Experiencing humility: hope for public debate?

When I was young (yes, stop snickering), when I was young I was often amazed at people’s knowledge. Most people had opinions about everything. The government issued a statement about a new policy and my father or one of my uncles already knew that the policy wouldn’t work. This admiration didn’t stop during my adolescence: I remember listening in awe when friends saw through all the motives and consequences of political decisions. How did they figure it all out? – Well, they probably didn’t. Or not much of it. I don’t want to sound condescending but most of us probably don’t understand the implications of political decisions all that well. Yet, judging by the readiness and vehemence of our contributions to public debate, most of us do at least give the impression of relative expertise. If this is correct, there is a disproportion between actual understanding and confidence in our opinions. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that amending this disproportion might hold the key to improving public debate.

According to Kees van den Bos and other social scientists,* this disproportion is one of the crucial factors leading to polarisation in public debate. However, the inverse also seems to be true: if people are asked to explain how certain policies work and experience that they understand these policies less well than they thought, they are likely to exhibit more moderation in their views of these policies. Fernbach et al. (2013) write:

“Across three studies, we found that people have unjustified confidence in their understanding of policies. Attempting to generate a mechanistic explanation under-mines this illusion of understanding and leads people to endorse more moderate positions. Mechanistic explanation generation also influences political behavior, making people less likely to donate to relevant advocacy groups. These moderation effects on judgment and decision making do not occur when people are asked to enumerate reasons for their position. We propose that generating mechanistic explanations leads people to endorse more moderate positions by forcing them to confront their ignorance. In contrast, reasons can draw on values, hearsay, and general principles that do not require much knowledge.”

So while I might become increasingly stubborn if you ask me to give reasons for p, I might become more moderate if you ask me to explain how p works. According to the researchers, this is the case because in the latter scenario I am humbled by experiencing the limits of my knowledge. I guess it won’t be too much to ask you to imagine examples. Asking how certain policies of, say, traffic regulation or migration work in practice might even lead politicians themselves to moderation.

What precisely is it that leads to moderation? My hunch is that the effect is produced by experiencing humility. This means that it is vital that the subject in question experiences their lack of knowledge. It is probably no good if I am told that I lack knowledge. (In fact, I believe that this might instil resentment.) The point is that I realise my lack in my own attempt at an explanation. So what I would like to emphasise is that the moderating effect is probably owing to experiencing this lack rather than merely knowing about this lack. Of course, I know that I don’t know how precisely certain policies work. But it’s still quite another thing to experience this ignorance in attempting to explain such policies. In other words, the Socratic attitude alone doesn’t help.

If this effect persists, this finding might indeed help ameliorating conversations and debates. Instead of telling people that they are wrong or asking for reasons, we might simply ask how the proposed idea works. This requires of course humility on part of all interlocutors. A good start might be debates in philosophy.


* I am grateful to Hendrik Siebe, Diego Castro and Leopold Hess for conversations about this work online and offline.

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