Illusion of Asymmetric Insight – The Flaw Of Everyone

Ever noticed that you are much smarter than others? Why do others never seem to grasp what is clearly visible to you?

It is all too common to hear people say ‘Most people don’t understand this’ and on the surface it seems true. Throughout history, the majority has shown that it is capable of some really stupid stuff, like witch hunting, caste system and slavery. Even cursory knowledge of history will make it clear for anyone that majority is timid, unimaginative and lacks original thought or purpose.

Or does it?

Turns out, all this is in our heads. After seeing the movie Ra-1 this weekend, which I liked and none of my friends did, we had some back and forth about the movie on Facebook. One of the comments was that the majority of the people were simply too ignorant to know what is good for them and the movie industry simply uses that to push crappy ideas and make money off these so called unintelligent masses. After using them for many years, I have grown a lot weary and skeptical of generic blanket statements and so I did a bit of googling on the subject. Hmm, that sounded a little dirty, didn’t it? googling !!.

After an extensive investigation on the Internets, by which I mean multi keyword search in Google, I think I found out, at least partially, why we try to box everything we see around us and more importantly, why we see things we don’t like as inferior, even though there is no factual reason to do so. The reason we do that is also the title of this post – Illusion of Asymmetric Insight.

In psychology circles, this is the behavioral trait of humans that makes them form tribes, organize rituals, create identities and make war. We form personas to fit ourselves within various social contexts and over time assume that the persona is what we truly are. And to reinforce that idea, we label anything different, anything alien as an inferior entity. This applies for a single person, communities and even nations. Individually, our brain is convinced that it knows more about others than they themselves do and that others know very little about us than they think they do.
And our brain is wrong in both instances. This is the Illusion of Asymmetric Insight. Here is a great quote from journalist and author David McRaney

“Political parties establish platforms, companies give employees handbooks, countries write out constitutions, tree houses post club rules. Every human gathering and institution from the Gay Pride Parade to the KKK works to remain connected by developing a set of norms and values which signals to members when they are dealing with members of the in-group and help identify others as part of the out-group. The peculiar thing though is that once you feel this, once you feel included in a human institution or ideology, you can’t help but see outsiders through a warped lens called the illusion of asymmetric insight.”

David lists a number of fascinating research studies done on this subjects by psychologists and behavioral analysts which repeatedly show how skewed our perception of outside world is when influenced by IAS. One of the studies was the real implementation of “Lord of the Flies” which almost caused a violent disaster. He also elaborates on other research that clarify how IAS works within groups of all colors and creed.

For example, when liberals and conservatives where asked to answer questions about how much they knew about the opposite group and how much they thought the opposite group knew about them the results clearly showed the influence of IAS.

“… liberals believed they knew more about conservatives than conservatives knew about liberals. The conservatives believed they knew more about liberals than liberals knew about conservatives. Both groups thought they knew more about their opponents than their opponents knew about themselves.”

The same was true when they conducted the experiment with pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion groups.

This makes sense, right. We spend most of our day trying to convince others that what they think is wrong. But that’s not the case with people we like. When we are with someone who we think is a member of our group – friend, family, colleagues – we treat them differently than someone who is not a member of one of those groups. Same thing applies for larger identity groups like religion, political beliefs and lifestyle choices.

He summarizes why we assume that others are ignorant and wrong with this explanation:

“..this is how one eventually arrives at the illusion of naive realism, or believing your thoughts and perceptions are true, accurate and correct, therefore if someone sees things differently than you or disagrees with you in some way it is the result of a bias or an influence or a shortcoming.”

Here is the link to the David’s original article. I highly recommend that you read this one because I found it to be truly fascinating and revelatory.

So, there it is. A scientific explanation for why we think the majority of people are stupid. They are not. Its just that we are all equally stupid. Whew, that’s a relief.

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