Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Perceived and Actual Knowledge

There's what people know, and what people think they know.  In this piece, Nicole Skibola in a Forbes blog notes:
In his book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki discusses how disconnects between status and knowledge often lead to inefficient outcomes in decision-making processes. Groups, and obviously business organizations, tend to give deference to individuals with perceived or actual status, often with little to no correlation with actual knowledge.  As the group coalesces around one perceived knowledge holder, minorities are less likely to share their own perspectives, despite the fact that minority opinions make groups wiser as a whole.

Think of it as a micro version of the spiral of silence in which minority viewpoints tend to spiral into, yes, silence, because the majority speaks up so much, and so loudly, and our fear of isolation is such that we don't dare speak out.

I should point out that, despite what the book suggests, actual and perceived knowledge are typically correlated with one another.  Not perfectly, mind you, but there is a tendency for those who know something to also believe they know something.  I note the imperfection of the relationship because I've been reading a study on misinformation and how confident people are in their completely irrational beliefs, such as whether Barack Obama is Muslim.  The more misinformed, some studies suggest, the more confident people are in that misinformed belief.  In other words, it's damn hard to shake someone loose from crazy beliefs, even with facts.

Being uninformed, and being misinformed, are two conceptually distinct matters.  More on this another time.

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