Fooled by Certainty

by Rob Sams on November 25, 2016

in Psychology of Safety and Risk,Rob Sams

Fooled by Certainty

man with helmet at workHow often do we go about our lives expecting, assuming, and at times demanding; that our plans, our ideas and even our relationships are ‘safe and sound’ (certain)? It is as-if such plans, ideas and relationships have some kind of magical guarantee attached to them which means that they will always pan out as expected.

I wonder though, are we just being fooled into thinking that there is certainty about such things, or indeed with anything in life? This is the question that I’d like to explore in this piece.

When we take the time to reflect and think more deeply and critically (especially with other people) about this question, we may come to a realisation of just how easily we can be tempted into a feeling of confidence that these things (e.g. plans, ideas, relationships, etc…) are undeniably going to happen as we expect them to.

In reality though, despite what we may predict and expect, and despite what our past experience may (at times biasedly) confirm for us, we know that things don’t always work this way. Further, we often seem surprised or disappointed when things don’t occur as we expect. Why is this?

Could it be that we are easily fooled by certainty? In turn, perhaps this may mean that we lose sight of the role that chance, faith, hope and consequently risk (leading to learning), plays in our lives?

This idea is not new and nor did it originate with me. For those of you who have read about or studied risk, there are many who propose this idea. For example, you may have come across Nassim Taleb’s book Fooled by Randomness where he makes the point that:

“…scientists are seeing more and more evidence that we are specifically designed by mother nature to fool ourselves” and “…probability is principally a branch of applied skepticism, not an engineering discipline” (p.xii)” further Taleb notes;

“Probability is not a mere computation of odds on the dice or more complicated variants; it is the acceptance of the lack of certainty in our knowledge and the development of methods for dealing with our own ignorance.” (p.xii)

So, it may be that we are ‘designed’ to fool ourselves?

I’d like to take this one step further and suggest also that part of our ‘design’, and part of what it means to be human is to; on the one hand want and expect certainty, yet in reality (and paradoxically) know deep down that we can only ‘hope’ that things will happen as planned. If we do dig deeper and when we become truthful with ourselves; maybe we would recognise that expecting certainty around all of our expectations is a fallacy (nonetheless also a desire) and that nothing can ever be guaranteed or accurately predicted in life (irrespective of our intentions, processes or dreams)? Maybe it is only our faith in, and hope that, things will go to plan, that we can be certain of?

I suggest this because I suspect it is only when we get to this point, where we accept the fallibility of humans and feel less bound to ‘save’ and ‘fix’ others, that we can truly ‘be with’ and ‘meet’ them . If we live our lives believing in certainty and objectivity, may fixing would be possible. That is not what I believe.

So how may this play out in risk and safety?

Firstly, I suspect that the above few paragraphs will be a stretch and too much to accept for some working in an industry that seems to be built around the idea that everything is (or should be) certain, and therefore ‘preventable’. Just consider the language that is often used (e.g. prevention, elimination, control, zero).

A case study for this is those who work in Safety and who also participate in social media forums where stupid photos of what are propositioned to be people working in dangerous situations are poste. Out come the Safety Crusaders who seem to take great delight in wanting to crucify such people because they are stupid or because they are idiots who make conscious choices to work unsafely. There seems to be a strange notion in Safety that caring for people should include sacking them, irrespective of what this may mean for people socially. One may describe this as Care-ology?

Is such ignorance being fueled fooled by certainty? Safety seems to expect every worker to predict the dangers in every situation and then ignorantly asserts that those who don’t, must be fired. Safety must save them…. How sad.

Secondly, and this is more readily what I would expect to be the typical approach adopted by Safety; such a discovery about certainty would ironically be met with a range of ‘methods’ aimed at preventing or eliminating certainty from fooling people in their decisions. As crazy as that sounds, how often do we see this… through updated procedures, a host of new training programs, re-inductions and inevitably an App; that would all work together to help people become more certain in their decisions. Sounds pretty stupid really; doesn’t it?

So perhaps rather than being overly disturbed about being easily fooled by certainty (or randomness, or a myriad of other factors that work in our unconscious and impact on judgments and decisions) should we instead accept the role that faith, hope and beliefs play in our decisions? Would this help us move away from our focus on ‘prevention’ or ‘elimination’ (to create certainty) and accept that the best we may be able to do, is to ‘deal with’ risk (uncertainty) and tackle such challenges?

Of course, this is all very well to suggest as I sit here in ponderous reflection critiquing Safety from behind a keyboard, but it is much harder to do in practice. In fact, despite writing this piece today, I know that I’ll blissfully go about life, (possibly and ironically, even as I write this piece) continuing to be fooled by the very thing that I am writing about. Maybe this (paradoxically) is why understanding grey could be the silver bullet in dealing with risk?

Are you still not convinced of the argument? Do you think that you have, can or do outsmart your unconscious biases? Do you think that you can’t be fooled by the seduction of certainty and sureness? Perhaps that is the Dunning Kruger effect at play….?

However, if you do accept that we may all (regularly) be fooled by the temptation offered by certainty, and you would like to better tackle this, how might you know when this is occurring for you, or others?

Perhaps these ‘Cues’ might be useful?

· When we hear suggestions of absoluteness. Phrases like “a sure thing” or “this can’t ever happen again” or “I’m certain that…”; may be indications of being fooled by certainty?

· When we rely predominately on plans or when we become persistently anxious about things ‘not going to plan’ – perhaps these are signs that certainty is preparing to fool us?

· If we become fixated on results and efficiency, or if we find ourselves obsessing about measurements; could this be our way of creating an illusion of certainty?

How may certainty be fooling you? What things can you share with others about how you deal with this?



Robert Sams



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Rob Sams
Rob Sams

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Rob Sams
Rob is an experienced safety and people professional, having worked in a broad range of industries and work environments, including manufacturing, professional services (building and facilities maintenance), healthcare, transport, automotive, sales and marketing. He is a passionate leader who enjoys supporting people and organizations through periods of change. Rob specializes in making the challenges of risk and safety more understandable in the workplace. He uses his substantial skills and formal training in leadership, social psychology of risk and coaching to help organizations understand how to better manage people, risk and performance. Rob builds relationships and "scaffolds" people development and change so that organizations can achieve the meaningful goals they set for themselves. While Rob has specialist knowledge in systems, his passion is in making systems useable for people and organizations. In many ways, Rob is a translator; he interprets the complex language of processes, regulations and legislation into meaningful and practical tasks. Rob uses his knowledge of social psychology to help people and organizations filter the many pressures they are made anxious about by regulators and various media. He is able to bring the many complexities of systems demands down to earth to a relevant and practical level.

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