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This Is the Problem With Being Right

Have you ever thought you were right, even when presented with strong evidence to the contrary?

People tend to hold their beliefs and opinions closely. Particularly when those beliefs and opinions are grounded in some kind of moral or ethical viewpoint.

There’s nothing wrong with having strong religious and/or political beliefs, but our attachment to them can dilute our open-mindedness. We become susceptible to confirmation bias, and less willing to grapple with counter-arguments and inconvenient facts.

If we’re not careful, we can fall victim to “monkey trap thinking.” An article in Psychology Today explains:

“In a physical monkey trap, a monkey is enticed to grab a nut inside a box. Grabbing the nut makes their fist too big to pull out of the box. The monkey really wants the nut, and so they will refuse to let go of it. They become trapped and get captured (and still don’t get the nut).”

Just like the monkey holding on to that nut, we hold onto our beliefs and opinions. And sometimes those beliefs and opinions can trap us, or make us assume the worst in others.

The Psychology Today article continues:

“Monkey trap thinking is very dangerous because when you have it, you can easily assume malice in those who may not agree with you. A trapped monkey is a scared monkey is an aggressive monkey.”

Monkey trap thinking probably explains a good deal of the political polarization in the United States and elsewhere. But it also causes us to become close-minded, with strangers, friends, and even family.

Progress is impossible without change

How many of us doubt what we know, are curious about what we don’t know, and update our views based on new data? Probably very few of us.

When it comes to decision making, we’re often a lot like preachers, prosecutors, and politicians. In other words, we have agendas.

According to Adam Grant, author of “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know,” we should try to be more like scientists. Strive to be humble in our convictions, curious about the alternatives, and open to discovery and experimentation.

“Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” -George Bernard Shaw

Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he has been the top-rated professor for seven straight years.

In his book Think Again, Grant writes:

“This book is an invitation to let go of knowledge and opinions that are no longer serving you well, and to anchor your sense of self in flexibility rather than consistency.”

Think about some of the old opinions and views that may not be serving you well. Have you become so inflexible that you’ve become close-minded?

We worry so much about being wrong that we close ourselves off to a mindset of constant learning and discovery.

An article about Grant’s book Think Again in the Wall Street Journal suggests we embrace “confident humility,” allowing us “to see our strengths and weaknesses clearly and adjust for both.” The article adds:

“Mr. Grant argues that the most innovative thinkers don’t just accept when they are wrong, they take genuine pleasure in it, and delight in having their intellectual world rocked. They are not personally invested in being right all the time. As hedge fund manager Ray Dalio tells Mr. Grant: “If you don’t look back at yourself and think, ‘Wow, how stupid I was a year ago,’ then you must not have learned much in the last year.”

The things you look at change

Mary Barra is the chief executive for General Motors. In the past, she went along with relaxed standards for fuel-efficiency targets. No doubt the relaxed standards saved GM money, and chief executives always have an eye on the bottom line.

More recently, Mary Barra has done a complete about-face, pledging to stop making gasoline-powered passenger cars, vans, and sport utility vehicles by 2035.

Barra wrote on LinkedIn:

“As one of the world’s largest automakers, we hope to set an example of responsible leadership in a world that is faced with climate change.”

An article in the Washington Post notes:

“GM has said it would invest $27 billion in electric vehicles and associated products between 2020 and 2025, outstripping its spending on conventional gasoline and diesel vehicles. That figure includes refurbishing factories and investing in battery production in conjunction with LG Chem, a South Korean battery maker.”

Renewable and clean energy technologies continue to improve, and battery technology is advancing quickly. Not to mention, the political landscape has a growing eye on climate-friendly, green solutions.

Smart business leaders like Mary Barra can’t afford to ignore the changing landscape of technological and political trends. While the electric vehicle industry represents less than 2 percent of automobiles sold in the United States, things are quickly changing.

“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” -Wayne Dyer

No doubt Barra challenged her past notions about the automobile industry and its future direction. Instead of being the monkey (GM) holding onto the nut (gas-powered vehicles), Barra decided to pivot.

Barra doesn’t want GM to be producing nostalgic, increasingly regulated vehicles while companies like Tesla and Volkswagen transition to the future.

Despite the huge expense GM will face in its update to electric vehicles, Barra’s embrace of confident humility just might lead to a bright future for GM.

The problem with being right is that you might just be wrong. Also, you might resist learning new things, lest they challenge your “rightness.”

Embracing “confident humility” means not taking yourself so seriously, and learning to ask the question, “What if I’m wrong?”

Here are a few tips to develop confident humility.

Listen more and talk less

Humble people don’t inflict their opinions on others, they listen first. When they do talk, they don’t lecture. They share.

Conversation should not be a contest, but a free exchange of ideas. Whether you agree or not isn’t the point. It should be about expanding your understanding.

Get curious

Be willing to explore alternatives, however different or contrary to your views and perspectives. Read books and articles that challenge your positions. Ask more questions, and then seek evidence based answers.

Be open to discovery

Better to find out you were wrong and learn from it than remain misinformed. To that end, be open to discovery. Travel. Explore different cultures. Talk to people who are different from you.

Focus on flexibility over stubborn consistency

Steal a page from Adam Grant. Think more like a scientist and less like a preacher, prosecutor, or politician.

Good scientists want the truth, not what’s convenient to their positions. They would rather be wrong, and move closer to the truth, than fall prey to monkey trap thinking.

It feels good to be right, but this doesn’t empower others. By embracing confident humility, you’ll keep arrogance in check.

You’ll also be more open to opposing views, and willing to embrace compromises and concessions along the way to mutually beneficial solutions.

If we all embrace confident humility, the world will be a better place.

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