Why Is “I Don’t Know” So Hard to Say? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

This week’s podcast is a new installment of “FREAK-quently Asked Questions,” in which Levitt and I respond to queries you submitted on the blog. (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript below; earlier FAQ podcasts can be found here and here.)

You had so many excellent questions! Sadly, we only had time to field a handful. Ty Spalding asked one of the most interesting: “Why do people feel compelled to answer questions that they do not know the answer to?” Levitt replies:

What I’ve found in business is that almost no one will ever admit to not knowing the answer to a question. So even if they absolutely have no idea what the answer is, if it’s within their realm of expertise, faking is just an important part. I really have come to believe teaching MBAs that one of the most  important things you learn as an MBA is how to pretend you know the answer to any question even though you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. And I’ve found it’s really one of the most destructive factors in business — is that everyone masquerades like they know the answer and no one will ever admit they don’t know the answer, and it makes it almost impossible to learn.

Another reader, Gav, asked what the world might look like if it were run by economists rather than politicians. (Funny, we once asked the same thing in a podcast.) Levitt doesn’t think that would go over so well:

I think where you really would go awry is that economists are just different from other people. I think we’re born different and our training makes us think differently. And we’re completely unaware of those things that offend and nauseate people who are not economists. And I think that we would end up having the effect of large-scale nausea in response to our programs.

We were also asked about our most irrational fears. Here’s a hint about Levitt’s: it involves a V.A. hospital, a glass tube, and a rat. Thanks to everyone for the great questions. We’ll get to more in future FAQ podcasts.

Audio Transcript

DUBNER: Hey Levitt, how’s it going?
LEVITT: Hey, doing great.
DUBNER: You know how we take reader questions once in a while? We call it FREAK-quently Asked Questions, we ask people to send in their questions on our blog. Are you up for answering a few of them right now?
LEVITT: Sure, I love to answer our readers’ questions.
DUBNER: You sound a little corpse-y today. You feeling under the weather?
LEVITT: Yeah, I picked up the worst kind of cold. I got a cold in India. They have nasty colds in India.
DUBNER: Is that the worst kind of cold, the Indian cold?
LEVITT: It’s pretty bad, I don’t know, I’ve never tried the Russian cold. I bet that’s pretty bad too.
DUBNER: Alright, but the cold notwithstanding, you ready to go?
LEVITT: I’m going to soldier on.
DUBNER: Here’s a question from Ty Spalding. He writes, “Why do people feel compelled to answer questions that they do not know the answer to?”
[silence]
LEVITT:  I did not feel compelled, Ty,  to answer that question.

[THEME]

DUBNER: Let me rephrase the question, Levitt. Why do people other than Steve Levitt feel compelled to answer questions that they do not know the answer to?
LEVITT: Well, even I always answer questions I don’t know the answer to. Everyone answers questions. It’s just rude not to say something like I just did before. But, as I’ve worked more with businesses, I’ve just come to what I think is a very interesting observation. I’ve been an academic all my life, and in academics we always start from the position that we just don’t know the answer to a question. That’s why we invest a year or two years doing a research project. We don’t know the answer, we want to find out what the answer is. What I’ve found in business is that almost no one will ever admit to not knowing the answer to a question. So even if they absolutely have no idea what the answer is, if it’s within their realm of expertise, faking is just an important part. I really have come to believe teaching MBAs that one of the most  important things you learn as an MBA is how to pretend you know the answer to any question even though you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. And I’ve found it’s really one of the most destructive factors in business -- is that everyone masquerades like they know the answer and no one will ever admit they don’t know the answer, and it makes it almost impossible to learn. Now, academics have all sorts of problems, but the one thing academics are good at is learning. They’re good at figuring out the answers to questions they didn’t know before. And I think in large part it’s because of the attitude that we take that makes it easier for us to learn than it is for businesses.
DUBNER: You must have run across somebody or some firm, however, that plays by different rules, right? Some firm, or somebody in a firm, or some division in a firm that says you know what, we, we’re trying to solve a set of problems here just like everybody else, but our first instinct is always going to be to assume that we don’t know the answer and try to figure it out before we charge forward and spend all our time, and energy, and money. Can you think of any examples where that happened?
LEVITT: A lot of times it’s the guys at the very top, whose job is not to know the answers to specific questions, will say we don’t know the answer, I don’t know the answer. But if you go to the head of marketing and you ask them, “does your advertising work?” They always tell you that the advertising works, and they know exactly what works and what doesn’t work. If you go to someone who’s in charge of human resources, they always say that our hiring procedures are excellent. It’s really difficult once you get someone who’s a supposed expert to ever get them to admit otherwise.
DUBNER: Right, let me ask you, is this a case more of you know just the obvious, protecting your job because you don’t want to look like a fool for not knowing the answer to something that’s in your realm? Or do you think it’s more like some kind of delusion or bias where we all think that we’re better at almost everything than we actually are?   
LEVITT: No, I think in business it’s that people know they don’t know the answer. They just say they know the answer because they’ve come to believe that that is part of their job is to always seem, to seem knowledgeable. And I’ll give you a very specific example. Whenever I propose that a company run a randomized experiment, almost always there’s tremendous resistance. And the reason is because in order to make a randomized experiment be sensible, it means that you have to start from the premise that we don’t actually know the answer. And the randomized experiment is a way both to test whether what we’ve been doing is correct and also whether there’s another way of doing it better. And people always say, “well why would I run a randomized experiment when I already know the answer?” And consequently the firms never learn anything.
DUBNER: A reader named Brian writes in to say, “We have learned that humans are terrible at assessing risk.” Indeed, that’s a drum that we’ve beaten pretty loudly on this program over the years, Levitt. “What things,” Brian asks, “are Levitt and Dubner terrified by despite their better judgment?” I feel like I should know what terrifies you, and I don’t know if I’ve ever really seen you exhibit any irrational fear.
LEVITT: I don’t know if it’s irrational, but I’m terrified of hospitals and doctors.
DUBNER: Yeah, that’s true, you don’t go to doctors at all do you?
LEVITT: No, I never do. My father who’s a doctor told me I shouldn’t bother going to doctors unless you know I really, really have to. But yeah, I’m one of those people who when something is going wrong inside my body and I think, well maybe I should go to the doctor because I’m dying, I often think well that’s okay, I’ll just die instead. There’s no point in risking going to the doctor. I’ll tell you, my own grandfather was a doctor as well. And he was in his eighties and realized he was having a stroke. And rather than going to the hospital he simply called down to the pharmacy and asked if they could deliver some anticoagulants. And he crawled to the front door to get the anticoagulants and he took them and he laid on the ground and said, “I’m either going to live or I’m going to die.”
DUBNER: And he lived?
LEVITT: He lived. He lived.
DUBNER: All right, so I don’t mean to analyze you right here on the radio, but, your father is a doctor, your grandfather was a doctor, and the one thing in the world that you’re scared of is doctors and hospitals?
LEVITT: It may have something to do with the fact that my father worked at the veterans’ administration hospital when I was a child and he would bring me there for lunch. And as a young child I would see the amputees from World War II, and it may have, it may have really tainted me for life.
DUBNER: Did you ever think about becoming a doctor, the third in the line?
LEVITT: You know, I did think hard about becoming a doctor. In fact, I was even maybe on track to becoming a doctor until I did an internship in my father’s office. And they were doing some kind of experiment that involved cutting open a rat and cutting its small intestine open and then inserting a glass tube in there. So my job that day was to watch the surgery take place. So I was already feeling quite queasy and not so steady on my feet when in the middle of the surgery when the rat’s intestines were hanging out all over the place, the rat opens his eyes and begins to scream. And I felt my vision just…I’ve never had it happen before where my vision went down to a tunnel. And I was about to pass out. And I just decided it was time to go home and not to be a doctor. But my dad’s never let me forget the weak stomach I had for being a doctor.

[MUSIC]

DUBNER: As for me? I’m scared of snakes … Any snake, anywhere, even at the zoo in a cage. Even a picture of a snake, I don’t like looking at that. Oh, and also: also toothpicks in food scare me.

Coming up: should we have a mandatory training program for politicians? Also, what would the world look like if economists were in charge? And finally what does Steve Levitt do all day?

[UNDERWRITING]

DUBNER: OK here’s a nice question from someone named Adil Z. He or she asks, “So what do you think about the idea of having an annually updated recertification process for anyone who wants to become a candidate for any political office, requiring them to know and understand most of the basic concepts in the different schools of economics, healthcare, and healthcare infrastructure.” Good god, he’s talking about funding PhD programs left and right. “Statistics, general science, history and culture…” Okay so we get the idea. Adil Z wants people who run for office to be qualified in a way that they currently aren’t. He writes, “I will end my rant-filled suggestion inquiry with some other topics of focus that should be covered in my supposed training process for potential political candidates.” And he has a list of about maybe fifty factors here including, “priming, confabulation, confirmation bias, hindsight bias, the Texas sharpshooter fallacy, the Dunning-Kruger effect.” On, and on, I think you get the idea, Levitt. So do we want to subject anyone who wants to run for political office to a certain kind of training or qualification proof that they are not idiots, that they’re competent, that they know a little bit about the things they might govern?
LEVITT: So, you know, I kind of like that idea. Now, the obvious problem is who’s going to make the list and who’s going to teach the classes? And how do you decide what’s on the list? The second obvious problem is that none of the incumbents are going to want to have to take those classes. And they’d probably fail them if they did take them. So I think the best chance that we would ever get a policy like that is we’d have to grandfather in all the existing incumbents, because what could be better for the incumbent candidates than if you made the hurdle for becoming a challenger much greater, if you had to sit through a six-month class on civics and economics, and the Texas sharpshooter paradox, whatever that is, I’ve never heard of that one before. Then no one would want to run for office and the incumbents would be in forever. So you’ve always got to be careful of the unintended consequences of different policies. But, certainly I think it’s not a terrible idea. Just like I’ve said, you know, shouldn’t we have rules and training for parents? I think you could extend that same logic. If you’re going to certify parents, which I think you probably should, why not certify politicians as well?
DUBNER: Here’s a question from someone named Gav, I guess, G-A-V, Gav. “What would the world look like if everything was run by economists?”
LEVITT: Well, you know, economists don’t think about morality very much, they don’t think about fairness. They often tend to be much too confident about their ability to use incentives to accomplish what they’d like to do. I think we could do some good things. I think we could make the healthcare system much better if we just cut out all the politics and let the economists have a field day and make healthcare markets look more like other kinds of markets. I think we would cut healthcare spending dramatically. I don’t think people would be that unhappy about it. But I think where you really would go awry is that economists are just different from other people. I think we’re born different and our training makes us think differently. And we’re completely unaware of those things that offend and nauseate people who are not economists. And I think that we would end up having the effect of large-scale nausea in response to our programs.
DUBNER: All right, so that leads us nicely to what we’ll consider out last question for today. It’s a question from a reader named John who says, “What is it like being an economist? I’m sixteen and I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up. I haven’t found my ‘passion’ yet besides video games and reading this blog lol.” He says, “I am insanely smart though. I guess that helps. Thanks.” Alright what do you have for him Levitt? Why don’t you give us a day in the life of you as the economist, and then why don’t you tell us how a day in the life of you as an economist differs from what most people think an economist actually does.
LEVITT: Yeah, so there are different stages in the life cycle of an economist. If you’re studying to be an economist in college it’s really fun because much of college economics is about ideas, and new concepts, and you learn about different areas, and it really was an exciting time for me, and I think for many people who study economics. Then you’ve got to go get a PhD and boy, that is hard work, because it’s very mathematical and very competitive. Boy, it is tough getting a PhD. Once you become a faculty member it’s pretty good. You teach a little bit, but mostly you just sit around in your office, and if you’re a young economist you are actually playing with the data yourself, trying to prove things and give seminars to other economists to try to convince them that you’re right. Ultimately when you get to be a little more famous and well-resourced economist, then you get to have a bunch of RA’s who they do all the stuff you used to do, research assistants. And they pore over the data and try to make sense of it. And then you have an even tougher job which is how to figure out when your RA’s are making terrible mistakes that are going to lead to your ruin of your reputation. Mostly being an economist is pretty boring. You’re mostly sitting in a room alone, and you’re mostly working on projects that are interesting to you but not really to anybody else in the rest of the world. I think you have to have passion. I mean, the guy who asked the question talked about not having passion for something. And if you do not have passion for economists it absolutely is the wrong career to go into, because even the people who start with passion, almost all of them get the passion beaten out of them pretty quickly. So I would tell that guy he should play fewer video games and go out and try as many different things as he can. And he’s got to find a passion, but he’s got to find a passion that nobody else shares, or as few people share as possible because if only the world would pay you a six figure salary to play video games, the young men in this country would be the happiest people anywhere in the world.

DUBNER: That’s it for today folks, thanks to everyone who sent in questions on the Freakonomics blog, we’ll do another FREAK-quently asked question episode at some point. Until then, maybe try practicing the three hardest words in the English language: I don’t know.

[CREDITS]

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  1. Eric M. Jones says:

    I don’t know.

    But then maybe…

    “Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily.”
    –Thomas Szasz

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  2. RGJ says:

    As a media relations consultant, one of the key tenets I emphasize before an interview is that it is okay to say “I don’t know”…best when deferring to exact statistics. This works very well in print interviews, when you promise to get back to the journalist (and do) than with electronic media, where the “I don’t know” basically constitutes the record.

    There are a lot of better ways to put the sentiment other that IDK, but those are case-specific: “We are studying that”, “That is an emergent issue we are analyzing right now”, etc.

    Most difficult is for politicians on TV — supposed to know everything, right? God forbid you pronounce the name of the Iranian president wrong, or don’t know the name of Saudi Arabia’s Secretary of Defense (or whatever it is called).

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  3. Gene Hayward says:

    In regards to the entry about not being able to say “I don’t know” the Marine Corps taught me to say that in the first few minutes of Boot Camp: “Sir, the Private don’t not know, sir, but the Private WILL FIND OUT!”…That is not so hard and it has served me for the last 30 years… :)

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  4. David says:

    I say “I don’t know” all the time now. At least once a day. It didn’t used to be like this. I used to try to come up with answers. Now I am not afraid to say I don’ t know or to ask (dumb) questions. I am getting to old to care what people think. I’d rather look silly and find out the answer than to lie about it and have my job or life suffer as a result.

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  5. Ben says:

    As someone w/ a high-powered MBA I do agree to some extent with the “I don’t know” analysis. It’s a stereotype about MBAs that is often true.

    The other big thing is SECURITY. Smart managers who are secure in their ability are generally not afraid to say I don’t know.

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  6. Ryan says:

    I try to begin every answer I give with “I don’t know.” Sometimes I am able to stop there, other times I go on to give some kind of answer anyway. One thing that compels me to follow up IDK with something more is the desire to not frustrate the person asking me the question.

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  7. Paddy C says:

    Nice question! I’m reading Kathryn Schulz’s ‘Being Wrong’ at the moment, and am enjoying it a lot it so far. One of the early chapters is on this specific topic. One of her points is that people tend to confabulate (tell stories) rather than say ‘I don’t know’. The reason she proposes is that people generally believe that they’re right, and don’t realise that they are talking garbage.

    But to answer your question, I don’t know really.

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  8. Jake says:

    Does every question need to be answered?

    Everyone expects answers to every question especially if it comes from someone higher up in organization. However, not every unknown question is worth the time and resources to research. If it comes down to choice of making-up an answer or being saddled with a pointless research project; many people will prefer to make-up an answer.

    Combined with the ego/self-image issues mentioned in other comments; every question will be answered.

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