What is the value of doubt?

I’m constantly in a state of analysis. I can spend an hour staring at a wall linking the thoughts that pop into my head. While this is sometimes interesting and helps me be creative, this process of analyzing, re-analyzing, and sometimes over-analyzing can be fatiguing. It’s hard to see the value of doubt when it seems like a catalyst for sleepless nights and stressful decisions.

While it has caused me a great deal of anxiety in some moments, it has also been the source of much happiness in my life. Being able to have doubt about something and still make a decision allows us to move forward. Imagine if we never made decisions, choosing instead to perseverate over the pros and cons lists we made.

But when the majority of us speak about doubt, there’s an underlying negative connotation. We doubt that we are on the right path, we have doubts about our relationships, we doubt our abilities, and we doubt ourselves. If we want to see the value of doubt, we need to first identify it.

What is doubt?

In the dictionary, doubt is defined as…

to call into question the truth of: to be uncertain or in doubt about

Being able to call into question the truth of something opens up a world of possibilities. The search for information and the ability to be able to question things is valuable. It’s essentially the basis of learning.

It’s no secret that I love philosophy (how cool is it that there’s an entire field dedicated to thinking about thinking!!), and from a philosophical perspective, methodic doubt is THE GOOD STUFF. While there are thousands of dissertations on the subject, I see it as generally: doubt anything you can and throw out the things you know to be wrong.

This method of thinking is credited as being the root of the scientific method, so it’s little surprise that this is the strategy I utilize most frequently.

Doubt is the central tenet of Descartes’ philosophy, “I think, therefore I am”. The ultimate goal is to reach certainty by throwing out what we know to be false. It’s probably best described as a “healthy” level of skepticism.

In the sciences, doubt is what keeps us honest. The site Retraction Watch, a project of the Center for Scientific Integrity, tracks papers that have been published and since retracted due to lying, cheating, or just plain old error.

Wired Magazine said this about Retraction Watch: “At best, every new experiment makes scientists just a little less wrong about how the universe works. But despite that ­healthy journey-over-destination mindset, scientists hate telling other scientists when they’ve made a mistake.”

I love this phrasing because I think we would all like to be a little less wrong about how the universe works.

These academic applications aside, there’s a more important question to ask.

What is the value of doubt in our daily lives?

Even if we eliminate everything that we know is wholly untrue, this still leaves us with some grey area. And this grey area can cause anxiety and uncertainty.

If we want to see the value of doubt, we have to separate anxiety and uncertainty from doubt. Anxiety and doubt are not synonymous. Where doubt sees unexplored possibilities, anxiety tells us that there will be a negative outcome.

Nobel-Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman suggests an alternative to anxiety-driven forecasting. Rather than predict what could go wrong, he asks people to imagine themselves a year in the future, and to write down what went wrong.

By doing so, people often come up with new solutions for potential failure. On paper, imagining a hundred nightmare scenarios doesn’t sound great, but it gives us the possibility to develop. If you’re too “locked-in” to an idea, you could fail to see possible alternative outcomes and have no way to think about how you might mitigate them. The value of doubt is letting it direct our thought process rather than dwelling on it.

Esther Perel, a Belgian psychotherapist, beautifully described how doubt plays into our relationships, “Radical individualism and aspirational materialism (…) have created a playing field in which relationships are undergoing rapid changes. We have no idea how to handle them. Rules have been replaced by choices. But at the same time, we have massive uncertainty and massive self-doubt.”

Choice is generally a good thing. But when everything is a choice, we feel constant pressure to make the right one. That explains why it’s easy to feel worried about making the wrong choice. Whether this is in our relationships or professional lives, it impacts our confidence.

Doubt, like almost everything, is good in moderation.

Too many choices, too many doubts, and we become overwhelmed. Too few, and we become overconfident, missing crucial opportunities for development.

Recently, faced with some major decisions, I said that I don’t think I’ll ever be 100 percent sure about anything. To me, the major distinction between doubt and anxiety is that the 5 percent doesn’t ruin it for the 95 percent.

Having doubt doesn’t prevent us from happiness. It makes us well informed and inquisitive. It lets us see our blind spots to drive our successes. The value of doubt is its potential to push us forward, but only if we will let it.