The trouble with ignorance is that it feels so much like expertise. A leading researcher on the psychology of human wrongness sets us straight.
Last March, during the enormous South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, the late-night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live! sent a camera crew out into the streets to catch hipsters bluffing. “People who go to music festivals pride themselves on knowing who the next acts are,” Kimmel said to his studio audience, “even if they don’t actually know who the new acts are.” So the host had his crew ask festival-goers for their thoughts about bands that don’t exist.
“The big buzz on the street,” said one of Kimmel’s interviewers to a man wearing thick-framed glasses and a whimsical T-shirt, “is Contact Dermatitis. Do you think he has what it takes to really make it to the big time?”
“Absolutely,” came the dazed fan’s reply.
The prank was an installment of Kimmel’s recurring “Lie Witness News” feature, which involves asking pedestrians a variety of questions with false premises. In another episode, Kimmel’s crew asked people on Hollywood Boulevard whether they thought the 2014 film Godzilla was insensitive to survivors of the 1954 giant lizard attack on Tokyo; in a third, they asked whether Bill Clinton gets enough credit for ending the Korean War, and whether his appearance as a judge on America’s Got Talent would damage his legacy. “No,” said one woman to this last question. “It will make him even more popular.”
One can’t help but feel for the people who fall into Kimmel’s trap. Some appear willing to say just about anything on camera to hide their cluelessness about the subject at hand (which, of course, has the opposite effect). Others seem eager to please, not wanting to let the interviewer down by giving the most boringly appropriate response: I don’t know. But for some of these interviewees, the trap may be an even deeper one. The most confident-sounding respondents often seem to think they do have some clue—as if there is some fact, some memory, or some intuition that assures them their answer is reasonable.
At one point during South by Southwest, Kimmel’s crew approached a poised young woman with brown hair. “What have you heard about Tonya and the Hardings?” the interviewer asked. “Have you heard they’re kind of hard-hitting?” Failing to pick up on this verbal wink, the woman launched into an elaborate response about the fictitious band. “Yeah, a lot of men have been talking about them, saying they’re really impressed,” she replied. “They’re usually not fans of female groups, but they’re really making a statement.” From some mental gossamer, she was able to spin an authoritative review of Tonya and the Hardings incorporating certain detailed facts: that they’re real; that they’re female (never mind that, say, Marilyn Manson and Alice Cooper aren’t); and that they’re a tough, boundary-breaking group.
In many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.
To be sure, Kimmel’s producers must cherry-pick the most laughable interviews to put the air. But late-night TV is not the only place where one can catch people extemporizing on topics they know nothing about. In the more solemn confines of a research lab at Cornell University, the psychologists Stav Atir, Emily Rosenzweig, and I carry out ongoing research that amounts to a carefully controlled, less flamboyant version of Jimmy Kimmel’s bit. In our work, we ask survey respondents if they are familiar with certain technical concepts from physics, biology, politics, and geography. A fair number claim familiarity with genuine terms like centripetal force and photon. But interestingly, they also claim some familiarity with concepts that are entirely made up, such as the plates of parallax, ultra-lipid, and cholarine. In one study, roughly 90 percent claimed some knowledge of at least one of the nine fictitious concepts we asked them about. In fact, the more well versed respondents considered themselves in a general topic, the more familiarity they claimed with the meaningless terms associated with it in the survey.
It’s odd to see people who claim political expertise assert their knowledge of both Susan Rice (the national security adviser to President Barack Obama) and Michael Merrington (a pleasant-sounding string of syllables). But it’s not that surprising. For more than 20 years, I have researched people’s understanding of their own expertise—formally known as the study of metacognition, the processes by which human beings evaluate and regulate their knowledge, reasoning, and learning—and the results have been consistently sobering, occasionally comical, and never dull.
The American author and aphorist William Feather once wrote that being educated means “being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t.” As it turns out, this simple ideal is extremely hard to achieve. Although what we know is often perceptible to us, even the broad outlines of what we don’t know are all too often completely invisible. To a great degree, we fail to recognize the frequency and scope of our ignorance.