Why Is “I Don’t Know” So Hard to Say? (Ep. 56)

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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; 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.

Eric M. Jones

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


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).

Gene Hayward

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... :)


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.


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.


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.

Paddy C

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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.

Jake Foley

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


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.

Stephen Williams

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


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! ;)



It is true saying I don't know at the workplace view it like it is a curse word in business. I also majored in economics and in my first job after college I still thought in terms of an economist. I used to say I don't know all the time and people would get annoyed because they claimed I should of known. It took me a while to realize in the workplace I don't means to other people will start to view me as lazy or stupid because saying I dont' know means I must not be doing my job.


What is the name of song that plays in the last 15 seconds of this podcast episode and who is the artist?

Basil White

Regarding your statement in "Why Is 'I Don’t Know' So Hard to Say?"(http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/freakonomicsradio/~5/hNnL9vGB2f8/freakonomics_podcast010412.mp3) that people don't have to pass a test to be a parent - how about a cost-benefit analysis of health insurance discounts for parents who pass the state babysitter exam?