Dwayne Allen Thomas

The Cross-Examined Life

Overcoming Ignorance Isn't Bliss

A look at how we process conflicting information.

Posted Nov 19, 2019

Jon Sullivan, used with permission.
Source: Jon Sullivan, public domain.

It’s December 2010 and I’m sitting at my computer, looking to see if my first-semester law school grades have been posted. I wouldn’t have cared so much, but I spent one too many midnights in the library. Undergrad wasn’t like this. There, I studied between card games and conversations. Here, I prepared for final exams. Every day was a final exam. 

Refresh…nothing.

There’s only one test per class per semester. And most students expect an A. But law schools grade on a curve, converting absolute scores into a statistically standardized distribution of grades. Most students enter law school at about the same level of preparedness as their peers, so they fall somewhere in the middle, earning a B or B+. Many, for the first time in their lives. After studying every day like they were studying for a final exam.

Refresh…still nothing.

We were repeatedly told that most of us would not receive an A. No one told us why. This was a mistake. A more complete explanation might have helped us set realistic expectations. It might have helped some of us perceive a B as a success rather than a failure. It might have even mediated the drop in well-being first-year law students tend to experience. Instead, everyone shot for an A. Including me. 

Refr…finally! 

I open the email, wondering how well I did after all that work. I scroll down. Class #1: C. Class #2: C+. Class #3: C-. Wait, that can’t be right. I worked my butt off! Understood the material. Got all the in-class questions right… Refresh… nothing changed.

I was experiencing cognitive dissonance. One on hand, sixteen years of test-taking told me that if I worked hard, I’d get good grades. On the other hand, I just got some of the lowest grades in the class. I went to my professors. I asked how this was possible. They agreed I understood the material, but said my essays didn’t show it. Each one reviewed my answers with me, pointing out flaws and asking some variation of “do you see where you went wrong?” I didn’t. 

More precisely, I couldn’t. I had developed a skill of taking the shortest possible route to the right answer. This skill served me well over the years. However, these tests required a different skill set — everything had to be spelled out. Everything could be a 15-step process. To the point, I had only been concerned about finding the right answer. This often involved skipping steps.  

I was experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect. Though I was unprepared to take these tests, I overestimated my ability relative to my peers. People with more experience at a task tend to better predict how well they did when tested. People like me, who ended up at the bottom, tend to show the largest discrepancy between their perceived and actual ability, and as a friend once put it, I was “running on 110% confidence.” Meanwhile, my classmates who were most concerned that they would fail tended to get the best grades.  

Furthermore, I was motivated to be right, not accurate. So, when the head of the writing department, who holds a Master’s and a Ph.D., has written books and articles on legal writing, and who was teaching writing long before I considered law school, agreed to help improve my writing, I debated with her every day. I was supposed to identify legal questions. Instead, I identified flaws in questions. I was doing things “my way” instead of doing what I was asked. I didn’t believe her or my professors. In my mind, I was right and they were wrong. That is why I failed.

Despite months of debate and not agreeing with the value of spelling everything out, I kept going back. One day, let’s say the legal question, “is a paperweight a dangerous object” came up. I argued no; it’s a paperweight. Case closed. The writing professor pointed to the sentence that stated the paperweight had been thrown by a tall, heavy man. I knew a paperweight thrown by the right person could be dangerous. That’s why baseball players wear helmets! In my rush to answer, I had missed this detail.            

I was experiencing a revelation. I was wrong. Perhaps some of my other answers were wrong, too. Slowly, I started writing more detailed responses to both my practice and real exam questions.

This strategy, considering the opposite, has been shown to help people judge new information more accurately. I was shown that I was wrong in dramatic fashion. But research suggests that "consider the opposite" strategies can work if one is instructed in advance of receiving new information. In one study, a group assessing political information was given an explanation of one way we inaccurately process information, followed by an instruction to consider what they would think if the same information was given by the other side. This instruction helped group members give more objective answers when quizzed later. 

Likewise, when my professors asked me to assess my own performance, I was less than objective. Had I been instructed to consider that I might be wrong, or consider their perspective, I might have realized that I needed to work on my writing skills. Fortunately, I was on the right track by the middle of my second semester.

And for the rest of my time in law school, I earned Bs.

References

Gilbert, D. T. (1991). How mental systems believe. American Psychologist, 46(2), 107–119.

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121–1134.

Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108(3), 480–498.

Lord, C. G., Lepper, M. R., & Preston, E. (1984). Considering the opposite: A corrective strategy for social judgment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47(6), 1231–1243.