When Mental Models Go Stale + Levels of Certainty

Mental models are important.  But we need to always consider how fresh our models are.  I like and agree with Derek Sivers’s take that he normally never immediately responds to most questions because his answer will “be erroneously based upon old and outdated self-knowledge.” So here’s my rant for the morning:  IMHO, people really should attach a confidence interval (or “level of certainty”) with their predictions or comments.  Generally, unless I otherwise specify, I usually speak with around an 80% confidence.  Meaning, I am roughly 80% certain in whatever I’m talking about and in my position.  But sometimes, I am much less or much more certain.  In those cases, I will usually specify.

For example, yesterday a friend asked me about Sam Harris.  I know of Harris and have listened to his podcast before.  But several years back I’d lost interest in him and had stopped listening.  Every single one of his episodes –at least for a stretch that I’d listened to– had devolved into an opening ten minutes of airing grievances.  Whether fairly or unfairly (most likely the latter), I’d come to think of Harris, at least as he presented himself, as “the most aggrieved man in America.”  (Also, his podcast’s old name, Waking Up, always struck me as enormously condescending.  So that was already one strike.  His podcast’s new name, Making Sense, is marginally better but still has a whiff of superiority about it that slightly irks.) As of yesterday, my mental model of Harris had understandably gone stale.  That is, I had no idea what he’s up to nowadays, what news surrounds him, etc.

Thus, when I opined on Sam Harris, I think it was responsible that I gave “my-mental-model-of-him-has-staled” qualifier.  I have data on him that I can convey to you, but my impression is an old impression.  And thus, just being cognizant of that actually makes me more amenable to receiving and processing new information on Harris.  If more people followed these guidelines I’m laying out, I think we’d live in a much saner world.  People should go about being, and sounding, much less certain.  You’re more willing to receive and process new data if your cup isn’t already flowing over. The world is rapidly changing and we’re constantly revising our internal models to approximate what on earth is going on around us. In fact, coupled to this thought: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become infinitely more weary of anyone who sounds certain about anything. In fact, if we ever converse, the more certain you sound, the less I’ll probably think of you. (Also, no offense intended, but if you’re young, this especially applies to you.)

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