Second-Guessing Ourselves

24 September 2014

This week we're thinking about Second-Guessing. Some people avoid second-guessing themselves on principle. It’s like Ser Alliser says in Game of Thrones: “Leadership is all about getting second-guessed by every clever little twat with a mouth.  But if a leader starts second-guessing [himself], that's it.  That's the end."

But even leaders sometimes make rash judgments and uninformed choices.  It's not hard to argue that we would have all been better off if Bush and company had done a little second-guessing of themselves when it came to the decision to invade Iraq. Of course, who’s to say they would have gotten it more right the second time around. Besides, if you start down that path, you may soon be second-guessing your second guesses.  And who knows where that could lead.   

In any event, I’m not suggesting that you should never stick to your beliefs and decisions.  But that doesn’t mean you should always stick to them either.  It’s not an all or nothing thing. Wouldn't it be great if there were some nice, neat formula, for deciding when it’s a good thing to second-guess yourself?  I doubt there could be such a formula, but of course maybe I should reconsider those doubts. (Ha!) 

Take the following example.  Suppose you catch a glimpse of a person in the distance at a restaurant and think might be me.  Suppose you're pretty sure, but not 100 percent certain.  Maybe you're 70 percent sure, just to give it a number. Later on I tell you that it wasn’t me that you saw.  Should you just stick to your original belief?  Isn’t it reasonable for you to reduce your confidence -- maybe all the way down to zero -- that it was me you actually saw?

Of course, for all you know I could be lying to you.  Maybe you saw me at some very intimate dinner, staring longingly into the eyes of a very attractive woman, who didn't look all that much like my wife, so I'm just trying to distract you. My point is that sometimes our confidence in our beliefs can be less than complete.  When we get more evidence, we should be willing to change our degree of belief  -- up or down – in light of new evidence.  If I told you, for example, that it really was me that you saw, wouldn’t your confidence shoot all the way up to 100 percent?   

But now we’re not really talking about second-guessing ourselves, we’re talking about reconsidering old beliefs in light of new evidence pro or con. That's just what rational people do.  What rational people don’t do and shouldn't do is go around second-guessing themselves on the basis of no real evidence whatsoever.  Once the evidence is in, and you’ve made up your mind, stick to your guns.  Don’t go changing your mind just because you think you might possibly be wrong. 

But what if the belief that you might possibly be wrong is itself based on evidence -- not on evidence about whether I was in that restaurant or not…  but on evidence about your own degree of reliability?  For example, suppose you found out that you glasses had been tinkered with and that they now had a tendency to distort your vision -- a little far-fetched, maybe, but it makes the point.  If you found out that your vision was being distorted, wouldn’t it make sense to change your degree of confidence in your belief that it was me you saw – even though you got no new direct evidence as to whether I was there or not?  

Of course people are almost always subject to some sort of distorting influences when they draw conclusions or make decisions.  If we let our confidence be undermined by that fact alone, it leads to self-doubt, skepticism, and inaction. Does that just paint a stubborn refusal to reconsider as an epistemic virtue? Or does praise a spineless indecisiveness as one? Tune in to find out what our guest, Sherri Roush (now at King's College London), author of Tracking Truth: Knowledge, Evidence, and Science, thinks about how best to go about evaluating our self-assements.

Comments (4)

MJA's picture


Sunday, October 5, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Once One removes any

Once One removes any questions or doubts truth is all that remains. Measure is the doubt and truth just is. = 

Guest's picture


Thursday, October 9, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

At several points throughout

At several points throughout the show?for example, during John and Ken?s debate at the opening, and in the end in a question from the audience?second-guessing was contrasted with ?sticking to your guns,? i.e., holding on firmly to a belief or decision. Ken, responding to the question from the audience, nailed this distinction when he said that there are two competing epistemic interests at play: on the one hand, making a choice, sticking with it, and acting on it, and on the other hand considering everything. No doubt it?s a difficult balance to achieve.
Sherri?s reply made a bit clearer the role intuition and gut instinct play in making decisions, but I?m left unsatisfied. Specifically, I?m wondering if considering this topic in light of existentialist thought on autonomy and one?s fundamental projects could provide a different angle. Sartre and de Beauvoir, for example, speak of one?s actions as always being in the context of a fundamental project. Critically reflecting on one?s beliefs seems to support autonomy, but at the same time to consider everything at the cost of being firm in one?s beliefs seems to compromise one?s commitment to whatever their fundamental project may be. Or, is it that on this model our beliefs do not correlate directly with our values? I suspect that a thorough reading of Sherri?s work, in making clearer what it is that we mean when we speak of second-guessing, will provide a good foundation for me to start thinking about these questions at a deeper level.
In any case, this was a great show; as with Ken, I had never considered the practice of second-guessing in such philosophical of a light! Or have I?

Diana Senechal's picture

Diana Senechal

Saturday, October 11, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

When deciding whether or not

When deciding whether or not to doubt oneself, one cannot rely on "evidence" alone. Even more important than the evidence is our interpretation of the evidence. One can be certain, at one moment, that one's interpretation is solid. Then one can discover a glitch in one's own thinking. Same evidence, no external change, just a different assessment of one's own reasoning.

Or's picture


Wednesday, October 29, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Second guessing is a human

Second guessing is a human quality; it is instinct. It is also directly related to the amount of knowledgeable  options one sees ahead of him/herself. The more knowledgeable choices, the more second guessing, even if subconsciously.
If you are knowledgeable to a certain point and you are given one good choice and 4 obviously bad choices you will not need to second guess. But in general, decision making without second guessing is a consequence of experience/knowledge, not instinct. Knowledgeable leaders develop into good leaders because experience has taught them what the good choices are, not because they don?t second guess.  
Nature, for example, presents us with options: red apple versus green apple ? which one should I pick?  If I know that the red one has been treated with pesticides then I will pick the green one, but if I don?t know then I would instinctively second guess myself ? that is, of course, if there weren?t circumstances out there that would force me to make my decision immediately , such as hunger in this situation or time in a exam type of situation.  These circumstances are responsible for decision making, and one is forced into experiencing the consequences of that forced decision making  to know better for next time (but only if you were presented with exactly the same situation that next time). Otherwise, instinctual second guessing would kick once again.