Problematic False Beliefs

what you don't know you don't know
what you don’t know you don’t know

It’s interesting isn’t it, beliefs are a fascinating topic. What we believe guides our decision-making in every aspect of life.

There was recently a post on Facebook with the following maths problem..

(7+7+7)-(7+7)x 0 = ?

On reading the comments, it was funny to see how some people were arrogantly quoting zero as being the answer, while others equally arrogantly quoted 21 being the answer.

This observation got me thinking how people were so sure in their belief in the answer, that they were happy to comment to the world, and potentially in front of their friends, family and other associates, without ever doubting that they may be wrong, and the possibility of looking stupid.

Now I’m not judging people who got this wrong, as being stupid, but I’m sure that if they found out they were wrong, they would feel a little embarrassed that they didn’t know the answer, after all “it’s something you learn in 3rd grade” – and I’m quoting a comment of someone who got the answer wrong.

But people do this kind of thing all the time, particularly on social media. They believe they know something when they wrong – they have false knowledge.

Having false knowledge can be problematic for decision-making, if you’re basing your decision on that false knowledge.

Doing a quick Google search will undoubtedly give you the right answer to a simple maths question, and the consequences of getting it wrong is nothing greater than a little social embarrassment, but there are situations where having false knowledge, while believing you are right, can cause significantly more serious consequences.

The answer to dealing with false knowledge and misguided belief, is not to hold beliefs with such certainty. Question them, look for proof that you are right or wrong,  before acting on them.

The moment you believe you are right, is the exactly the same moment you stop looking for evidence of contradiction. You look for confirmation you are right, which further entrenches you into that belief mind-set.

One solution, drawn from a famous insight of philosopher Karl Popper, who argued that in science, evidence against a hypothesis, called
disconfirmation, is much more important than evidence for that
hypothesis, called confirmation.

So, let go of beliefs, and instead look for evidence that disconfirms them. If you believe “all politicians are self-serving”, then you only have to find one that isn’t self-serving, and you’ve disproved your belief, good luck with that, only joking. But you get the point, it’s easy to fall into the trap of finding evidence that supports your belief, after all, there are many politicians who you can find evidence of being self-serving, if you look hard enough, and this further embeds the belief.

A word of warning before I finish this post, if you find yourself using generalities such as “all”, “most” or “none” you’re over-relying on stereotypes and biases, and this is a lazy and foolish way of forming beliefs.

Comments like “All BMW drivers are arrogant”, and “most politicians are self-serving”, play on stereotypes, prejudices, biases and vastly overgeneralise, so stop holding such beliefs, and start looking for contradictions. You’ll undoubtedly find that many of your beliefs are based on false knowledge.

Just one last point, the answer to the maths question, if you didn’t already know, is 21 – the rule that makes it so is called “order of operations”, so now you really do know the answer.

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