I suppose that if you are regularly referred to as the “Chosen One” and the “Second Coming,” it’s understandable that you would anoint yourself the “King.” And then why not have an appropriately regal coronation on ESPN? Certainly, your subjects — prostrated and intoxicated by awe and wonder — will praise the wisdom of your decision-making.
Like Homer’s ancient heroes, Lebron James is driven by a deep desire to defeat mortality and to live perpetually as the greatest and most admired basketball player ever. And he was likely traveling that path, until his certainty bias washed out the road.
Outside of Miami, fan and media response to his narcissistic self-annointing has been nearly universally scathing. Just a few examples:
- Fox Sports: LeBron’s new reality: He’s the villain now
- Red94 (fan blog): Lebron James leaves the Cleveland Cavaliers, cements self as villain for the ages
- Vanity Fair: LeBron’s Decision To Avoid the Path of Greatness
How did James miscalculate so egregiously? He was a victim of certainty bias.
Robert Burton, author of On Being Certain, has exposed the hazards of “believing you are right even when you’re not.” His central premise: “Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of ‘knowing what we know’ are sensations that feel like thoughts, but arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that function independently of reason.”
In an October 2008 article in Scientific American entitled The Certainty Bias: A Potentially Dangerous Mental Flaw, Burton discusses how to avoid its pitfalls: “I don’t believe that we can avoid certainty bias, but we can mitigate its effect by becoming aware of how our mind assesses itself…I’ve taken strong exception to the popular notion that we can rely upon hunches and gut feelings as though they reflect the accuracy of a thought.
“My hope is the converse; we need to recognize that the feelings of certainty and conviction are involuntary mental sensations, not logical conclusions. Intuitions, gut feelings and hunches are neither right nor wrong but tentative ideas that must then be submitted to empirical testing. If such testing isn’t possible (such as in deciding whether or not to pull out of Iraq), then we must accept that any absolute stance is merely a personal vision, not a statement of fact.”
No one reading this blog has been deified. But like Lebron James, we are all susceptible to certainty bias. Good thinking requires that we be aware of and avoid its dangers. As Burton concludes: “Only in the absence of certainty can we have open-mindedness, mental flexibility and willingness to contemplate alternative ideas.”