Reading time: 4 minutes Oct 23rd 2017

The biggest mistake we are all making. I think.

Right now there are some people online who will entirely agree with everything I am about to say. They will do so with such devout certainty that it will seem almost religious in nature. Others will be completely convinced that I couldn’t be more wrong. It does not really matter what you say, there will always people who agree and disagree strongly. The problem is, nowadays, there is more certainty than ever before. It is because of this certainty that we find ourselves trapped in the inevitable reality tunnel that limits us.

I first heard the term ‘Reality Tunnel’ from the brilliant author Robert Anton Wilson. RAW, as he came to be known, was a fascinating writer. I met him once in 2000 in California at a seminar with Richard Bandler. His books had the remarkable ability to convince me of something in one chapter and convince me of the exact opposite in the next chapter. I felt my brain getting smarter as I was reading.

RAW also used the term bs as the dual meaning belief system and bullshit. He argued that often beliefs can be the death of intelligence. Basically, he argued that real freedom is achieved by understanding the power of not being certain.

In the modern world, we tend to avoid uncertainty like the plague. Given that there is so much uncertainty with the future already, we cling to anything that can make us feel sure of anything. Our brain rewards us for being certain. The more our beliefs get challenged the more stress our brain experiences. Our brains are designed to try and predict what happens next and accurately doing so provides us with a sense of security in a dangerous world.

The problem is that often our need to be right and certain of our ‘rightness’ can have us ignore the truth to our peril. For example, take whichever grouping or ‘identity’ you see yourself as being a part of. Often such an idea of yourself as belonging to a group means that not only will you be biased when considering ideas about such a group but also your bias will usually result in you being even more defensive when such a group is attacked.

For example, if I talk to someone about the ‘troubles’ or the Irish struggle for independence and someone tries to explain where the British were coming from during the 800 years they had invaded our country, I will not only not hear it, I’ll find myself reverting back to all of the negative things they did. The same happens with perfectly intelligent feminists, Jews, Muslims, Catholics or whichever social group is being attacked.

We all know logically that our group has plenty of flaws. Despite this we will often refuse to concede them when someone else says this. Our need to keep our loyalty and beliefs straight stop us from taking in valid information. Here is one core reason why this can be such a problem for us. If you want to become more influential and effective at getting your point across to others, you must learn to hear where they are coming from first and then construct your response with that in mind. Out of fear of uncertainty sometimes we are far too quick to defend instead of opening our mind and understanding that the extreme point of view is rarely close to accurate.

In the world of sound bites, certainty can often win the day but the day does not matter as much as the long-term. The truth is more nuanced than the generalisations that we use. The ability to notice subtlety is more critical than ever. It allows us to live in a world with different shades and offers us the opportunity to get through to those who have different views than us. It helps us become saner.

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  • Namrata Seetharam

    Excellent Article – This reminds me of a quote ” Certainty is the mother of fools” from The Mentalist ( by Patrick Jane)

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