and colleagues found that adopting so-called ‘power poses’ helped people perform better in business settings. All of these gained considerable currency, because of the widespread media interest and, let’s be honest, because they just sound pretty cool. All of them have also been called into question, however — in the case of the power poses even by one of the authors. Has this led to their wholesale rejection? Not really: many people continue to prefer the comfortable certainty over the messy wisdom that, perhaps, sometimes, and in certain circumstances, the claims are true, but maybe not otherwise.

Change your view

But there are also people for whom changing viewpoint is not something to be done reluctantly and only under significant pressure — on the contrary. These are the members of the Change My View community on Reddit, one of the largest discussion sites on the internet. (You Are Not So Smart, a splendid podcast series, devoted an episode to this Reddit community a few weeks ago, which comes highly recommended.) It has more than 200,000 users, who come to it deliberately to have their beliefs challenged (and to challenge those of others). And intriguingly, over one third of the around 20 new views people bring to the community do indeed get changed.

Yet for most of us, while gaining wisdom is, in principle, a boon, having to let go of the comfortable certainty, no matter how inaccurate it is, remains a big obstacle to changing your mind. Besides, we may simply not have the capacity to amass wisdom about everything. In a recent post, Chris Dillow writes

“It seems to me personally […] that in the face of complexity and the high costs of acquiring reliable information, there’s something to be said for rational ignorance. The cost of moving even from being uninformed to badly informed is high.”

So perhaps the trade-off is not only between wisdom and certainty, but also between ignorance and certainty. Is it better — wiser even — to remain ignorant and to know you are, than to hang on to unwarranted beliefs that give you the comfort of certainty?

Maybe that is a belief to post on Change My View

Originally published at koenfucius.wordpress.com on October 21, 2016.

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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