Saturday, May 11, 2013

Know It All?

There's an interesting article on The Creativity Post about knowledge and confidence (or ignorance and confidence, if you prefer) by Sam McNerney, entitled, "Learning From the Illusion of Understanding."

As McNerney notes, psychologists have long been aware of what's known as "the illusion of explanatory depth." Simply put, we tend to think we know it all until we're asked to actually explain how something works.

Quite frankly, I think anyone who has spent hours of quality time with a child should be well aware of this phenomenon. Many a time I've wished I'd paid more attention in third-grade science class. Or seventh-grade science class. Or any science class, really.

I do literature. That's my excuse. If you need a big, fancy word or a kick-ass sentence, I'm your go-to girl. I'll read until my brain falls out or my voice gets hoarse.

When it comes to knowing all about all kinds of Other stuff, though, not so much.

As McNerney points out, must of us, when asked to offer a detailed explanation of how something works and then asked to rate our own understanding, become a bit more humble. We quickly realize that we really don't know after all.

When asked an opinion, however, we are far more likely to stick to our guns, even though it is equally likely that we don't understand the issues or ideas on which it is based, any better than we know how a zipper works.

If you spend anytime looking at discussion boards or comment postings online or on social media, you will see widespread evidence of this. People repeatedly lambast others for their ignorance, all the while remaining blissfully blind to the fact that, if put in the hot-seat themselves, they would very likely fare no better.

Psychologists have found that, if we're asked to give a "mechanistic" explanation of a particular policy or issue, however, we become more aware of what we don't know, and in many cases, we become inclined to adopt a more moderate stance on the issue.

In effect, if we treat an opinion as if knowledge is required in order to understand its function, we expose the workings of an equivalent "illusion of explanatory depth," and adjust our attitudes and self-perception accordingly.

If we're simply asked to give the reasons for our opinions, however, studies show that we learn nothing: in such instances, participants refused to reconsider their positions.

I think this is an interesting way to think about both education and public discourse. Instead of eliciting opinions and justifications--in effect, instead of asking someone, "Why do you think that?"--perhaps we should seek bona fide information and explanations and let self-scrutiny do some of the work.

In media polls today, this never happens--presumably because to do this would be to put people on the spot. We kind of all know that we kind of don't know at all, so we ask the questions that will elicit a reaction--and if those reactions and any counter-reactions are fiery or defensive or venomous, so much the better.

The goal of opinion polls is entertainment, not information. But studies show that it doesn't have to be that way--and maybe it shouldn't be.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."