Everybody Is Stupid Except You

The truth about learning and memory.

The Expertise Bias

Why you sometimes feel that everyone is stupid except you

Everyone hates the department of motor vehicles. Well, not everyone. In some states, like here in Massachusetts, we hate the RMV.

Here's an actual exchange between me and a DMV worker.

Me: I filled out this form.
DMV: YOU ARE AN IDIOT!

Ok, that didn't happen. But if I could read minds, it would have. And let's face it: I have no idea what is going on in the labyrinthine, soviet-style bureaucracy that is the DMV. I don't want to know. I just like to drive my car.

But imagine you are a DMV worker. It's your first day on the job. Someone asks you a question and you can see why they're confused. You're a bit confused yourself. You help them out.

But now it's your 1,000th day at the DMV. You've had 10,000 people ask you the same question. The answer, which used to seem a bit obscure, is SO OBVIOUS you want to throw up. You can't believe that these people don't know what they're supposed to do! You look at the customer and think: "You filled out Form 332b even though you have an RV and you're left handed?! You're an idiot."

Walking in someone else's shoes

Cognitive psychology is, in part, the study of biases. Here's a bias that's incredibly pervasive: People are terrible at taking each other's perspective. It's hard to walk in another person's shoes without literally following them around. We see things from our own perspective.

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Research shows that we tend to explain our own behavior based on our external environment, but when we explain the behavior of others, we talk about their internal traits. For example, if I honk my car horn, it's because some cut me off; if you honk your car horn, it's because you're a jerk. This is not fair to you, but I don't see it from your perspective. I see it from my perspective.

People at the DMV can't sympathize with your confusion because they aren't confused. You haven't spent years learning how to get through their maze. They have. But it's only human for them to see things from their perspective, not yours. They know how the maze works; the people around them know how it works; therefore you should know how it works, too.

Of course, not knowing how to navigate the DMV doesn't make you stupid. But the employees have a built-in bias to think it does.

If you already knew that, then you know why you should be nice to people at the DMV. Because if you were in their shoes, you'd be influenced by the same biases as they are, and you'd be irritated too.

The Problem with Expertise

The DMV is a convenient punching bag, and some DMV employees are grumpy, but they can also be patient and understanding. But this problem is much broader than the DMV.

For example, lot's of people hate their IT (i.e., Information Technology) department. Well, maybe not as much as the DMV. But the problem is the same. What seems incredibly obvious to Mary, the IT whiz, is confusing to you. Mary gets frustrated when you can't understand what she's talking about, because it's so obvious--to her. Her bias prevents her from seeing that to you, it's not obvious at all, nor should it be.

But it's not just about computers, either. When I watch people try to juggle, which I happen to be able to do, I can't believe it's possible to be so bad at something so easy. Yet I was that bad when I started, too. And it's not easy.

All sorts of specialized knowledge can make experts see everybody around them as morons. If you're the expert on something, try to recognize that other people aren't experts and cut them some slack. And if you know an expert who gets frustrated when they have to field the same basic requests or questions again and again, cut them some slack, too.

My wife calls it the expertise bias: When you're an expert, and you have to explain the same thing again and again, you're naturally biased to think that everyone is stupid except you.

Follow me on Twitter @natekornell.

Nate Kornell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Williams College.

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