Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Difference between Feeling True and Being True

In her book, Being Wrong, Kathryn Schultz explains that being wrong feels exactly like being right! It is our nature to assume that the knowledge we possess is correct. Our level of certainty tends to remain constant regardless of whether we are actually right, or if we just mistakenly think that we are right. We enjoy an ongoing sense of rightness until the very moment we are proven wrong. 

In teaching General Psychology, I found that each chapter we cover carries the underlying message that, as humans, we are nearly always wrong about nearly everything. Our memories are erroneous. Our sensory perceptions are flawed. We are unable to conceptualize large numbers and great spans of time. We are easily fooled by appeals to emotion. Our innate tendency to make sweeping generalizations based on tiny bits of information creates an environment of near-chronic wrongness.

Despite chronic wrongness, it is natural for us to trust our feelings, our thoughts, and our perceptions. Navigating human life would otherwise be impossible. Our sense of rightness enables us to make decisions and take necessary actions. It is an unfortunate side-effect of living in this bubble of pleasant certainty that we experience shame when proven wrong. We stubbornly resist opportunities to improve on the accuracy of our respective funds of knowledge, because being proven wrong is so unpleasant. We are mortified as the false perception, “if I am proven wrong, then I am made a fool,” emerges. Evidence abounds to suggest that the accurate interpretation should be, “if I am proven wrong, then I am learning, developing and improving.”

  • Make friends with being proven wrong. The moment you understand that being proven wrong is necessary to becoming a better you, a world of opportunity materializes. As Dudley Field Malone said, “I never in my life learned anything from a man who agreed with me.”
  • Be a skeptic. Skeptics are not the same as pessimists. Pessimists are characterized by feelings of negativity and hopelessness. Skeptics are simply people who require evidence before believing a piece of information. Being skeptical is the opposite of being gullible. 
  • Don’t be fooled by emotionally persuasive manipulations. Arguments that are supported by appeals to tradition, popular opinion, common sense, weak analogies, attacks on character, and false generalizations all exploit the human tendency to trust gut feelings and emotional responses.
  • Learn to identify actual evidence. Very often, actual evidence will conflict with gut feelings and emotional responses. True evidence is measurable and empirical. I may feel that this was the hottest summer ever. However, if measurable data indicates otherwise, I must trust the empirical evidence over my feelings.

So, if I am interested in finding the truth, then I must understand that, while gut feelings are useful, they are an extremely fallible resource. I must continuously test my gut feelings against objective litmuses like logic, mathematics, research results, and physical properties. I must learn to trust real evidence, especially when it conflicts with my emotional leanings. 

The ability to override gut feelings enables humans to operate beyond the confines of biological and environmental programming. Every animal on the planet is a slave to intuition. Throughout the majority of human history, we have operated exactly like every other species in this respect. However, logic, mathematics and the scientific method provide a means for humans to break the bonds of primitive thought processes. Determining the difference between feeling true and being true is the mechanism for transformation.

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