Beware of the experts
Remember what I said about how recognising social heuristics in different situations can help you make less biased decisions? In my previous post, I talked about the availability heuristic. Or What you see is all there is.
In part 2, I’d like to take the risk of not making friends by stating that we all should be aware of experts. Unfortunately, experts are everywhere. And very often, they’re not putting in effort to minimise their presence. And they can really mess up our projects, products and decisions.
Now, I get why you might think that I’m not a big fan of experts. But that’s not the case, actually. I am a huge fan of true experts. Myself, I am an aspiring true expert on many topics. That doesn’t stop me (unfortunately) from acting like (or mimicking) an expert every now and then.
The observant reader might have noticed the word ‘true’ in the previous sentences. This is where it gets interesting: there is a subtle — but crucial — difference between being a true expert, and relying on expert intuition. Doing the latter too often might rally harm your projects, products and decisions.
Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it. (Henry Ford)
True expertise or expert intuition? — That’s the question.
For an ‘expert’, cues are fantastic. If a situation provides a cue, then that cue provides the expert access to the information about this in his/her memory. That information will provide the answer. To be more specific: the only correct answer.
Except that it usually isn’t. The thing is, you can always find reasons and arguments that support your decisions. Especially if you are a so-called expert. This is where it gets tricky: Even if you think you’re relying on system 2 because ‘look at all the supportive arguments I can come up with’ — you are, in fact, still relying on your system 1.
Because you’re so-called expert, you have access to plenty of supportive arguments. The availability heuristic will be happy to help you with that. To add to the mix, overconfidence will help you create a tunnel vision and filter out any counter arguments that might get you to doubt yourself and your brilliant decision.
A true expert will be able to come up with counter arguments, think critically about a decision and still stands by that decision. So it’s up to us to recognise whether or not we are being (or dealing with) a true expert or relying on expert intuition…
Relying on expert intuition is strongly related to overconfidence — a social heuristic that can get us in serious trouble. This heuristic is all about what the mind believes it knows. And that can get tricky. Part of that has to do with the fact that we are way more likely to ask ourselves “How do I feel about that?”, rather than “What do I think about that?”. So we are actively asking our System 1, and base a lot of our decisions and behaviour on these outcomes. That, in turn, can increase the possibility of being overconfident and relying on expert intuition.
So what is the right amount of confidence then? I’ve been grappling with this question for some time now as well. On the one hand, we need to tone down our level of confidence, because it could get us into some serious trouble; it could heavily affect our projects, decisions, and interpersonal relationships (in a negative way). However, if you walk into a book shop (or am I the only one who still does that?) or scroll through your LinkedIn timeline, you can find plenty of self-help books and -articles that tell you how to increase your confidence. “Stop doubting your greatness and start living the awesome life you deserve!”
That made me wonder — where is the middle ground here? Where’s the compromise?
This is where we circle back to the difference between being a true expert and relying on expert intuition. If we can observe and recognise which of these two options we’re dealing with, then we can decide when we need to overcome overconfidence in order to make a better decision.
Spoiler alert: Overcoming overconfidence requires you to really reflect on yourself and your actions, and to consider the possibility that you might be wrong… That’s uncomfortable, scary and very hard to believe — I know — but especially in complicated domains with known risks, we should go there.
How can I do that? Obviously your next question, right? Luckily, there are a few things you could consider start doing.
- Make yourself feel uncomfortable — Meaning that you will have to force yourself to question your decision. Why would this NOT be the best decision? What are the counter arguments? Are they valid? Do they make me question my decision? You can also ask others to make you feel uncomfortable. I would highly recommend to only do this with people you trust and value, just to avoid a hostile atmosphere. Let them question your decision, ask questions and help you decide whether this is the best decision or not.
- Get comfortable with critical thinking — And by critical thinking I’m not referring to the regular, everyday thinking you often mistake for critical thinking. I’m talking about hardcore critical thinking, addressing your System 2 which requires cognitive energy. Recognising heuristics and biases will definitely help you in getting better at this. The same goes for asking the right questions. Without judgement.
What do I already know? What are the basic assumptions that have I have made? What am I trying to validate or invalidate? Stuff like that. From my experience, you can never ask too many questions. Make sure you get the context right before making a decision. After all, it’s context that shapes meaning.
Bonus material — Personal suffering
I am suffering from this subtle semantics difference as well. You see, when you write about, talk about and go on stage talking about social heuristics and how they affect everything we do, some people tend to label you as an expert. This is some dangerous collateral damage. Sure, I read about this stuff (a lot), I study it, it’s a big part of my job, and I do have an opinion based on knowledge and experience, but it’s still thin ice. There is no such thing as absolute truth.
Quite often, people ask me how they can train their brain to ‘be better’ at addressing and using their system 2. And since I cannot give you an extensive list of exercises, tasks and training you could do to ‘get better’, I could very easily fall from the ‘Expert-pedestal’.
Oh sweet irony… The fact that I cannot provide that sort of list actually demonstrates that I did force myself to be uncomfortable, looked for counter arguments and questioned myself. Still standing by that answer (or advice…) after that uncomfortable exercise could also be perceived as a sign of true expertise… Ah well, let’s call it food for discussion!
But seriously. Could I train my brain to be better at addressing my system 2? (I can hear you think that…)
The short and disappointing answer is no. However, there’s more nuance to the story. Let me get back to that in part 3 of this sequel: Can I train my brain to be better at using System 2?