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We really hate saying “I don’t know”

We crave certainty

Saying I don’t know is very, very uncomfortable for humans.

The two sides of the brain communicate with each other through the corpus callosum. We’ll call one side the ‘left side’ and one side the ‘right side’ to keep things simple :)

There is a rare birth defect called ‘agenesis of the corpus callosum’ that does now allow for its development, so these people are without one. Experimenters have used this natural accident to study some rather strange behavior about the brain that has allowed for some fascinating insight into how the brain works.

In a series of experiments in the 50s and 60’s, Roger Sperry conducted experiments (for which he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1981) on cats and monkey and later on humans who’d had their corpus callosums removed as a treatment or epilepsy and seizures. These people acted normally on a day to day basis, but showed very strange behavior under certain conditions.

He found the two sides of the brain function completely independently of each other. Physically, the left side of the body is connected to the right side of the brain and vice versa. The right eye is connected to left hemisphere of the brain, for instance.

The experimenters would create a setup similar to below:

When shown a word on the right, the patient cannot say what it is (given the right side of the brain — the part connected to the left eye — processes language and speech), but strangely, they can draw what the word is using their left hand (part connected to the right brain).

A patient that sees the image below will say that they see a hammer, but then draw a saw. This is astounding.

Ironically, probably better to just watch than for me to explain through words:

I don’t know

In further research, experimenters would tell the left side to stand up. So the patient would stand up. Then the experimenters would ask the right side why they had stood up. Despite having absolutely no idea, the right side would creepily respond with a made up story, like “I’m headed to get a Coke.”

Robin Hanson, author of The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life” explains such in his Ted Talk (this is fascinating):

Think about that for a second. That is horrifyingly creepy and profoundly sad that we’re that insecure.

We’d rather make something up than say ‘I don’t know’

It means that all over the internet there are questions being answered by people that should just say ‘I don’t know.’

Rationalization

If we do something wrong, we can make up reasons why it was the right thing to do. I can get drunk and burn a house down, and wake up in the morning and say “well, that house shouldn’t have been there and I wouldn’t have burned it down.”

Our elephants (emotions) guide our rider (our logical thought process). This means that our thoughts follow our emotions, rather than the other way around. As Jonathan Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind (page 54):

The rider acts as the spokesperson for the elephant, even though it doesn’t necessarily know what the elephant is really thinking. The rider is skilled at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it is good at finding reasons to justify whatever it wants to do next.

He calls the rider, the elephants full-time public relations firm. And public relations firms rarely advise their clients to say ‘I don’t know.’

Trickery

You are an likely an expert in some area where you don’t need to say ‘I don’t know’ very much. Given this expertise, you can think hard enough to get people to react in certain ways. If you’re an advertiser, you can pay a celebrity to say your product is great. Every reasonable human that sits down to think about it knows this person is being paid — the celebrity isn’t saying “I love Pepsi” just because they love it. But our feelings about that person still affects our decision to buy that product. If I love the Cowboys and Troy Aikman tells me to buy Acme bricks, then if I need bricks, you better believe I’m calling up Acme because when I think of Troy Aikman, I feel good.

We may then rationalize later that we bought it because we really think Acme bricks are solidly crafted, but that’s self deception (and these are generalizations). Because we HATE admitting we did something without our full intelligence involved.

As Blaise Pascal said:

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of”

Just say ‘I don’t know’

This provides an interesting insight into the dynamics of how people communicate and how much inefficiency there is in our public debate, because people will just say stuff that isn’t true at all just because we don’t want to admit a lack of knowledge.

Despite the world being massively complex and understanding a very small portion of it, we find it very difficult to just admit we don’t know something.

Our culture does not allow people to make mistakes. To change their mind after careful self-reflection.

The best you can do is just say ‘I don’t know’

These people would look a lot less stupid just saying “I don’t know”

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Robert Mundinger

Robert Mundinger

Founder of TheMap — technology, cities, mapping