We Think We Know More Than We Do

We may think we understand concepts better than we do. We are consistently exposed to numerous subjects, new gadgets and new concepts. Technology like cell phones, electricity and cars are taken for granted as we become desensitized to their regular usage every day. We have become victims to the illusion of explanatory depth. The illusion of explanatory depth explains that people are overconfident in their ability to understand complex systems and policies better than they really do. A study by Philip M. Fernbach, Todd Rogers, Craig R. Fox and Steven A. Sloman examines this concept in their study Political Extremism is Supported by an Illusion of Understanding.

In their study, Fernbach and his colleagues conduct a series of three experiments. The procedure for all three experiments is similar. In experiment one, participants are asked to read six political policies, rate their support on these policies (on a 1-7 scale), then state their understanding of the six policies. After these steps were completed, the participants were asked to write an explanation of how they thought two of the six policies worked, and then record their support and understanding of the policies afterwards. What Fernbach et al found in the first experiment is that participants carried more moderate political views after explanation, and recorded that they understood the policies less.

                In the second experiment, the participants were classified into two groups. The participants in the first group essentially followed the same instructions as the participants from experiment one. Participants in the second group were given a different set of instructions. Similar to the first experiment, the participants were asked to read six political policies, state their positions on the policies, and then state their understanding. Afterwards, the participants were asked to generate reasons as to why they held their position on two, as opposed to writing down how they thought the policies worked. The participants then recorded their position and understanding on the political policies. Participants from group one replicated the same results as participants in the first experiment. Participants from the second group had minimal changes from their pre and post-reasoning ratings of understanding and position. This illustrates that individuals who did not have to explain how they thought the policies worked had deeper illusion of explanatory depth.

                The procedure for experiment three was similar to that of the experiment two. Participants were separated into two groups with the same set of instructions as the previous experiment. However, one additional step was added to the very end of the experiment. Participants were given twenty cents, and were provided four different options as to what they could do with it. The participants could donate the money received to a group that advocates a political issue. They could also choose to donate the twenty cents to a group that opposes the political issue. The money could also be kept for themselves, or they can choose to decline the twenty cents. Participants that were instructed to explain how the political policies worked had moderate positions on the political policy, and consequently less likely to donate money to any group. The second group of participants, by contrast held more radical views on the political policies, and were more likely to donate the twenty cents to the group that supported their position.

                It is interesting to see how people can be overconfident in the understanding of concepts. It becomes apparent that by asking a person with extreme to explain the mechanisms of a policy, their position on the policy, as well as their own perception of understanding the policy decreases. This research carries implications beyond the political spectrum. Businesses can take advantage of this information by strategically implementing advertisements to ask consumers to think consciously about competing brands, to sway loyal customers away from their beloved brand. Regardless of application, this study has the potential to provide framework and inspiration for innovative advertisements in the business world, and public relation tactics for the political world.


Fernbach, Philip, Todd Rogers, Craig R. Fox, and Steven A. Sloman. “Political Extremism is Supported by an Illusion of Understanding.” (2012): 1-24.


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