“Some People Are More Certain of Everything Than I Am of Anything”

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I love this quote from Robert Rubin, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under President Clinton, because it states so cleverly something I often feel. If you say “X,” I automatically think, “But what about Y?” and “Is X always X”?

Aside from driving my husband occasionally bonkers, this thought pattern also feels inappropriate in a culture that values straight-talking self-confidence.

So I was very happy to read about a recent Stanford Business School study suggesting that experts are more persuasive when they express doubt. The researchers asked people what they’d pay for a meal at a fictional restaurant called Bianco’s. Some of the people read a review of Bianco’s that was certain ( “A Confident 4 Out of 5 Stars”) and others a review that was less sure (“A Tentative 4 Out of 5 Stars.”)

The surprise results? People who read the uncertain review said they were willing to pay 56% more than those who’d read the confident review.

The researchers speculate that the reason for this is a phenomenon called “expectancy violations.”  We expect experts to be confident; tentativeness surprises us; and surprise makes an impact.

But I think that people who admit doubt are simply more credible.  We all know that things are rarely what they seem. People who are unfailingly confident in their opinions are probably glossing over ambiguities.  Doubtful and hesitant people are simply telling it like it is. They are the true straight-talkers among us. Maybe.

Does this resonate for you? How certain do you tend to be of your opinions?

*THANKS to my friend Annie Murphy Paul for alerting me to this study.

*This is a photo of a member of my favorite species on earth, the (sort of) peace-loving bonobo chimp.


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12 Comments

  1. Jeff on 22.02.2011 at 20:30 (Reply)

    Some fifteen years ago, I wrote in my journal about “the brittleness of certainty,” to describe how the more rigid a person’s certainty, the more suceptible to cracking when life and light proved it wrong (or less certain).

    Truthfully, not sure I was right about this. I look around today’s America and see more people more certain about more things … and deaf to any information, ideas or facts, even stubborn facts, at odds with their certain views. Sad actually.

  2. Susan on 22.02.2011 at 20:38 (Reply)

    Funny coincidence!

    I must admit that I often envy constitutionally certain people — at least in the short term. In the long run, I think (think! there’s uncertainty again) that I truly prefer the Robert Rubin approach.

    Here’s a question: is it possible to be very curious, yet prone to certainty, at the same time? Or are they mutually exclusive predispositions?

  3. Susan on 22.02.2011 at 20:42 (Reply)

    Whoops, I just re-read your post and saw that your journal entry was fifteen YEARS ago. I originally read it as fifteen minutes!

  4. Tweets that mention “Some People Are More Certain of Everything Than I Am of Anything” -- Topsy.com on 22.02.2011 at 21:34

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Nate Porter, Alison Carmack and A Joe Smith, susancain. susancain said: Why you're more persuasive when you express doubt: http://bit.ly/hHdBiC […]

  5. Doug on 22.02.2011 at 21:35 (Reply)

    As a lawyer, I learned early on that I could never promise a client what the outcome of any particular conflict would be — no matter how “certain” I was — because the law is never entirely predictable. While I know many clients want to know “the answer,” I think they also appreciate a candid assessment of the situation. The same is probably true in many walks of life.

  6. Dwight on 23.02.2011 at 08:40 (Reply)

    I think I agree with you, but I’m not quite sure.

  7. Joann McCracken on 23.02.2011 at 08:42 (Reply)

    Is it “certainty” or is it arrogance? I agree with Jeff that when we are “certain” about an idea, outcome, etc. it doesn’t leave an opening for another view point, set of facts, etc.

  8. 'Aunt Amelia' on 23.02.2011 at 10:07 (Reply)

    Guess I should never consider myself to be certain. Because so many times, I revise my views. :-)

    But then, that’s ok. Because I’m not one who needs a lot of set-in-stone Rules to live by. In fact, I kinda’ rebel against set-in-stone Rules.

    Yes, it is refreshing for someone to admit to not being totally sure. Makes them likably human.

  9. Eric on 24.02.2011 at 06:53 (Reply)

    I feel this way all the time. I’m always considering alternative views which does make me feel less confident about my positions. I used to work for a man who was the exact opposite, whose declarations were always correct and anyone who disagreed was automatically wrong. It drove me crazy but I envied his certainty. Still, there is value in recognizing the ubiquity of ambiguity. To paraphrase some Greek philosopher, nothing in this world is certain (not even this statement).

  10. philosophotarian on 24.02.2011 at 13:15 (Reply)

    nice post. As a practicing philosopher and a recovering ex-fundamentalist, I’ve vacillated between certainty and doubt for, well, just about forever. I particularly liked that you admitted to reflexively looking for exceptions to certain-sounding statements. Though I try to keep it to myself, when I forget self-restraint, I do sometimes irritate those around me.

  11. Robert on 17.08.2011 at 11:41 (Reply)

    It makes perfect sense that uncertainty appears more credible because uncertainty requires thought and reason whereas certainty is simply a feeling. For an excellent book on the hazards of certainty as well as its biology, I highly recommend “On Being Certain” by Robert Burton. One of those defining books of my life. I’ve never really trusted “certainty” since.

    1. Susan Cain on 17.08.2011 at 12:30 (Reply)

      Thx for the tip, Robert. I have that book sitting on my shelf but hadn’t gotten to it yet! Will try to read it soon.

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