CM 087: Steven Sloman on the Knowledge Illusion

Blog Post - Steve and KnowledgeFew of us realize how dependent we are on the people and objects around us for our knowledge. But Steven Sloman does.

He reveals that we are constantly accessing expertise stored in our communities, our technologies, and in our environment. In fact, research reveals that many of us adopt positions on issues like climate change and health care from certain experts, without even realizing it. These findings have enormous implications for our increasingly polarized society, including the fact that educating people about issues is probably not the most effective way to change their minds.

Steven Sloman is co-author of the book, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone.  He is a Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences at Brown University, and Editor-in-Chief of the journal, Cognition. His work has been featured in publications like the New York Times, Harvard Business Review, and the Wall Street Journal.

In this interview we discuss:

  • The fact that we tend to think we understand how things work better than we actually do
  • How we fail to distinguish what we know from what others know
  • How complexity prevents us from understanding many of the things we think we do
  • The fact that knowledge must be collective to offset all the complexity in our lives
  • When we want to understand how the government or our car works, we figure out enough causal structure to solve our problems
  • What the deliberative mind is good at, which is coming to causal conclusions
  • How deliberation depends on a community of knowledge and connects us to other people
  • The unique ability of human beings to share intentionality, that is, to engage in tasks with other people
  • The limitations of understanding that comes from someone else
  • How understanding is contagious and community based
  • Much of our understanding comes  from having access to knowledge rather than actually knowing
  • Why it is important to help people see that they do not understand — that they cannot explain something they think they understand well
  • Our conviction that we understand or know something comes from the trust we place in certain experts
  • The fact that we cannot convince people by making them experts but by convincing them to  believe in a different set of experts
  • That we tend to stick with our first explanation or conclusion, even if it is found to be incorrect
  • The fact that most of our beliefs are formed independent of data — they tend to be shaped by our culture and what our community thinks
  • The fact that the thought leaders we look to actually determine what we believe
  • How we actually vote for what our communities judge to be the right things, not what the right things might actually be
  • The fact that group intelligence is derived from how well team members communicate with and relate to one another rather than individual intelligence
  • How many VCs make investment decisions based on the team and their collective intelligence
  • That what should spend more time on collective or team intelligence over individual intelligence
  • A question we can ask individuals whom we hire: How have you contributed to group performance in the past?
  • How engaging in the activity is key to helping us learn and to gaining causal knowledge
  • Why it is so important to be aware of what we do not know — to reduce our pride in what we think we know
  • How intelligent nudges can guide people toward better decision making
  • Why focusing on policy consequences is preferable to the values associated with those policies yet is much harder to do

Links to Topics Mentioned in this Podcast

Steven Sloman

Frank Keil

Clark Glymour

Michael Tomasello

Herbert Clark and common ground

Why Information Grows by Cesar Hidalgo

Anita Woolley



Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

If you enjoy the podcast, please rate and review it on iTunes – your ratings make all the difference. For automatic delivery of new episodes, be sure to subscribe. As always, thanks for listening!

Thank you to Emmy-award-winning Creative Director Vanida Vae for designing the Curious Minds logo, and thank you to Rob Mancabelli for all of his production expertise!