Mental Wealth: Why we should not kid ourselves

Overconfidence that we know more than we actually do means we rarely take adequate precautions to deal with life's perils.

Nick Baylis: our resident psychologist says we should apply 'healthy scepticism'
Nick Baylis: our resident psychologist says we should apply 'healthy scepticism'

One of the best proven phenomena in contemporary psychology is our ludicrously inaccurate predictions about what will make us happy, even in the near future.

Yet, in every life arena, we persist in investing heavily in our deeply fallible forecasts: we eat or drink more than helps; buy clothes we change our minds about when we try them on at home; and accept jobs, move houses and make personal commitments only to have unforeseen factors arise to spoil things.

The eventual price of our grossly inflated assumptions about ourselves, others and the events that will bear upon us can prove deeply onerous.

But it’s not just you and I fooling ­ourselves about knowing things that we quite simply do not. The gulf between our artificial or inadequate understanding and the full reality of things might explain why, for a so-called knowledge-based society, an awful lot of our activities are dreadfully damaging, with consequences such as global warming, war and obesity.

Individuals and societies so want to feel in command of the situation that we fudge the evidence for ourselves and others, wherever we can. Only when things such as Ebola, financial crisis or addiction bring us to our knees do we begrudgingly concede that we didn’t know nearly enough.

Likewise, it’s only a tidy fairytale that scientists build neatly upon the accumulating ideas of esteemed predecessors. Most breakthroughs in our truly durable knowledge of the world have been entirely unconnected to the artificial dogma that the mainstream authorities in power were currently peddling.

Cases in point include: Galileo’s solar system; Newton’s gravity; Darwin’s natural selection; Pasteur’s germ theory; Einstein’s relativity; Whittle’s jet engine; Turin’s computer; and Crick and Watson’s DNA structure. Those pioneers were newcomers or pariahs who transformed their fields with their entirely fresh and iconoclastic approach. It’s as if those innovators were marching to the motto: ‘Let’s stop assuming and test instead.’

Can we benefit from doing the same? Because what tends to happen on a personal, day-to-day level is that we routinely and seriously underestimate the risk of bad things happening, because it’s uncomfortable to imagine them doing so; this head-in-the-sand approach means we rarely take adequate precautions proportionate to the perils at stake – perhaps we drive dangerously fast and don’t save enough for a dark and rainy day – because we presume we’ll get away with it like we always do.

The flip side of our misguided confidence about what we think we know and think will happen is that we don’t try hard enough to make good things come about because we think failure is a foregone conclusion.

In short, we fail to explore sufficiently, either because it feels like too much trouble or we fear what we might find out... perhaps finding fatal flaws in our longed-for future. But not taking the trouble to grasp the nettle now will cost us dearly just a little way down the road, in terms of the mirages chased and the missed opportunities.

What we could try instead is to apply some healthy scepticism: ‘I don’t know nearly as much as I think I do about this conundrum or opportunity and it would pay me well to reconnoitre.’

When we dare to consider on how many occasions such a humble declaration could have saved us a whole heap of trouble that lay just out of sight, we might suddenly sense the self-motivating power in owning up to not knowing and the satisfying rewards of investigating further.

Visit Nick’s website at DrNickBaylis.com

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