Unknowing and the Anosognosia of Everyday Life

Excepts From Interviews with David Dunning and V.S. Ramachandran

venn.pptxMany have argued that human rationality grants us special access to the depths of psychological and metaphysical realities. Current advances in social psychology, neurology and cognitive science are beginning to demonstrate otherwise. For all its usefulness human cognition is full of bias, errors and wayward tendencies that limit as much as liberate us.

For example, in 1999 Cornell professor of social psychology David Dunning and his graduate student, Justin Kruger, published, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments.” In their paper Dunning and Kruger argued that when faced with complex tasks and decision-making incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence. This became known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. And in 2010 The New York Times’ Errol Morris interviewed David Dunning, as well as  celebrated neuroscience V.S. Ramachandran, about some of the implications of humans being systematically “blind” to their own capacities. Excerpts below:

DAVID DUNNING:  Well, my specialty is decision-making.  How well do people make the decisions they have to make in life?  And I became very interested in judgments about the self, simply because, well, people tend to say things, whether it be in everyday life or in the lab, that just couldn’t possibly be true.  And I became fascinated with that.  Not just that people said these positive things about themselves, but they really, really believed them.  Which led to my observation: if you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.


DAVID DUNNING:  If you knew it, you’d say, “Wait a minute.  The decision I just made does not make much sense.  I had better go and get some independent advice.”   But when you’re incompetent, the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.  In logical reasoning, in parenting, in management, problem solving, the skills you use to produce the right answer are exactly the same skills you use to evaluate the answer.  And so we went on to see if this could possibly be true in many other areas.  And to our astonishment, it was very, very true.

ERROL MORRIS: Many other areas?

DAVID DUNNING: If you look at our 1999 article, we measured skills where we had the right answers.  Grammar, logic.  And our test-subjects were all college students doing college student-type things.  Presumably, they also should know whether or not they’re getting the right answers.  And yet, we had these students who were doing badly in grammar, who didn’t know they were doing badly in grammar.  We believed that they should know they were doing badly, and when they didn’t, that really surprised us.

ERROL MORRIS:  The students that were unaware they were doing badly — in what sense?  Were they truly oblivious? Were they self-deceived?  Were they in denial?  How would you describe it?

DAVID DUNNING:  There have been many psychological studies that tell us what we see and what we hear is shaped by our preferences, our wishes, our fears, our desires and so forth.  We literally see the world the way we want to see it.  But the Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that there is a problem beyond that.  Even if you are just the most honest, impartial person that you could be, you would still have a problem — namely, when your knowledge or expertise is imperfect, you really don’t know it.  Left to your own devices, you just don’t know it.   We’re not very good at knowing what we don’t know.

ERROL MORRIS:  Knowing what you don’t know?  Is this supposedly the hallmark of an intelligent person?

DAVID DUNNING:  That’s absolutely right.  It’s knowing that there are things you don’t know that you don’t know. Donald Rumsfeld gave this speech about “unknown unknowns.”  It goes something like this: “There are things we know we know about terrorism.  There are things we know we don’t know.  And there are things that are unknown unknowns.  We don’t know that we don’t know.”  He got a lot of grief for that.  And I thought, “That’s the smartest and most modest thing I’ve heard in a year.”

The notion of unknown unknowns really does resonate with me, and perhaps the idea would resonate with other people if they knew that it originally came from the world of design and engineering rather than Rumsfeld.

If I were given carte blanche to write about any topic I could, it would be about how much our ignorance, in general, shapes our lives in ways we do not know about.  Put simply, people tend to do what they know and fail to do that which they have no conception of.  In that way, ignorance profoundly channels the course we take in life.  And unknown unknowns constitute a grand swath of everybody’s field of ignorance.

To me, unknown unknowns enter at two different levels. The first is at the level of risk and problem.  Many tasks in life contain uncertainties that are known — so-called “known unknowns.”  These are potential problems for any venture, but they at least are problems that people can be vigilant about, prepare for, take insurance on, and often head off at the pass.  Unknown unknown risks, on the other hand, are problems that people do not know they are vulnerable to.

Unknown unknowns also exist at the level of solutions.  People often come up with answers to problems that are o.k., but are not the best solutions.  The reason they don’t come up with those solutions is that they are simply not aware of them. Stefan Fatsis, in his book “Word Freak,” talks about this when comparing everyday Scrabble players to professional ones.  As he says: “In a way, the living-room player is lucky . . . He has no idea how miserably he fails with almost every turn, how many possible words or optimal plays slip by unnoticed.  The idea of Scrabble greatness doesn’t exist for him.” (p. 128)

Unknown unknown solutions haunt the mediocre without their knowledge. The average detective does not realize the clues he or she neglects.  The mediocre doctor is not aware of the diagnostic possibilities or treatments never considered.  The run-of-the-mill lawyer fails to recognize the winning legal argument that is out there.  People fail to reach their potential as professionals, lovers, parents and people simply because they are not aware of the possible.  This is one of the reasons I often urge my student advisees to find out who the smart professors are, and to get themselves in front of those professors so they can see what smart looks like.

People will often make the case, “We can’t be that stupid, or we would have been evolutionarily wiped out as a species a long time ago.”  I don’t agree. I find myself saying, “Well, no.  Gee, all you need to do is be far enough along to be able to get three square meals or to solve the calorie problem long enough so that you can reproduce.  And then, that’s it.  You don’t need a lot of smarts.  You don’t have to do tensor calculus.  You don’t have to do quantum physics to be able to survive to the point where you can reproduce.”  One could argue that evolution suggests we’re not idiots, but I would say, “Well, no. Evolution just makes sure we’re not blithering idiots. But, we could be idiots in a lot of different ways and still make it through the day.”

ERROL MORRIS:  Years ago, I made a short film (“I Dismember Mama”) about cryonics, the freezing of people for future resuscitation.


ERROL MORRIS:  And I have an interview with the president of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a cryonics organization, on the 6 o’clock news in Riverside, California.  One of the executives of the company had frozen his mother’s head for future resuscitation.  (It’s called a “neuro,” as opposed to a “full-body” freezing.)  The prosecutor claimed that they may not have waited for her to die.  In answer to a reporter’s question, the president of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation said, “You know, we’re not stupid . . . ” And then corrected himself almost immediately, “We’re not that stupid that we would do something like that.”

DAVID DUNNING:  That’s pretty good.

ERROL MORRIS:  “Yes.  We’re stupid, but we’re not that stupid.”

DAVID DUNNING:  And in some sense we apply that to the human race.  There’s some comfort in that.  We may be stupid, but we’re not that stupid.

ERROL MORRIS:  Something I have wondered about: Is there a socio-biological account of what forces in evolution selected for stupidity and why.

DAVID DUNNING:  Well, there’s no way we could be evolutionarily prepared for doing physics and doing our taxes at the end of the year.  These are rather new in our evolutionary history.  But solving social problems, getting along with other people, is something intrinsic to our survival as a species.  You’d think we would know where our inabilities lie. But if we believe our data, we’re not necessarily very good at knowing what we’re lousy at with other people.

ERROL MORRIS:  Yes.  Maybe it’s an effective strategy for dealing with life.  Not dealing with it.

DAVID DUNNING:  An anosognosic patient who is paralyzed simply does not know that he is paralyzed.  If you put a pencil in front of them and ask them to pick up the pencil in front of their left hand they won’t do it.  And you ask them why, and they’ll say, “Well, I’m tired,” or “I don’t need a pencil.”  They literally aren’t alerted to their own paralysis.  There is some monitoring system on the right side of the brain that has been damaged, as well as the damage that’s related to the paralysis on the left side.  There is also something similar called “hemispatial neglect.”  It has to do with a kind of brain damage where people literally cannot see or they can’t pay attention to one side of their environment.  If they’re men, they literally only shave one half of their face.  And they’re not aware about the other half.  If you put food in front of them, they’ll eat half of what’s on the plate and then complain that there’s too little food.  You could think of the Dunning-Kruger Effect as a psychological version of this physiological problem. If you have, for lack of a better term, damage to your expertise or imperfection in your knowledge or skill, you’re left literally not knowing that you have that damage.  It was an analogy for us.

Here’s a thought.  The road to self-insight really runs through other people. So it really depends on what sort of feedback you are getting.  Is the world telling you good things? Is the world rewarding you in a way that you would expect a competent person to be rewarded?  If you watch other people, you often find there are different ways to do things; there are better ways to do things.  I’m not as good as I thought I was, but I have something to work on.  Now, the sad part about that is — there’s been a replication of this with medical students — people at the bottom, if you show them what other people do, they don’t get it.  They don’t realize that what those other people are doing is superior to what they’re doing.  And that’s the troubling thing. So for people at the bottom, that social comparison information is a wonderful piece of information, but they may not be in a position to take advantage of it like other people.

ERROL MORRIS:  But wait a second.  You’re supposed to benefit from feedback.  But the people that you’ve picked are dunderheads.  And you lack the ability to discriminate between dunderheads and non-dunderheads, between good advice and bad advice, between that which makes sense and that which makes no sense.  So the community does you no damn good!

DAVID DUNNING: You know, I think that is an issue.  Those among us who are in the 40th percentile, they’re not the best, but they’re not doing too badly.  But people at the bottom, you’re going to have to be open-minded and you’re going to have some special hurdles, internal hurdles you have to get over.  If people give you conflicting advice, congratulations, you don’t know how to choose.  Yes, it is a tricky part of the problem.

ERROL MORRIS:  And aren’t there some tasks where we’re all incompetent, where humanity itself is in the bottom quartile, so to speak?

DAVID DUNNING:  Well, that has to be true for some tasks, right?  There are just some tasks that are incredibly hard. How many centuries have gone by, and we still don’t have world peace?  Yes, there are things that we’re just bad at.


ERROL MORRIS: As I understand it, from the earliest descriptions of anosognosia, there were two things that people had fixed in their heads: one was, of course, the organic illness, the hemiplegia, the other was the lack of awareness.

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: Hemiplegia itself is not a part of anosognosia, as you know, but the lack of awareness — the whole spectrum ranging from active denial to just indifference or just playing it down, all of those are called “anosognosia.”  I’ve written about that quite extensively in my book “Phantoms in the Brain.”

ERROL MORRIS: In that book, you suggest that anosognosia is not an underlying neurological condition; it’s about our lack of knowledge of something caused by an underlying neurological condition.  About our not-knowing things that we should know — not knowing that we are not making any sense, not knowing that we are paralyzed, not knowing we are missing limbs.

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: Well, you can have anosognosia for Wernicke’s aphasia [a neurological disorder that prevents comprehension or production of speech] or you can have it for amnesia. Patients that are amnesic don’t know they are amnesic.  So, it has a much wider, broader usage.   Although it was originally discovered in the context of hemiplegia by Babinski and is most frequently used in that context, the word has a broader meaning.  Wernicke’s aphasiacs are completely lacking in language comprehension and seem oblivious to it because [although] they smile, or they nod to whatever you say, they don’t understand a word of what you’re saying.  They have anosognosia for their lack of comprehension of language.  It’s really spooky to see them.  Here’s somebody producing gibberish, and they don’t know they’re producing gibberish.

ERROL MORRIS: But Babinski only used it in the context of hemiplegia.

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: That is correct.

ERROL MORRIS: So when did that change?

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: Offhand, I can’t tell you when they started using the term “anosognosia” for other types of denial.  I’ll tell you one thing that may be of interest to you. I saw a lady, not long ago, in India, and she had complete paralysis on her left side, a very intelligent woman, but had both anosognosia and somatoparaphrenia — you know what that is, right? 

ERROL MORRIS: Not really.

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: Denial that a body part, in this instance, an arm, belongs to her.  It’s part of the same spectrum of disorders.  So the wonderful thing about her is that she has a great sense of humor and was really articulate and intelligent.  So I asked her, “Can you move your right arm?” and the usual list of questions, and she said “Yes, of course.”  I said, “Can you move your left arm?”  She said, “Yes.”  “Can you touch my nose?”  “Yes, I can touch your nose, sir.”  “Can you see it?” “Yes, it’s almost there.”  The usual thing, O.K.?  So far, nothing new.  Her left arm is lying limp in her lap; it’s not moving at all; it’s on her lap, on her left side, O.K.?   I left the room, waited for a few minutes, then I went back to the room and said, “Can you use your right arm?”  She said, “Yes.”  Then I grabbed her left arm and raised it towards her nose and I said, “Whose arm is this?”  She said, “That’s my mother’s arm.”  Again, typical, right?  And I said, “Well, if that’s your mother’s arm, where’s your mother?”  And she looks around, completely perplexed, and she said, “Well, she’s hiding under the table.”  So this sort of confabulatory thing is very common, but it’s just a very striking manifestation of it.  No normal person would dream of making up a story like that.  But here is the best part.  I said, “Please touch your nose with your left hand.”  She immediately takes her right hand, goes and reaches for the left hand, raising it, passively raising it, right?  Using it as a tool to touch my nose or touch her nose.  What does this imply?  She claims her left arm is not paralyzed, right?  Why does she spontaneously reach for it and grab her left arm with her right hand and take her left hand to her nose?  That means she knows it is paralyzed at some level.  Is that clear?

ERROL MORRIS: Yes.  Presumably, if she didn’t know it was paralyzed, she wouldn’t try to lift it with her right hand.

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: And it gets even better, she’s just now told me that it’s not her left arm, it is her mother’s arm, so why is she pulling up her mother’s arm and pointing it at my nose?  What we call belief is not a monolithic thing; it has many layers.

ERROL MORRIS: Like a deck of cards.  But it again raises the question of whether this phenomenon is real?  Isn’t that Babinski’s question?  This is true of your work on anosognosia — the idea of trying to devise a set of experiments to determine whether someone is pretending to not-know something.  Are they feigning a lack of awareness?  Are they truly oblivious?  Or is that knowledge buried somewhere in the brain?  Do we live in a cloud of belief that is separate from the reality of our circumstances?

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: Absolutely, and overall, fortunately, it’s a positive cloud in most of us. If we knew about the real facts and statistics of mortality, we’d be terrified.


V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: It may well be our brains are wired up to be slightly more optimistic than they should be.


2 responses to “Unknowing and the Anosognosia of Everyday Life

  1. “if you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.”

    By implication, if you’re competent, you are also better at knowing the limits of your competence, of knowing what you don’t know. I.e., in attaining competence, some of what had for you been unknown-unknowns shift into the known-unknown quadrant.

    “the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”

    So if you have acquired the competence to know what you don’t know, then you have attained competence for recognizing when a specific unknown-known can be transformed into a known-known, or at least into a probably-known. This pretty well characterizes the incremental rational-empirical orientation to the acquisition of knowledge and skill, doesn’t it — continually effect the systematic progression from unknown-unknown to known-unknown to known-known. Competence also shifts some of the known-knowns into the unknown-known category: things that you once learned and practiced through conscious attention become compiled through repetition into unconscious tacit knowledge and good habits of praxis.

    “Something I have wondered about: Is there a socio-biological account of what forces in evolution selected for stupidity and why.”

    I suspect that ignorant self-assurance does have practical value. If you don’t know what you don’t know, then you are free to make decisions without second-guessing yourself. And it’s almost surely the case that, in getting the rest of the ignoramuses to go along with your decision, self-confidence is often more persuasive than knowledge. That’s especially true when you’re aware that your knowledge is imperfect, probabilistic, and subject to revision.

  2. The basic makeup of all of us is our limited knowledge. The vast amount of human knowledge is more than we can ever know which makes us all incompetent. Put in a dash of incorrect knowledge and you see the point here. No one comes without their share of clueless beliefs. But it needs to be noted that in many circumstances another person doesn’t show you that they don’t understand why they are at the bottom of said list of med students. They may pretend to not see and in the back of their head know that they can still get the degree even if they graduate at the bottom. It’s a fact that not everyone cares to be first if the effort requires more time than they feel like putting in. I mean realistically the goal is to get the Medical license and Degree. I didn’t like the medical student comparison to incompetence as you can tell, but the whole unknowable unknowns is indisputable.

    In the realm of knowledge we should know ourselves inside and out as our foundation.

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