Question Your Assumptions - THINKERS Notebook

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Question Your Assumptions

You may have seen this week that a group physicists discovered what is being described as "possible signs of a fifth fundamental force of nature."

Here's how one of the researchers put it:

"Clearly, this is very exciting because it potentially points to a future with new laws of physics, new particles and a new force which we have not seen to date."

In the words of Marty McFly, "Whoa, this is heavy."

The implications of this hypothesis are obviously enormous. But more experiments still have to be done to test it and reach the 5 sigma confidence level needed for it to actually be termed a "discovery."

Still, regardless of what ends up happening here, whether we uncover another fundamental force of nature or not, the fact that we have scientists entertaining the question is a victory for the future of humankind.


Because the foundation of good science is asking questions. It's having intellectual humility. It's learning as much as you can but still maintaining an awareness of how much you don't know.

And really, all of this isn't just the foundation of good science. It's the foundation of good thinking more generally.

This exchange, from an interview at Greater Good Magazine with author Adam Grant, is particularly illuminating:

Jill Suttie: Your book focuses on the importance of people questioning what they think they know and being open to changing their mind. Why is it so hard to do that?

Adam Grant: It’s hard for a few reasons. One is what psychologists call “cognitive entrenchment,” which is when you have so much knowledge in an area that you start to take for granted assumptions that need to be questioned. There’s evidence, for example, that when you change the rules of the game for expert bridge players, they really struggle, because they don’t realize that the strategies they’ve used for years don’t apply. There’s also evidence that highly experienced accountants are slower to adapt to the new tax laws than novices because they’ve internalized a certain way of doing things.

A second barrier is motivation: I don’t want to rethink; I’m comfortable with the way I’ve always done things. It makes me feel and look stupid if I admit that I was wrong. It’s easier to just stick to my guns (or my gun bans, depending on where I stand ideologically).

The third reason is social. We don’t form beliefs in a vacuum. We generally end up with opinions that are influenced by and pretty much similar to the people in our social circles. So, there’s a risk that if I let go of some of my views, I might be excluded from my tribe, and I don’t want to take that risk.

Inspired by Grant's quote, this week's THINKERS Roundup features one link for each of his three reasons why it's hard for people to question their own beliefs.

Our own wiring can work against our ability to innovate.

"Companies often struggle to develop breakthrough products because they are hobbled by Functional Fixedness. Technologists, engineers, and designers not only have their own expertise, they have their own way of applying their expertise. Ironically, the more success they’ve had with their approach to a solution, the harder it is to imagine a different one."

Read: The Cognitive Bias Keeping Us from Innovating (HBR)

If you want something different out of life, you can't keep thinking the same way.

"A limiting belief is simply a limiting thought that we give power and attention to. These beliefs lead into a limiting decision, which lead to actions that limit our potential because we don’t pursue the life we were meant to enjoy or the growth we were meant to experience.

If you’re feeling stuck, or like you’re going in circles, or even worse, backwards, that’s probably a sign that it’s time to question your beliefs, shift your perception, and change your expectations.

Read: Question Your Beliefs, Improve Your Results (The Positive Mom)

You are who you surround yourself with.

"Our choices are influenced by who we are with when we are asked the question, how those people reacted, any conversations we might have had beforehand and our fundamental understanding of what is normal for that group of friends. But, if we’re still in doubt, the easiest thing to do is to look at what others are doing and copy them. We do this all the time, and we might not realize the impact it has."

Read: How your friends change your habits - for better and worse (BBC)

Quote of the week

"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing."

-- Albert Einstein