People feel they understand things better than they actually do. This leads to biases and poor decision-making because of overconfidence in their knowledge.
A simple way to combat the illusion of explanatory depth is to ask yourself to explain something you just encountered. As you start to analyze it in more detail you can see your ability to explain phenomena diminish. On the contrary, explaining in layers makes the illusion worse when you successfully explain the higher level layer of abstraction and then proceed to lower levels (e.g. explaining how a computer works by starting with the layer of how the peripherals fit together like a keyboard, mouse, and display).
According to this study, the illusion of explanatory depth might be a coping mechanism for reducing cognitive load. It might be beneficial for example to have a sparse representation of causal relations that are good enough for everyday purposes.
- Abstractions are real—our brains don’t seem to operate as reductionists or we would get crushed by the cognitive load
- Another reminder that how to detect and eliminate errors is the most important knowledge and the easiest person to fool is yourself
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One of the keys to building great products is to regularly make contact with reality. Ideas rarely survive first contact with users—what we think is good might be completely useless to an actual potential customer. Regular contact with reality insulates you from the illusion of explanatory depth.