Putting “Certainty” to the Test in Group Decisions

I came by an interesting article in the latest issue of Harvard Business Review: “How Certainty Transforms Persuasion.” The crux of the article is to explain how certainty—not accuracy or correctness—is used to persuade others to follow your way of thinking. The authors explain how certainty increases through the use of four levers: consensus, repetition, ease, and defense.

  • Consensus – If everyone in a group believes something is true, the likelihood of new group members sharing that belief is high.
  • Repetition – The more often someone repeats a claim, the more likely they are to hold to that belief.
  • Ease – The simpler a particular position is for an individual to understand, the more certain they are in their stance.
  • Defense – If someone has been able to consistently defend a particular position–no matter how weak the arguments–it’s more likely that they will be certain they are correct.

It’s easy to see how these four levers could be used as tools for persuading people to adopt a position you’re advocating, but what happens if your goal is to find the best answer? There may be some people in the room—including you—who have very strong opinions on the subject, while others aren’t nearly as certain.

Having some insight into the reasons why people hold a particular belief can help you see through a lot of clutter. For instance, does it appear that one person is continually repeating the same “fact” over and over again? Perhaps asking them where they got their information might be helpful. Does the group come to a difficult decision too quickly? Maybe there are some underlying assumptions that no one is questioning. Does the solution to a problem seem too easy? Maybe it is, and further exploration is required.

Being able to recognize why people are so certain of their beliefs can be useful for better understanding their positions on an issue. Changing those beliefs may be more difficult, but knowing the source of their certainty may you get closer to making a difficult decision.