Our brain wants beliefs to stay the same. We don't want to change, and yet progress is dependent on change.
That doesn't mean your beliefs are all wrong if you have had them for some amount of time. But confirmation of pre-existing beliefs can limit your growth and progress as an engineer and as a human being.
Put your beliefs on trial.
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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
Our beliefs shape our experience. Our beliefs about the world around us, our beliefs about ourselves and our place in the world, our perspectives, all of those things shape our experience. And in fact, our beliefs are a lens on our experience. And if we are to improve, it is necessary to get a handle on how our beliefs are formed, how our beliefs shift over time and how that can go wrong. In today's episode, I want to talk to you about stagnation of belief and how that tends to happen. And we are going to talk about this through the lens of a specific phenomenon that everyone experiences. That phenomenon is called confirmation bias. We talked about confirmation bias on the show before, almost certainly, we are nearing a thousand episodes. So I am supposed to every episode now starts out with me giving that disclaimer that we have talked about this on the show before. But I want to talk about two kind of different types of confirmation bias in today's episode. The first thing that I want you to do to kind of interact with this episode, with this concept, is to ask yourself this very simple question, what do I want to believe? What do I want to believe? And then as you answer this question, I want you to kind of focus it in on a specific belief or a specific topic. For example, what do I want to believe about testing software? This is a very practical example that people have strong opinions about. For example, I want to believe that testing software is going to give me a high amounts of confidence in the quality of that software. That's what I want to believe. And then you can ask yourself what you actually do believe. Now, for many people, this will be a very jarring experience where for the first time you have a hard time separating what you want to believe from what you actually believe. And this is kind of a concise picture of the first kind of confirmation bias. That is, the confirmation bias where you are choosing beliefs that are convenient or more specifically, you're choosing beliefs that align with the way that you would like to see the world. Now, there are things that are obviously wrong with this. If we choose beliefs that are convenient or choose beliefs that are in line with the way that we want to see the world, then we are often picking and choosing what kinds of information we allow to update our beliefs. For example, if I were to come across information that says that testing didn't have any measurable increase on the quality of software, measured by, let's say, defect rate over the course of 12 months for a company, then I might be more prone. If I want to believe that testing is effective, I might be more prone to dismiss that kind of information, to provide some kind of excuse or justification for the anomaly. And on the flip side, if I run across some kind of information that says that testing did improve the quality of software over 12 months, and I'm much more likely to use that information to bolster my existing belief that is convenient to me, that is kind of in line with what I want. So this is somewhat of a heuristic question, what do I want to believe, and what do I actually believe? If you have a large overlap, if you consistently are finding that there's no difference between these two things, then it's very possible, if not likely, that you are falling prey to this kind of confirmation bias, that you are choosing to believe the things that you want to believe, not necessarily the things that have good evidence, that have good support, that have, that you have information that gives you a reason to believe those things. Now this isn't the only kind of confirmation bias, right? Our brains are attuned to the things that we care about, the things that we want, but we're even more attuned to a deeper instinct for survival. And so another kind of confirmation bias is the tendency to believe something that you already previously believed to not change. Our tendency is to develop a belief and then hold on to that belief, not to change that belief, because change is dangerous. At a social level, changing your beliefs is dangerous, but even at an evolutionary level, when we change our minds, we don't really know what happens next. It's an experiment and sometimes experiments fail. So the stakes of change is failure. A good example of this that actually really matters to our careers is adopting limiting beliefs about ourselves or about others. Limiting beliefs might be, for example, I'm not a very good developer. And once you adopt that limiting belief, even if you were to progress in your career, even if you were to go and learn to develop a bunch of new skills, it's hard to change a pre-existing belief. So it's very possible that confirmation bias will lock you into believing something, even if it changes, even if the information that you have changes, and even if you don't want to believe it. You wouldn't cognizantly say that you want to believe that you're a bad developer. Most people want to believe that they have a lot of promise. They want to believe that they have a lot of agency and ability. And yet our limiting beliefs that can be reinforced by the simple fact that confirmation bias doesn't just work in our favor. It works to retain pre-existing notions, to retain pre-existing beliefs. That can leave us feeling like the things that we want are out of reach. And the second kind of confirmation bias is often overlooked, because most of the time we view this as negativity versus an actual bias. Because most of our understanding of confirmation bias is seeking out something that we want to be true, but actually the bias itself works more off of rigid inability to change or difficulty in changing. So this kind of confirmation bias is often overlooked as a bias, and instead thought of as just a negative outlook. So with both of these kinds of bias, I want to give you two, hopefully, fairly obvious ways of combating this. This is how our belief stagnates. It's how we stop learning. It's how we stop changing and progressing. And so it is important to pay attention to when our beliefs slow down in their changing process, and to ask yourself those questions, the first question being, how much of an overlap is there between what I want to believe and what I actually believe? And the second question, how do I change my beliefs? How do I change my beliefs? And the kind of procedure I want you to follow is number one, especially with critical beliefs, like for example, I believe that I'm not capable of doing this job, or I believe that I'm not capable of learning this subject. The two things I want you to do first is talk to other people. Talk to other people. Other people don't have your same preexisting beliefs. They may have the same belief as you, and this is why it's critical to talk to more than one person, try to find people who don't have the same belief sets as you. A good example of this is actually talking to a counselor. Counselor is trained specifically to try to approach your situation without preexisting beliefs. So try to gain that outside perspective. And the second thing that I want you to do is to put your beliefs on trial. What does this mean? To specifically criticize your beliefs. Try to find a way to challenge them, to test whether or not they hold up under your own scrutiny. And your goal here is not to figure something out. Instead, it's to experiment with what it feels like to not believe the thing that you believe. This might feel scary, but thought experiments are specifically built to be a safe place to experiment with your thoughts as the name suggests. And so if you adopt even temporarily a different belief set, that doesn't mean that you have to hold on to that belief forever. So putting your beliefs on trial might give you the opportunity to see what it feels like or see if it makes sense to update to change that belief. Rather than just kind of accepting all of your beliefs, put them on trial. I'll give you one final kind of bonus concept that you can take with you to hopefully start to challenge preexisting beliefs, find beliefs that are only there because they've been there for so long, only there because they've gotten a hold and you can't rip them out very easily. And that is to assign a percentage, assign a percentage of confidence to your belief. Most people naturally believe in things either 100% or not at all. This is a binary way of thinking about belief. But if you were to assign a confidence level to your beliefs, let's say you assign a 50% confidence level or a 75% confidence level, well that opens the door for you to also explore what is that other 50 or 25%? Why is it that you have any doubt at all? And once you start to explore that doubt, it's possible that you'll find ways to close that gap so you have a higher confidence in that preexisting belief. Or it's also possible you find a way to change that preexisting belief, especially if you find a belief that is a limiting belief, something that is holding you back from accomplishing what you care about accomplishing. Thanks so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. Normally we have three episodes a week. This week I will be on vacation for the first time in a while. So we won't have an episode on Friday. We will be picking back up with a new episode on Monday. Thank you so much for listening. Thank you to those of you who have left reviews for this show. This is one of the best ways to help other engineers find Developer Tea. And quite frankly, it's one of the best ways to keep me motivated. I love hearing your stories. I love hearing how this show is helping you in your careers and your lives. So please keep those reviews coming. You can also continue discussing these concepts in the Developer Tea Discord. Evertodevelopertea.com slash Discord. Thanks so much for listening and until next time, enjoy your tea.