Dialectical bootstrapping


Are they dialectical?

How could I resist writing about a technique with such a delightfully preposterous name! It has the same ridiculous elegance as ‘planned happenstance‘ and ‘positive compromise‘.

In an earlier post I wrote about how people can be induced to disagree with their own decisions. This wonderfully over-the-top phrase describes a technique which involves getting people to disagree with themselves on purpose in order to increase the accuracy of their predictions without reference to external opinions. See! Dialectical bootstrapping is a much more elegant way of saying all that!

[Herzog, S.M. & Hertwig, R. (2009) The wisdom of many in one mind: Improving individual judgments with dialectical bootstrapping. Psychological Science, 20(2), 231-7.]

In the experiment described in the paper, participants were asked to make two estimates of the dates of particular historical events. In the dialectical bootstrapping condition they were given the following instructions before their second estimate:

  1. Assume that your first estimate is off the mark.
  2. Think about a few reasons why that could be. Which assumptions and considerations could have been wrong?
  3. What do these new considerations imply? Was the first estimate rather too high or too low?
  4. Based on this new perspective, make a second, alternative estimate.

An average of each participant’s two estimates was taken. The averages of the dialectical bootstrappers were more accurate than the control group.

This technique is designed for numerical estimates that can be averaged. Not much use in career guidance, maybe —  unless you are getting people to estimate how happy they will be with a particular aspect of a career they are considering on a scale of 1 to 10. However, it is based on the ‘Consider the Opposite’ technique, which is applicable to more qualitative judgements.

[Lord, C.G., Lepper, M.R. & Preston, E. (1984) Considering the opposite: A corrective strategy for social judgment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47(6), 1231-43.]

This technique was specifically targeted at two types of cognitive bias that are relevant to career exploration and decision making:

  • biased assimilation of new evidence — We tend to ignore or undervalue evidence which contradicts our existing opinions and give undue weight to evidence which reinforces our existing opinions. (For example, if you think that you are good with people, you will tend to dismiss as flukes situations in which you didn’t handle people well.)
  • biased hypothesis testing — We tend to seek information that is likely to confirm our existing opinions rather than looking for information that might contradict those opinions. (For example, if you are drawn to a particular career option, you will tend to look for evidence that confirms the suitability of that option rather than looking for the down sides.)

So, your instructions to a client might go as follows:

  1. OK, you think that X is going to be an enjoyable career for you but you’re not 100% sure. For the moment, let’s assume that, actually, you’ve got it wrong. Imagine that you manage to get a job in X and, after a while you realise you’ve made a mistake.
  2. Let’s think about why you might have got it wrong. What assumptions did you make that led you to that decision? What did you not think about that you should have?
  3. What information did you give too much weight to? What possible clues did you miss that would have told you that you were wrong? What questions didn’t you ask? What factors are not as important as you thought they were? What factors are more important than you thought they were?
  4. Based on this new perspective, what questions do you need to ask about this career option in order to be more sure about it? What would you look for in an alternative option?

I have tried the devil’s advocate approach with individual clients in the past, but not to this level of detail. I might try it the next time it seems appropriate and let you know what happens.

I have used something like this more often in group situations — getting an individual to argue against their preferred career option whilst the other participants try to persuade them of its merits and vice versa.

  • What do you think would be the advantages or disadvantages of this sort of approach?
  • Who might it be most suited to?
  • Have you tried anything similar? How did it go?

Related post: Who are you…now?


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  1. #1 by Vinny on 7 December 2009 - 09:56

    I think this is an interesting approach, but I would be very careful about how I introduced this. Often people can latch onto things you say and discuss. For some clients, especially those who find decision making hard, this approach may cause more problems than it solves.

    It could plant serious doubts in their minds about the job they were previously optimistic about, because you are spending a long time picking apart all the reasons it won’t be any good. Getting them into the mindset that they are wrong and have made a mistake about this job, may end up being a self fulfilling prophesy.

    I would therefore not use this with clients who are showing signs of negativity or chronic indecisiveness.

  2. #2 by Vinny on 7 December 2009 - 10:03

    Hang on a minute! Why are you being so negative?

    Many clients can’t decide which job to go for because none of them fit the box of being the “perfect job.” So with these clients, why not turn this approach on its head.

    Change the initial step into:

    1. You say this job won’t be great. Lets say you are wrong. Imagine you get this job and you really love it.

    I think this approach would be more productive for many people. Careers advice needn’t be a depressing process.

  3. #3 by David Winter on 7 December 2009 - 12:27

    Either way – positive or negative – I think you are right that we need to be careful if we use this technique.

    We need to make it clear that we are not taking a position on the merits or flaws of a particular choice. We should explicitly state that this is an exercise to help them explore constructively their thoughts and identify questions they need to answer. I would probably mention the specific cognitive biases that we are trying to work around.

    It would seem, on the face of it, to be more appropriate for those who are deciding too quickly for (or against) a possible option rather than those who are ‘chronically indecisive’ (I prefer the phrase ‘naturally open-minded’).

    However, someone may be indecisive because on some level they are aware that they haven’t examined the issue as thoroughly as they need to, but they’re not sure how to do it. This approach could help.

    Having said that, if there are signs that they have paralysed themselves with too much analysis already, then it may just add to the problem.

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