‘The Certainty Trap’: When we’re blinded by beliefs we hold as sacrosanct

Just because we think we’re right about something often boxes us in and sometimes makes us view negatively those who do not agree with our beliefs. It sets up walls that may be based on distorted reasoning.

We’ve found this is particularly true for issues like religion, politics and social issues, according to Ilana Redstone in a Washington Post newspaper opinion piece on, “The Certainty Trap” (March 16, 2023). She notes that when it comes to perhaps a heated political discussion, the Certainty Trap holds us back. “Paradoxically, those issues where we feel most threatened by disagreement are the ones where we most need to be able to talk with one another.” She wrote this piece in the context of the Stanford Law School imbroglio over featuring a conservative federal judge as a speaker as well as other conservatives. Her point: it smacks of the thinking that ether you’re one of us or you’re one of them, she says.

Redstone, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign sociology professor, defines the concept of the Certainty Trap as: “…the tendency to treat our values, principles or beliefs as inviolable.” In her words, “it is what gives us the satisfying sense of righteousness we need to judge harshly, condemn and dismiss people with whom we disagree.”

What is behind this thinking? Why do we have to think we’re right and “they’re” wrong?

Two reasons, Redstone says, are ignorance and hateful motives. She notes that a third might be principled reasons for a certain mindset. Redstone writes in Tablet, May 2022, an online magazine focused on Jewish news and culture, that in order to change how we think about something might lie in recognizing the profound limits of our own beliefs.   

The Certainty Trap can be something as prosaic as Margaret’s misconception of New York City, which she held for years. When she and her late husband would visit the Big Apple, they’d go back home to St. Louis and say (the old chestnut): “NYC is a nice place to visit but I would never want to live there.”

Fast forward many years. After her husband and several other close family members died, Margaret thought about leaving St. Louis. New York City was where her two sisters and older son lived. It seemed like a prudent choice.  

Her belief, her Certainty Trap about NYC, has changed after listening to the advantages from her two sisters and Barbara, who has lived outside the city now for 13 years but spent a great deal of time there with her mom and during college and graduate school. And since Margaret moved there 3 ½ years ago, she has found the people are friendly, love to talk and give directions, contrary to what she believed to be true. Surprisingly, it’s a much healthier place to live because Manhattanites walk everywhere. And if she doesn’t want to walk, there’s excellent public transportation. Yes, it's crowded, but there are always places to go that are less trafficked. 

She was warned it was a dirty and dusty place. Yes, it’s sometimes dirty with trash but it’s more often a beautiful city with Central Park, huge bouquets of spring bulbs along Park Avenue, the Hudson and East rivers to enjoy with a constant parade of boats. There’s also the eye candy of interesting-looking and attractive people and their glittering gems, fancy shoes and purses. And oh, those windows filled with flaky pastries, big crusty breads and the fattest muffins you’ve ever seen. There are also so many coffee shops with every kind of latte, cappuccino, espresso and more. And we shouldn’t forget to tout magnificent historic buildings and sleek pencil-thin new glass monoliths to view from different angles, art galleries, fabulous museums, restaurants with outdoor cafes that beckon New Yorkers come spring and so on.

Margaret has also learned a wonderful lesson when one of her friends in St. Louis asked: How can you live there? She thinks, “What might work for me, doesn’t mean it would be fine for someone else.” But before forming an opinion, she suggests, “Come here and visit and maybe see what I see.”

Margaret knows that only she can control her beliefs but not those of others. That doesn’t mean she isn’t open to listening to a different set of values or principles. She continues to change her thinking as she ages about many things such as how to make the best chicken soup (when she thought hers was the best) or whether Barbara’s belief in clairvoyance and visiting one once a year is hogwash. Yes, she has decided, it is healing for Barbara and no longer teases her. Both know it’s not for Margaret herself (and her loss, Barbara says in reply). Maybe the changes in Margaret’s thinking are related to the wisdom that hanging on to certain beliefs can hold one back. Who needs that when there is so little time forward?  

Barbara held dear one belief for years but then changed. In the 1960s and ‘70s when so many she knew were marrying, she was surprised when reform rabbis began officiating at marriages between a Jew and non-Jew who had no plans to expose future children to Judaism. (She had grown up in the Conservative branch but subsequently changed to reform congregations once she had children.)

She didn’t expect the non-Jewish part of the couple to convert but at least she thought they might learn about the religion if they were being married by a member of the Jewish clergy. She thought the same for couples being married only by a minister or priest. Otherwise, why not be married by a judge, she thought. Her belief has changed totally with the times and greater exposure to those doing so, more clergy of different faiths co-officiating and her understanding that true goodness has less to do with religion and more with its core values, which are reflected in many religions.

Here’s another concept she has come to value. Not all friendships, even those seemingly close, are destined to be life-long and preserved at all costs. Over time, Barbara has come to realize that friendships come in many forms, even some close ones may languish over time as we evolve, others change and the glue between them weakens. That doesn’t mean there was a disagreement but simply a gentle parting of the ways.

So, here’s a little exercise. Think of a belief you have. Say it’s about transgenders and whether they should have access to public facilities such as bathrooms. Are you sure about your point of view? Really sure? Or how about whether young children who are gender conflicted should be allowed to have hormone therapy before they’re an adult at a hospital or health facility that focuses on such changes?

Ask yourself when you hold tight to a certain belief, how do you get your information? Think about whether your sources are credible and reliable. Did you open yourself to others’ conversations? Did you do your research?

Beliefs aren’t static. They can shift like taste or loyalty. Redstone says, “Ultimately, we don’t have to abandon our principles or our values — we just have to be willing to hold them up to the light and examine them. One way to think about avoiding the Certainty Trap is that it’s less about answering questions than it is about generating them.”

What can you do to free yourself from the Certainty Trap?

  1. Avoid talking about a certain topic if you know you and others are on opposite sides. This might be politics, religion, abortion or gay rights, for example.
  2. Or do so but be prepared to listen closely to the other person and avoid comment and certainly criticism immediately. Then, if you must, state your case without judging the other point of view. Hear their concerns without commenting and show that you have understanding and compassion for them and they should do the same for you. Maybe, they don’t like a certain private school because their grandchild didn’t do well there but yours did. Why argue about it? Ironically, both of you are right based on your experience. Sometimes, repeat back their words to be sure you clearly heard them. And ask if they can repeat yours. What you’re doing is engaging in a dialogue.
  3. To express your point of view, and to be heard, tell a story. It’s a good hook. Most people will listen to a good tale which puts an idea into a palatable format and puts a face on it.
  4. Use “I” messages and tell how you feel rather than point a finger and say: “How can you be so racist or what a stupid way to see something.” Show the other person how your point of view might help them and impact their lives. Give them the room to do the same. Then, they may ask you to do the same.
  5. Do some research into the other point of view. Even if you don’t agree, you might learn something.
  6. Consider the other person’s background and where they’re coming from. Perhaps, they’ve had very few experiences outside their town or religious institution. Their frame of reference might be more limited and very different from yours.
  7. If you disagree with the other person, and you feel offended, don’t jump all over them. If they berate you for your point of view, tell them how you feel but softly and kindly. Never attack or get overly defensive. Attacking only shuts down communication. Say, perhaps, “I disagree and here’s why.” And add, “I’m so glad we can hear and understand each person’s point of view.”
  8. Broach the topic again at some point; maybe, you both have altered your views. The bottom line is that being rigidly certain over time often shifts to greater flexibility in thinking and more maybes.


    • Denton Stewart

      You two are contributing to our culture in myriad ways and there’s no way for you to measure that but I’m inferring that.

      Keep up this important work.

      Best, Denton
    • Audrey Steuer

      How true on so many counts! I feared returning to New York after four “civilized” years in Baltimore where people routinely said “please” and “thank you”. I spent a year at Columbia for Library School and was so pleasantly surprised by how friendly and helpful people were. I ended up marrying and living another very happy four years in the City. As for intermarriage, both of my children fit the bill and the first time was devastating! They are now married seventeen years and enjoy the best marriage I know of! My granddaughter is being raised Jewish and is fully engaged. My son-in-law wants to completely participate in her Bat Mitzvah. As for difficult discussions, either agree to disagree or mind the maxim: politics and religion are off the table! Thanks for a wonderful post!

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