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The Illusion of Explanatory Depth

The Illusion of Explanatory Depth

With Dunning-Kruger, you know so little about the subject matter, you aren't even capable of understanding how little you know. Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil expanded upon that in 2002 with a paper titled, The misunderstood limits of folk science: an illusion of explanatory depth. Here's the opening sentence of that paper.

People feel they understand complex phenomena with far greater precision, coherence, and depth than they really do; they are subject to an illusion—an illusion of explanatory depth.

How good are you at evaluating your own abilities?

There is a huge divide between what people know and what people THINK they know. For example, what would you do if I asked you to draw a picture of a bike? Most people reading this would believe they could draw a rather accurate picture of a functioning bicycle. Nothing fancy, just a simple line drawing.

Try it yourself. Don't look up a picture on the internet or go outside to check one out. Do it right now, completely from memory. If you have to cheat, you've already failed.

The Italian-American designer Gianluca Gimini didn't think people could do it accurately. He knew people could identify a bike when shown a picture. But he didn't think they understood enough to draw something that would work.

Beginning in 2009, Gimini spent the next six years having hundreds of people attempt to draw a bicycle. There were a few that did a perfect job. Unfortunately, most failed. What they ended up with were things that resembled a bike, but were unable to turn, could not have been ridden uphill, were missing a chain, pedals or handlebars.

(Notice the bicycle shown on this page? It's missing a chain to make it work. And the seat is too far back to be effective.)

Even though every person who was asked to draw a bicycle had learned how to ride one, most hadn't spent time studying the mechanics of how bikes work. But that high level of exposure, made them confident they knew more than they did.

It's that belief we know more than we do, that makes us overly confident in our opinions. The more we interact with something, the better we think we understand it.


TEST YOURSELF: How much do you really know about these common items?

Here are a couple of examples you can test yourself with. You can choose a zipper, a lock or a toilet. Write down on a piece of paper a number from 1 to 7, how well you understand the function/operation of these objects. 1 is the lowest level of understanding, and 7 is the highest.

Next, write down how that item functions in step-by-step detail, with illustrations if you'd like. Describe how each part works together to produce the effect.

  • How does a zipper come together to hold a jacket closed?
  • How does a lock secure a door?
  • How does a toilet flush and refill?

After writing down the description, re-rate yourself from a 1 to a 7, how well you believe you understand the function/operation of these objects.

Now you have a diagnostic challenge. If you chose the zipper, explain why it would stop working. If you chose the lock, explain how to pick it. If you chose the toilet, you need to explain what happens when a toilet gets clogged. These explanations should provide details.

After the diagnostic challenge, re-rate yourself AGAIN from a 1 to a 7, how well you believe you understand the function/operation of these objects.

Finally, watch the video that explains exactly how the item you chose works. Then, rate your PRIOR knowledge of how the item you selected works. How well did you REALLY understand that item? For most people, their confidence in their understanding will continue to drop as they are asked for more details.

How Does a Zipper Work? | Design Squad


How does a Pin Tumbler Lock work?


HowStuffWorks Videos -Toilet

There is a similar drop when people are asked about hot-button social topics. Many people feel highly confident in their knowledge about something, even though most would be incapable of explaining the details or nuances of that topic.

The purpose of this exercise is to help you avoid that trap. Before you take a position on something, you should make sure you understand the topic being discussed. If you're only capable of repeating talking points, you need to learn more.


Here's four ways to evaluate
who is GIVING you information.

1. Test the Presenter

If you're dealing with someone that might be working with you, give them a competency challenge. One of my advisors gave me an example of when he worked for a computer company. People hired to install computer networks would be given a series of tasks they had to complete.

Someone competent could take the provided tools and easily connect all the devices. However, the pretenders wouldn’t know what to do or where to start. That showed the job interviewers who were and weren’t qualified. Sometimes it even revealed to the job seekers that they didn’t know as much as they thought.

2. Evaluate the Data Presenter

Since you can’t test everyone who’s sharing information with you, the next step is evaluating the data presenter. Is it a commentator on the evening news or a scientist engaged in research?

A scientist that’s spent a lifetime studying cancer would be a better source of information about cancer than someone giving their opinion in a viral video. Unless the person making the viral video WAS the scientist who spent a lifetime studying cancer.

3. Evaluate the Presenter's Expertise

Confirm the information you're getting is being shared by someone who has expertise in the field they’re talking about. A rocket scientist may know a lot about space travel, but they wouldn’t be a great source for farming and crop rotation strategies. It’s not enough to be an expert; they should be an expert in the field they’re talking about.

4. Evaluate the Original Data

If the people giving you information are NOT experts, are they giving you information from reliable sources? This website is an example. The team of writers and researchers that produce these articles aren’t experts in many of the areas they write about. However, they use information from professionals, clinical studies and trusted data sources to present things to you.

The writers and researchers on this site also provide links to their sources so that you can read them for yourself. The presenters of the information aren’t the experts, but they share expert and verifiable data.


The Illusion of Understanding: Phil Fernbach at TEDxGoldenGatePark


Reference Links:

The misunderstood limits of folk science:an illusion of explanatory depth

Leonid Rozenblit, Frank Keil
Cognitive Science, Cogn Sci. 2002 Sep 1; 26(5): 521–562. doi: 10.1207/s15516709cog2605_1 Department of Psychology, Yale University, 2 Hillhouse Avenue, P.O. Box 208205,New Haven, CT 06520-8205, USA

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3/23/2022
Updated 4/16/2022