Check Your Premises

Good decision making requires the maintenance of rational thought – and few things are more conducive to that objective than an adherence to something most of us were taught in middle school: the scientific method.

The scientific method encourages us to develop a working theory that can account for currently available data; we then actively seek additional information to either confirm or disprove our working theory, with adjustments to our hypotheses being made as needed to accommodate new information. Theories continue to evolve, becoming ever more reflective of reality. Only at the stage when information has clearly been verified beyond the need for more data gathering and testing (e.g., gravity) is it moved to the status of an axiom or law: a generally accepted truth.

Although fundamental to the advancement of our knowledge, the scientific method seems to be ever more disregarded even within the scientific community.

In addition to efforts to find significance in research (often called ‘p-hacking’), what we also too often see are corrupt investigators who start from predetermined axioms, i.e., givens they have deemed as indisputable truth. Yet when closely examined, these purported truths can be more accurately described as beliefs stemming from personal, financial, or political considerations.

This lack of sound scientific reasoning – via the acceptance of premature axiom status for personal beliefs and predilections – has a devastating impact on the quality of our science. Such thinking errors also corrupt our decision making.

Problems with Decision Making in Business

Advocating for a pre-determined truth is a growing issue in the scientific community, but it’s a much more ubiquitous issue in the business world, where the “rules” of rigorous decision making are much less defined. There are many causes of bad decision making in business. Here are some of the more common:

  • Lack of clarity on objectives
  • Cognitive biases
  • Office politics
  • Ego and unwillingness to admit error
  • Inappropriate self-interest
  • Misleading memories
  • Conflict avoidance, and
  • The seductive hold of the status quo

For those interested in a deep dive on this topic, Shane Parrish’s Farnam Street Blog is a masterful collection of the best thinking on decision making. Another great read about a business that made decision quality their utmost priority (to great results) is Bridgewater Associates hedge fund founder Ray Dalio’s 2018 book Principles.

One of my personal intellectual influences, philosopher Ayn Rand, constantly encouraged her students and readers to check their premises – another way of saying we need to make sure we have not accepted something as fact that is far from settled truth. (See Chris Argyris’ Ladder of Inference for more on this.)

Confusing Belief with Truth

Another example of where you will see the premature elevation of what should merely be working theory to axiomatic status is when individuals contort rational thought to comply with the politically correct zeitgeist of the day. This is an all-too-common cognitive blunder, but I’m hesitant to list examples. Were I to do so, it would surely irritate readers who are making this exact error. Why? Well, when you challenge someone’s ideas, they may listen. When you challenge someone’s beliefs, they usually become closed and often angry! For now, let’s just recap that leaching did not really cure many ills, Castro did not really seem to get much right, and the world was not flat after all.

Fight for Rationality

We should be diligent in challenging one another to examine our premises closely. For once we elevate a possibility to axiom (belief) status, we become resistant to new information (and rational thought) that would require us to contradict our axiom.

Changing our minds requires us to learn by accommodation, i.e., giving up a currently held belief or understanding. Humans actively resist this kind of learning; we instead fight to protect what is in our present cognitive schema. Thus, when we prematurely declare something to be a settled truth, we undermine the quality of our decision-making.

The next time you are in an intense decision-making situation or an argument, pause to ask yourself if you are actively pursuing the best truth available or if you are playing the role of defense attorney, i.e., using most of your cognitive capacity to defend your existing position or belief.

Check your Premises. Focus less on being right, and more on getting it right.