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New Year, New Perspective: How to Challenge Your Beliefs

by Richard McGourty on

“How would you disprove your viewpoint?”

This thought-provoking question comes to us courtesy of the philosopher Karl Popper. While he used it to advance his thinking about the philosophy of science, we can also apply it to more practical challenges. Put simply, it tests a person’s willingness and capacity to examine his or her own thinking. For example……

It’s All in How You Ask

Sometimes, posing Popper’s question directly – How would you disprove your point of view? – can come across as critical or confrontational. To mitigate this, you can build a small bridge leading to the question, as with the consultant above. Ask the person you’re speaking with how he or she came to hold this point of view, express understanding, and then ask how the perspective might be reconsidered. The bridge makes the question sound less argumentative and avoids attacking the other’s beliefs.

Another variation is to ask, “How would a really smart person attempt to disprove your point of view?” In this way, the person is given some psychological distance from the task. They are not being asked to challenge their own belief; rather, they are putting themselves in the shoes of a hypothetical intellectual who disagrees.  This removes the stigma of feeling they have contradicted themselves. We still get to see them wrestle with the question, but in a less ego-involved context.

 

Challenge Yourself

Now, it’s your turn to try a little experiment. State an important belief you hold about work or your business. Some examples might be:

  • “Our staff is sufficiently diverse to advance our business in the current marketplace.”
  • “Our services are as good as or better than our competitors.”
  • “Our decision to keep up with our competition by being a ‘fast follower’ is working.”

Now, ask yourself Popper’s question.

When people make an honest effort to disprove their own viewpoints, they notice a few things:

  1. It’s hard to do. An individual might start with good intentions, then abandon the effort. Mostly, people are well-practiced in how to prove their point of view – not disprove it.
  2. By wrestling with the question, a person can name assumptions which may previously have gone unchallenged.
  3. It sharpens a person’s grasp of the issues and helps them distinguish between what they really know and what they believe (often without much evidence).

In my work as an assessor and coach, I use the question to test a client’s willingness to challenge his or her own thinking, and to gauge the rigor with which they go about it. It can be a very telling part of an assessment interview.

 

Battling Confirmation Bias

The opposite of being able to use Popper’s question is the tendency to engage in “confirmation bias.” A frequently-cited example of this is in how people watch the news. By choosing a particular news source, people may be seeking information which confirms their pre-existing point of view. Such behavior only skews their opinions and makes Popper’s question more difficult for them.

Confirmation bias also occurs in the workplace. For example, people read and forward information which supports their perspective, typically eschewing material that runs counter to their thinking. If they do read the latter, it is to find fault with ideas which challenge them: “See! I knew I was right!” People also often seek guidance from those with whom they already agree, often unconsciously. They may think they have engaged in a rigorous process, when that’s not really the case.

It is very difficult to see the flaws in our own thinking. This is why the use of an objective third party improves decision-making, whether it is about hiring, promotion or any number of choices that surface in the operation of a business. Often, we see this as part of the value an outside assessor or coach can bring to a business situation.

We believe people function best when they open their thinking to the possibility of disconfirmation. Karl Popper’s question has served me well. It might do the same for you.

How would you disprove your viewpoint?

 

 

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