What I Don't Know Matters Enormously

Excerpt from "Why We Contradict Ourselves and Confound Each Other" an On Being conversation with Daniel Kahneman and Krista Tippett (October 5, 2017):

"When I started out in this line of research, I started out as a strong believer that the reality of life is what the experiencing self is. I mean it’s what happens as you live. And I thought that’s vastly more important than what people think about their life, which, after all, is a construction. And I went about defending the experienced well-being as the more important one. And eventually, I had to change my mind.

And I had to change my mind and to conclude that there is no way you can ignore remembering self or life evaluation because what people want is not the well-being of their experiencing self. What people want is more closely associated with the remembering self. They want to have good memories. They want to have good opinions of themselves. They want to have a good story about their life.

When you look globally at people’s actions, overconfidence is endemic. I mean we have too much confidence in our beliefs, and overconfidence really is associated with a failure of imagination. When you cannot imagine an alternative to your belief, you are convinced that your belief is true. That’s overconfidence.

And overconfidence — whenever there is a war, there were overconfident generals. You can look at failures, and overconfidence had something to do with them. On the other hand, overconfidence and overconfident optimism is the engine of capitalism. I mean entrepreneurs are overconfident. They think they’re going to be successful. People who open restaurants in New York think they’ll succeed; otherwise, they wouldn’t do it. But at least two-thirds of them have to give up within a few years — more than two-thirds, probably.

[It’s] a very difficult principle to grasp, this idea that actually, what I don’t know matters enormously, and what I can’t see matters enormously.

There are so many manifestations of this. For example, how [often] people, even professional experts, disagree in their view of specific cases. In fact, the differences are huge. They are much larger than people anticipate.

This is because it’s very difficult for us to imagine how anyone could see the world in a way that’s different from the way we see it. The interpretation of the world imposes itself on us, and the idea that there are other ways of seeing it, that there are alternatives, that there are things that you do not see, and they’re important — that is impossible to bring to mind effectively."