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Illusion of Explanatory Depth

Most people feel they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence, and depth than they really do.” [Rozenblit, L., & Keil, F. (2002)]

The illusion of explanatory depth is a cognitive bias that drives people to believe they understand things in far more depth than they actually do. These things may be familiar devices like toilets or refrigerators, or complex systems like government and healthcare. Rozenblit and Keil found that the “ratio of visible to hidden parts is the best predictor of overconfidence for an item”. What this means is that when a system looks simple on the outside, people tend to assume they understand it on the inside.

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.” [Fernbach, P. M., Rogers, T., Fox, C. R., & Sloman, S. A. (2013)] The title of this paper says it all: political extremism is supported by an illusion of understanding.

There is one interesting tidbit in the second paper. “Although these effects occurred when people were asked to generate a mechanistic explanation, they did not occur when people were instead asked to enumerate reasons for their policy preferences […]”. If you want to get people to take a more moderate position, don’t ask them why they support one policy over another. Instead, ask them to explain how things work. That makes them realize how little they actually know, which then leads them to conclusions that are less intolerant of others’ points of view.

2 thoughts on “Illusion of Explanatory Depth”

  1. This leads me to think of those people who tweet a storm about policies they don’t have a clue about, in countries which they would find it difficult to point out on a map. How little they know , and how much they Twitter!!!

    1. Yes, I think the problem with tweets is that they’re like newspaper headlines: they seek to be catchy, and are usually devoid of nuance because of their brevity. That’s part of the reason why I personally prefer long-form writing.

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