Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

The Sense of Certainty vs. Doubt

Originally posted on July 11, 2013

Eric Berne’s theory of Transactional Analysis was more popular in the late 1960s through the 1970s. It had a number of values, one of which was popularized by a book by Thomas Harris titled “I’m Okay, You’re Okay.” The point they made was that people tended to fall into four role gradients: I’m okay, you’re okay—the healthiest; I’m not okay, you’re not okay—the grumpiest and most negative. But the two middle ones intrigue me because I think they account for a great number of interpersonal and social dynamics, and also because I think they’re based in part by temperament!

The two major “middle” subtypes are “I’m not okay, you’re okay,” and “I’m okay, you’re not okay.” I see these as occupying a spectrum from severe self-doubt, almost obssessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) to the other extreme, psychopathy, no self-doubt. My hunch is that a medium point is optimal.

The types to the left on this, the “I’m not okay, you’re okay” types, tend to defer to the more confident types, “I’m okay, you’re not okay.” The trouble is that confidence blurs into foolish over-confidence. The optimal balance and “truth” tends to be in the middle, though. Ideally we should consider that maybe I’m okay and you’re okay, but at times there’s wiggle room: It’s okay to think you may be not okay,  mistaken about that which you seem sure. It’s okay to question oneself, too—this is the basis of science and also allows for continued re-learning. The point is not to get too stuck in either position, not to respond habitually.

Problems arise when those less sure of themselves tend to project this unsureness onto everyone. It doesn’t occur to them that others don’t feel-think this way, so they see others who seem more sure of themselves as, of course, they must be right, or they would doubt themselves? Right? Wrong! The more confident might just be equally ignorant, but they feel sufficiently certain of their thoughts and perceptions that they are not inclined to doubt themselves. They are temperamentally in an “I’m okay, you’re not okay,” frame.

In other words, it’s important to note that there is a temperamental spread of the sense of certainty.  Those who are toward the “I’m okay” position are clueless that they may be under the spell of an illusion. They think that what they think and  perceive is so! I mean, it sure seems so, and why would they think it if it were not so? These folks have little or no awareness of the prevalence and power of self-deception. There’s a lack of healthy doubt that there may be some misunderstanding. The others who are less certain tend to defer to those who seem more sure of themselves, more “confident,” because, it seems (seems is the operative word) that if they didn’t know, they’d know it, but since they seem confident, they must know it.

The catch is that it turns out that lots of people can feel certain about themselves, their thoughts, perceptions, and it turns out they’re flat wrong. At the very extreme, where they can find no one or hardly anyone who agrees, such people are assumed to be mentally ill, insane. But there are lots of folks who are somewhat over-confident, psychopathic, who can get several or lots of people to believe them!

The sense of certainty is temperamental, or due to variants of deep denial. These folks barrel through life. Some become politicians, some preachers, some leaders. But after years of reflection, it becomes painfully clear that many of these don’t know any more than those who know they don’t know that much! Indeed, often the more humble know a lot more than the more certain!

This tendency to distort expressions of confidence makes for a lot of trouble. But other things also confer confidence: Status and wealth do, too, class and rank. The higher tend to become blind to the possibility that they may be desperately mistaken or blind to certain variables. Three anecdotes support this: First, there’s a line from the 1960s Broadway show’s Fiddler on the Roof, in the well-known song, “If I Was a Rich Man,” there’s a revealing line: “If you’re rich, they think you really know.” Second, Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century struggled politically for the establishment of a non-monarchical republic England. (That he himself could be dictatorial made the story interesting.) At one point he wrote a letter to the elders, the Presbyters, of Scotland, including this line: “By the bowels of Christ, gentlemen, think ye that ye may be mistaken?” The third anecdote, as I remember it, is from a humorist, Artemus Ward, who in the 19th century, in a folksy dialect, observed, “It ain’t what ya don’t know what gits ya inter trouble; it’s the stuff ya know fer sure what ain’t so!”

Nobody taught me this! It has been one of the main lessons learned in this lifetime. The second lesson is that nobody teaches some of the main lessons—which gives a boost to my life mission: Identify what doesn’t get taught, or thought, and think and teach it!

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