So I’ve been trying this thing. If I’m contemplating a change in my thinking or my life—especially for ethical reasons—I shift my perspective for a bit, and start with the assumption that I’m wrong.
I don’t mean this in a “proof by contradiction” sort of way, like in logic or math, where you assume that the thing you’re trying to prove is wrong so you can come to a paradox and thus find out that it’s really right. I mean it in a more practical way. I mean actually living and thinking, temporarily, as if my old ideas are wrong and the new ones I’m considering are right. I mean living with the new ideas for a little while, to see if my thinking gets clearer. And I mean experimenting to find out: If I were wrong, if I had to change—what would my life look like?
We all have a tendency to start with the assumption that we’re right. It’s just how our human brains work. We start with the assumption that we’re right, that we’re smart, that we’re good—and we work backwards from there. We come up with rationalizations for why the things we do, and the things we want to do, are right, smart, and good. (In fact, unusually intelligent people can be unusually good at this.) And when we’re challenged on our rightness and smartness and goodness, we get defensive. No matter how skeptical we are, no matter how conscious we are of cognitive biases—including this one—we still do this. It doesn’t make us bad people; in fact, there are very good reasons for why our brains work this way (among other things, if we constantly questioned every decision large or small, we’d become frozen, unable to do anything). This is just part of the unconscious background machinery of our minds.
But when it comes to important questions that I really want to look at clearly, rationalization can be a real problem. I’ve been looking at ways to hijack it. And it’s helped to start with the assumption that I’m wrong, to temporarily live as if I’m wrong and need to change.
Let me give you two examples.