The Human Need for Certainty - Joe Abittan

The Human Need for Certainty

Throughout the book Risk Savvy, Gerd Gigerenzer discusses the challenges that people face with thinking statistically, assessing different probable outcomes, and understanding risk. Gigerenzer also discusses how important it is that people become risk literate, and how the future of humanity will require that people better understand risk and uncertainty. What this future requires, he explains, is fighting against aspects of human psychology that are common to all of us and form part of our core nature. One aspect in particular that Gigerenzer highlights as a problem for humans moving forward, is our need for certainty.

 

“Humans appear to have a need for certainty, a motivation to hold onto something rather than to question it,” he writes. Whether it is our religion, our plans for retirement, or the brand of shoes we prefer, we have a need for certainty. We don’t want to question whether our religious, political, or social beliefs are correct. It is more comforting for us to adopt beliefs and be certain that we are correct. We don’t want to continuously re-evaluate our savings plans and open ourselves to the possibility that we are not doing enough to save for retirement. And we like to believe that we purchased the best running shoes, that we bough the most sustainable shoes for the planet, and that our shoe choices are the most popular. In all of these areas, ambiguity makes our decisions harder whereas a feeling of certainty gives us confidence and allows us to move through the world. In many ways, our need for certainty is simply a practicality. There are unlimited possibilities and decisions for us to make every day. Adopting certainty eliminates many possibilities and choices, simplifying our life and allowing us to move through the world without having to question every action of every second of every day.

 

But in the modern world, humans have to be more comfortable living with ambiguity and have to be able to give up certainty in some areas. “For the mature adult,” Gigerenzer writes, “a high need for certainty can be a dangerous thing.”  We live with risk and need to be able to adjust as we face new risks and uncertainties in our lives. We like to hold onto our beliefs and we are not comfortable questioning our decisions, but it can be necessary for us to do so in order to move forward and live in harmony in a changing world with new technologies, different demographics, and new uncertainties. A need for certainty can lead people to become dogmatic, to embrace apologetics when discounting science that demonstrates errors in thinking, and to ignore the realities of a changing world. One way or another, we have to find ways to be flexible and adjust our choices and plans according to risk, otherwise we are likely to make poor choices and be crushed when the world does not align itself with our beliefs and wishes.
Stats and Messaging

Stats and Messaging

In the past, I have encouraged attaching probabilities and statistical chances to the things we believe or to events we think may (or may not) occur. For example, say Steph Curry’s three point shooting percentage is about 43%, and I am two Steph Currys confident that my running regiment will help me qualify for the Boston Marathon. One might also be two Steph Currys confident that leaving now will guarantee they are at the theater in time for the movie, or that most COVID-19 restrictions will be rescinded by August 2021 allowing people to go to movies again. However, the specific percentages that I am attaching in these examples may be meaningless, and may not really convey an important message for most people (Myself included!). It turns out, that modern day statistics and the messaging attached to it is not well understood.

 

In his book Risk Savvy, Gerd Gigerenzer discusses the disconnect between stats and messaging, and the mistake most people make. The main problem with using statistics is that people don’t really know what the statistics mean in terms of actual outcomes. This was seen in the 2016 US presidential election when sources like FiveThirtyEight gave trump a 28.6% chance of winning and again in 2020 when the election was closer than many predicted, but was still well within the forecasted range.  In both instances, a Trump win was considered such a low probability event that people dismissed it as a real possibility, only to be shocked when Trump did win in 2016 and performed better than many expected in 2020. People failed to fully appreciate that FiveThirtyEight’s prediction meant that in 28.6% of election simulations, Trump was predicted to win in 2016, and in 2020 many of their models predicted races both closer than and wider than the result we actually observed.

 

Regarding weather forecasting and statistical confusion, Gigerenzer writes, “New forecasting technology has enabled meteorologists to replace mere verbal statements of certainty (it will rain tomorrow) or chance (it is likely) with numerical precision. But greater precision has not led to greater understanding of what the message really is.” Gigerenzer explains that in the context of weather forecasts, people often misunderstand that a 30% chance of rain means that on 30% of days when when the observed weather factors (temperature, humidity, wind speeds, etc…) match the predicted weather for that day, rain occurs. Or that models taking weather factors into account simulated 100 days of weather with those conditions and included rain for 30 of those days.  What is missing, Gigerenzer explains, is the reference class. Telling people there is a 30% chance of rain could lead them to think that it will rain for 30% of the day, that 30% of the city they live in will be rained on, or perhaps they will misunderstand the forecast in a completely unpredictable way.

 

Probabilities are hard for people to understand, especially when they are busy, have other things on their mind, and don’t know the reference class. Providing probabilities that don’t actually connect to a real reference class can be misleading and unhelpful. This is why my suggestion of tying beliefs and possible outcomes to a statistic might not actually be meaningful. If we don’t have a reasonable reference class and a way to understand it, then it doesn’t matter how many Steph Currys likely I think something is. I think we should take statistics into consideration with important decision-making, and I think Gigerenzer would agree, but if we are going to communicate our decisions in terms of statistics, we need to ensure we do so while clearly stating and explaining the reference classes and with the appropriate tools to help people understand the stats and messaging.
Should You Be So Confident?

Should You Be So Confident?

Are you pretty confident that your diet is a healthy option for your? Are you confident in the outcome of your upcoming job interview? And how confident are you that you will have enough saved for retirement? Whatever your level of confidence, you might want to reconsider whether you should be as confident as you are, or whether you are just telling yourself a narrative that you like and that makes you feel comfortable with the decisions you have made.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes the following about confidence:

 

“Confidence is a feeling, which reflects the coherence of the information and the cognitive ease of processing it. It is wise to take admissions of uncertainty seriously, but declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true.”

 

We feel confident in our choices, decisions, and predictions about the future when we can construct a coherent narrative. When we have limited information and experience, it is easy for us to fit that information together in a simplified manner that creates a logical story. The more conflicting and complex information and knowledge we obtain, the more diverse experiences and viewpoints we adopt, the harder it is to construct a simple narrative, and the harder it is for our story about the world to align in a way that makes us confident about anything.

 

A high level of confidence doesn’t represent reality, and it may actually reflect a lack of understanding of reality and all of its complexities. We are confident that our diet is good when we cut out ice cream and cookies, but we don’t really know that we are getting sufficient nutrients for our bodies and our lifestyles. We don’t really know how we perform in a job interview, but if we left feeling that we really connected and remembered to say the things we prepared, then we might be confident that we will land the job. And if we have a good retirement savings program through our job and also contribute to an IRA, we might feel that we are doing enough for retirement and be confident that we will be able to retire at 65, but few of us really do the calculations to ensure we are contributing what we need, and none of us can predict what housing or stock markets will look like as we get closer to retirement. Confidence is necessary for us to function in the world without being paralyzed by fear and never-ending cycles of analysis, but we shouldn’t mistake confidence in ourselves or in other people for actual certainty and knowledge.

Always Asking Questions

Questioning the world around us is part of what makes us human. Our search for answers and a better understanding of the universe is the story of human progress on Earth, and we must constantly ask questions and to find new answers to propel us forward. Often we never reach the answer we were hoping for, but we still ask questions and we still do our best to continue to understand what is taking place in the world around us.

 

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats discusses how he learned to question the world, to truly strive to better understand the universe, by observing what took place around him and asking why.

 

“My mother and father were always pushing me away from secondhand answers—even the answers they themselves believed. I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined. That is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being “politically conscious” —as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as a ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.”

 

Recently I have been more aware of the answers people have to the frequent questions our world asks: Who should we elect, what is the nature of religion, how should we organize society to maximize human progress? Listening to the responses people have, it is clear to me that most people do not have answers, but instead have partial secondhand responses that they think they should defend. Most people do not live their lives in a constant state of questioning, and if they do, they seek out certainty to place themselves and their actions on the correct side of any given issue. Rather than inquiry and a deeper understanding, people pursue comfort and reaffirmation. This is clear in the simplistic shallow answers people offer to complex questions.

 

What Coats learned from his parents was to find his own answers. His parents pushed him to learn, to be aware of the world around him, to ask why, and to not accept the simple answers that people offered. His story shows why it is important to be constantly questioning what we know, why we know what we know, and whether our model of the universe is operating with the best information available. It is likely that we won’t find perfect answers, but that does not mean we should stop questioning or that we are on the wrong path because our knowledge is in one way or another incomplete. Recycling answers from someone else, especially secondhand answers that were never formed as complete thoughts, is dangerous and misleading. We fall into cycles where we fail to actually look for answers and build more complete understanding, and instead look past the answer given and find the response that seems to support our identity and the belief we want to hold about ourselves.

 

Our understanding of the universe should be nuanced because the universe, human interaction, and the organization of everything from atoms to people is complex. When we fall back on absolute answers and simple solutions, we are avoiding the nuanced and the challenging investigation of our planet. Easy and assuring answers are nice, but they do not aid human progress and they do not allow us to live in a state where we improve upon our knowledge and beliefs.