Many years ago, a month into a new job at an august and storied publication, I was telling my friend Susanne that my new colleagues were wonderful—and intimidating. I was out of my league, I worried, surrounded by people who would casually reference the work of scholars and philosophers in story-idea meetings. I didn’t know who many of those impressive-sounding people were. I scribbled notes, hoping to get to Google before I could be asked my opinion. But Susanne offered me what has become one of my most prized pieces of advice: “Stop scribbling. Just ask the question.” Asking people to explain their references was much more productive than faking some semblance of knowledge. Susanne did this all the time. And no one, it turned out, took her queries to mean she was an idiot.
And as our cover story makes clear, the trouble with pretending to know things we don’t really grasp is that it often shades into believing we do.
I try to emulate Susanne. But human psychology and American culture often run counter to her advice. Recently, Forbes ran an article offering professional women “Five Alternatives to Saying I Don’t Know” in the workplace—in case it wasn’t already clear that blustery self-confidence is a survival skill in the American office.
And as our cover story makes clear, the trouble with pretending to know things we don’t really grasp is that it often shades into believing we do. David Dunning is one of the leading researchers on accuracy and illusion in human judgment. His article, “We Are All Confident Idiots,” which you can read here, helps me understand why we so often offer up knowledge we don’t actually have. “In many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious,” Dunning writes. “Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.” Often this trait is just plain annoying—but it’s not hard to see how dangerous it can be, too.
Journalist Ed Cara’s story, “The Most Dangerous Idea in Mental Health,” (which will be posted on the website next Monday, November 3), touches on another dangerous way in which the human mind is susceptible to illusion: In the 1980s and '90s, many therapists embraced, at times fanatically, the belief that their troubled patients had “hidden” memories. (Remember the satanic cult panic that wasn’t?) Culturally, this fad was fueled by an odd confluence of factors: deeply held fears among evangelicals about devil worship, combined with the growing realization that many women had suffered abuse—and that society hadn’t done much about it. But the theory of “memory recovery” was dismissed in a solid body of empirical research by scholars such as Elizabeth Loftus. Those years illuminate the dangers of selecting pieces of information and using them to craft what look like plausible plotlines. (Tragically, Cara shows, many families are still bearing the brunt of our ongoing ignorance.)
Our third feature may also puncture a few illusions, but in a very different way. For the story “Goodnight Moon. Goodnight Daycare Room” (which you will find here on November 10), writer Alissa Quart teamed up with photographer Alice Proujansky to produce a stunning photo essay that illuminates one of the problems our 24-hour lives have wrought: 24-hour daycare—for parents who have to work more than one job. Because someone has to stock the shelves at Walmart at 2 a.m., someone else has to look after their kids.
We hope you enjoy these and all the stories our team produced for our November/December print issue. If you want to read them all together—as the story package we developed for the print edition—please subscribe here, or get the whole package digitally at the Apple Store, Google Play, or on Zinio in the coming days.
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