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The Benefit of Doubt

By Roy D. Follendore III

Copyright © 2003 by RDFollendoreIII

 January 04, 2003

When Bear Bryant, the famous Head Coach of the Alabama football team, asked his players to give 110% on the field, he was asking them to remove all doubt that they could win the game.  When he told his players that there is no substitute for winning, he was actually instilling in them the idea that in a level playing field, absolute and unqualified confidence is required to become a champion.  The objective of minimizing doubt is to maximize confidence.  The idea that doubt is a state of mind, which negatively affects confidence, is ingrained into our American psyche.  Many people believe that the very fabric of the culture in which we exist depends on this philosophical absolutism.

Assume that you needed to walk down a garden path to get from your gate to your door.  Your path consists of a series of twenty irregularly shaped 12-inch flat rocks, embedded level in the ground and spaced easy step distances from each other. It is not a difficult task to make the walk to your door by stepping on the stones. 

Now assume that you need to walk the same distance to get to a platform.  Your path consists of the same evenly spaced stones, but instead of being level with the ground; they are now a thousand feet in the air.  Assume all other conditions are the same. The only difference is now that it has become obvious that you can see how far down you might fall. The fall is not comparable. The risks of attempting to step across on the rocks and falling are clearly much greater.  There is a visceral response from risk that affects the potential of success of reaching your goal.  Physical performance can be affected by the psychological impression of doubt.

If a number of people were asked to walk across the stones under the two different conditions, we might expect a significant percentage would refuse, and if forced a significant percentage would fail.  If in the same population were somehow unaware of the great height of their actions, we would not expect to see a difference between the two differences. All other things being equal, the primary statistical difference in success between a physical walk in the garden and a walk in the sky is the introduction of doubt induced by an assumption of risk. The problem with this is simply this.

Though we assume risks, we don’t assume doubts. Doubt is not a direct function of a true external threat.  Doubt is the perceived risk to our belief system. It is a perspective reaction to the assumption of risk imposed by our belief system. Doubt is therefore a third order sense that depends on the acceptable perspective of risk. 

Like pain, doubt protects us from both ourselves as well as external threats.  Without pain we would continue to touch hot surfaces and would often never know when we are sick, injured or threatened. Doubt does for our philosophical systems what pain does for our physical systems.  Doubt allows us the flexibility to change our orientations in ways that protect us by signaling to our rational minds that our philosophy may be inappropriate.

When we experience the feeling of being trapped by doubt, we are consumed by the incongruent relationship between our philosophy and the potential risks.

The two reasons why a tightrope walker can cross a chasm is because he has learned to master both the physical risks and his incongruent feelings.  What amazes people is not so much the physical manifestation of such an event as it is the empathetic recognition of the tightrope walkers ability to control doubt. 

Doubt does not come with a rational tag.  The ability to walk the same garden pathway stones on the ground but not in the air can be explained as being both rational and irrational. Our doubts change our belief system and that truly changes our physical capability. On the other hand, there is no physical justification for being able to walk one path and not another.

Our ability to ignore our doubts can be the difference between success and failure.  When we find a way to ignore doubt we often may succeed when we otherwise would have failed. When we accept our doubt we may also succeed when we otherwise would have failed.  Doubt is not simply an instinctual response.  Rationally is a part of the event of having doubt.  Though we do not typically look at it in this way, irrational confidence is every bit as destructive as irrational doubt.

We more often choose our leaders with positive goals in mind.  The doubtful and the styptic are not often considered leadership material.  Within organizations we tend to expect our best leaders to be at the top of the chain of command where they can lead us toward good things instead of away from the bad.  This implies that it is more desirable to accept the positive idea of ignoring doubt about our cultural belief system. In an abstract way the risk of failure through this process is simply accounted for as the cost of success.

Within the necessary parameters of a practical stochastic universe, the placement of such a high degree of confidence by ignoring doubt leads to systemic catastrophic failures. 

Over confidence in our actions results in the stability and confidence of our systems of beliefs are ignored. The patently false and unstated systemic paradigm is that if we do not bring the negative issue up, it is less likely to negatively affect us.  In other words, the idea is that what we don’t know won’t hurt us. It does not take long to consider disease, accidents and interest rates to rebuff that concept.

There is a benefit of doubt that is critical to mankind.  Doubt helps us change our individual and organizational strategies.  Doubt allows us to find the best solutions instead of any random solution.  Doubt is the basis of human reason and its importance is essential to good decision-making. The idea that systems can manage their resources without the acceptance of doubt is false.  On the surface, two-second philosophies such as “Management by Facts” assume the existence of facts while ignoring the influence of incorrect assumptions.   Most of the leadership work that goes into what we do involves the recognition and management of doubt and it is primarily when we ignore the importance of this work that we see catastrophic system failures within our societies.

It is just as essential for mankind to manage our belief systems as it is for us to develop operational systems.  It is important to our future that we develop better and more reliable organizational and operational systems that will allow us to succeed at the recognition and management of doubt.  The benefit of doubt is the conscious recognition and consensus that results in acceptance that the path we deliberately choose to take is and remains the best available path. 

Doubt rather than fact is therefore more fundamental for creating and maintaining excellence in security engineering technologies.  




Copyright (c) 2001-2007 RDFollendoreIII All Rights Reserved