S1E7: Professor Phil Fernbach – Shattering the Knowledge Illusion

Leeds Business Insights

May 4 2022 • 29 mins

We all know less than we think we do – and that’s OK.

Phil Fernbach is a Professor of Marketing at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is a cognitive scientist who studies how people think. He applies insights from his research to improve public disclosure and help consumers and managers make better decisions. With co-author Steve Sloman he wrote The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, which was chosen as an editor's pick by the New York Times when it was released in 2017.

We talked to Phil about the Knowledge Illusion, about how acknowledging what we don’t know can help us be better leaders and teammates.


What is the Knowledge Illusion?

[00:01:45] The knowledge illusion is a very profound fact about human beings. This was actually a phenomenon that was first studied in the cognitive science world, in the nineties, by a researcher by the name of Frank Keil. And in his studies, he brought people into the lab and he asked them about their understanding of sort of common household objects, like zippers and toilets, and ballpoint pens. The first thing he would do would be he'd ask people how well they understood those objects. … [Most people] sort of nod their heads and say, “Oh yeah, I kind of know how that works.” In the next phase of the study, what he would do is ask people to explain in detail exactly how the object works, and what he found was pretty amazing. He found that people, in general, know remarkably little about the way that the world works. They reach inside and try to explain these phenomena and they realize that they have almost nothing to say, maybe one or two sentences. And yet that feeling that they have at the beginning, that they understand these things in a lot more depth than they do. The disconnect between those two things is what's called in the cognitive science world the illusion of explanatory depth. It's people's belief that they can explain things in more depth than they can.

Why do we overestimate how much we know?

[00:07:25] The illusion comes from the fact that most of what we know, or think we know, is actually not in our own heads, but it's in the heads of other people or in the environment, or on the internet. Because it's so natural for us to rely on information that exists outside of our own heads, we often fail to realize what's in our heads. So if everybody around me is sort of nodding their head and saying, oh yeah, we understand this, we sort of get the feeling that we ourselves understand it as well.

On using The Knowledge Illusion to build strong teams

[00:10:25] All the problems we work on in business nowadays are complex. And I'm sure your listeners have the experience of running into people all the time, who feel like they know everything. And in fact, they might feel pressure to sort of pretend like they understand everything in detail. That's why people never ask obvious questions in a business setting because they think that they should understand everything in detail and know everything. A good group is going to have a leader who understands his or her own limitations and knows how to put together a team with complementary skills in a way that functions effectively.


Guest’s Profile:

Faculty Profile at Leeds School of Business

Philip Fernbach on LinkedIn

More About This Guest:

People Have Limited Knowledge. What’s the Remedy? Nobody Knows