The Illusion of Understanding

This is the third post in the series The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Unabridged), written by Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach.

In the 1980s the cognitive scientist Thomas Landauer decided to estimate the size of human memory on the same scale that is used to measure the size of computer memories. He used several clever techniques to measure how much knowledge people have. For example, he estimated the size of an average adult’s vocabulary and calculated how many bytes would be required to store that much information. Then he used that result to estimate the size of the average adult’s entire knowledge base. The answer was half of a gigabyte. Currently HM is looking at his USB flash drive with 32 gigabytes of storage.

Dr. Landauer did another study in which he measured the difference in recognition performance between a group that had been exposed to items and a group that had not. This difference is as pure a measure of memory that one can get. He measured the amount of time people spent learning the material in the first place. This told him the rate at which people are able to acquire information that they later remember. He also found a way to take into account that people forget. His analyses found that people acquire information at roughly the same rate regardless of the details of the procedure used in the experiment to the type of material being learned. People learn at approximately the same rate whether the items were visual, verbal, or musical.

Then Dr. Landauer calculated how much information people have on hand, the size of their knowledge base, by assuming they learn at this same rate over the course of a seventy-year lifetime. The same result of 1 gigabyte was obtained by every technique he tried. This number is just a tiny fraction of what a modern laptop can retain.

Drs. Sloman and Fernbach note that this is only shocking if you believe the human mind works like a computer. The model of the mind a machine designed to encode and retain memories breaks down when you consider the complexity of the world with which we interact. They conclude that it would be futile for memory to be designed to hold tons of information because there’s just too much out there.

Drs. Sloman and Fernbach note that most of cognition consists of intuitive thought that occurs below the level of conscious awareness. Huge quantities of information are processed in parallel. People are not computers in that we don’t just rely on a central processor that reads and writes to a memory to think. We rely on our bodies, on the world around us, and on other minds. There’s no way we could store in our heads, all there is to know about our environment.

We humans are surprisingly ignorant, more ignorant that we think. We also exist in a complex world, one that is even more complex than one might have thought. But if we’re so ignorant, how can we get around, sound knowledgeable, and take ourselves seriously while understanding only a tiny fraction of what there is to know?

The authors’ answer is that we do so by living a lie. We ignore complexity by overestimating how much we know about how things work, by living life in the belief that we know how things work even when we don’t. We tell ourselves the we understand what’s going on, that our opinions are justified by our knowledge, and that our actions are in justified beliefs even hough they are not. We tolerate complexity by failing to recognize it. That’s the Illusion of understanding.


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One Response to “The Illusion of Understanding”

  1. russvane3 Says:

    Yes, which then raises questions about mathematical philosophies that require purely arithmetic assessments of probabilities. We have yet to discuss how intent and capability to perform actions color all of our decisions. Dave Snowden’s CYNEFIN framework and my hypergame theory allow us to discretize our assessments. The ‘objective’ probabilities long espoused by Tolcott, Cohen and others are suspect. If such complex approaches hamstring us with doubt, we would be choosing to be less effective.

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