Ep 72: Know-It-All Teens

Episode Summary

Dr. Steven Sloman, co-author of The Knowledge Illusion and professor at Brown University, joins Andy for a conversation on knowledge, making deliberate decisions, and how to talk to your teen about the gaps in their knowledge around things like vaping.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

“Mom! Dad! Shut up! You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Have you ever heard these words fly out of the mouth of your teenager?

If there were a remote control for a parent’s behavior, these words would probably be the equivalent of the “Volume Up” button.

Why do these words sting so much? Well, press the “Pause” button and consider this:

Your teenagers might be right. You might not know what you’re talking about. What’s frustrating, though, is that your teens probably don’t know what they’re talking about either!

But what even were you “talking” about? Let’s take the hot-button topic for example: teens and vaping.

Is vaping bad for teens? Your gut instinct might be to say, “Yes! Of course it is!” But can you explain why? Can you describe how their lungs are absorbing this vapor and how their brains are reacting to the chemicals? 

If you tell your teen that vaping is bad, but can’t explain why, then you might just be told:

“You don’t know what you’re talking about! Shut up!”

Knowledge on a topic like teens and vaping might seem peripheral. If you are concerned about your teens and vaping, you won’t change their behavior by claiming knowledge you don’t have. 

So what can you do? You can’t be expected to know everything about every subject of controversy! To get some ideas, I spoke with knowledge expert, Dr. Steven Sloman.

Dr. Sloman is a leading researcher on the human mind, a professor at Brown University, and co-author of The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. He’s an expert on how humans think, and he has one or two ideas on how to work with teens who think they know everything. His book isn’t specifically about teens, but it touches on prevalent issues during the teen years. I was eager to ask Dr. Sloman about human thinking during the teenage years, and how parents might apply his wisdom to issues like teens and vaping.

The Illusion of Explanatory Depth

Parents of teens might be very familiar with the Illusion of Explanatory Depth, even if they’ve never heard of it before. It is the illusion that people understand something when in fact they don’t.

Dr. Sloman cites a Yale study in which people were asked to rate their knowledge of everyday objects. The subjects were presented zippers, toilets, and pens, and asked how well they thought they understood how each one worked. The data shows all the subjects felt pretty confident in their understanding of such everyday objects. But this illusion was burst when the researchers asked the subjects to explain how those objects worked in as much detail as possible!

As it turned out, the subjects didn’t really have much to say. When the researchers asked the subjects to rate themselves a second time on how well they knew those objects, they lowered their rating. This demonstrates the Illusion of Explanatory Depth, that people think they know more than they really do.

So this isn’t really a teen problem, or even a problem linked to teens and vaping. It’s a people problem. Still, the Illusion of Explanatory Depth seems to show up a lot during the teenage years. Your teen might yell, “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” but the Illusion of Explanatory Depth suggests your teen doesn’t know what they’re talking about, either. In fact, they’re more unaware than you of how much they’re living in an illusion. How might we go about addressing issues of teens and vaping?

Why Would Anyone Live in an Illusion?

In order to address the illusion of knowledge in teens, Dr. Sloman first asks:

“Why would anybody live in this illusion of understanding?”

He proposes that we live this way because we fail to distinguish what we know from what other people know. You think you understand how the toilet works because there’s a plumber who understands how the toilet works. You have access to the plumber’s knowledge, but the knowledge is sitting in the plumber’s head, not in yours.

Dr. Sloman explains that the reason we have this illusion is because, in a sense, we do understand! It’s not every individual that understands, but the collective communities that understand. And communities can succeed when everyone has specialized knowledge to share.

Who Do You Trust?

Every day we are taking advantage of other peoples’ knowledge. As long as we can use our toilet, we don’t need to know how the toilet works. Our lack of understanding doesn’t matter until the toilet brakes. Then we realize how dependent we are on the plumber.

This subconscious dependency on other people creates an interesting scenario for teenagers. Teens are caught in a high stakes decision where they have to choose which community they’re going to go along with and rely on for knowledge. They’re wondering what they should believe, how they should behave, and who they should hang around with. Dr. Sloman points out that all these identity questions will shape how teens experience the illusion of knowledge.

Since teens have so much curiosity, what they choose to believe quickly becomes a question of: Who do I trust? Whose ideas am I going to accept?

Exposing the Illusion

Dr. Sloman explains that we make decisions by virtue of the fact that people around us are also making decisions. For example, the best predictor of whether or not someone will give up vaping is whether or not their spouse has given up vaping.

When discussing teens and vaping, Dr. Sloman points out that oftentimes kids pick up the habit from their peers. So simply exposing your teen’s illusion of knowledge won’t be enough to convince them to stop. In a way, it’s most effective to convince the whole group on the issues of teens and vaping, so it’s best to operate at the social level.

On an issue like teens and vaping it’s even harder to convince a teen to quit because the research on vaping is somewhat inconclusive. You can ask teens to explain how vaping works, like in the study at Yale, but you might get a mixed bag of results.

If you sit down with kids who vape and ask them how it works, you might easily expose their lack of understanding. They might say,

“Well, you fill it up here, you press the button here, and it tastes like bubblegum.”

You can press them for further explanation on all three of those steps. Even if they seem super confident in their knowledge, a barrage of follow-up questions will quickly expose how little they know about the device and what’s in it. You can get them to doubt how much they know about vaping, and this is good! By breaking attachments they have to their preexisting understanding of teens and vaping, discussing the topic feels less polarized, extreme, or emotional. 

There is a word of caution, though.

Show Curiosity

Dr. Sloman says that when you puncture someone’s illusion of understanding, they usually shut out new, potentially conflicting information so their beliefs can remain unchallenged.

It’s possible that if your child’s preexisting attitude towards teens and vaping is strong, then they might want to learn more. However, you won’t be able to control where they get their new information from. They could be seeking to confirm their preexisting biases.

There is a fine line to walk when exposing the Illusion of Explanatory Depth, especially when it comes to teens and vaping. You want them to learn more about vaping so they can understand the risks, but you don’t want them to feel like you’re attacking them. Attacking their lack of understanding might make them defensive.

Instead, you can start a conversation from a place of genuine curiosity. If you want to talk about teens and vaping with your child, you can start by expressing curiosity on the subject matter. Part of expressing curiosity is demonstrating that you aren’t mad about vaping. It’s also about expressing your own lack of understanding on the subject. Dr. Sloman recommends that parents enter the conversation as if their teen is the expert, and ask good follow up questions.

As Dr. Sloman puts it, you’ve got to hide the fact that you’re trying to expose their lack of understanding, and show curiosity instead.

When you expose the Illusion of Explanatory Depth in your teen through curiosity, you can impart the value of curiosity on your teen. If vaping is important to your teen, they might pursue answers to the questions you ask on their own accord. Their research can help them better understand the risks. They might then bring their findings to their group! This new information can give your teen and their friends a chance to reevaluate vaping, all because you showed some genuine curiosity.

So Much More

Dr. Sloman knows a lot about thinking! There were so many different sections from his book to touch on. Along with teens and vaping, we reviewed many topics in this interview, such as:

  • What is “Thinking” even for?
  • Intuition vs Deliberation
  • Political Disagreements and Teenagers
  • Transactive Memory in Groups
  • Encountering & Appreciating Better Experts Than You
  • Persuasion Via Self-Persuasion
  • Dynamics of Social Approval and Social Information Gathering

Dr. Sloman is brilliant and I had such a great time picking his brain on these subjects. I’m so glad he entertained my questions on teens and vaping. Definitely give this episode a listen!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Break your teen’s “knowledge illusion” around vaping by getting curious about it:

“Hey I wanted to talk about vaping–I’m not mad about it, I just know it’s something kids are doing and I guess I don’t really understand that much about it and I wonder if you could tell me about it. How does it work? How do you do it and what’s even in there?” “And then what happens next? How does it get into the lungs? How does it make you feel? and what receptors in the brain is it activating?”

-Andy Earle

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1. Break Your Teen’s Know-It-All Attitude with Curiosity:

The evidence and methods used in Dr. Steven Sloman’s research, suggests that people reassess their proclaimed ‘expertise’ on a thing when they have to explain how such a thing actually works and operates. For example, someone may claim to be an expert on bicycles, but have them draw you one and they might reassess just how far their knowledge extends. You can use this same principle on a know-it-all teen by getting curious. What is something your teen has been acting overconfident in? Perhaps they are overly sure that vaping is safe, or they are cocky in their driving abilities, or maybe they think they know all there is to know about ice cream. Choose a thing your teen is a know-it-all about and write down five questions that would help you understand how the thing works. (What are the traditional ingredients in ice cream? What is in most ice creams on the shelves in grocery stores? How long does it takes from milking the cow to getting it into the store? Are there special types of cows milk that are better for ice cream? What other milks can people make ice cream with? How does an ice cream maker work?)  The key is to remain as genuinely curious as you can. Demanding to know will only make your teen defense and feel this is a personal attack!

2. Make Your Teen a Local Expert:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: The first thing, right in the introduction here, that I thought was really interesting, that is a kind of a theme of the book is, what is thinking even for? Why do we even think? What’s the point of it?

Steven: Well, what we proposed in the book is that thinking is an extension of action. People, like all organisms, are designed to act. That’s how we evolved in order to act successfully in the world. The main function of thought, we think, is to make that action more effective. If you consider what it is we think about, we think about how the world works. What’s going to happen in the future, what happened in the past and why it happened, who our relationships are and how we can get things done.

Steven: All of that ties into the question, how can we act in such a way as to make our situation better? Okay. Thinking is in order to help us act more effectively in the world. Well, what kind of thinking is going to be best for that? You know, sometimes mathematical thinking will be helpful. Like it’s often useful to count how many pieces of fruit we have so that we can distribute them fairly. The truth is that mostly what we need to know in order to act effectively is how the world works.

Steven: If we’re going to build a canoe, then we have to understand patterns of water. We have to understand what floats and what doesn’t float. We have to understand how the human body is going to be able to sit comfortably in order to be able to propel the canoe forward. In the end, the most useful thing for us is to understand causes and effects. How our actions in particular are going to produce the effects that we want them to produce.

Andy: The second big idea of the book is that we tend to think we know more than we really do. This idea of the illusion of explanatory depth. Can you explain what is the illusion of explanatory depth and how does this test work?

Steven: Sure. What Leonid Rozenblit and his advisor at Yale, Frank Keil, did was they took a bunch of everyday objects like zippers, ballpoint pens, and toilets. They said to people, “How well do you understand how these things work? Rate on a one to seven scale, your understanding of how these things work.” People gave a number and they indicated that they felt they had a pretty good understanding of how these things work.

Steven: Then Rozenblit and Keil said to them, “Okay. Now, explain in as much detail as you can, how they work. Give as full and complete an account as possible of the functioning of these everyday objects.” What happened is they basically stumped people. People went, “Uh, well, uh.” They really didn’t have much to say. Then when Rozenblit and Keil again said to them, “How well do you understand how these things work?” People lowered their ratings.

Steven: In other words, people themselves admitted that they had lived in an illusion of understanding. That they had thought they had understood how these things work better than in fact they do. People live in this illusion that they understand when in fact they don’t.

Andy: This I think is fascinating because it’s something that parents of teenagers talk about a lot. They just think they know everything, but they really have so much to learn. How can I just help them see that they’re not really all so smart as they think they are, and they maybe need to be a little more humble and not jump into risky situations with so much confidence? To me, this is a really interesting idea and you guys keep hitting on it throughout the book. You go into a lot of depth and have some really cool solutions or ideas on how to combat it in the end.

Andy: I love this cognitive reflection test that you talk about on page 81 and 82. You have these questions that come from a book of riddles originally, but one of them is a bat and a ball cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? Most people say 10 cents, which is not the right answer. In a lake, there’s a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half the lake? The first answer that comes to mind is 24, which is incorrect.

Andy: Then this last one was, if it takes five machines, five minutes to make five widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets? No, it’s not 100. Yet, that’s the answer that we just really want to say. I love this test, but what is it? Why is this important? What does this test teach us about the way people think?

Steven: I love the test too. It was developed by a guy named Shane Fredericks. I think the basic thing it illustrates best is that there are two different kinds of thinking. There’s the kind of thinking that generates intuitions. Consider the first question about a ball costs $1.10, the bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? Almost everybody has 10 cents come to mind.

Andy: Right.

Steven: We don’t know why it comes to mind or how it comes to mind. In fact, despite a bunch of studies, we still don’t really understand why 10 cents comes to mind, but it does. It’s an intuitive response. We can try to verify it. That is we could do a little arithmetic and figure out whether it’s the right answer. If we do that arithmetic, we discover, well, if the ball costs 10 cents and the bat costs a dollar more than the bat costs $1.10 and together, they cost $1.20. That’s the wrong answer because together they’re supposed to cost $1.10.

Andy: Right.

Steven: It’s not that it’s hard to figure out the right answer. It just requires a little bit of deliberation. I think what this test shows is that first there’s a distinction between intuition, answers that just pop to mind, and deliberation. That deliberative process is a different kind of cognitive process. What’s really interesting about the test is that some people pass it with flying colors, but most people don’t. What does it take to pass it with flying colors? Well, you have to be able to suppress that original response.

Steven: You have to say, “Oh, I’m not going to respond 10 cents. First I’m going to check to see if I’m right.” If you suppress that response, you can figure out that you’re wrong and compute the right response. Most people just don’t. Most people just blurt out what comes to mind. In fact, it seems to me that’s exactly how we think about many teenagers, right?

Andy: Yeah. That’s why I bring it up. They just do the first thing that comes to their head. “Oh, that sounds fun. Let’s do it.” Without taking that moment to just assess that, “Hey, well, I have this impulse that maybe it would be fun to do this crazy thing, but let me just think that through for a second and see if it really adds up. Oh no, actually wait a minute. On second thought, it doesn’t. Maybe I shouldn’t do that.” It occurs to me that that’s what all parents would hope that their teenager would do.

Andy: It’s fascinating to me that this isn’t just a teenage problem. This is a people problem. This is a human brain kind of problem, but it does seem like it’s really apparent during the teenage years. I guess I just was wondering if there’s anything that helps that, or that would help your teenager to get better at taking that extra second and just thinking about it before they blurted out or say, “Yeah. Let’s do it.”

Steven: Yeah. Well, that’s a great question and a critical question. Before I get to that, let me just say a couple of things. You know, when I was thinking about what I was going to say on your show, because what do I know about teenagers? I mean, I did raise two of them, so that’s pretty much the extent of my knowledge. I was thinking about what I would say on your show and what I thought was, well, teenagers are people too.

Steven: What I can say is that all of these complaints we have about teenagers and the concerns we have and the difficulties we have in communication, are complaints and concerns and difficulties that we have with everybody. In a sense, that there’s nothing really special about teenagers, as far as I can tell. Except that perhaps they’ve developed fewer strategies for dealing with the kinds of conflicts and challenges that everybody deals with.

Steven: In order to provide an answer to your question, I’d like to raise the second big idea of the book, which is an attempt to explain why it is that people live in this illusion of understanding. What we propose is that we live in this illusion of understanding because we fail to distinguish what we know from what others know. I think I understand how a toilet works because there’s a plumber who understands how the toilet works and I have access to the plumber’s knowledge.

Steven: The knowledge is actually sitting in the plumber’s head, not in mine, but I can use that knowledge. In general, we’ve developed in tribes and societies and communities in which we’re not limited to our own personal knowledge. We have access to all kinds of knowledge in the heads of the people around us. The reason we have this illusion that we understand how things work is because there’s a sense in which we actually do understand. It’s just not our personal individual selves that understand. It’s our communities that understand.

Andy: Yeah. We understand.

Steven: Exactly. Yet, we succeed as a community and we’re constantly, like every moment of the day, we’re taking advantage of that. We’re taking advantage of knowledge that sits in other people’s heads. We do it. What’s interesting is that we do it without complete awareness that we are depending on other people. That’s the illusion of understanding. We think it’s in our heads. Why? Well, because for the most part, it doesn’t really matter. As long as I can use the technology, it just doesn’t matter that I don’t understand it. It doesn’t matter until something breaks.

Andy: Right.

Steven: When you think about that from a teenager’s perspective. Here they are wondering what they should believe, how they should behave in the world, who they should identify with. I actually think those are very much the same questions. What they believe really turns out to be the same question as, who should they identify with? Because since we know so little and we depend on our communities for knowledge, then what we believe becomes a matter of who we trust.

Steven: It becomes a matter of who’s around us and whose ideas we’re going to accept. Teenagers are like people caught in the middle of political conflict who have no choice but to decide what side they’re going to fall on. If everybody around them, if all the adults around them and all the other kids around them all believe the same thing, then everything’s golden. There’s no problem. There’s no decision to make. What if the adults around you disagree? What if some of them are conservatives and others are liberals?

Steven: Then your friends, well, they may think something else entirely. Now, you have to decide which community you’re going to go with. There are huge consequences to this choice. It not only determines what you believe and how you’re going to act, it also determines who’s going to like you and who’s going to hate you.

Andy: I love this study that you talk about where you have these people come into the lab and you tell them a list of a bunch of things to remember. It’s like couples. Then you quiz them on the things and you find that usually there’s one member of the couple that will remember all the more technology things and another one will remember all the things that are furniture. There’s one that’ll be really good at that, or if it’s related to wines, then this person will remember it.

Andy: You give them all the exact same list of things but you find that they kind of specialize a little bit and without even talking to each other and saying, “Oh, you remember that one. I’ll remember this one.” They just naturally remember the things that they’re good at, or that they see as their area. They just don’t remember the things that they feel like the other person is going to be better at. I feel like that just happens in any group.

Andy: I think as a teenager, it’s like, you just … I don’t even need to try to figure out some of this stuff because there’s someone else in my group who’s got that or who knows that. Makes choices for us in this area or in that area in how to be cool or in how to get girls. Because there’s someone who’s better at that than me I’ll just let him tell me what to do when it comes to this or that. When it comes to working out or when it comes to whatever.

Andy: How do you help your kids start to see that and be more conscious about what things they want to get good at and when they want to just defer to other people?

Steven: Yeah. That’s an interesting and tough question. Let me just provide one little corrective. The study that you’re talking about was actually done by people in Dan Wegner’s lab. It’s not a study we did. They refer to it as transactive memory. Basically, the idea is that memory gets distributed over a group. That if you’re a wine expert and people are talking about wine, then you’ll remember what they said. If you’re not a wine expert, if you’re instead the football expert and people are talking about wine, then you won’t even hear it, if the wine expert is in your group.

Steven: If the wine expert is hearing it, then you’ll just automatically give them responsibility for remembering that information. The general idea is that there’s what sometimes is called the distribution of cognitive labor, that happens automatically. That we each fill our roles. I’m the expert on football and someone else is the expert on soccer and someone else. We just automatically assign certain memory tasks and problem-solving tasks to the person that is the expert in that domain.

Steven: To try to apply this to your question, how should we talk to teenagers about this? I think what we have to do is acknowledge that there’s a tension. Because on one hand we can’t all be responsible for everything. The teenager can’t be responsible for everything. You know, if the teenager is bad at math or not interested in math, then they’re bad at math, not interested in math. You know, we can’t all be all things to all people.

Andy: Right. Right.

Steven: Hopefully, they have some specialty. They have something that they bring to the table that they are the local expert on. You know, my understanding of the data is that if you give a kid a sense of expertise so that they’re the one that gets appealed to on a particular subject. They don’t have to be appealed to on all subjects. They just have to be a local expert. If they have that sense, then that’s going to increase their self-esteem. It’s going to make them feel like they’re contributing to the group. They’re actually going to be better at learning everything else as well.

Andy: That is so interesting.

Steven: There’s this tension, because on one hand … Especially in today’s society. It’s one thing, if you grow up in a tribe and you never leave that tribe. There’s a certain social role you fill. Like you’re the expert canoe builder, and that’s all you ever have to be. The thing is that all that’s changed. Sometimes the person who does the hunting dies or gets sick and someone else has to fill that role. In today’s society, we don’t live in a fixed tribe.

Steven: We’re constantly in different social situations, so we constantly have to morph and become new people. Then it becomes so much harder. It becomes so much harder to be the expert on X because there may be a different expert on X in the next group of people that you’re with. You have to fill some other role. I think that’s the complication.

Andy: Yeah. If you establish your identity as one thing, and then I’m the person who’s really good at this thing and then you get to a new environment where suddenly there’s a lot of other people who are better than you with that, then you could start feeling lost a little bit, or like, “Who am I? I used to be the basketball guy in middle school, but now here I am in high school and I didn’t even make varsity,” or whatever. You know? That seems like it creates a real identity crisis a little bit or a struggle.

Steven: Boy, I see that every day at my Ivy League university because we accept these students that were always the best at most of the things they did.

Andy: Valedictorian in high school.

Steven: Yeah. Exactly.

Andy: Yeah. Yeah.

Steven: Then they come to Brown and all of a sudden they’re not the best anymore.

Andy: Oh, maybe.

Steven: In fact, they may not even be particularly good. They may not be accepted into the choir or onto the crew team or whatever, because there are so many people that are better than them. Some of them handle it really poorly. They get depressed. They get anxious. They become show-offs and they’re difficult and lose direction. Others handle it really well. I think the ones who handle it really well, what they do is they appreciate the contributions that everyone else is making.

Steven: They don’t see themselves as having to be the star, but rather they see themselves as someone who can benefit by all the richness around them. Don’t you love it when you meet people like that, who see greatness and appreciate it?

Andy: Yeah. Don’t feel like they have to one-up you or compete with you or something, to prove that they’re really good at this thing in order to feel like they matter. It’s not easy though, huh?

Steven: It’s not easy. It’s not easy. In my mind, it’s about understanding that you’re all in it together. If you have other people on your team who are better than you, well, that’s to your advantage.

About Dr. Steven Sloman

Dr. Steven Sloman is the co-author of The Knowledge Illusion and professor and researcher at Brown University in New York. Dr. Sloman has studied the human mind and how we think for decades: his groundbreaking paper “The empirical case for two systems of reasoning” has been cited over 4500 times in peer-reviewed academic papers. His book, research, and academic work have been featured in major publications in print and online including The New York Times, Psychology Today, Scientific American, and The New Yorker. Currently Dr. Sloman is the Sorbonne University/INSEAD Distinguished Visiting Chair in Behavioral Sciences.

Dr. Sloman and his wife usually reside in Providence, RI and have raised two teens of their own.

Want More Dr. Sloman?

You can find Steven on his website, at Brown, follow his work on Google Scholar, and check out more of his writing for Behavioral Scientist (a teaser for his next book!).