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. Beth says:

    Sometimes the answer really IS I don’t know. This is especially true in medicine, where things are rarely cut-and-dry. As they say, “sometimes the disease hasn’t read the book.” That is to say, the average outcome isn’t always the only outcome. Sometimes diseases respond to particular treatments, sometimes they don’t. Many times it’s inexplicable. It’s rarely a satisfying answer for a patient, but sometimes it is the only answer that’s honest.

    The corollary to this is the physician who knows what s/he doesn’t know. The most dangerous ones are those who refuse to acknowledge what they don’t know and continue ineffective or possibly erroneous treatments rather than say they don’t know. The smart ones know their limits and aren’t afraid to send his/her patient on to someone who might know more.

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  2. Jason says:

    Regarding how the world would look if run by economists (or anyone for that matter…):

    Contrary to conventional wisdom, we do not choose politicians to govern. By definition, once you try to govern, you become a politician. This is a lesson that many Tea Party freshmen learned last year (even if they don’t admit it). Economists are well represented in government and even get elected sometimes – but then they are politicians, for better or worse, and they have to make decisions that have real impacts, just like every other member of government. It is easy to get cynical about politicians because they are forced into a lot of corners and have to balance expediency, long-term challenges, principles, etc. My personal rule is that we run into trouble when politicians get trapped in the belief that winning the next election is what is needed to get stuff done, so they do nothing but focus on that election. Would economists from different camps behave any differently?

    Quick corollary to the above statement: I recently ran for office myself (for a part time school board position). People immediately start treating you like a politician once you run. Even a year out from my narrow loss, I still get asked more about whether I am running again, what I think of the others, etc., and less about whether any of the ideas from my campaign are being implemented, whether I am involved in public service in other ways, etc.

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  3. stinger4 says:

    Just watched your show on TV, it was great! I have a follow up that could ad percentage was MADD and DWI laws that changed drinking habbits. You can see taverns in the Hundreds closed because cops were busting people without cause for DWI. drinking and law breaking add a huge to a huge number of crimes. just my opinion.

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  4. Praveen says:

    One of the reasons why people find it so hard to say I dont know is they do know SOMETHING. Although their knowledge levels may be inadequate to provide a specific answer to a question, whatever little information they might actually have on the subject renders “I dont know” a false reply. I dont know is an open ended reply. People actually complete the statement in the minds “I dont know…ANYTHING” and compare it with “Do I know SOMETHING?” and since more often than not they do find that they do know something, an alternative answer to I dont know is used.

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  5. Jake Foley says:

    Any chance of seeing the entire email from Adil Z?
    Sounds like a thoughtful list – Especially the list of biases & fallacies…

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  6. Cory says:

    Add To your list of people who answer questions they don’t know would be economist and scientist. It is rare to hear an economist that doesn’t know how to fix the current economic problems. Environmental science is a great example that is often in the news giving their answers to complex issues that they don’t fully understand. I think it is human nature and normal biases. No field is exempt from their know it alls.

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  7. Stephen Williams says:

    It’s called ultra crepadarianism. Most people engage in it at some time.

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  8. Paige says:

    As an American who moved to South Africa a year ago, I have been surprised and disappointed by the quantity of times I’ve been led around without getting a direct answer because somebody I know won’t admit to not knowing, which would have been so much simpler. I know that it’s common in African culture in general to not want to disappoint the asker by not knowing something, but the South Africans in my circle are primarily white, and more European (English or Afrikaans) in culture. I began to take responses to my questions less seriously and left it at that, and considered my own ability to admit defeat when it comes to some knowledge.

    So the topic of this podcast greatly interested me, but it didn’t satisfy my curiosity since the people I have written about here are friends who I know socially; I don’t work, so all the people I know here have no reason to fear me questioning their professional competence with an admission of not knowing something.

    Something else about the podcast that triggered me was the part about MBAs. I chose to go abroad for mine, and think this was one of the best choices I have made since I didn’t get an extra dose of the negative aspects of American culture: competition (rather than collaboration), focus on the bottom line (vs courses in social responsibility), etc. To this I can now add that what we learned to say the answer to every question could be “it depends” because there are often multiple sides to each situation. We were never taught to pretend to posses knowledge of a topic that we know nothing about – except when taking exams of course! ;)

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