Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you’re not sure whether or not someone likes you. You think that there’s a possibility that a connection exists, but you don’t have enough information to tell. You end up talking to your friends for hours trying to determine the meaning of small micro bursts of eye contact or the implications of fairly ordinary questions. The truth is that although you’re hoping for the best, you don’t really know what the other person thinks about you. No matter what opinion you end up taking, the possibility that you’re deluding yourself still remains.
If you’ve felt this way in the past, you’re not alone. The truth is that a lot of the time we lack enough information to form an air-tight opinion on a subject matter. From the student who believes he is doing well in a class only to find out that he got a C, to the employee who thinks they are the top performer only to find that someone else receives the coveted promotion, the reality is that the risk of delusion is a normal part of everyday life.
Often this delusion is painful and really it’s better to know the truth. In this post I will share a simple three step process that can help to reduce the possibility of delusion in any situation. Here it is:
Step 1: Get More Information— Determine what information you need to reduce uncertainly and go get it.
Step 2: Update Your Beliefs— Find out how this new information effects your beliefs. Ask yourself whether the new information conflicts with you past thoughts. If so, update your beliefs to reflect this new information.
Step 3: Repeat if Necessary
Let’s go into more detail.
Step 1: Get More Information
Most of the time the threat of a delusion arises because we don’t have enough information to know the reality of a situation. It is hard to mistake the romantic intentions of another person if you ask them point blank whether or not they like you. Likewise it is hard to be deluded about your school work if you take a practice exam and find that you are barely achieving a passing grade. But if you’ve never asked that blunt question or haven’t been testing yourself it’s often difficult to know exactly where you stand.
As a psychology student I’m all too familiar with the problems that a lack of information can cause. When considering the design of an experiment, psychologists usually try to recruit as many participants as they can. The reason for this is simple: the larger the number of participants, the smaller the chances that the results achieved are purely down to luck. In other words, the more information you have, the more you can trust your results.
Think about what new information would be most valuable to you? Is there an easy test you can perform to get a better understanding of where you stand? Is there another way of looking at your situation that might provide you with additional insight?
Step 2: Update Your Beliefs
Let’s assume that you have collected some additional information. The next step is to try and evaluate what this new information means. In what way do you need to update your beliefs based on what you have learnt?
Suppose you’re Galileo in the 17th century looking through your telescope towards the moons of Jupiter. Up until this point all your learning and the wisdom of the day has you believing that all objects orbit the earth. You notice, however, that Jupiter appears to have four objects orbiting it– it has moons! Based on this new information you’re forced to confront your old beliefs. Maybe the same force that keeps the moons orbiting around Jupiter also forces the earth to orbit the sun.
Although Galileo had the courage to trust the new information he found, and to update his beliefs accordingly, this doesn’t seem to be the norm for most of us. We love to cling to our past beliefs, they are a part of us. Psychologists even have a word for this phenomenon– confirmation bias. That’s why it’s essential for you to really think hard about how the new information you’ve learnt effects your beliefs.
If the new information you find creates a conflict in what you previously thought you knew, be honest with yourself. What does the new information really mean for you?
Step 3: Repeat if Necessary
Each time you run these two steps you reduce the chances that you are deluding yourself, because the degree of uncertainty goes down. The goal is to keep on repeating the process until you feel that you feel that you have collected enough data to be minimizing your risks of delusion.
Although it’s never possible to completely eliminate uncertainty, it is definitely possible to reduce it. Sometimes the truth can be hard to take, but in the long run a life that is as free of delusion as possible will give you the greatest amount of space to grow.
John Paton is a psychology and operations research student at Cornell University. He is interested in reverse engineering the brain and applying scientific principles to personal development. He writes at optimizethyself.com.