The Case for Ego-Skepticism

A few months ago, I posed the following question to an on-line sample of several hundred American adults:

Think about all of the disagreements that you have with other people – from minor disagreements about relatively unimportant things to major disagreements about important matters. In what percentage of the disagreements that you have with other people do you think that you are the one who is correct?

Before reading further, think about your answer to this question: When you have disagreements with other people, what percentage of the time are you the one who is right?  (Really — answer this question before reading further.)

If all of us knew the true answer to this question, the average answer across all of us would be no greater than 50%.  That is, if only one of us in a disagreement can be correct, then one of us is right no more than half of the time.  In fact, the true average might even be lower than 50% because you and I could disagree with each other and yet both be wrong.

But people don’t see it that way.  In response to my question, over 80% of the respondents said that, in disagreements with other people, they are right more than 50% of the time!  In fact, on average, respondents indicated that they are the one who is right two-thirds of the time, and 15% said that they were right more than 80% of the time.  Clearly, most of us have an inflated view of our beliefs, attitudes, and viewpoints.

Contrary to how it seems, none of us sees the world as it “really” is.  Our perceptions of the world, including our views of other people and ourselves, are always some blend of objective reality and our personal interpretations of reality. No one can see the world from any perspective other than their own nor fully escape the tendency to perceive the world through the filter of their own self-interest. Everyone is naturally, inherently, and incontrovertibly egocentric.

Source: Fortepan / MHSZ [CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, it usually seems that we are seeing things clearly and that our reactions are responses to actual events in the real world. But we always play a role in construing the world we perceive. The real world and our interpretations of it are fused so tightly that we rarely realize how deeply our perceptions of reality are tainted by our beliefs, self-views, perspectives, and life experiences.  And, even when we recognize that our views may be contaminated by our narrow, egocentric perspective, we have extreme difficulty separating our interpretations of reality from reality itself.

Overestimating the accuracy of our views of the world creates a number of problems, including leading us to make bad decisions based on incorrect information, generating unnecessary conflicts with other people over differences of opinion, and hampering negotiation and compromise.  (Why should I negotiate or compromise with you if I’m right and you’re wrong?)

We can never escape the egocentrism trap completely, but one partial solution is to develop a healthy sense of ego-skepticism – to be skeptical of our own viewpoints and interpretations of events. We all can’t be right, and it would be rather odd if your — or my — personal views were consistently more objective, unbiased, and accurate than other people’s. We must recognize that each of us has a narrow, one-sided view of things, even when we think we don’t, and that our views are, on average, just about as wrong as anybody else’s. 

Some people worry that ego-skepticism, if taken too far, can result in paralyzing uncertainty. If we can’t trust our view of reality, won’t we be riddled with doubt and unable to know what to believe or how to behave?  If we insist on having certainty in life before deciding what to believe or how to behave, the answer is probably “yes.”

But healthy ego-skepticism does not involve being paralyzed by doubts or assuming that all of our beliefs and perceptions are probably wrong.  After all, many of our beliefs and perceptions are right-on-target, and most of our decisions work out okay. Rather, ego-skepticism involves reminding ourselves that our views are sometimes biased by our unavoidable egocentrism and that we should hold onto our viewpoints less strongly than we usually do, especially when contrary evidence or disagreements arise.

If we act on the basis of our best judgments, even while knowing that our views might be wrong,  we will generally manage life just fine. And we will avoid the overconfidence and conflict with other people that arises when we fail to recognize our pervasive egocentricity.

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