Commentary

We SHOULD Know Better -- But We Don't

“The human mind is both brilliant and pathetic.  Humans have built hugely complex societies and technologies, but most of us don’t even know how a toilet works.” – from The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone” by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernback.

Most of us think we know more than we do -- especially about things we really know nothing about. This phenomenon is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Named after psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning, this bias causes us to overestimate our ability to do things that we’re not very good at.

That’s the basis of the new book “The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone.” The basic premise is this: We all think we know more than we actually do. Individually, we are all “error prone, sometimes irrational and often ignorant.” But put a bunch of us together and we can do great things. We were built to operate in groups. We are, by nature, herding animals.

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This basic human nature was in the back of mind when I was listening to an interview with Es Devlin on CBC Radio. Devlin is self-described as an artist and stage designer.  She was the vision behind Beyonce’s Renaissance Tour, U2’s current run at The Sphere in Las Vegas, and the 2022 Superbowl halftime show with Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem and Mary J. Blige.

When it comes to designing a visually spectacular experience,  Devlin has every right to be a little cocky. But even she admits that every good idea doesn’t come directly from her. She said the following in the interview (it’s profound, so I’m quoting it at length):

“I learned quite quickly in my practice to not block other people’s ideas -- to learn that, actually,  other people’s ideas are more interesting than my own, and that I will expand by absorbing someone else’s idea.

“The real test is when someone proposes something in a collaboration that you absolutely, [in] every atom of your body. revile against. They say, ‘Why don’t we do it in bubblegum pink?’ and it was the opposite of what you had in mind. It was the absolute opposite of anything you would dream of doing.

“But instead of saying, ‘Oh, we’re not doing that,’  you say ‘OK,’ and you try to imagine it. And then normally what will happen is that you can go through the veil of the pink bubblegum suggestion, and you will come out with a new thing that you would never have thought of on your own.

“Why? Because your own little batch of poems, your own little backpack of experience. does not converge with that other person, so you are properly meeting not just another human being, but everything that led up to them being in that room with you. “

We live in a culture that puts the individual on a pedestal.  When it comes to individualistic societies, none are more so than the United States (according to a study by Hofstede Insights).  Protection of personal rights and freedom are the cornerstone of our society (I am Canadian, but we’re not far behind on this world ranking of individualistic societies). The same is true in the U.K. (where Devlin is from), Australia, the Netherlands and New Zealand.

There are good things that come with this, but unfortunately it also sets us up as the perfect targets for the Dunning-Kruger effect. This individualism and the cognitive bias that comes with it are reinforced by social media. We all feel we have the right to be heard -- and now we have the platforms that enable it.

With each post, our unshakable belief in our own genius and infallibility is bulwarked by a chorus of likes from a sycophantic choir who are jamming their fingers down on the like button. Where we should be cynical of our own intelligence and knowledge, especially about things we know nothing about, we are instead lulled into hiding behind dangerous ignorance.

What Devlin has to say is important. We need to be mindful of our own limitations and be willing to ride on the shoulders of others so we can see, know and do more. We need to peek into the backpack of others to see what they might have gathered on their own journey.

This post was previously published in an earlier edition of Marketing Insider.

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