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When Did It Became Impossible to Say, ‘I Don’t Know’?

Especially for those in positions of power

In March, presidential candidate and noted table stander Beto O’Rourke delivered yet another ubiquitous political moment. When asked about how he would get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, O’Rourke stared into the eyes of the veteran who asked the question and produced several words that did not, in fact, answer anyone’s inquiry:

To be fair, the man’s question is a complicated one. No one really knows how to get the troops out of Afghanistan without making things worse than they already are — a notion that the veteran concedes during his third iteration of the same question. But O’Rourke’s response, apart from being a fairly amateur example of political evasion, is also at its most base form, leadership 101. Because even after the second consecutive time the man asks O’Rourke for his plan, O’Rourke — having already failed to answer the man’s question once before — was still unwilling to produce the most honest answer of all: “ I don’t know.”

And yet, it’s also entirely likely that an authentic “I don’t know” would have been equally, if not more, glaring than O’Rourke’s cringey bloviation on understanding American humility in the world, blah blah blah. Which begs another question: Why is it so unfathomable for someone, specifically a person in power, to admit when they don’t have the answer?

According to David Mayer, an expert on leadership, diversity and ethics, the problem is in the way we view the archetypal leader. “Issues around confidence and competence fit into our prototype for what it means to be an effective leader,” he explains. “There’s pretty fascinating research on something called ‘implicit leadership theory,’ which basically asks the question, what are the characteristics that make an effective leader? This isn’t what actually is an effective leader. This is what people think is the stereotype or prototype of an effective leader. Some of the strongest parts of it have to do with things like being intelligent and being decisive. So when we picture a leader, we picture someone who has the right answer.”

Ironically, Mayer says that when you actually look at leaders who are effective — “not just what we think is effective” — they’re the opposite, showing lots of humility. “They do say, ‘I don’t know,’” he explains. “They realize other people have insights and abilities that they might not.”

Tenelle Porter, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Human Development at the University of California, Davis, refers to the ever-endangered phenomenon of recognizing the limits of one’s knowledge as showing “intellectual humility.” She tells me that one reason why it’s so rare for someone to admit when they don’t know something is because people are exquisite at knowing when they’re being judged and when their competence is being evaluated by others. “So if you feel that admitting that you don’t know is going to make other people think that you’re not competent or not intelligent, you’re much less likely to admit what you don’t know,” she says.

Of course not everyone thinks like this according to Porter. In fact, she divides people into two groups: 1) those who believe intelligence is a trait that can be developed; and 2) those who believe intelligence is a fixed trait that you only get a certain amount of. “If you go into a situation believing that intelligence is fixed and that you’re being evaluated on your intelligence, it can be hard to admit what you don’t know because every other instance of ‘I don’t know’ could suggest to someone else that you aren’t that smart,” says Porter.

Not surprisingly, Porter says she has some new data to suggest that adolescent men in particular tend to believe things like changing your mind is a sign of weakness. “They have this underlying belief that if they don’t know something, they’ll be judged as feckless, weak, incompetent, not capable leaders and not strong.”

On the flip side, Mayer says women are more likely to admit vulnerabilities (again, not all that surprisingly). “Men are socialized to avoid seeming weak, to feel strong, to not be overly emotional, to not be seen as vulnerable,” he explains. “If you do, then it feels like a form of weakness. This is true of leaders in general, but more likely to be true for men.”

In a 2012 episode of the Freakonomics podcast, co-host Steven Levitt responded to a listener who asked, “Why do people feel compelled to answer questions that they don’t know the answer to?” His answer:

“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 — that everyone masquerades like they know the answer and no one will ever admit they don’t know the answer. It makes it almost impossible to learn.”

Still, although everyone agrees that admitting you don’t know something is the shortest path to seeking out a way to learn more about it, Mayer suggests that there are some advantages to pretending you have a clue even when you don’t. “In the short-run, it could be useful if it’s not necessarily a repeated interaction, and you’re there to be an authority figure,” says Mayer. “It’s more important for people to view you that way than it is for them to see some nuance in what you say.”

To that end, Mayer says that in some situations, making something up rather than admitting you don’t know the answer can help put the person you’re responding to at ease. One such example: “If I asked a physician, ‘Do you think it would be useful if I did this, or do you think this is problematic?’ and they said, ‘I don’t know,’ I might not feel great about that,” says Mayer. He adds that when a question has less to do with competence and more to do with morality, admitting you don’t know which side you’re on could come across as evasive. “If you ask someone about a moral dilemma and they say, ‘You know, I don’t know. It could go either way,’ it probably doesn’t signal the best thing,” he says. “It feels like something that you should’ve thought about and have an opinion about.”

More largely, when someone in a position of power responds to a question with an answer that doesn’t remotely answer the question, it does at least fill a sort of basic need for those looking to them for direction. According to Porter, this is why you see successful leaders on both sides of the “I don’t know” coin. “We have a great contrast in our current president and our former president, who are polar opposites on these dimensions,” she says. “Both were elected into office, and so, that suggests we probably don’t always prefer quick decisive answers over slow and analytical ones. We probably just fluctuate.”

Assuming then that our collective inability to admit when we don’t know something isn’t always mired in self-aggrandizement or greed, Porter does suggest a more benign alternative for explaining our fake-it-‘til-you-make-it complex. “Sometimes we just don’t know what we don’t know,” she says. “For example, you use the toilet every day. So if someone’s like, ‘Do you know how toilets work?’ And you say, ‘Yes.’ But they next ask, ‘Can you explain it to me in detail?’ It’s only then you’re like, ‘Oh, wait a minute, I guess I don’t really know.’”

That said, even the illusion that you know something you don’t is a recipe for prolonging your own ignorance. “You cannot learn what you think you already know,” Porter says. “There’s just so much more growth and development that can happen if you stay open to continually learning and growing more. All of our knowledge is infinitesimally small in comparison to what we could know.”

Not to mention, in some cases, according to Mayer, admitting this ignorance can be humanizing. “There’s fascinating research on what they call the pratfall effect,” he says. “A pratfall is a mistake. There’s the classical research showing that a man who seems like they’d be well-respected, when he made a mistake — something as subtle as knocking over coffee — that people actually liked him more. When there was a chink in that armor, it made people relate more to him. That’s another mechanism for why admitting what you don’t know can actually help you be more effective.”