How often do we get it wrong?
Probably more often than you and I would like to admit.
Einstein once said “There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.”
It seems that he got it wrong too.
We all do, at one point or another. The thing is, we’re emotionally so unprepared to face it.
I volunteer as a mentor of young girls. Many of our conversations these days revolve around their choice of subjects for the coming year. ‘Should I take photography? Or would it be a waste of my time? What about Art and Design?’
Inevitably many of these conversations focus on their anxiety about making the right choices.
So I get them to look at their main assumptions:
The assumption that there’s a right answer, a right combination of subjects for each year, that only they can find.
The assumption that they can predict the future and know what choices be best for them.
When examined closely, they agree that there‘s no rational foundation for thinking this way.
And guess what?
Although they eventually agree that this way of thinking is not useful or accurate, they still worry and feel anxious about their choices.
We are fascinating creatures.
Daniel Kahneman recounts a similar experience when publishing Thinking Fast and Slow. One of the chapters in the book is about behavioural priming: the idea that exposing people to an external stimulus (for example a colour, a smell, or words) has the potential to influence their actions.
Kahneman said that at that time, the evidence for this was important and relevant. He said he thought he was doing the right thing, meaning that if there was a large and diverse body of published evidence that support a conclusion, you must believe it.
But he was wrong.
When studies on behavioural priming were replicated they didn’t produce the same results. Kahneman had to publicly retract the content of this chapter.
And then he said something really interesting:
“ It turns out that I only changed my mind about the evidence. My view of how the mind works didn’t change at all. The evidence is gone, but the beliefs are still standing.”
Kahneman agreed with the overwhelming evidence but never changed his mind.
The girls I talk to agree that they can’t foresee the future, but this doesn’t change their belief that there’s a right choice out there waiting for them to discover it.
It is always going to be nearly impossible to change people’s minds because beliefs are far too important for all of us.
Show them the evidence, talk about their assumptions and yours, and let them come up with their own conclusions.
Sometimes a productive disagreement is one in which people change what they do, but not necessarily what they think.