We’ve all got blind spots, which makes truth-seeking hard. But it’s a little easier when we enlist the help of a group. After all, others can often pick out our errors more easily than we can.
But to be effective, a group dedicated to examining decisions isn’t like any other. It has to have a clear focus, a commitment to objectivity and open-mindedness, and a clear charter that all members understand.
The author was lucky early in her career to be brought into a group like this, made up of experienced poker players who helped each other analyze their play. Early on, poker legend Erik Seidel made the group’s charter clear when, during a break in a poker tournament, the author tried to complain to him about her bad luck in a hand. Seidel shut her down, making it crystal clear that he had no interest. He wasn’t trying to be hurtful, he said, and he was always open to strategy questions. But bad-luck stories were just a pointless rehashing of something out of anyone’s control.
If she wanted to seek the truth with Seidel and his group, she would have to commit to objectivity, not moaning about bad luck.
She did, and over time, this habituated her to working against her own biases, and not just in conversations with the group. Being accountable to committed truth-seekers who challenged each other’s biases made her think differently, even when they weren’t around.
In a decision-examining group committed to objective accuracy, this kind of change is self-reinforcing. Increasing objectivity leads to approval within the group, which then motivates us to strive for ever-greater accuracy by harnessing the deep-seated need for group approval that we all share.
Seeking approval doesn’t mean agreeing on everything, of course. Dissent and diversity are crucial in objective analysis, keeping any group from being more than an echo chamber.
Dissent helps us look more closely at our beliefs. That’s why the CIA has “red teams,” groups responsible for finding flaws in analysis and logic and arguing against the intelligence community’s conventional wisdom. And as NYU’s professor Jonathan Haidt points out, intellectual and ideological diversity in a group naturally produces high-quality thinking.
Shared commitment and clear guidelines help define a good-quality decision-examining group. But once you’ve got that group, how do you work within it?
You can start by giving each other CUDOS.
CUDOS are the brainchild of influential sociologist Merton R. Schkolnick, guidelines that he thought should shape the scientific community. And they happen also to be an ideal template for groups dedicated to truth-seeking.
The C in CUDOS stands for communism. If a group is going to examine decisions together, then it’s important that each member shares all relevant information and strives to be as transparent as possible to get the best analysis. It’s only natural that we are tempted to leave out details that make us look bad, but incomplete information is a tool of our bias.
U stands for universalism – using the same standards for evaluating all information, no matter where it came from. When she was starting out in poker, the author tended to discount unfamiliar strategies used by players that she’d labeled as “bad.” But she soon suspected that she was missing something and started forcing herself to identify something that every “bad” player did well. This helped her learn valuable new strategies that she might have missed and understand her opponents much more deeply.
D is for disinterestedness and it’s about avoiding bias. As American physicist Richard Feynman noted, we view a situation differently if we already know the outcome. Even a hint of what happens in the end tends to bias our analysis. The author’s poker group taught her to be vigilant about this. But, teaching poker seminars for beginners, she would ask students to examine decision-making by describing specific hands that she’d played, omitting the outcome as a matter of habit. It left students on the edge of their seats, reminding them that outcomes were beside the point!
“OS” is for organized skepticism, a trait that exemplifies thinking in bets. In a good group, this means collegial, non-confrontational examination of what we really do and don’t know, which keeps everyone focused on improving their reasoning. Centuries ago, the Catholic church put this into practice by hiring individuals to argue against sainthood during the canonization process – that’s where we get the phrase “devil’s advocate.”
If you know that your group is committed to CUDOS, you’ll be more accountable to these standards in the future. And the future, as we’ll see, can make us a lot smarter about our decisions.
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld describes himself as a “Night Guy.” He likes to stay up late at night and doesn’t worry about getting by on too little sleep. That’s Morning Jerry’s problem, not Night Jerry. No wonder Morning Jerry hates Night Jerry so much – Night Jerry always screws him over.
It’s a funny description, but temporal discounting – making decisions that favor our immediate desires at the expense of our future self – is something we all do.
Luckily, there are a few things we can do to take better care of our future selves.
Imagining future outcomes is one. Imagined futures aren’t random. They’re based on memories of the past. That means that when our brains imagine what the future will be like if we stay up too late, they’re also accessing memories of oversleeping and being tired all day long, which might help nudge us into bed.
We can also recruit our future feelings using journalist Suzy Welch’s “10-10-10.” A 10-10-10 brings the future into the present by making us ask ourselves, at a moment of decision, how we’ll feel about it in ten minutes, ten months and ten years. We imagine being accountable for our decision in the future and motivate ourselves to avoid any potential regret we might feel.
And bringing the future to mind can also help us start planning for it.
The best way to do this is to start with the future we’d like to happen and work backward from there. It’s a matter of perspective: the present moment and immediate future are always more vivid to us, so starting our plans from the present tends to make us overemphasize momentary concerns.
We can get around this with backcasting, imagining a future in which everything has worked out, and our goals have been achieved, and then asking, “How did we get there?” This leads to imagining the decisions that have led us to success and also recognizing when our desired outcome requires some unlikely things to happen. If that’s the case, we can either adjust our goals or figure out how to make those things more likely.
Conversely, we can perform premortems on our decisions. Premortems are when we imagine that we’ve failed and ask, “What went wrong?” This helps us identify the possibilities that backcasting might have missed. Over more than 20 years of research, NYU psychology professor Gabrielle Oettingen has consistently found that people who imagine the obstacles to their goals, rather than achieving those goals, are more likely to succeed.
We’ll never be able to control uncertainty, after all. We might as well plan to work with it.
You might not be a gambler, but that’s no reason not to think in bets. Whether or not there’s money involved, bets make us take a harder look at how much certainty there is in the things we believe, consider alternatives and stay open to changing our minds for the sake of accuracy. So let go of “right” and “wrong” when it’s decision time, accept that things are always somewhat uncertain and make the best bet you can.
Time to try something out. Try mental contrasting to make positive changes.
If you want to reach a goal, positive visualization will only get you so far. In fact, research shows that mental contrasting – visualizing the obstacles that are keeping you from your goal – will be far more effective. So if you want to lose a few pounds, don’t picture yourself looking good on the beach. Instead, think about all the desserts to which you’ll struggle to say “no” – that’s much more likely to motivate you to do the hard work.
Check out my related post: Can you get rid of the bias in your head?