The Topic: The Illusion of Knowledge
The Guest: Christopher Chabris
Remember when the United States stock market crashed a few years back? You know, the implosion famously featuring credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations? Does it seem strange to you that all those experts who couldn’t predict the economic collapse are still on television giving advice and offering predictions?
The people who were wrong continue to work because they provide you with an illusion of knowledge, a belief that the market can be understood by one person, and that person’s understanding can become your understanding. They continue to claim insight into chaotic, impossibly complex nebulae of shifting data, and they continue to profess powers of divination even though research shows they are slightly less reliable than a coin toss. They can still get paid to squawk because they continue to make their claims with confidence. No one wants a sage who deals in maybes.
Take a look at those bicycles at the top of this post. Which one would you say is the most accurate portrayal of a real bike? Psychologist Rebecca Lawson once put together a study that revealed even though most people are very familiar with bicycles and know how to ride them, they can’t draw one to save their lives, and they can’t even pick a proper one out of a lineup. Despite this, most people rate their knowledge of how a bicycle works as being very good. Remember that when someone claims to understand something a bit more complicated, like a sub-prime mortgage. (This is a picture of a real bicycle.)
The illusion of knowledge is believing familiarity is the same as wisdom. You’ve probably felt it when trying to do something like fix a sink or explain to a child how taco shells are made. Just because you’ve become familiar with the operation and function of a thing doesn’t mean you truly understand how it works. For most of life, your understanding is only of the surface, the visible aspects that allow for a reasonable level of prediction. If you were teleported back to medieval times and placed outside a castle, what understanding could you offer those people from your own time?
This episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast is all about the illusion of knowledge, something this episode’s guest, Union College psychologist Christopher Chabris, wrote about extensively in The Invisible Gorilla which he co-authored with psychologist Daniel Simons. Their book not only covers the many ways you miss what is going on around you, but it also discusses how overly confident you become when reflecting on your own memories, perceptions, and understanding. The bit about Lawson’s bicycles is in there, and much more.
Each episode of the podcast features a cookie tasting while I read and explain a bit of psychology or self-delusion news. The cookies come from the recipes you send in, and if I (or my wife) bake your recipe you receive a signed copy of the YANSS book. (Send those recipes to david [at] youarenotsosmart.com) This week’s winner is Gigi Greene who originally posted her recipe for her famous triple-ginger molasses cookies at her blog. You can find the recipe for this and all future cookies sent my way at the YANSS cookie recipe Pinterest page.