The Truth Seekers' Charter

a.k.a. I love it when you tell me I'm wrong

Tom Kerwin

Someone once told me, “the problem with research is that it tells us either that we’re building the wrong thing or building the thing wrong.”

Yes, this is the "problem" with research ... but it's also the whole point of research. If we're spending time and effort on the wrong things, surely we want to know. And preferably right now, not in months down the line when we find out because our grand launch is a damp squib.

Don't get me wrong, I know that finding out the truth can be damned uncomfortable, but it still bewilders me that anyone would rather keep their head buried in the sand, only to later receive a sound kick in the rump.

There were some insights about this in Annie Duke's fabulous book Thinking in Bets. I made some notes on her thoughts around creating a Truth Seekers' Charter. I hope these can help me when the need arises to reveal uncomfortable truths, and thought I'd share them ...

In the book, Annie recounts a story of an interview David Letterman did with a reality TV star. After listening to her complain about how pretty much everyone else in her life was an idiot, he gently probed, "have you ever wondered whether you're the idiot?"

This did not go down well. She attacked back: "are you calling me an idiot?"

He tried to soften the blow, telling her how he had experienced this very revelation when he was younger, but it was too late. She was hurt, offended, and couldn't begin to hear what he was trying to say.

What he'd accidentally done was break an implicit social contract. She had been telling her stories to reinforce her worldview, to have Letterman and the viewers feel sympathy for her plight. She hadn't agreed to be challenged in any way, and so perceived his question as a real threat.

I realised that I have sometimes "Lettermanned" colleagues by bringing them research outcomes that challenged their beliefs when they were looking for me to confirm their beliefs. They wanted our research to validate their hypotheses, while I was using research to uncover where we were wrong. This is quite a common challenge in experimentation.

Like Letterman and his guest, I hadn't agreed with my colleague to step outside of the normal social contract.

Which leads us to the basis for the truth-seekers' charter: first agree to a new social contract – one where we celebrate letting go of the comfort of being right.

Do you remember the different choices of Cypher and Neo, in the Matrix? Any group of people can go in one of two ways:

Cypher tried to choose the "blue pill" making a deal to live a life of comfortable wrongness (including delicious steak). This is the world of the echo chamber, the world where it’s more important to be a good group member than to be accurate. This is a comfortable and natural state for humans, but it's also the basis of tribalism and "us-and-them" thinking. The group punishes challenges to the status quo, so biases and blindspots are amplified by the group dynamic.

But Neo chose the "red pill". He made the deal to know the truth, even though it was deeply uncomfortable. This is the world where being a good group member is about seeking truth even when it isn't comfortable. This is a challenging place to be in, and depends on replacing the comfort of confirmation with pleasure of learning and developing. The group rewards challenges to the status quo, so individual biases and blindspots are reduced by the group dynamic.

For a truth-seeking group to work, it’s crucial to have intellectual and ideological diversity in the group. Some boffins have done academic research on groupthink and group dynamics (see Tetlock and Lerner 2002, and Jonathan Haidt).

The advice of the academics points to a pretty good blueprint for a *Truth-Seeking Charter*:

1) We focus on accuracy over confirmation, which includes rewarding truth-seeking, objectivity and open-mindedness within the group

2) We are accountable to one another for this focus, and I expect you to call me out when I stray into confirmation bias

3) We are open to a diversity of ideas, even when they're uncomfortable.


The benefits of having a group signed up to such a charter can be huge. Because without trusted people who call us on our own biases and blindspots, we're damned to fall foul of them.

But remember, don't Letterman people. You need agreement on this kind of charter before you start telling people they're wrong.

Until next time!

Tom x