Living in ignorance about our ignorance

Kaidi Wu and David Dunning write:

In 1806, entrepreneur Frederic Tudor sailed to the island of Martinique with a precious cargo. He had harvested ice from frozen Massachusetts rivers and expected to make a tidy profit selling it to tropical customers. There was only one problem: the islanders had never seen ice. They had never experienced a cold drink, never tasted a pint of ice cream. Refrigeration was not a celebrated innovation, but an unknown concept. In their eyes, there was no value in Tudor’s cargo. His sizable investment melted away unappreciated and unsold in the Caribbean heat.

Tudor’s ice tale contains an important point about human affairs. Often, human fate rests not on what people know but what they fail to know. Often, life’s outcomes are determined by hypocognition.

What is hypocognition? If you don’t know, you’ve just experienced it.

Hypocognition, a term introduced to modern behavioral science by anthropologist Robert Levy, means the lack of a linguistic or cognitive representation for an object, category, or idea. The Martinique islanders were hypocognitive because they lacked a cognitive representation of refrigeration. But so are we hypocognitive of the numerous concepts that elude our awareness. We wander about the unknown terrains of life as novices more often than experts, complacent of what we know and oblivious to what we miss.

In financial dealings, almost two thirds of Americans are hypocognitive of compound interest, unaware of how much saving money can benefit them and how quickly debt can crush them. In health, a full third of people suffering from Type II diabetes remain hypocognitive of the illness. They fail to seek needed treatment—despite recognizing blurry vision, dry mouth, frequent urination—because they lack the underlying concept that would unify the disparate warning signals into a single alarm.

Hypocognition is about the absence of things. It is hard to recognize precisely because it is invisible. To recognize hypocognition requires a departure from the reassuring familiarity of our own culture to gain a grasp of the unknown and the missing. After all, it is difficult to see the culture we inhabit from only within. [Continue reading…]

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