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How do you KNOW - and what do you do with that belief?

© By Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, A.C.T., MCC, SCAC
Foundational Concepts of the Intentionality Series

“Only a group of people who share a body of knowledge
and continually learn together can stay vital and viable.”

~ Max DePree (author of The Art of Management)

In the past two years I have been reading a large number of neuroscience books -- which means, of course, that I have been reading the opinions of neuroscientists put forward into book form. On ADDandSoMuchMore, I wrote the first of what will become a Series of writings about opinion and "fact" (Science and Sensibility – The Illusion of Proof: Observation, Anecdotal Report and Science).

This article, written for Hazel Owen's Ethos Consultancy community is another in that series of writings.

Thinking about KNOW-ledge

I just finished an eBook by Dr. Ginger Campbell ( Are You Sure? -- The Unconscious Origins of Certainty ). Ginger hosts the excellent Brain Science Podcast. Her synopsis of some of the major themes of surety was prompted by her two-part discussion of a book by neuroscientist-turned-novelist, Dr. Robert Burton ( On Certainty: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not ), which included an interview of the author.

Ginger's brilliance is her ability to distill the essence of the thinking of others into words that make the ideas accessible to those who are relatively new to the topic. I highly recommend her eBook, even if you struggle with reading , and especially if you lack the time to read a longer development of the topic.  I certainly recommend her podcasts.

In any case, with the "opinion or fact" series I am jumping into the long-standing catfight between neuroscience and psychology with a third point of view: the importance of listening from belief to anecdotal report, remaining diligently aware of our innate tendency toward confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias

There has been a great deal of research and writing on the implications of the concept of confirmation bias, so many of us have a familiarity with the expression.

Confirmation bias is a term describing the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their hypotheses or closely held belief systems.

Individuals display confirmation bias when they selectively gather, note or remember information, or when they interpret it in a way that fits what they already believe.

The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues, for deeply entrenched beliefs, when we are desperate for answers, and when there is more attachment to being right than being effective.

Those of us who are well-educated tend to be some of the most intractable. By the time we become adults, we've put a lot of time and energy into compiling a body of knowledge we like to consider our "expertise."

  • Additional information that adds to our body of knowledge confirms the rightness of our beliefs and, by extension, our self-concept.
  • New input that seems to contradict our beliefs, by extension, seems to invalidate us somehow. Even when we consciously understand and embrace the reality that people are different and that absolutes and total congruencies are unlikely, we often tend to feel threatened by the evidence of conflicting possibilities.

The Myth of the Love of Learning

Most of us love to KNOW - learning is a necessary "in order to" goal on the pathway to knowledge.

  • In order for us to learn anything at all, we must begin with not knowing. Otherwise we are simply deepening the entrenchment of the known, not learning much of anything new.
  • Most of us find the process of acquiring new knowledge frustratingly uncomfortable. "Not knowing" pits us against our brain's hunger for certainty.
  • Said another way, not knowing makes us feel stupid.

I have observed that even children, whom, the stories assert, have an innate love of learning until inadequate education systems beat it out of them, don't ever really enjoy learning a new task or bit of information in the same way they enjoy acting out what they already know as they play.

  • They are extremely frustrated by the process of moving from not-knowing to knowing.
  • What they like about the learning game is the positive feedback from social interaction that comes once they HAVE learned.

Life-long learners have internalized the "attaboy" pleasure; drop-outs probably didn't get enough positive feedback to stay on the learning pathway. (Writing in Psychological Science, Smith et. al. [2008] report that when randomly assigned participants are made to feel powerless they become worse at keeping on top of changing information.)

The feeling of KNOWING

We are all familiar with the feeling of knowing. Even when we cannot retrieve information, like somebody's name, for example, we somehow know that we know it, and we can usually recognize it when it is set before us. When we're struggling to understand a concept or locate the error behind a checkbook that won't balance, the aha! moment is another manifestation of that marvelous feeling of knowing.

We are also familiar with the feeling of cognitive dissonance, a term coined in 1957 by Stanford professor Leon Festinger to describe the unsettling "That CAN'T be right!" feeling, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is.

  • Festinger described cognitive dissonance as a distressing mental state where people find themselves doing things that don't fit with what they know or what they have consciously chosen, or holding opinions incongruent with other opinions that they have researched and embrace.
  • The concept underlying cognitive dissonance is that the more committed we are to a belief, the harder it is to relinquish, even in the face of irrefutable evidence.

We tend to go with what feels right, regardless of the evidence. Sometimes that "instinct" serves us, but many times it only serves to keep us stuck in paradigms that don't.

What causes the feeling of certainty?

Because there are some medical conditions and brain injuries where the feeling of knowing gets distorted, neuroscience is relatively certain that particular parts of the brain are involved. The recent discoveries of affective neuroscience point to the body's import in the process.

Even when the neurological damage accompanying a distorted feeling of knowing is substantially different, they all tended to choose in favor of what they felt, and then they would come up with tortured logic to support their conclusions.

What might be the evolutionary advantage of an unjustified feeling of knowing?

It would seem as if our fear response, developed to keep us alive, is somehow intertwined with our drive toward certainty.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that knowledge itself and the awareness of knowledge arise from different regions in the brain. With blind-sight, for example, individuals with damage to the part of the brain allowing them to have conscious awareness of vision are somehow able to act (function) in ways that show that visual information is none-the-less reaching other parts of their brain, even though they have no conscious awareness of being able to see.

Joseph LeDoux's rodent sound/shock experiment showed that removing the auditory cortex had no effect on their fear response, showing that there is an acoustic pathway that actually by-passes the auditory cortex. A rat doesn't have to be aware of the paired sound to feel fear - he does, however, have to have a functioning amygdala. Subsequent experiments, both animal and human studies, seem to confirm the role of the amygdala in the fear response.

But why would our physiology favor feeling over logic?

Human beings with damage to the amygdala are fearless to the extent that they often will be observed to act in very foolish, if not dangerous ways. The feeling of fear helps us make rapid, effective decisions in certain situations by avoiding decisions that would put us in danger, as well as the additional time we might be exposed to danger were we to stop to deliberate.

Cognition - thinking and the awareness of thought - involves the most recently developed part of the brain, the cerebral cortex.

The emotional element of certainty (as well as it's opposite, fear of uncertainty), seems to involve a connection between the rest of the body and the older parts of the brain, including the cingulate gyrus, amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, and basal forebrain structures -- areas that, in the past, been called the limbic system.

It has been discovered that seizures involving certain "limbic" structures can trigger a sense of something familiar or déjà vu or, conversely, a sensation that objects in the physical world are unreal, so life itself seems to be a dream or an out-of-body experience.

Studies indicate that our sense of whether something is familiar or foreign, real or illusory, dangerous or safe, accurate or fallacious, is not really a conscious conclusion because it's coming from lower, older parts of the brain over which we have no conscious access or control.

Putting it all together

Dr. Burton says, "My goal is to strip away the power of certainty by exposing its involuntary neurological roots. If science can shame us into questioning the nature of conviction, we might develop some degree of tolerance and an increased willingness to consider alternative ideas."

He admits that he has no idea if he has become more tolerant in the process of writing an entire book about the unconscious drive toward certainty, but he goes on to say that he believes that remaining aware of the concept is likely to do so.

I do recognize that other people’s opinions arise out of separate lines of reasoning than mine, and that in nonscientific matters there is no litmus test to know with certainty who is correct . . . I'm aware of the fact that they're not starting from the same position. Just that alone is helpful.

The Importance of Listening from Belief

Burton's words brings me full circle, back to "listening from belief" -- in an article already too long to expand on the topic.

I hope that you will stay tuned for subsequent articles in this series, and that you will add your opinions and reactions in the comment's section - both here and on It seems to me that "remaining aware of the fact that [none of us are] starting from the same position" might well be the only way to work around confirmation bias and the down-side of our brain's quest for certainty.

I will simply conclude with the following statement:

Unless we make a special point of developing the habit of listening from belief, we run the risk of never knowing much more than we know right now -- and of, quite possibly, inadvertently shutting down another who has not yet internalized the "attaboy" joy of learning on the pathway to knowing.


Some other books that have informed my thinking on The Tragedy of Certainty

  • In Search of Memory, Eric Kandel
  • Mindsight, Daniel Siegel
  • Incognito, David Eagleman
  • The Feeling of What Happens, Antonio Damasio
  • The Brain that Changes Itself, Norman Doige
  • Thought Without a Thinker, Mark Epstein
  • essays on The Mind, edited by John Pinker (authors include Ramachandran, Gopnik, Zimbardo Lakoff etc.)
  • Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett
  • The Other Brain, Doug Fields
  • Rhythms of Life, Russell Foster, Leon Kreitzman
  • The Body Has a Mind of Its Own, Sandra & Ron Blakeslee

A more complete book-list can be found by clicking BRAIN-BASED BOOKS (links to other booklists included)

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Comment by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie on May 3, 2013 at 9:36

@Bronwyn (LOVE your name!)

Thanks for your acknowledgment - and for taking the time to read, reflect and question.  Your (relatively) short comment will probably inspire a l-o-n-g response from me.  I AM, after all, the ADD Poster Girl - mind going a mile a minute  ::grin::

RE "evidence-based  practices" - It would certainly seem as though it would help, BUT the problem with "evidence" is that our questions boundary what we find, and our questions - which determine the set up of the experiment by which we test our assumptions - almost always come from a world-view we hold already.  Few of us set out to prove what we DON'T believe!

Even science forgets, at times, that "evidence" does not equal PROOF, even though a basic tenet of the field is that scientific "evidence" must be "falsifiable."  No expansion of knowledge is possible if science does not continue to question what it thinks it "knows" -- but sometimes it takes decades (even longer) for somebody to design a study that comes up with new "evidence" that disproves the old. (and THEN they have to get past the Journal editors - but that's another issue!)  Check out Science and Sensibility - the illusion of proof for more of my thinking about "evidence-based practices."


RE "physiological connection" to reflection (and beliefs): I agree with the idea of "us[ing] techniques to evoke emotional responses" - with a caveat: we need to AVOID activating the amygdala (the fight-flight-freeze component of our brain)

Science is fairly certain that a shut-down of the pre-frontal cortex [PFC] is one of the amygdala's evolutionary "powers" (Don't take time to think, fool - RUN!).  The PFC is the area that orchestrates our higher-level thinking (our executive functioning - EF) - so activating the "fear and uncertainty" response, even at subtle levels, decrements our ability to think clearly, make decisions, answer questions, and formulate action plans based on new information.

Corporate coach and author David Rock tells of a study where effectiveness of managers went down by half following a performance review - even when the "what you did right" comments overwhelming outnumbered the "areas for improvement."

It seems to work more effectively if the reviewer does Part 1 and asks the "reviewee" to come up with their own "growing edges" - with the reviewer affirming the insights and opening the door to encourage the reviewee's "slow cooking" ways to achieve those new objectives (along with a "my door is always open" comment to encourage partnership).  I would imagine that formula could be tweaked rather handily by educators, to encourage the self-reflection and learning of their students.

The coaching field has a "no make-wrong" guideline that most coaches keep in mind when they are speaking with clients.  The only problem is that it doesn't seem to go far enough.  We not only need to avoid making them [feel] wrong, we have to actively "make them RIGHT" before they are willing to shift to a more resourceful state or point of view.  I have watched that dynamic repeatedly in my 25 years in the field.  And changes in behavior always follow a shift in thinking (closest non-coaching description is Covey's "paradigm shift").


RE: "prompting questions" -  in my field, I am probably the least on board with the effectiveness of one of the ICF Coaching Competencies: "powerful questioning."  I agree totally with the concept, but the application is TRICKY, especially with my specialty, Attentional Spectrum Deficits [EFDs]. 

Briefly, where you need to go with your questions depends on where your client (or student) is to begin with.  Neuro-typical brain-styles tend to be more rigidly linear in their thinking, so a "powerful" question would be one that encourages them to "think outside the box."

Try that with almost anyone on the Attentional Spectrum and it will shut them down rather than open up their thinking (activating the hair-trigger "startle" response - "PFC shutdown in response to stress") Not so "powerful" in that case, right?

Those with what I refer to as the "alphabet disorders" - EFD, ADD, OCD, TBI etc. have less efficiency with the "governor" that filters inputs automatically, so their thinking is more aptly described as holographic (everything present all at once in any piece of the discussion). They ALREADY have more ideas than they can sift and sort, so encouraging them to gather MORE thoughts on a topic can be SERIOUS overstimulation. 

The joke in the ADD community, in response to the concept of "thinking outside the box" is "There's a BOX?!"

EFDers need focusing questions that encourage follow-through -- and it takes me YEARS to train an ADD Coach to understand the difference between a truly powerful question for our community of clients and what the ICF thinks of as a "powerful question."  They have to hone their listening skills so that they can tailor our questions to locate their clients precisely on the edge where they are stimulated but not overwhelmed.  Like I said, it's tricky.  See The Art and Science of the ADD Question for more on this.

Well THIS turned out to be a novel.  Thanks for your questions - I'm looking forward to more interaction - and your thinking about the items above.



Comment by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie on May 3, 2013 at 8:14

@Jenny - oh yes!  

It's not only easier "to go through life gathering experiences that agree with your values and ethics," it seems to be more enjoyable to gather evidence that I am so right (and brilliantly prescient :) )  And, of course, anything that makes me question my values is extremely uncomfortable.  

Ethically, there are views I hold that I'm fairly certain are unshakeable.  Even as I listen to others who hold views opposed to my own (like on the death penalty in America, for example), I am listening more for leverage to expand THEIR thinking than my own.  AND, I am aware, that since I hold "Thou shalt not kill" as practically absolute, that informs my values and/or ethics in other arenas - possibly in ways that are not exactly logically congruent - but unless I question my own thinking, it becomes difficult for me to hear the questions of others.

As a theatre professional (first career), I was well-versed in the idea of "suspension of disbelief" as the principle that makes the magic possible. Little kids are GREAT with "let's pretend," but it seems that too many of us have one foot over the skeptic line when we get older.  We seem to seek out reasons to disbelieve, rather than its opposite.

Your comment makes me think, possibly for the first time, about the value of suspending belief.  I like the language, too.  Simply using the word "belief" begins the process of loosening its hold.  So thank YOU for sharing the wisdom of your wonderful English lecturer - and thanks for taking the time to read and comment.



Comment by bronwyn hegarty on April 30, 2013 at 21:23

You have stirred my curiosity Madelyn with this very interesting article. If professionals engaged in evidence-based  practice, wouldn't this help people to remain more flexible in their thinking and beliefs? Also, I am intrigued to think that the concept of reflective practice could have a physiological connection, and when we use techniques to evoke emotional responses so that reflection about experiences and events we are actually directly stimulating the limbic system....but are we really? What actually happens physiologically when we get someone to drill down deeply into their experiences to extract meaning and to learn from their actions? For example could well-designed prompting questions stimulate a limbic response or the secretion of specific neurotransmitters? I would love to hear what you think about this connection because surely the ability to move from fixed ideas is strongly linked to effective reflective practice. As some people will know this is one of my hobby horses. Bron

Comment by Jenny Sinclair on April 30, 2013 at 19:55

I read this and had a few uhuh moments myself. It's much easier to go through life gathering experiences that agree with your values and ethics isn't it? ;-)  I was lucky enough to have a wonderful English lecturer who left me with this thought 'if I am willing to suspend my belief I will be much more open to challenges to my thinking'. An awareness that our world view seen through our own prejudices and biases is very helpful.  I look forward to reading your following posts . Thanks for sharing Madelyn. 

Comment by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie on April 17, 2013 at 14:20

I sincerely appreciate the acknowledgment, Hazel.  What I love is the way you always think and reflect regardless, as well as the original directions toward which your thinking takes you. 

I'm especially pleased that you're now hip to the content expressed in my article -- I wish somebody had clued ME in years ago.  I'm sure *many* things I said (and many more I thought and did NOT say) would have been impacted positively if I could have understood and sincerely embraced the probability that my own feeling of certainty needed to be tempered by the reality that others had competing "sureties" which exacerbated situations, delaying the development of mutually satisfactory resolutions considerably. (Dare I mention how many romantic relationships might have gone more smoothly too?)

btw- Sorry for the delay in approval and response. I have been at the ACO Conference in Atlanta and *just* returned, playing catch-up as quickly as I am able from a hotel snafu that left me with a SERIOUS sleep debt that has left me a tad stupid ::grin:: (but will eventually provide a rather nifty intro to an upcoming post in my ongoing Sleep and Cognition Series).

Re: delay -- For me, managing at a conference (especially when I am one of the presenters) takes ALL available cognitive bandwidth, so I have *finally* learned to set my systems up in accordance to what I know, avoiding that "failure feeling" most of us know so well by avoiding overpromising and the resultant underdelivering (at least where keeping up with blog and email activities during a conference is concerned ::BIG grin::)

ANYWAY, as soon as I have caught up with the to-do's that accumulated from a week away, I'm looking forward to hopping over to listen to the podcast you suggest.  Thanks for sharing -- and thanks for reading and commenting on my article above.


Comment by Hazel Owen on April 8, 2013 at 14:30

I love that your posts make me go away and think, reflect...and read, and listen, and find things out. One of the things I have been doing since reading your post Madelyn if reflect back on times when I have felt so 100% sure about something - and that uncomfortable feeling when I realised that either I was wrong, or at the very least, being naive. I thought back too, to when I was an over-confident early 20s person, armed with a degree and a Masters, and just enough certainty to wreak havoc. I argued rather than discussed, and rarely considered that there may be other points of view, and that I may just be barking up the wrong tree. Related emotions were confidence, frustration that others might not agree / see my point of view, and sometimes anger. Deeply held biases and prejudices (not that I recognised them as such) from my childhood often coloured and shaped my certainty.

Recently, a few interesting things I've noticed are that 1) a growing confidence, rather than (usually) adding to a sense of certainty, gives me the strength to look way closer at my own beliefs, and to listen more openly to other folk's points; 2) where I would have unquestioningly accepted a published (especially academic) viewpoint, now I often question it; and 3) I am way more aware of my prejudices and biases and have strategies to stop my cognitive wheels running along the same old rails - to step back mentally and be respectfully open. The insights in your post help to keep these brain trends 'moving along'! :-)

Something I wanted to share that I listened to over the weekend is a podcast by the wonderful WNYC Radio Lab team (can't get enough of them). The episode I listened to was Are you sure? In the hour long podcast the podcast, in a spirit of philosophical inquiry, introduces a "geologist whose life is rocked by a crisis of faith, talk to a gambler who's made a name (and millions) by embracing what she can't know, and [they] relive a series of decisions and convictions that turn one woman's certainty into a deeply troubling question about just how certain is certain enough" (source). (NOTE: The last episode contains graphic descriptions of sexual assault and violence.) Each of the episodes, I felt, illustrate points you make in your post quite evocatively - and it seemed serendipitous to be listening just after I had read your post! (Although I am aware that it's because I was 'open' to the ideas explored in the podcast because I had just read your post!)

By the way, thanks heaps for the recommendation of Ginger Campbell's Brain Science Podcast, which I am now subscribed to xxx



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