Slow Down, You Think Too Fast

How to get better at second-guessing yourself

At some point in your life, someone has probably urged you to “go with your gut!” Conventional wisdom is that our first instincts are always correct. We treat intuition like a divine judgment call that will guide us in the right direction.

But our first thoughts aren’t always our best thoughts. Many studies, like this one published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, have found that when students rethink and change their answers on a test, those answers are more often correct than incorrect. In other words, “trust your gut” might not be the best advice after all.

“A lot of times intuition is just subconscious pattern recognition,” says social psychologist Adam Grant. “And the patterns that you’re recognizing from the past may not be relevant to the problem you’re solving right now.” Grant argues there’s value in second-guessing your thoughts, opinions, and beliefs – even when you’re not taking a standardized test.

If you find yourself reading this and feeling resistant, it might be your “totalitarian ego” talking. There’s a little voice inside us that will avoid being wrong at all costs – even if it means rejecting new information, refusing to apologize, or shooting down perfectly good ideas. Your inner dictator wants to protect you from the pain of being wrong. What it doesn’t realize is that there are advantages in admitting your mistakes and sitting with uncertainty.

Science provides a good model for the virtues of second-guessing. In an interview with the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), philosopher Edgar Morin said,

“Science philosophers have specifically shown us that dissension is an inherent part of research, which actually needs it to move forward. ” 

Rethinking is a crucial part of scientifically understanding the world. Now, even scientists are sometimes held hostage by the totalitarian ego. How can we all become more open-minded to criticism and second-guessing? Start by cultivating what Grant calls a “challenge network.” That is to say, surround yourself with people who question you, disagree with you, and point out holes in your thinking. Remember: You can disagree without being disagreeable.

Also, try to separate your beliefs and opinions from your values. When something becomes a big part of who you are, it can be hard to change your mind about it. Try building your identity around values instead – generosity, equality, integrity. It’s a lot easier to open your mind to new information when you build your sense of who you are around what you value, rather than what you believe.

ON THE PODCAST

February 1: The ability to change your mind is an important skill. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant believes mental flexibility is a skill we can learn. This week, we explore why it’s worth challenging what we think we know. 

February 8: Stereotypes are all around us, shaping how we see the world – and how the world sees us. On the surface, the stereotypes that other people hold shouldn’t affect the way we think or act. But our concerns about other people’s perceptions have a way of burrowing deep into our minds. This week, social psychologist Claude Steele explains the psychology of “stereotype threat.” 

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