Don't Know

By Mark Nuyens
7 min. read🧠 Psychology

In a world where knowledge is often seen as power, it's remarkable how reluctant people can be to admit when they don't know something. This tendency is particularly noticeable when individuals find themselves cast in the role of experts, whether in politics, social settings, or online. The pressure to provide answers, even if uncertain or inaccurate, often outweighs the courage to confess ignorance. Personally, I actually find it refreshing when people openly acknowledge their lack of knowledge and put their ego aside for the sake of learning. It demonstrates a noble willingness to explore new perspectives and gain unique insights.

Research has shown our desire for knowledge, even if the answer is not in our interest. That is, people prefer knowing over not knowing, as illustrated by a study where one group was told they had failed a test, and another group was informed that their results were lost. The latter group felt worse, likely due to their emotional investment. While this example doesn't exactly demonstrate the issue of admitting ignorance, it does offer an interesting glimpse into our preferences for receiving information.

The primary concern arises when individuals who lack sufficient expertise speak authoritatively on subjects, and their statements are quoted and referenced by others, sometimes reaching even higher authorities. This has profound implications for how we perceive information and make decisions in our lives, particularly when it comes to personal beliefs. The famous expression, "you are a slave to what you say and a master of what you keep silent," carries a kernel of truth.

In essense, I think we should continuously question the world around us and consider multiple perspectives carefully, before stating them publicly, certainly as an authority. While it's certainly acceptable to express our opinions and ideas through designated channels, we should clarify when we are merely sharing our perspective rather than presenting them as absolute truth. This can be a challenge when dealing with the pressure of high expectations from our peers.

While I, too, may be guilty of this behavior more often than I'd like to admit (this is a blog, after all), part of writing this piece is a reminder to myself to avoid this trap. It's tempting to want to appear well-informed while fearing ridicule or the label of someone who lacks knowledge on a particular domain. After all, it's much more appealing to be seen as a reliable source of information.

While individuals on the receiving end of information can request sources or proof of authority, there are situations where they may hesitate to confront someone with questions or accusations. The internet has granted us the ability to fact-check information more swiftly, but distinguishing fact from fiction, especially when we want something to be true, remains challenging. The democratization of information sharing on the internet can be a double-edged sword. It provides a platform for reviewing and critiquing opinions but also amplifies those with the loudest voices over true experts or other authentic perspectives.

Part of the issue may stem from how we consume information. Depending on our capacity to process information and our tendency to favor brevity and simplicity, we gravitate towards the TLDR (Too Long; Didn't Read) version rather than delving into complex, nuanced explanations. This trend could be linked to the short attention spans cultivated by platforms like TikTok and YouTube, which demand our constant attention with bite-sized content. Although this is speculative on my part, I wouldn't be surprised to learn there's a connection between these information consumption habits and our ability to engage with long-form content and critical thinking.

In closing, I believe we should cultivate a greater receptivity to complex, nuanced answers and, more importantly, to the acknowledgment of not having an answer at all. In my opinion, it's better to admit ignorance than to provide a wrong answer, especially when the stakes are high. But, of course, I could be wrong! 😉