A Little Knowledge is A Dangerous Thing

Recent research has brought out how much wisdom there is in Alexander Pope’s line, “a little learning is a dangerous thing.”

We at Mobus Creative Research have often drawn on the work of psychologists.  Here is another case. In their Harvard Business Review article “Research: Learning A Little About Something Makes Us Overconfident,” David Dunning and Carmen Sanchez explore how confident people are about their judgments.

What they found is that people who are totally ignorant about an issue know that they do not know.  They are cautious and careful about forming judgments.  That is encouraging news.  It suggests an opportunity for you as a negotiator when dealing with fresh faces: they may realize that they need the information you bring.

But then comes the bad news.  When people start to learn about an issue, they quickly think of themselves as experts.  They enter a “beginner’s bubble” of overconfidence.  As Dunning and Sanchez describe their experiment, “participants far too exuberantly formed quick, self-assured ideas.”  They note some of the many other studies which have found the same effect.  For instance, new pilots have few accidents, but then their accident rate rises until they gain a lot more experience.  So the paradox you may face as a negotiator is that when your interlocutors begin to learn more about the issues at hand, they may think they know it all when in fact their information is deeply flawed.

It seems that experience brings wisdom about what we do and do not know.  The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority gave 25,000 people a brief financial literacy test which also asked how knowledgable about personal finance people thought they were. As Dunning and Sanchez describe, “financial literacy arose slowly, incrementally, and uniformly across age groups.  Self-confidence, however, surged between late adolescence and young adulthood, then leveled off.”

A lesson for business negotiators is: be humble about what you know.  To paraphrase the next line from Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism,” if a few shallow draughts of experience intoxicate the brain, the only cure is to continue until we are sober again.