Illusions of Understanding

This research is fascinating, and could have serious methodological importance for philosophy. (Hat tip: Sarcozona.)

Here’s the gist of the result (which was obtained by studying samples of US residents recruited online).

People often don’t understand political issues fully, yet have strong convictions about them. When subjects were asked to go into state-and-defend mode on a political issue (i.e., asked to state their view and then give their reasons for holding it), their conviction was entrenched and their misunderstandings went unnoticed.

But if asked to explain, or talk through, how the policy, position, etc. they defend would actually work, people were significantly more likely to appreciate what they did not fully understand, and to stop being so entrenched in their opinions.

This kind of information could be a huge deal for philosophical methodology. There are many issues (political and otherwise) that philosophers discuss which we do not fully understand, yet have strong convictions about.

State-and-defend mode is so common in our discipline. What if it is seriously hindering our progress by entrenching us in views we do not really understand, while concealing our own misunderstandings from us?

5 thoughts on “Illusions of Understanding

  1. I think there’s a corresponding point: when challenged, ask you interlocutors to explain themselves.

  2. Reblogged this on Empathic Philosophy Engineer and commented:
    Extended research on Kruger & Dunning, 1999:
    “People’s mistaken sense that they understand the causal processes underlying policies contributes to political polarization.
    “Across three studies, we found that people have unjustified confidence in their understanding of policies. Attempting to generate a mechanistic explanation undermines this illusion of understanding and leads people to endorse more moderate positions. Mechanistic-explanation generation also influences political behavior, making people less likely to donate to relevant advocacy groups. These moderation effects on judgment and decision making do not occur when people are asked to enumerate reasons for their position. We propose that generating mechanistic explanations leads people to endorse more moderate positions by forcing them to confront their ignorance. In contrast, reasons can draw on values, hearsay, and general principles that do not require much knowledge. Previous research has shown that intensively educating citizens can improve the quality of democratic decisions following collective deliberation and negotiation (Fishkin, 1991). One reason for the effectiveness of this strategy may be that educating citizens on how policies work moderates their attitudes, increasing their willingness to explore opposing views and to compromise. More generally, the present results suggest that political debate might be more productive if partisans first engaged in a substantive and mechanistic discussion of policies before engaging in the more customary discussion of preferences and positions. However, fostering productive discourse among people who have different political stances faces obstacles and can have consequences that fall outside the scope of the current research. Future research should explore the benefits of mechanistic explanation in more ecologically valid civil-discourse contexts.

    “Our results suggest a corrective for several psychological phenomena that make polarization self-reinforcing. People often are unaware of their own ignorance (Kruger & Dunning, 1999), seek out information that supports their current preferences (Nickerson, 1998), process new information in biased ways that strengthen their current preferences (Lord, Ross, & Lepper, 1979), affiliate with other people who have similar preferences (Lazarsfeld & Merton, 1954), and assume that other people’s views are as extreme as their own (Van Boven, Judd, & Sherman, 2012). In sum, several psychological factors increase extremism, and attitude polarization is therefore hard to avoid. Explanation generation will by no means eliminate extremism, but our data suggest that it offers a means of counteracting a tendency supported by multiple psychological factors. In that sense, it promises to be an effective debiasing procedure.”

  3. Fascinating study—thanks very much for posting. I can see this having a big influence on teaching. I’ll certainly think about asking students for more explanations over asking them to just take sides and debate a philosophical view.

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