Friday, November 6, 2015

Why Knowing it All Makes you Dumber . . .
A difference exists between confidence and arrogance - between being well-informed and believing you have all the answers.  Why are we so reluctant to say, "I don't know"?  Or, "I'll have to check on that"?  Instead, when pushed into a corner or pressed for more information, we succumb to a recency bias and blurt out anything we can recall on the topic at hand.  Regardless of whether the information we are spouting is correct or not - we only say it because it is the most easily accessible information our brain can provide at the moment - we feel the need to sound informed.  Or, more likely, we have a fear of being regarded as uninformed or, worse yet, unprepared. 

Volunteering the most recent information that comes to mind may get us out of a temporary pickle, but it will catch up eventually.  The problem is, once something comes out of our mouth, we own it; we tend to believe and defend it even more than before the statement was made.  The vicious cycle continues with confirmation bias, where we now begin to search only for information that supports our position, building additional mental support for a stance that we were once not really sure we even agreed with.

The better option?  Admit you don't know.  A while ago, I had read Jim Paul's, "What I Learned Losing A Million Dollars".  The book mainly revolves around commodities trading, but the psychological lessons can be applied to all walks of life.  Paul writes of an analogy from Ayn Rand, which I had previously discussed in "The Power of Silence":

"Philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand was asked one time in a radio interview whether she thought gun-control laws violated the Second Amendment right to bear arms.  'I don't know,' she responded, 'I haven't thought about it.'  And she said it in a manner as though it was the most natural thing in the world not to have an answer or opinion.  Now here is one of the towering geniuses of the twentieth century and the architect of an entire philosophical system saying, 'I don't know.'"

She didn't have a stance and she didn't feel the need to take an uniformed one to impress the interviewer and listeners.  Wouldn't it be nice if our politicians would be so humble?  When asked one of the bizarre questions candidates are likely to encounter throughout a presidential nomination run, wouldn't it be refreshing if one simply stated, "I currently don't have the resources to have an educated discussion on that topic right now.  However, if I am elected to the White House, I will certainly surround myself with the most knowledgeable, well-informed scholars on the topic, so as to ensure a proper objective decision can be reached."

Another bias rears its ugly head post-event.  The insecure fall victim to the hindsight bias - "I knew it all along."  "Oh, that answer was obvious."  Instead of using these experiences as a learning opportunity, we spend too much time justifying a stance that, in the scheme of things, is irrelevant.  10 minutes from now, who cares if you knew an answer?  Does your street-cred really increase if you regurgitate some useless piece of information in front of your friends at happy hour?  All it does is make you look ego-driven.

Avoid falling into the "Know it all trap" and the associated cognitive biases by avoiding personalizing situations.  If you catch yourself reaching into the depths of your brain for facts to support something you think you believe, take a step back and ask questions instead.  Stay objective.  Learn something.  It's not about showing that you know it all, it's about learning as much as you can.  You'll be much more factually informed and better off in the long run!


  1. I enjoyed the reflection on confirmation bias and the Ayn Rand reference. She had a huge impact on me during my college years as I discovered and devoured all her books. The Fountain Head and Atlas Shrugged are works of art for those that can receive her message.

    With that I proving that I was right in reading her books and aligning myself with bloggers that see the world as I do? Much like my step-father that would watch Fox News 24x7 if he could, to prove why his philosophy, actions, and opinions are the correct ones.

    I am a "work in progress" attempting to listen instead of speak, not always needing to prove I am right. I need to consider that often I may be completely wrong.

    Enjoyed the post!

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Bryan! Glad you enjoyed the post. These biases are prevalent in everything we do. They define how we think and, in turn, who we are. I think a thorough understanding of them would help people make better decisions throughout their lives, but there really isn't THAT much written on them. I think a short course on them would be beneficial to any college major regardless of discipline. But being aware of them is a huge first step. Very few have probably mastered them to the point where they are no longer affected when making decisions. In that sense, we are all "works in progress".