How Not to Fool Ourselves

There’s a saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” The deceiver is at fault the first time. But the second time, the person being tricked is also accountable for being fooled. We should learn from our mistakes in order to avoid being tricked again in the same way. But what if both the deceiver and deceived are the same person?

Nobel Prize-winning Physicist Richard Feynman once said during a Caltech commencement speech, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.” A common way we fool ourselves is to imagine that we know more than we do. People in positions of power or influence also fool themselves. Their wrong and strong beliefs have real-world consequences.

Why is it Hard to Challenge Our Own Beliefs?

An episode of the Hidden Brain podcast titled The Easiest Person to Fool featured the University of Pennsylvania psychologist Adam Grant. He is the author of Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. The podcast was an excellent exploration of the question of why so many people find it difficult to question our own beliefs and challenge our own views. He illustrates his points with a wide variety of examples from Blackberry, NASA, the Gulf War, the Vietnam War and others. He argues that our inability to stop fooling ourselves destroy careers and businesses, slows scientific progress and even causes great death and human suffering. But the interview also hopeful examples and ideas of how to challenge ourselves and each other in constructive ways. The whole episode is well worth a listen.

I am Ego, Defender of Fools

In simplified terms, we fool ourselves because staying attached to wrong beliefs makes us feel strong and being forced to let them go makes us feel weak. Grant described this as “an inner dictator policing our thoughts”. The job of this dictator is to run a police state in our mind, keeping out all threatening thoughts and repeating the same convenient falsehoods.

When a core belief is attacked, the inner dictator comes to our defense. What’s worse, psychologists have found that this ego defense mechanism strengthens misconceptions. Like any habit, as we practice holding firm, ignoring inconvenient facts, repeating our favored arguments, and generally being stubborn, we get better at fooling ourselves. We keep reelecting the inner dictator because they make us feel secure.

That Feeling When Strong Beliefs Are Proven Wrong

My colleague Ron Pereira asked me recently whether I use two spaces or one at the end of a sentence. As the reader can see, I use one. This reminded me of a time when my inner dictator came to my defense. I was taught in grammar class to use two spaces at the end of sentences. For years I did. At one point in my twenties, I was proofreading something for a friend and pointed out their use of single space was wrong. He disagreed. Another friend who was there also told me I was wrong. I couldn’t understand why these two smart, educated people defended their wrong belief. They couldn’t understand why I was so fierce in defending my position.

It turned out the world had moved since my school days. They called witnesses, presented evidence. Single space was widely accepted. This revelation was a blow to my ego. It was hard to admit that I was wrong. The two space thing was a strongly held belief, even a well-ingrained physical habit. Growing up Japan, I spoke English but could barely read or write it until the fourth grade. After working at it for years, I thought I was doing it right. In hindsight, I can recognize that this feeling of being wrong was a threat to something important to me. Even though I didn’t know it yet by that name, this was one of several experiences that made me aware of the power of my inner dictator.

How Not to Fool Ourselves

It’s becoming more common in the modern workplace to say, “This is a blame-free environment. It’s alright to make mistakes. We can admit we were wrong to learn from it.” This may be so at a policy level. But if it’s true that we fool ourselves because of strong ego defenses, we need to address this by practicing new habits. As a socio-technical system with roots in the scientific method, lean management is well-suited for this challenge. There are many common elements to kaizen, practical problem solving and Toyota kata aimed at not making fools of ourselves.

First, lean thinking encourages us to be scientists. Try not to have opinions, views or beliefs; try to have hypotheses. Second, we replace the idea of “solutions” to problems with “countermeasures” to obstacles. Instead of one big answer to the question, we are open to multiple answers to multi-part question. Third, we lower the cost of being wrong. By running smaller experiments with smaller stakes, we can make smaller mistakes. This allows us to catch our mistaken beliefs before we’ve built up ego defenses around them.

Fourth, lean thinking invites a diversity of ideas. Problem-solving isn’t left up to so-called experts but to anyone who has information that could disprove a hypothesis. Fifth, lean thinking attacks the process, not the person. We may be in conflict about our ideas, but we aren’t in conflict as people. Sixth, people improve and experiment under the guidance of a coach. This coach is concerned not with the content and outcome but with following a good process and letting learners fail safely. The list could go on.

The First Lesson in Mental Aikido

Psychological safety is one of the foundations of building a learning culture. Organizations that don’t establish psychological and professional safety cover up their mistakes, repeat them and fail to address the causes. When we can feel safe in admitting that we are wrong, it’s possible to rethink and improve things. This is based on trust, mutual respect and accountability between people. But it also requires skills at the individual level.

Aikido is a nonaggressive martial art aimed at subduing an opponent without injuring them, through the use of holds, agility, leverage and throws. When a person begins learning aikido, they don’t start off grappling with an opponent. The first lesson is how to fall safely. This is important because the whole idea of aikido is to safely avoid or resolve conflict. It would be foolish to take a fall and get injured while learning self-defense.

During an aikido class, a person can expect to spend half of their time being thrown off-balance or twisted into submission. It looks and sounds painful, but it isn’t because each lesson starts by practice in falling, softening our joints, and warming up. The modern workplace would be so much happier and more productive if we each practiced being wrong safely, like we do at the dojo. Each meeting or potential conflict interaction could start with exchanging constructive feedback, exposing our misconceptions and biases, exposing our folly and getting back up. Instead, it often looks like a street fight.

An Extra Type of Integrity

In the same speech, Richard Feynman added, “I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong, that you ought to do when acting as a scientist.” Unless we’ve been trained in mental aikido, we can fall flat on our back when bending over backwards.

The etymology of the word “fool” is interesting. It comes from the Latin follis. This means windbag or bellows. It’s a large container, empty except for air. The bellows is useful for stoking the fire in my wood stove. Perhaps for piping air through an organ, if I had one. The term windbag today means a person who keeps talking without saying anything of value. They are fooling only themselves. We can hear their inner dictator, busy building up defenses.

History shows that we make progress when we check our egos and engage in positive conflict toward common goals. At a practical level, openness to being wrong is crucial for keeping our options open to new realities. At psychological level, it’s a question of whether we protect little ego by building a fortress around it or by sending it to self-defense classes at the dojo.


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