"People feel they understand complex phenomena with far greater precision, coherence, and depth than they really do; they are subject to an illusion—an illusion of explanatory depth."
That's the beginning of a paper by two men from the department of psychology at Yale. Once you take out all the five-dollar words in the article, it boils down to this: people form personal theories about the way the world around them works. Once they have a personal theory, they will practically fight to the death for it in the belief that their feeling is actually insightful understanding about the subject. However, most of us form the skeleton of an understanding which we then convince ourselves is everything we need to know. And we're wrong.
How Arguments Are Usually Conducted
An argument is typically a war of ideas. Two people have conflicting opinions and each of them tries to "win" the war by convincing the other person they're wrong.
Take the Global Warming Debate, for instance. (Actually, since too much evidence has been presented that "warming" isn't happening, I notice this has now become the safer "Climate Change Debate".)
Person One will state, "Look, the entire scientific community has proved this is happening. The ice caps are shrinking. The weather is showing weirder and weirder patterns. Anyone who doesn't believe in Climate Change is just a stupid Republican and they're the reason we're all going to die because no one is doing anything about this problem!"
Person Two says, "Hey, there are plenty of scientists who say climate change is a myth and we've always had weird weather. I mean, hello, haven't you ever heard of the ICE AGE? You wacko liberals just never bother to think for yourselves and that's why you're so stupid and brainwashed!"
Both people use sweeping statements and their own personal theory of life to try to bludgeon the other person into submission. Notice that neither one really knows their subject, though. They are simply repeating things they've heard that go nicely with their own views. Because they have both spent a lot of time listening to other Smart People they agree with make solid-sounding statements, both people think they have a good insightful depth of understanding into the issue of climate change: whether it's real or false, what action should be taken, and who might be opposing them.
Intuitive Theories Make Us Overconfident: We Think We Know What We Don't
These two invented people have an illusion of depth to their views of life and they have never really tested those views for truthfulness.
The truth is they don't really care what the truth is, just what feels good to believe in. They believe in intuition, not truth.
The Yale paper calls this kind of knowledge "intuitive theories". Because we like to go with our gut, we'll accept very weak evidence that supports our theories while overlooking strong evidence that our theories are wrong. The trouble with having intuitive theories is that we then become overconfident that we know what we're talking about when it comes to anything in life, from metaphysics to child-rearing.
"Intuitive or lay theories are thought to influence almost every facet of everyday cognition", the article says. "...it is also now evident that folk theories are rarely complete or exhaustive explanations in a domain. Indeed, even the theories used daily to guide scientific research are now considered to be incomplete, or at least less formally logical than classical views assumed them to be. Science-in-practice is often driven by hunches and vague impressions."
(I've taken out the references and some of the longer sentences because I had to read them three times to try to figure out what was being said.)
One of the very interesting things that their following study showed was that when people were warned that they are going to be tested on their complete understanding of something they felt knowledgeable about (say, how a car works), the illusion of explanatory depth immediately evaporated and the study subjects would then be surprised at how much they didn't know about a subject they thought they were quite familiar with.
Why Is This Important?
This whole paper describes how all of us are able to make such stupid decisions in our lives: because we have a Feeling of Knowing that leads us to overconfidence in what we know and gives us an illusion that we have all the understanding we need. We create skeletons of understanding that once formed are nearly impossible for us to change because that skeleton transforms into fully complete understanding in our minds. We often are no more capable of changing our basic intuitive beliefs than we are of flying like a bird because we don't think there's anything to change.
The trouble is, we need to be able to change our minds if we are shown that something we took for granted to be true might not be.
An argument shouldn't be about which side wins. It should be about both sides testing their skeletal awareness and seeking to find out if what they believe is truthful rather than trying to get the other guy to agree with them. It should be about both sides admitting to themselves that not only do they not know anything, the Smart People they like to listen to don't know much either. None of us does. "Winning" an argument should be about both sides coming to understand a truth, whether either of them started out with it or not.
One of the very important points the Yale researchers made at the very end of their paper was that the reason human beings settle on skeletal knowledge and then expand it in their minds into an illusion of in-depth knowledge is because otherwise our brains would become overloaded by "potentially inexhaustible searches for ever-deeper understanding".
Wait a second.
As believers in a God who created the entire universe, aren't we supposed to be on an inexhaustible search for an ever-deeper understanding of what is true?
Just a thought...
Wife of Benjamin and mother to two wonderful little girls who are getting bigger every day. Enjoys writing down thoughts and discussions we are having within the family and sharing them with whoever is interested in reading.
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