How we trust knowledge: 4 popular ways of responding.

How we trust knowledge: 4 popular ways of responding

Today’s post is written by Aditya Shukla, creator of Cognition Today, which explains human behavior and its internal workings in depth. The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Ivory Embassy.

Over the past four years of running a psychology and self-help community on Quora, I’ve encountered four types of knowledge-sharing people.

Every week, I spend an hour in a mundane routine to accept or reject answers submitted to my community. I glance through them in a few seconds and make my decision. For over four years, I’ve been looking at about 200 answers per week, which is over 40,000 questions and answers.

I noticed an emerging pattern: Users answer in 1 of 4 styles based on how they’ve acquired the knowledge to answer the question.

Let’s take a sample question: Do animals feel emotions?

Answerer’s response will tell you how & why they trust their knowledge.

1. Learners: These are people who read the answer or learned it from someone they think knew it.

Answer: Yes, all animals have emotions. My biological professor told me.

2. Analysts: They’ll have a reason to justify. Whether it’s right or wrong is not the issue. They’ll use some logic.

Answer: Yes, they show behavior that mimics human emotions. They have the same components to process emotions as us. They have similar expressions and voices.

3. Intuitors: They feel they know the answer through experience. They believe in their answer and feel no need to question that belief.

Answer: Yes, they have emotions. You feel them when interacting with them. I’ve seen my dog’s expressive eyes.

4. Challengers: These people question the assumptions in the question someone asks. They usually respond but ask a question to clarify more. They consolidate the learners’, intuiters’, and analysts’ approaches.

Answer: Do you mean actual human-like emotions or something similar to them in the animal’s context? I think they do have emotions, at least some basic forms of it. We see their vocalizations, scientists study it, and people who own pets believe so. So yeah, they do. I don’t know about their subjective experience, though.

How do the responders know this knowledge? Why do they trust what they’ve said?

This pattern begs an interesting question: How do we trust our knowledge?

How we typically approach knowledge (Bloom’s taxonomy)

Does the source of our knowledge matter? Do we trust that we’ve learned correctly from the source? Do we trust that the source is accurate?

We can say that if you think critically, you can evaluate your learning and judge it to be correct or wrong. This approach is part of Bloom’s Taxonomy. It is a set of 6 learning outcomes in a rough hierarchy from bottom to top. The complexity of thinking about what you learn rises as you go from Remember to Analyze/Evaluate/Create.

How we trust knowledge using Bloom's Taxonomy.

I approximate the top 3 as critical thinking and the bottom 3 as low-effort thinking.

It’s a broad educational framework for learning that loosely encompasses critical thinking and non-critical thinking about learning material.

Let’s look at it.

For reference, the blooms taxonomy layers are:

1. Remember: Recall

2. Understand: Conceptualize

3. Apply: Solve familiar problems

4. Analyze: Comparing and contrasting concepts, formulating a problem

5. Evaluate: Passing judgment on information, questioning it

6. Create: Formulating complex problems and finding solutions to novel problems

Learners

The first type of answerer – the learner – relies on Remember and Understand, based on some source material. The learners use heuristics to quickly judge the source as credible because it is simpler to follow a heuristic than evaluate what you know (it’s just more work to think).

For example, Wikipedia, a professor, a class teacher, a smart friend, etc., are all sources that have face validity. They are heuristics.

3 of the most common ones are:

  1. Source credibility: Sources that are judged to be credible and reliable are rarely questioned. So, we tend to believe what those sources say. However, the actual statement, the mood and mental flexibility of the reader, the context of the statement, etc., matter too and can sometimes make us disbelieve a statement from a credible source.
  2. Authority bias: Authorities, experts, people in high power, influencers, etc., are naturally persuasive with what they say. This occurs because we trust that other people listening to them (social proof), their past credibility and work (proof of expertise), and their confidence convince us they know what they are talking about and we should listen to them.
  3. Illusory truth effect: If many people have repeated a statement, it sounds more true. The mental processing here is that repetition leads to fluency in processing, and fluent processing is judged as true.

Heuristics like these work more strongly when we do not know enough. When we don’t know or are confused/uncertain, the heuristic becomes a reliable way to “source” that information.

Analysts

The analysts trust their knowledge based on their personal analysis. Even if it is wrong. What matters in their context is that their logic makes sense.

2 big problems occur here if the analyst doesn’t know something is a fact. They succumb to hypercognition or hypocognition. Both are metacognitive tools that lead to erroneous analyses.

  1. Hypercognition means a cognitive tool for analysis (often called a mental model) is over-applied or incorrectly applied to a problem. For example, if you’ve learned what profit and loss are, you erroneously apply it to a relationship. Let’s say you understand profit and loss well because you’ve been in a business. You’ve learned that your shop’s profit is another shop’s loss (this is a zero-sum game in economics). But now you over-apply this logic to a relationship situation like a decision-making conflict. Your partner wants pizza, and you want Chinese food. You don’t have a restaurant around you that does both. So if you get Chinese food, your partner does not get pizza. If you apply your profit-loss logic using the zero-sum game, the outcome is a compromise for your relationship. But it isn’t a compromise for your business. In some places, a mental model is inappropriate. To overcome this, the analyst has to learn multiple ways to analyze a problem and understand each method is unique to its context.
  • Hypocognition means a person lacks the words and mental tools to understand and recognize something. Lacking the words to describe a color makes it hard to discuss that color. Without a reference point, it is nearly impossible to describe it. While analyzing, if the analyst does not know the words, the technical details, or the context of a problem, the analyst is in hypocognition for that problem. This is philosophically called the “Unknown Unknown.” Without the words and technical details, the analyst is blind to the important details. So, the analysis itself leaves out crucial points, and it turns out to be faulty.
The analysts trust their knowledge based on their personal analysis.

Intuitors

The intuitors are similar but with lesser analysis. They tend to trust their knowledge at a more fundamental level. They also tend to use heuristics like equating feelings to facts.

Intuitors use feelings as a heuristic. That is, their analysis occurs at a subconscious level and it’s consciously affirmed based on the feeling they get after that subconscious processing is over. What we know from research is that this is a quick and powerful judgment.

Let’s demystify this intuitive experience. 2 core factors matter here.

  1. Crystallized intelligence – the overall intelligence acquired through a wide variety of experiences. This is stored as an abstract layer in a context. This knowledge is derived from experience and micro-learnings. It’s not formally organized like one would while learning for an exam. When we rely on crystallized intelligence, we can’t find a clear logic to make a conclusion, except for the feeling that comes from crystallized intelligence influencing our conclusion.
  2. Procedural memory – all the movements, events, and processes that have repeatedly occurred in the past are stored as procedural memories and memory patterns. Neurons trigger these memories without deliberate thinking when some current stimuli or cue matches that is embedded in the memory. So, the sight of a sluggish dog can trigger the agony of a past pet with a stomach disorder. The whole experience of interacting with the pet would be a procedural memory with the “sluggish dog = bad stomach” logic embedded in it.

But they also often prioritize different types of information. They may, on the one hand, agree they don’t know enough. But that takes lesser priority than what their subjective truth is. They often fail to see the boundary between subjectivity and objectivity.

The commonality between analysts & intuitors

For analysts and intuitors, another process called sense-making is more relevant. It’s a process by which we justify our experiences in any way that makes them believable and acceptable. It’s a rationalizing and justification process. The goal of sense-making is to answer the question, “Why?”

So, in the question I asked at the start (“Do animals feel emotions?”), sense-making means finding an answer to “Why do I believe that animals feel emotions?” The answer to that “Why?” is a mix of logic, intuition, heuristics, etc.

Both types of answers on Quora display their logic in a way that makes sense to them. The heuristic here is simpler – if it makes sense, it is correct. They don’t question “why” it makes sense.

For example, in the context of animals feeling emotion, people may conclude that trees, viruses, bacteria, etc., are all like animals, but not all are biologically endowed with a brain. So maybe their experience of emotions is different.

However, because some animals have brains, faces, social behaviors, and vocalizations like ours, people may conclude that their experiences of emotions must be similar to ours.

From Bloom’s perspective, they operate with the “create” component because they essentially create their logic and use that as a source of knowledge.

Challengers

Challengers operate on all 6 levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, but that isn’t their main focus. Their core is the “evaluate” component. They question whether the question itself is accurate and whether it assumes something wrong.

I call them the challengers because sometimes, the challenger is overthinking, and the essence of the question is lost. For example, debating the nature of animals and emotion from a philosophical standpoint will neither serve the question asker nor the answerer.

A wise friend who has guided many PhD students said, “The last type (challengers) may not always be desirable. There are people who do not want to express their thoughts. Instead of writing for or against, they continue to ask endless, meaningless questions.”

Challengers may treat answering questions and debating the premise like a spectator sport. Their intellectual kick may emerge from the back-and-forth of the debate.

Still, testing the assumptions of a question and asking follow-up questions is a valid way to validate your knowledge and provide accurate answers.

Ok… so what?

In all fairness, my judgment is that all 4 types have given good, accurate answers on Quora, and all 4 have given blatantly wrong, misleading, or obfuscating answers. Which type are you?

In philosophy, understanding the source and nature of knowledge itself is known as epistemology. Psychologists have left this domain to the philosopher because the very nature of knowledge seems outside the scope of experimentation. However, the mechanism and types of sharers are well within our grasp. The heuristics we use, the judgments of reliability, the type of explanations we get, etc., are ways to understand the “trust element” of our knowledge.

Take this critical thinking test if you’d like. All the questions must be evaluated before you answer, but none require domain expertise. It’s a gateway to learn how and why you use logic to come up with answers. It shows specific faults in thinking, and questions misguide you. While answering the question, your brain will go through all 4 types of approaches I’ve outlined.

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