Illusions Of Understanding And The Loss Of Intellectual Humility

My spelling has deteriorated as automated spell checking has improved. With a smartphone at my fingertips, why bother doing multi-digit multiplication in my head? And I can't say whether GPS and navigation software have made my mental maps any more or less accurate.

These are just some of the skills that have been partially outsourced from many minds, thanks to recent technological advances. And it won't be long before important aspects of our social and intellectual lives follow suit. As interfaces improve and barriers between mind and machine break down, information of all kinds isn't simply at our fingertips, but seamlessly integrated with our actions in the world.

Forfeiting skills like spelling, navigation, and even certain kinds of social knowledge to our gadgets doesn't worry me much. What does worry me is the illusion of knowledge and understanding that can result from having information so readily and effortlessly available.

Research in the cognitive sciences suggests that people rely on a variety of cues in assessing their own understanding. Many of these cues involve the way in which information is accessed. For example, if you can easily ("fluently") call an image, word, or statement to mind, you're more likely to think that you've successfully learned it and to refrain from effortful cognitive processing.

Fluency is sometimes a reliable guide to understanding, but it's also easy to fool. Just presenting a problem in a font that's harder to read can decrease fluency and trigger more effortful processing, with the surprising consequence—for example—that people do better at logical deduction and tricky word problems when the problems are presented in a font that's harder to read. It seems to follow that smarter and more efficient information retrieval on the part of machines could foster dumber and less effective information processing on the part of human minds.

Consider another example: educational psychologist Marcia Linn and her collaborators have studied the "deceptive clarity" that can result from complex scientific visualizations of the kind that technology in the classroom and on-line education are making ever more readily available. Such clarity can be deceptive because the transparency and memorability of the visualization is mistaken for genuine understanding. It isn't just that when the visualization is gone the understanding goes with it, but that genuine understanding is never achieved in the first place.

People suffer from illusions of understanding even in the absence of fancy technology, but current trends towards faster, easier, and more seamless information retrieval threaten to exacerbate rather than correct any misplaced confidence in what we truly comprehend. These trends also threaten to undermine some natural mechanisms for self-correction. For example, people are often more accurate in assessing their own understanding after explaining something to someone else (or even to themselves) or after a delay. Removing social interaction and time from informational transactions could therefore have costs when it comes to people's ability to track their own understanding.

Are technological advances and illusions of understanding inevitably intertwined?

Fortunately not. If a change in font or a delay in access can attenuate fluency, then a host of other minor tweaks to the way information is accessed and presented can surely do the same. In educational contexts, deceptive clarity can partially be overcome by introducing what psychologist Robert Bjork calls "desirable difficulties," such as varying the conditions under which information is presented, delaying feedback, or engaging learners in generation and critique, which help disrupt a false sense of comprehension. And some of the social mechanisms that help calibrate understanding, such as explanation, can be facilitated by the marriage of information technologies and social media.

But avoiding illusions of understanding, and the intellectual hubris they portend, will require more than a change in technology: it will require a change in people's expectations and behaviors. We have to give up on the idea that fast and easy access to information is always better access to information.