On ‘common knowledge’

In the real world there are a lot of areas where it is completely natural for a person not to know very much, if anything, about it. Humans are not born imprinted with knowledge about, say, the lastest Greek employment figures, or how photosynthesis works.

Some people would say there’s a difference between the two. And that there are some things which are more important to know than others.

From a practical point of view, this is certainly true; knowledge about the finer details regarding the collapse of the Inca Empire will generally not be as useful when engaging in social interaction with most people as will knowledge about the latest soccer results or the latest political reform proposals (trust me on this one). People usually have a good idea which kind of stuff they’re supposed to know something about in order best to socially engage with others, and as long as other people play along and engage in the same kinds of conversations and search for the same kinds of knowledge social interaction is relatively easy.

Most people who interact with people they don’t know terribly well engage in the same kinds of knowledge exchange dynamics. They know a lot about which subjects are kosher and which aren’t, and the pool of acceptable conversation topics is actually incredibly small once you start to think about it. It’s not that you need to know everything about all the acceptable topics, but if you’ve picked a few of them out and made an effort of obtaining a bit of knowledge about them you should be okay. Social expectations play a large role here. It’s not considered bad form to bring up a subject the other party knows nothing about; what is considered bad form is to bring up a subject the other party ‘cannot be expected to know anything about’. The topics other people can be expected to know something about is drawn from a usually quite short list. Expectations regarding what kind of- and even which specific bits of knowledge you’re supposed to possess are to a large extent formed around the ‘acceptable conversation topics’. Given the expectations people possess it is very important for an individual wishing to engage others socially to know at least something about some of the acceptable conversation topics, and/because if the individual doesn’t know anything about X he might suffer status loss or even social rejection. Given this, an individual will perhaps sometimes feel the need to signal that he knows stuff he doesn’t actually know. He may even feel the need to signal that he knows stuff it would be unreasonable of anyone to expect him to know, given the specific context. The specific context will often be considered irrelevant because expectations are formed mostly independently of these, and the social expectations are considered common knowledge; everyone knows that if you’re heading for a political discussion, you’re supposed to be able to say a few words about, say, global warming, or immigration. These are areas where you’re basically not allowed not to have an opinion.

Every bit of knowledge one obtains is another bit of knowledge not obtained. In order to engage in an acceptable level of social interaction, it may be necessary to obtain information about X which one would not otherwise have obtained. Such information should be considered a cost related to the social exhange. A cost the minimization of which would probably easiest be achieved by trying to impact the expectations of the other people involved. Even though expectations are as mentioned above to a large extent independent of the individual, the community expectations are not completely exogenous – what you expect others to know and be interested in may change their expectations in the long run. That is to say, rather than trying to save face by claiming to know stuff one doesn’t, it might be a strategy worth considering to perhaps rather let the other party know that one does not consider this area of knowledge as important or interesting as Y (‘…which is totally awesome because …’).

I have met a lot of people over time who were claiming to know stuff they clearly didn’t know – and my experience is surely far from unique. When you spend a lot of time in a social environment where people’s expectations about what you have to offer/what you know and what you actually do have to offer/know do not match, or in an environment where you feel that it is very important that you make a good impression, this is clearly what you’ll sometimes get – people pretending to know stuff they don’t, and/or be someone they’re not, because they dislike obtaining knowledge about X but would prefer not to incur a social cost from not knowing about X.

An interesting thing is that the sanction from being ‘overconfident’, or perhaps even a liar, will sometimes be smaller than the implicit sanction from not accepting the, again implicit, ‘acceptable/unacceptable topics’ framework. The first one at least plays the game, the second one doesn’t – and if you don’t, you need a good excuse.

I’m sure pretty much everyone has at least some notion about which kind of knowledge ‘you’re supposed to know’ to be ‘fit for social interaction’. But I also tend to believe that the best way to behave in this weird world is to act as if there isn’t. If adults asked as many questions as children do, people would know a lot more stuff and it would be a lot easier to engage others and find topics to talk about. It’s as if it’s not okay socially not to know stuff and openly display that you don’t know – and I hate that! Not knowing is the default state, and it’s unreasonable to expect people to know very much, compared to how much there is to know, or to expect preference homogeneity; i.e. that the costs incurred from obtaining knowledge about X are the same for everybody. It’s unreasonable also because it will sometimes give people an incentive to behave in a deceitful manner which will only harm both them and you.

I think it makes a lot of sense to deliberately try not to think of oneself as ‘well informed’ or ‘knowledgeable’ when engaging others. I’ve thought this way myself in the past, but I believe it’s the wrong way to approach matters. So what to do instead? Well, it’s simple really: Think of yourself as ‘curious’.


September 9, 2012 - Posted by | rambling nonsense

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