"One day I started noticing that everyone around me—even some of the smartest people I knew—were wrong about things they believed," Julia Galef, president of the Center for Applied Rationality, tells me with a laugh.
She describes a friend who was convinced his partner was going to change when it seemed highly unlikely; an entrepreneur who wouldn’t accept that her startup was failing, even though everybody could tell it was a sinking ship; a PhD student who was unhappy in his program but refused to admit it. "I thought how funny it was that everybody else was always wrong, but I was never wrong about anything, and it occurred to me: That can’t possibly be right."
Galef’s organization runs courses for individuals and companies like Facebook and the Thiel Foundation about the science of decision-making, so it makes sense that she is keen to understand her own personal choices and beliefs. "It’s so easy to see the silliness in other people’s thinking, but so hard to see the problems in our own," she says. "We get so invested in our choices and it’s painful to confront the fact that we have made a mistake because it’s inconvenient and upsetting and makes us feel like we’ve wasted our time or effort."
Yet Galef is convinced that it is much better to know where we are wrong or illogical, because it allows us to cut our losses—whether at work or in our personal lives. Going down the wrong path in your work is anti-productive, while being in the wrong relationship means wasted opportunities with people who might make us happier. Doggedly pursuing the wrong career because we have already invested so much time and money in it can be soul-crushing.
Galef set out on a personal quest to identify her wrong assumptions. The outcome: the Surprise Journal. She keeps this journal with her at all times, writing down when something surprises her and why. For example, she noticed she was surprised that both older and younger people were attending her workshops, because she assumed people would self-segregate by age. She was surprised that her students would mention a concept from one of her colleague’s classes, because she didn’t expect that idea to be very memorable. "I started thinking about surprise as a cue that my expectations were wrong," she says.
Many behavioral psychology and cognitive science studies demonstrate that humans find it difficult to change their opinions. In what is known as the "bias blind spot," it is much easier for us to see other people’s biases than our own. The "confirmation bias" reveals that we seek out feedback from people who are likely to agree with us: We read newspapers and watch TV talk shows that are probably going to tells us things we already agree with. Galef says that there is much more research about how biased humans are than how to change these biases. "I really wanted to get better at changing my mind," she tells me. "This is not a perfect solution, but it has gone a long way to making me more open and less defensive about when I’m wrong."
Sometimes the surprises she stumbles upon are major shockers—a friend she thought was loyal betrays her, or a scientific belief is disproven. But the everyday moments of surprise are actually more exciting to Galef. It surprised her, for instance, that her teaching ratings were sometimes lower than the ratings of colleagues. This signaled to her that she had been over-confident about her teaching abilities and had perhaps not been open to feedback that could have improved her skills. Sometimes, it surprises her when audience members seem enthusiastic about one of her talks. Rather than just being flattered by the positive feedback, Galef takes this as an opportunity to assess her own understanding of what makes a topic useful or exciting: Perhaps her pre-suppositions about what other people find interesting is due for a change?
She tells me that the sheer act of carrying her Surprise Journal around causes her to notice when things strike her as odd or unusual. "You see more surprising things when you are looking out for them."
Galef points out that many scientific discoveries came about because scientists noticed small anomalies that would otherwise be missable: Astronomers noticed that Mars’s path had a little hook in it which, years later, led to the realization that the Earth revolves around the sun. "Sometimes you notice something surprising and you don’t understand exactly what it means yet, but it allows you to start thinking about it," she says.
In some ways, framing things as a "surprise" is just a way to trick yourself into making the process of changing your mind less painful. "People generally don’t want to give in to evidence that they might be wrong—and I include myself here—because it is stressful to admit it, even to yourself," she says. "It feels like acknowledging that you are stupid or that you have bad judgment or that you are less capable in some way. So of course it’s an unpleasant experience and we train ourselves to avoid it."
On the other hand, looking for surprises in the world can be an empowering or exhilarating experience. "It appeals to my curiosity and it just feels different—it feels like I am getting as clear a picture of the world as I can," she says.