Illusion of Explanatory Depth

Zac Mayo introduced me to the concept of the “illusion of explanatory depth” (IOED):

Most people feel they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence, and depth than they really do.

For example, how well do you feel you understand how a refrigerator works? Try explaining it to a friend or on paper and then consider the question again.

The phrase IOED was coined in a 2002 paper by Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil of the psychology department at Yale University. Zac found the idea online at Edge.org.

John Brockman, who runs Edge.org, published a book this year: This Idea Is Brilliant: Lost, Overlooked, and Underappreciated Scientific Concepts Everyone Should Know. He posed a simple question to 206 influential thinkers around the world. Their answers constitute the book, and are also available at Edge.org. The question was:

What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?

The “illusion of explanatory depth” was the answer given by Prof. Adam Waytz of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Prof. Waytz notes that:

At present, the IOED is profoundly pervasive given that we have infinite access to information, but consume information in a largely superficial fashion.

Things are often more complicated than we acknowledge.

Having to explain a phenomenon forces us to confront [its] complexity and realize our ignorance.

Prof. Waytz goes on to say:

Understanding the IOED allows us to combat political extremism.

That would be helpful in today’s world! Perhaps when you encounter someone who fervently believes something that you are skeptical about, simply asking gentle questions to explore the depth of their understanding can head off a heated political argument. And each of us, when we hold strong political opinions, should examine how deep is our understanding of how the world works.

The quotes from Prof. Waytz are from “The Illusion of Explanatory Depth” at Edge.org.

Two months ago I endorsed Zac Mayo for the Vermont House of Representatives. I wrote: “In visiting recently with Zac, I was pleased to find that he is intellectually curious, a seeker of multiple viewpoints, a good listener, and an independent thinker.” That was before I learned about Edge.org, John Brockman, This Idea Is Brilliant, and the IOED from Zac’s Facebook post on September 13. My endorsement is even stronger now.

You go, Zac!

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