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We need more doubt

By Focus4 min read

I don’t see enough doubt…and it really worries me.

As I psychologist, I understand why we prefer not to doubt but, for businesses at least, there has never been a time in history where doubting is more important.Two significant reasons why people don’t doubt are:

1. Believing, not doubting is our default state; we doubt by exception.

Take the statement: Lizards love playing Sudoku.

What happened as you read the statement above is that an image of a lizard sitting in front of a Sudoku puzzle, probably holding a pen, popped into your head. In doing this, for a little while at least, you believed me. Daniel Gilbert explains that to understand anything we first have to believe [1]. Or, more accurately, to understand something we must first know what the idea would mean if it were true. So we picture it as if it’s true. It is only then that we may or may not begin to question whether it is true.

We normally, however, don’t bother to try and disbelieve, because it’s hard work. You see, our brains constitute about 2% of our body weight, but use up 20% of all the energy you consume. It’s not that the brain is lazy, it’s just on a serious budget: conserving energy is one of its prime objectives. It does this by splitting mental functioning into two types: System 1 and System 2. System 1 is fast, automatic, easy and unconscious. System 2 is slow, hard and conscious. The brain, to reduce its workload, processes as much as it can with System 1. Believing is System 1. Doubting is System 2.

Information that is odd, or that we’re alerted to, will prompt us to make the conscious effort of will to fire up our System 2 to verify our belief. However, in the normal cut and thrust of daily life, the majority of data is received as unquestioned fact. In addition, because System 1 is unconscious, we’re not even aware that we haven’t properly analysed the information…it is accepted as a ‘taken for granted’ piece of information.

2. We believe more when the brain is busy.

System 2 is more effortful and has severe limitations as to how much it can handle at once. So, if the brain is busy consciously processing other things, there is less capability left for doubt, so you believe even more. Gilbert ran a nice experiment to show this [1]. He gave people a series of nonsensical statements for them to remember such as ‘a dinca is a flame’. Some of the participants he also asked to hold numbers in their head at the same time (thus using up some processing power). Later, those who had to remember the numbers as well as the statements, believed more of the nonsense.

The importance of doubt

Yet doubt is crucial. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studies Nobel Prize Laureates to see what had led to their breakthroughs in their fields [2]. He found a consistent pattern: identifying solutions wasn’t the hard thing; it was finding the right question to ask. Once they had identified the right question, the solutions flowed swiftly.

As we struggle our way out of the financial crisis; as we deal with the unprecedented complexity and interconnectedness of global markets [3], companies will not succeed through increases in efficiency. They will not succeed through finding new solutions. Successful companies will fundamentally change the way they operate; they will make breakthroughs and disrupt the markets they are in. Breakthroughs don’t need new solutions; they need great new questions. Such organizations will find a way to have their people start questioning the ‘taken for granted’, they will question everything. Questions don’t arise from certainty, they come from doubt.

Thirty years ago German companies used to employ philosophers to create doubt in their businesses and identify fundamental questions. Who’s doing that in your business today? In most of the organizations I work in, all I see is people too busy to question; too distracted to doubt. We need to kill the mantra that says ‘Don’t bring me problems; bring me solutions’. Managers and leaders should do all in their power to be catalysts of doubt. It is only through doubt that the next great questions and breakthroughs will emerge.


[1] In ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ Daniel Kahneman (a brilliant book)

[2] In ‘Breakthrough thinking inside the box’ Kevin P. Coyne, Patricia Gorman Clifford, and Renée Dye. Harvard Business Review 2007

[3] Capitalizing on Complexity. IBM CEO Study. 2010. A survey of 1500 CEOs across the globe that identified the biggest single challenge facing their businesses as being the increasing complexity and interconnectedness of global markets. Further, they acknowledged that their organizations were simply not equipped to deal with this and needed to find new ways of responding.

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