Thursday 7 September 2017

The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach

Goodreads Blurb

"Humans have built hugely complex societies and technologies, but most of us don't even know how a pen or a toilet works. How have we achieved so much despite understanding so little? Cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach argue that we survive and thrive despite our mental shortcomings because we live in a rich community of knowledge. The key to our intelligence lies in the people and things around us. We're constantly drawing on information and expertise stored outside our heads: in our bodies, our environment, our possessions, and the community with which we interact--and usually we don't even realize we're doing it."

An Audible listen, this book was very interesting. Starting with studies on how little detailed understanding we have of things like toilets, zippers and other every day objects. it then moved to the fascinating observation that, despite this, we rate ourselves "experts" on most things. When asked to explain, few can, and when asked to explain in a "cause and effect" manner, we usually realise our deficiency.

There were many studies and anecdotes punctuating such observations. Most of them jaw dropping  - like the "facts" about the world that so few people got correct. 

Page 172 "Public opinion is more extreme than people's understanding justifies. Americans who most strongly supported military intervention in the Ukraine in 2014 were the ones least able to identify the Ukraine's location on a map...Apparently, the fact that a strong majority of people has some preference does not mean that their opinion is informed. As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding. They often emerge in the absence of understanding." 

The authors then go on to talk about how recognising our lack of knowledge and understanding can lead to better decisions. And then - more scarily - how often if we have strong emotions about things, we are even more inclined to believe errors, and when corrected, or probed, less likely to change our beliefs, even when confronted with contradictory evidence.

Page 192 "We had hoped that shattering the illusion of understanding would make people more curious and more open to new information about the topic at hand. This is not what we have found. If anything, people are less inclined to seek new information after finding out that they were wrong. Causal explanation is an effective way to shatter the illusion, but people don't like having their illusion shattered. In the words of Voltaire: 'Illusion is the first of all pleasures.' Shattering an illusion can cause people to disengage. People like to feel successful, not incompetent."

Nothing about this collection is brand new. Yet how it was constructed had me thinking about the impact of this way of thinking on hard to solve  societal problems.

I enjoyed the process.

ISBN: 9780399184352

You may also enjoy Misbehaving by Richard Thaler or The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis.

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