If you are reading this article on a computer or tablet, chances are you have beliefs about that device. It is made of molecules. The machine itself has a processor and a display that were designed to allow you to access articles from the internet. Experts in physics and chemistry understand the kinds of molecules that make up the device. Experts in engineering and computer science understand the device.
How confident are you that you understand the molecules that make up the device and its structure?
If we had a way to go into your head and pull out your knowledge, we could figure out objectively whether you actually understand how things in your world work. Unfortunately, there is no way to do that. Instead, you have to make judgments about how well you understand the world around you.
An interesting paper by Steven Sloman and Nathaniel Rabb in the November, 2016 issue of Psychological Science suggests that part of the way you judge whether you understand how something works is by knowing whether there are other experts who understand it.
In one study, they had participants read about several new natural phenomena. For example, they were told that scientists recently discovered a new rock that glows or conditions in which ice forms even when it is warm. Some participants were told that the scientists who discovered the phenomenon completely understand it and have published the explanation. Other participants were told that the scientists who discovered it do not yet understand how it works.
Later, participants rated how confident they were that they themselves understood the new finding on a scale ranging from 1 (not very confident) to 7 (very confident). Overall, of course, participants gave low ratings. That makes sense, because the descriptions did not give any information about how the new findings worked. That said, on average, people were somewhat more confident that they understood the new phenomenon when they were told that scientists understand it than when they were told that scientists do not understand it.
A second study in this series demonstrated that people were most confident that they understood the new finding when they were told that scientists had published the explanation than when they were told that scientists were keeping the explanation a secret (as a matter of national security).
What does this mean?
In human societies, knowledge is distributed. People develop particular areas of expertise that allow them to participate in their communities. I know a lot about psychology, a little about the saxophone, and nothing at all about the way my car works. That means that if someone wants to know about psychology, they can come to me. If they need a sax player for a band, they could come to me, but they might also go to other people who know more than I do. I have to go someone else if my car breaks down, though, because I don’t know what to do on my own.
That means that you have to rely on the knowledge of other people all the time in order to get things done. It makes sense that you would be most confident that a task can be accomplished if someone in society has knowledge and skills that would allow the task to be done. If the task is one that nobody has ever accomplished before, you should be less confident that it can be done.
On the one hand, it is important that you know the limits of your own expertise, so that you do not try to do things that you are not qualified to do. That is why the ratings in this experiment were generally quite low. People were pretty sure they did not understand much about these new phenomena.
That said, people still felt somewhat more confident about knowledge when they were aware that someone actually did understand the phenomenon. Essentially, knowing where to go or who to contact if you need information makes you more confident that you yourself understand it. That does make sense. You should feel more confident that a problem can be solved if you know where to go to get relevant information.
It can be a little disconcerting sometimes that you have to rely on so many other people for knowledge. However, a big part of what allows our technological society to advance is that we are willing to distribute our expertise across many people rather than requiring each person to know exactly how to accomplish every task. The most important thing is that we know where to go when we need someone’s expertise.
Sloman, S.A., & Rabb, N. (2016) Your understanding is my understanding. Psychological Science, 27(11), 1451-1460