In his book Risk Savvy, Gerd Gigerenzer demonstrated that people often overestimate their level of knowledge about the benefits of prostate and cancer screening. “A national telephone survey of U.S. adults,” he writes, “reported that the majority were extremely confident in their decision about prostate, colorectal, and breast screening, believed they were well informed, but could not correctly answer a single knowledge question.” I think this quote reveals something important about the way our minds work. We often believe we are well informed, but that belief and our confidence in our knowledge is often an illusion.
This is something I have been trying to work on. My initial reaction any time I hear any fact or any discussion about any topic is to position myself as a knowledgeable semi-expert in the topic. I have noticed that I do this with ideas and topics that I have really only heard once or twice on a commercial, or that I have seen in a headline, or that I once overheard someone talking about. I immediately feel like an expert even though my knowledge is often less than surface deep.
I think that what is happening in these situations is that I am substituting my feeling of expertise or knowledge with a different question. I am instead answering the question can I recall a time when I thought about this thing and then answering that question. Mental substitution is common, but hard to actually detect. I suspect that the easier a topic comes to mind, even if it is a topic I don’t know anything about but have only heard the name of, then the more likely I am to feel like I am an expert.
Gigerenzer’s quote shows that people will believe themselves to be well informed even if they cannot answer a basic knowledge question about the topic. Rather than substituting the question can I recall a time when I thought about this thing, patients may also be substituting another question. Instead of analyzing their confidence in their own decision regarding cancer screening, people may be substituting the question do I trust my doctor? Trust in a physician, even without any knowledge about the procedure, may be enough for people to feel extremely confident in their decisions. They don’t have to know a lot about their health or how a procedure is going to impact it, they just need to be confident that their physician does.
These types of substitutions are important for us to recognize. We should try to identify when we are falling victim to the availability bias and when we are substituting different questions that are easier for us to answer. In a well functioning and accurate healthcare setting these biases and cognitive errors may not harm us too much, but in a world of uncertainty, we stand to lose a lot when we fail to recognize how little we actually know. Being honest about our knowledge and thinking patterns can help us develop better systems and structures in our lives to improve and guide our decision-making.