Certainty: do you know someone who is always right?

by Edward Henkler on January 28, 2014

Unless you happen to be that person (and sometimes even then), we all know someone who is always right.  Dependent on your own personality, you might be impressed by the breadth of their knowledge or irritated by their arrogance.  Regardless of how you feel, the bottom line is there’s a good chance they’re wrong…not just about esoteric matters but also for subjects about which they are absolutely 100% certain.  The next time you’re convinced you’re right, you might find that your best course is to listen to the other person’s point-of-view.  They will often be right and, at worst they’re more likely to be receptive to your comments.

Chip & Dan Heath’s book, “Decisive”, has a number of examples of studies which show that certainty is very relative.  A classic example is the statement by Vitali Sklyarov (minister of power and electrification in the Ukraine).  Two months before the Chernobyl accident, he stated, “The odds of a meltdown are one in 10,000 years.”  Somewhat closer to home, one study showed that when doctors were “completely certain” about a diagnosis, they were wrong 40% of the time.  In another study, when a group of students made estimates that they believed had only a 1% chance of being wrong, they were actually wrong 27% of the time.

Options & Perspective

All truths are opinions – Solution 1 2 or 3 Choice Shows Strategy Options Decisions Or Solving

The message is unchanged from my post about Facts, Truths, and Opinions.  Most of the truths we hold to be absolute may be wrong and are certainly subject to change.  Remember when people adamantly believed the world was flat?   I am not suggesting that you should never be confident in your beliefs; only that you should recognize that the other person believes just as passionately and your best approach is to listen carefully to their input…..they just might be right!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Vandy February 4, 2014 at 8:44 pm

Well said!
The arrogance of “complete certainty” has killed many pilots over the years. The aviation industry has been trying for decades to change that behavior through CRM. Some day it might even be successful.


Edward Henkler February 4, 2014 at 11:17 pm

Thanks – what a great example! I was thinking of leaders that make a mistake based on overconfidence – for pilots, when the consequence can be fatal, that’s an even more compelling example!


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