Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Seven Alternative Explanations For Know-It-All Behavior

It may not be arrogance after all.

“I think the chicken was overcooked”
“No it wasn’t.  It was just right.”

“I bet they’ll win the contract.”
“No, it will go to some other company.”

"I predict that the economy will survive this."
"No. We're in for a deep recession."

“I think she found the meeting disappointing.”
“No, she’s fine.”

As a general rule, whenever we’re in dispute over speculative matters, it’s useful to qualify our assertions, indicating that we know they’re guesses, not statements of fact.  

It’s not hard. Just sprinkle in the occasional “I think,” or “I’m guessing” or “I bet,” or else you sound like you think you’re the last word authority on what’s true.   

Such interpretive qualifiers signal awareness of ourselves as interpretive beings, acknowledging that we don’t see truth directly but guess at it through our interpretive faculties, our senses which may deceive us but also or intuitions which can be wrong.

Interpretive qualifiers are the coolant that keeps conversations from overheating.  When there aren’t enough “I think’s” and  “I bet’s” in the air we end up escalating into know-it-all battles, two people competing like little kids over who knows everything and who knows nothing. Once a know-it-all battle has begun, it’s hard to deescalate, for example saying, “To be clear, it’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.  It’s just what I believe.” Try that in battle and your opponent might say “Aha that proves it. I’m right.”

Sometimes we qualify our assertions and our conversational partners don’t.  We say “I think X” and they simply say, “No, not X.”  Maybe they’re right; maybe they’re wrong, but they don’t seem to be aware of this shading. They talk as though the truth is black and white and they simply have it. They don’t think, guess, speculate or interpret; they just know. They sound arrogant, like they think they’ve graduated to infallibility.  

They may just be arrogant.  Some people are. But there are other possible explanations for their black and white lack of self-doubt.  Here I’ll list a few, not 50 shades of grey-area blindness, but a handful.

1. Meta-cognitively naive:  Meta-cognition is thinking about thinking. One consequence of thinking about your own thinking is recognition that your thoughts are interpretations, not direct access to reality.  Meta-cognition doesn’t come easily or naturally. It takes work to learn, work against resistance since it’s disappointing to realize we don’t have direct access to truth. Some never gain much capacity for meta-cognition. Some develop a double standard about it (“Other people are interpreting but I see reality itself.”)  Either way, you’re not going to remember to add interpretive qualifiers if you have no idea that you’re interpreting.

2. No switchers:  When people agree about things, interpretive qualifiers are a waste of energy. For example you don’t have to say, “I bet it’s 2014.”  Some people never discover that when opinions conflict, you have to switch on the interpretive qualifiers.

3. Slow switchers: Some people know you have to switch on the interpretive qualifiers in conflict but are slow doing so.  They don’t anticipate conflict and therefore fail to add their qualifiers until it’s too late.

4. Qualifier deaf:  Some people can’t hear other people’s interpretive qualifiers and assume therefore that every debate is a know-it-all battle that their opponent started.   This may seem an exotic trait until you consider how many people grow up in families where every disagreement is a know-it-all battle. If that’s what you grew up with, you could easily come to assume that conversation comes in just two flavors, agreement or war.

5. Doubt-averse: For some people, the problem is doubt. It’s terrifying.  Shake one thing loose and all confidence would fall like an avalanche.  They can’t afford doubt. They aren’t arrogant but fragile.


6. Doubt-saturated:  Doubt is expensive.  It takes time; it defuses focus.  Anyone who claims that we should always keep an open mind and doubt everything, needs to doubt that claim, because it’s wrong (I think).  Doubt everything and you’ll never get anything done.  And if your doubt plate is already full, you may just impose a moratorium on adding more doubts.  This is what people mean when they say through gritted teeth, “Not today. Not with the kind of day I’m having.” And it doesn’t have to be just a bad-day thing.  Some people are riddled by so much doubt, they can hardly afford another teaspoon of it, and so can’t afford to add any interpretive qualifiers.

These last two are interesting in relationship to each other.  When someone can’t afford more doubt is it because they’re doubt averse or because their plate is full? Maybe their plate is smaller than yours. Or maybe their life is just much more complicated and doubt-filled than you know.

7. Justly Confident:  Sometimes people don’t add interpretive qualifiers because they really know something you don’t know they know. For example:

“I think she found the meeting disappointing.”

“No, she’s fine.”
“Wow. You’re cocksure aren’t you?  You mean you think she’s fine.”

“Well I guess I’m taking her word for it. On the phone yesterday she said she really enjoyed the meeting.”

“Oh!”

In other words there are times when overconfidence is our problem, not theirs. And not necessarily because we’re arrogant, but because we’re all guessing how confident to be about the various bets we place.

Still, no matter how confident you are in a bet, be yet more confident that it is a bet. 

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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