Use Conflicts – Move Fast – Overcome Bias

We adopt the beliefs and convictions of our peers without being aware of it. Their biases and convictions soon become ours, and we cannot distinguish between adopted and independently formed beliefs. As a result, unchecked, potentially wrong convictions hurt our decision-making and, in turn, our business strategy and investment ideas. In the attempt to solve this problem for myself, I came across the concept of using conflict in social groups to expose and change unconsciously adopted beliefs. The implications for designing social environments are simple: Avoid unanimity. Seek diversity. Move fast.

Naturally, we adopt our peers’ beliefs as we spend time with them. This can both help and hurt us. Ideally, we are surrounded by rational, truth-loving friends and colleagues whose beliefs are helpful updates to our own and allow us to make better decisions. Unfortunately, not all convictions we assimilate are useful; if given a chance, we would reject many of them. These biases and beliefs we do not share are also unconsciously assimilated. Worse, over time, we start mistaking them for beliefs we acquired through personal experience. 

Accepted assumptions we never verified, the most dangerous kind, are distinguishable from verified beliefs as they are built on a weak foundation. We cannot provide arguments and evidence in their defence if conflict exposes unwillingly adopted assumptions. After all, we picked them up along the way without assuring ourselves of their truth. Opposed to this are convictions we arrived at through reasoning and experience. Therefore, noticing assumptions we cannot support is an opportunity to recognise and correct beliefs we unwillingly acquired. 

Exposing false beliefs is not enough to change them[1]. Conflict is merely an opportunity but insufficient to rid us of them. Importantly, we do not strive to adopt the average of the implicit assumptions across the social groups we interact with. Rather, challenges to adopted assumptions represent the chance to replace them with beliefs we arrive at through independent reasoning. Conflict, employed correctly, gets us closer to first principles thinking[2]. Disposing of false assumptions without being able to replace them immediately is hard. Sometimes it even requires the courage to question the foundations of our knowledge. But what kind of conflict exposes our false assumptions?

Each social group has a set of shared and accepted premises. Travelling between groups changes this set of assumptions. Whenever we move into a new social environment, its assumptions often conflict with the old environment’s assumptions. Precisely this discrepancy exposes our beliefs in social interactions. As a student, this quickly becomes apparent when talking to friends from different fields – their frameworks, assumptions, and perspective differ from mine. In discussions, we often disagree until we discover meaningful differences in our respective implicit assumptions. Such controlled disagreement can be used to make apparent which beliefs underlie our thinking. 

Using conflict to update beliefs has significant implications for building our social groups: Avoid unanimity. Seek diversity in your social environment – both within and across the groups of friends and colleagues you spend time with. Move between these different social groups frequently. Travelling between groups will continually alter the sets of assumptions and expose more of your underlying beliefs. And if you catch yourself holding onto an unverified, adopted conviction, grasp that opportunity to update it. Start from first principles.

[1]: We hold beliefs because the conclusions of those beliefs convince us, not because the reasoning is sound. Conversely, more than disproving the reasons (or exposing the lack thereof) is required to change our beliefs. As Daniel Kahneman says: “Subjectively, we experience that reasons are prior to the beliefs that can be deduced from them. But we know that the power of reasons is an illusion. The belief will not change when the reasons are defeated. The causality is reversed. People believe the reasons because they believe in the conclusion.”

[2]: First Principles are propositions or assumptions that cannot be deduced further. They cannot be deduced from other assumptions or propositions. First Principle Thinking consists of returning to the basic elements of knowledge in a domain and reasoning up from there. Opposed to this would be to start with complex, unproven assumptions and risk arriving at wrong conclusions.