Illusion of Explanatory Depth (IOED): Knowing What You Know And What You Don’t

There is a psychological phenomenon known as the Illusion of Explanatory Depth (IOED), identified and named by Yale psychologists Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil in 2002. Through a series of experiments that asked participants to rate their knowledge of how things like zippers, crossbows and refrigerators work; and then asked them to describe in detail how those things work, Rozenblit and Keil proved that people consistently overestimate how much they know about almost anything. Later, researchers conducted similar experiments using concepts like mental health, economic markets and scientific fields. Ultimately, most participants’ true knowledge failed to live up to their expectations.

It’s likely that you think you know more than you actually know — but why? And how can you change this pattern to excel in your career? Read on to learn more about IOED and ways to work around it.

2 Big Reasons We Develop The Illusion Of Explanatory Depth

Psychology is a relatively new field, and it is one that promises no definite answers to big questions about human behavior. The truth is that researchers don’t yet know for sure why humans develop the IOED — wouldn’t it be more evolutionarily advantageous for humans to know what they know? However, the human mind is exceedingly complex, affected by millions of biological and environmental factors, and it doesn’t help much that we use the human mind to study the human mind. 

Fortunately, there are a few theories as to why IOED hits so hard. Here are two of the most convincing:

Environmental Support

Often, in the real world, when you are tasked with understanding how something works, you are given the opportunity to see the components of the object or ruminate on its concept. Because you can take your refrigerator apart or consult on mental health, you are inclined to believe that you can explain how these things work, even if you don’t have it memorized. To put it bluntly, if you can see it, you don’t need it in your head. However, even when the item is not in front of you, you might still believe you can use it for support — right up until you try to explain without any visual cues.

Levels of Analysis Confusion 

A person doesn’t go straight from not understanding something to understanding it completely. Any skill or knowledge acquisition occurs over a period of time, during which different levels of understanding are reached. What’s more, there is rarely a clear-cut end state where everyone knows that true knowledge has been attained. 

For example, people might have a basic understanding of how a zipper works — the moving part pulls the teeth closed — but they might not have a detailed knowledge of the mechanics. It is thus difficult to know when one’s knowledge is sufficient to warrant knowing how something works. Simply put, the IOED might more accurately be a function of how the tests are administered rather than a glaring flaw in human self-belief.

 Why You Can Still Be Smart and Effective With IOED

The good news is that everyone is afflicted with IOED, so you don’t need to feel particularly disadvantaged in the workplace. The negative angle to this however, is that everyone is afflicted with IOED, which undoubtedly causes inefficiency as many workers assume they can perform jobs they know little to nothing about. Psychology degree programs focus on various implications of IOED, and how division of labor, especially cognitive labor, truly benefits businesses and societies as a whole. Specialization helps to reduce the amount of guesswork and checking that workers need to perform, which improves efficiency. 

Through honest introspection, you can gain a better sense of what you do and do not know. Instead of assuming you can do any project at work, you should think critically about your skills and knowledge — as well as your time and energy — to ensure you aren’t taking on too much. You should also try to identify those in your organization blinded by IOED and, through training, help those around you identify and accept their knowledge gaps. Then, not only will you improve your career standing, but you’ll help those around you, as well.