Brown University

Opening Minds by Exposing the Illusion of Understanding

Steven Sloman



People often hold extreme political attitudes about complex policies despite knowing less about those policies than they think they do. This is called the illusion of explanatory depth and we believe it contributes to political polarization. In previous work, we have found that asking people to provide detailed causal explanations for policies undermines the illusion, leads to more moderate attitudes, and reduces willingness to donate to relevant political advocacy groups. Here, we propose four types of studies to investigate the causes of the illusion, what it takes to puncture it, and how it is relevant in the political world.First, we ask what kinds of policies are most susceptible to the illusion. We hypothesize that policies that are attractive because of their desired consequences (like military intervention) will be more susceptible to the illusion than policies whose favor depends less on what outcomes the policy will deliver and more on protected values, basic notions of right and wrong (like abortion). We also plan to compare policies that vary in their partisan political appeal and in their complexity.Second, we ask what kind of person is most susceptible to the illusion. We focus on the effects of expertise, cognitive style (are more reflective people less susceptible?), and age.Third, we focus on the cognitive processes responsible for the illusion. Does the greater intellectual humility induced by causal explanation affect people’s awareness of their own level of knowledge broadly or does is it restricted to the particular issues explained? Does the illusion occur because we mistake our own personal knowledge for knowledge that we are able to access in our community? Is the effect limited to causal explanation or does it occur for other kinds of explanation, like logical justification? We also propose to investigate how puncturing the illusion affects other attributes of intellectual humility like how people treat evidence and the labels we are willing to use to refer to policies.

Finally, we propose research on the applicability of our findings. Can we use it to increase intellectual humility in a real political conflict? Can we eliminate the reactivity that one might expect when an interested party requests an explanation? Does the effect carry over time long enough to allow it to be effective? Can causal explanation be used to obtain other beneficial effects like greater willingness to compromise and does it lead to better outcomes when groups are choosing through deliberation? Does puncturing the illusion paralyze people with uncertainty so that they are unwilling to act?

We hope through this research to reveal the nature of the cognitive and social processes by which knowledge gets deployed and how it supports judgment. In the course of this, we hope to help specify the role and value of intellectual humility and arrogance in social discourse.