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Learning From the Illusion of Understanding

The feeling of certainty might be our default setting. We spend most of our mental life confirming our opinions, even when those opinions involve complex issues. We believe we understand the world with detail and coherence, even though our folk theories are usually incomplete. The sad reason rationality exists might not be to seek truth, but to argue and persuade. We’re lawyers, not judges, and the jury is always on our side.   


There are many psychological studies that illustrate this, but let me tell you about a particularly clever one. Imagine that an experimenter hands you a list of everyday devices – a piano key, a sewing machine, a zipper – and asks you to indicate how much you understand how each item works. Next you are tasked with writing a detailed step-by-step causal description of four items from the list. After that you have to re-rate how well you understand how each item works. Here’s the question. Do you think having to write a detailed description of each item will influence that rating?

Years ago two psychologists, Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil, conducted this study to find out. In a series of 12 experiments they discovered that when participants tried to explain how an everyday device worked they realized that they had no idea what they were talking about. Although it seems like we know how something like a zipper works – we use it everyday, after all – when we stop to think about the details we realize our ignorance. (Keil terms this the illusion of explanatory depth.)

This bias is not as bad as it sounds. It suggests that despite our overconfidence, we adjust our beliefs after discovering an error. What’s concerning is what happens when you ask people to explain their opinions. Decades of psychological research demonstrate that when this occurs, certainty and confidence skyrocket. It’s easy to admit that we don’t know how a zipper works – admitting that our opinions are flawed is a different story.

This brings me to a recently published study by Professor of Marketing Philip Fernbach, Todd Rogers, Craig R. Fox and Steven A. Sloman. The team of psychologists was interested in what happens when you ask people to elaborate on political policies. Most voters maintain strong opinions about complex policies, even though they are relatively uninformed about the details of those policies. The question is if we adjust our beliefs when we realize that we don’t understand a policy.  

To find out, the team conducted three experiments. In the first, 198 participants (all U.S. residents) rated their positions on six policies (e.g., “How strongly do you favor sanctions against Iran?”) and quantified their level of understanding for each policy (e.g., “How well do you understand the impact of imposing unilateral sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program?”). The participants also generated a “mechanistic explanation” for two randomly assigned political policies. The purpose of this was to test how well they understood each policy. Finally, participants rerated their positions after providing an explanation.

The first finding was obvious enough: participants indicated that they understood the details of each policy better than they actually did (this is consistent with the research on the illusion of explanatory depth). Here’s the interesting part. When they became aware of their unawareness, they adapted more moderate positions and reported feeling less certain about how much they understood each policy. In fact, in the third experiment participants were less likely to donate to an advocacy group after realizing that they did not have a firm understanding of the policy associated with that group. The one pessimistic finding was that participants did not reconsider their position on a policy when they simply generated reasons for it.  

Here’s Fernbach on the results:

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 influenced 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… 

One conclusion from this research is that we need to read up on the issues more. That goes without saying, yet it’s easy to forget that you are not an expert living in a world of idiots. Exposure to ignorance is an effective way to become more mindful of unjustified confidence. 

There’s something more interesting though. It appears that different psychological mechanisms are active when we explain how we think something works versus when we explain an opinion. In the former case we think more scientifically. When we struggle to understand how the world works, we tend to seek out relevant information and change our beliefs appropriately. In the latter case we are more like lawyers. When we detect an incongruity in our mental life, we strive to make it consistent with what we believe instead of gathering more information and confessing our biases. 

Fernbach’s research suggests that when it comes to explaining an opinion we should pretend like we are explaining the mechanics of something in the world – an everyday device or political policy. That way, instead of wasting mental effort on preserving an ideology, we develop more accurate beliefs. 

Two more ideas worth considering. First, the participants in this study stated their positions and provided their evaluations and judgments online, presumably alone. It would be interesting to see if moderation effects hold when people are put in the spotlight. I imagine that in an ecological setting we are more reluctant to admit our ignorance – no one wants to be perceived as unintelligent. (For example, watch this YouTube of Chris Matthews pressing Kevin James to explain what Neville Chamberlain did to appease Hitler during the 1930s.)

Second, it would be interesting to test how different objects or opinions influence moderation effects. In general, we are more reluctant to budge from a position when it involves a sensitive subject. Over an enlightening phone conversation, Fernbach distinguished between value-based judgments and consequentialist-based judgments. The former involves polarizing topics with unclear solutions (abortion) while the latter involves topics with debate solutions (what policy spurs economic growth?) but agreeable goals (that economic growth is good). It would be interesting to study the relationship between these different judgments and moderation effects. (To be sure, the distinction between each judgment is not absolute but on a spectrum.)

Either way, unjustified overconfidence is probably an innate feature of the mind but fixable if we think more scientifically. The optimistic news from this study is that participants not only recognized their overconfidence, but they made appropriate adjustments. Let’s learn from them. 

Image via Shuttershock/R-O-M-A

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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