Why we pretend to know things, explained by a cognitive scientist

Mar 7, 2017

By Sean Illing

Why do people pretend to know things? Why does confidence so often scale with ignorance? Steven Sloman, a professor of cognitive science at Brown University, has some compelling answers to these questions.

“We’re biased to preserve our sense of rightness,” he told me, “and we have to be.”

The author of The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, Sloman’s research focuses on judgment, decision-making, and reasoning. He’s especially interested in what’s called “the illusion of explanatory depth.” This is how cognitive scientists refer to our tendency to overestimate our understanding of how the world works.

We do this, Sloman says, because of our reliance on other minds.

“The decisions we make, the attitudes we form, the judgments we make, depend very much on what other people are thinking,” he said.

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2 comments on “Why we pretend to know things, explained by a cognitive scientist

  • For me the cultural catastrophe here, as ever, is one of childhood indoctrination. It’s the parents fault and those in loco parentiis. Parents are cock sure because they need to be sometimes and at others because can get away with it. Overimitation in kids is a thing because they have premature brains that aren’t competent in vital areas and mean you need immediate unthinking compliance. Don’t eat those berries. Don’t tease Fang. Don’t turn your back on the shaman. But all the stuff of cultural certainty gets loaded in too to better manipulate kids as they get to that uppity age and “foolishly” try think for themselves.

    As a parent by creating the early impression of comprehensive wisdom, that grown ups are know alls and matters are settled, we breed kids without doubts, without skepticism.

    As an atheist parent I saw it as my job to sow the skeptical seed. It seemed to me to be the wisdom equivalent of the difference between supplying fish and teaching fishing. This involved ending most attempted explanations with, “but we really can’t be sure….” For a year or so I used to slip an outright lie into these explanations and it was the kids’ task to figure out what in the ten or so things that day was the porky. (The day always ended with the truth coming out one way or another.) This worked rather well, though it proved expensive (I am now read like a book), but it has been worth every extra metaphorical and actual penny.

    Parents need to admit far more often “actually, we don’t know”. This is not just a more honest state but it breeds more robust and independent children, less biddable and more autonomous.



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    fadeordraw says:

    “I really do believe that our attitudes are shaped much more by our social groups than they are by facts on the ground. We are not great reasoners. Most people don’t like to think at all, or like to think as little as possible. And by most, I mean roughly 70 percent of the population. Even the rest seem to devote a lot of their resources to justifying beliefs that they want to hold, as opposed to forming credible beliefs based only on fact”.

    I find it somewhat disappointing that Steven Sloman doesn’t include in his analysis an evolutionary perspective and the workings of memes; as if the so-called rise of “fake news” and “alternative facts” were something new (e.g., war propaganda, election rhetoric, etc). This collectivity of thinking is an important sapient socialization process, giving us religions and other fake understandings, and indeed the scientific method came about to guard against our natural tendency to think as we perceive others would have us think. In the late 1800s, when democratic governance was over taking crown governance, there was great concern that the vast majority of the population, say 70%, were ill-equipped to be useful members of the electorate; the educated and well bred, the elite, had the wherewithal to get things right – the others just couldn’t be trusted to form credible beliefs based only on facts.



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