Steve Rathje

Words Matter

You Know Less Than You Think

Realizing how little we know may improve our political conversations.

Posted Aug 19, 2019

139904 / Pixabay
Source: 139904 / Pixabay

Many of us care deeply about our political beliefs, and we’re often very confident about the beliefs that we hold. But we usually do not understand the details of the political issues we care about so strongly. Instead, we are fed simple explanations of these issues from partisan media sources.

However, we tend to think that we know a lot more about the world than we actually do. This phenomenon is called the “Illusion of Explanatory Depth,” a term coined by Yale psychologists Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil. In a series of experiments, Rozenblit and Keil found that people frequently overestimate the extent to which they know about how basic things in the world work—like how a zipper operates or how a refrigerator works. But, when pressed to explain how these things work, they struggle to come up with explanations and discover how little they know.

This sense of overconfidence can fuel political polarization. In one study, Philip Fernbach and colleagues found that people think they know much more about complex policy positions than they actually do. But, when asked to generate explanations for how these policies work—describing, for instance, the details of instituting a national flat tax or transitioning to a single-payer healthcare system, people recognized the gaps in their knowledge. Moreover, trying to generate explanations also caused them to express less extreme opinions about these issues, presumably because they realized their opinions were rooted in overconfidence.

Letting go of this overconfidence and approaching political conversations with a sense of humility can help us overcome polarization. One study by psychologists Tenelle Porter and Karina Schumann found that intellectual humility is associated with a greater willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints about contentious political issues.

Appreciating the complexity of political issues can also improve our political conversations. Psychologist Peter T. Coleman runs the Difficult Conversations Lab at Columbia University, where he studies how political opponents can have better conversations about contentious issues like abortion or immigration.

For one of his experiments, Coleman presented a group of conversations partners with a short, simple summary of both sides of an issue. Another group was presented with a more complicated analysis of the issue that showed a range of opinions. Participants in the group that read the more complex analysis tended to have more nuanced and satisfying conversations. 

We often do not understand our political opponents, which can make them much easier to dismiss. Research suggests that Republicans and Democrats both do a terrible job of estimating the demographic make-up of their political opponents. For instance, Republicans think that 36% of Democrats are atheists (when only 9% are), and Democrats think that 44% of Republicans are earning more than 250K per year (when only 2% do). Furthermore, both Democrats and Republicans think that their own side is motivated by love for their party, but their political opponents are motivated by hate, a cognitive bias called motive attribution asymmetry.

Conversations with our political opponents often seem futile. To make them more effective, try to complicate things. Recognize the limits of your own knowledge, and try asking people to explain the details of certain policy positions they cling to so they can see the holes in their own knowledge, too. Realizing how little we know might be the first step to improving political divisions—but, who am I to think I know anything?