Getting in Sync With Reality: What if What We Think We Know is Wrong?
by Dr. Mary Lippitt
I was recently struck by my lack of knowledge while reading Hans Rosling Factfulness (2018). My only consolation was that I was not alone. Ninety-five percent of the people made the same errors.
One of the questions I missed was: In the last 20 years has the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty:
- Almost doubled
- Stayed approximately the same
- Almost halved
Would you be surprised to learn that extreme poverty has been cut by almost 50%? I was. In fact, I barely considered option C. My preconceived ideas, my repeated exposure to tragic news stories and, to be honest, my reliance on outdated facts led me to conclude that it had almost doubled.
While I am in good company since almost everyone was mistaken, the fact is both comforting and disturbing. It means most of us are out of sync with our current reality. Why is this? The causes include: (1) our assumption that we already know everything we need to know, (2) a tendency to expect the worst case is the most likely outcome, (3) a proclivity to reduce issues to two simple options and (4) time pressures.
If you are not convinced of the extent of this problem, consider another question: Which statement do you agree with the most?
- the world is getting better
- the world is getting worse
- the world is getting neither better nor worse
The correct answer is A and the data that proves this includes: significant increase in literacy, agricultural yields have increased, more people have electricity, more groups are allowed to vote, child cancer rates have improved, access to potable water has grown, more girls are in school, and technology has spread widely to less developed nations. Many of us failed to see this program. We seem to see the world as a glass half empty, rather than half full. Moreover, this notion creates fear derailing critical thinking and analysis.
What we know “for sure” is rarely entirely accurate. Sometimes our knowledge is obsolete, and at other times it is incomplete. To understand our current circumstance, we must stop thinking we know more than we do and start asking questions to fully understand all the issues enabling us to examine the facts critically. Critical thinking is vital as we confront rapid change and complexity. It exposes misconceptions, while also producing wiser more rewarding decisions.
Knowing that we infrequently update our knowledge and overlook information that does not conform to our pre-existing assumptions , we need new tools. Deploying a checklist has proven successful in medicine, aviation, litigation, and construction not because of ineptitude or ignorance but due to inherent cognitive flaws. Instead of being a constraint, checklists free our minds to concentrate on critical aspects, prevent small mistakes and save time. Now it is time for leaders at all levels to develop, share and use checklists to stay in sync with their current reality.