Not having a right answer? Do Millennials really think that we are always right and that we know everything? Is this trait exclusive to the younger generations, or something common to humanity in general? Is being a know-it-all the result of being college educated? Propagandized? Am I guilty of this too? (Yes I must be...look at what I write about!)
Always thinking that you are right is a fault to be sure. It annoys others, inhibits curiosity and promotes myopia. If you think you already know something, then you are less likely to seek more information or to think critically, especially about your entrenched belief systems. So is there any way to avoid this personality flaw of know-it-all syndrome? What qualities can we cultivate in ourselves to combat always needing to have the right answer?
Why Do We Think That We Are Right?
One can just as easily argue, however, that the need to have the right answers is actually common to many individuals of all ages. In fact, it may stem from a cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect, whereby people of lower skill or understanding mistakenly feel that their knowledge of something is greater than it really is. Paradoxically, the more mastery one gains, the less one may feel that they know. (More on this later in the post.)
The French philosopher Jaques Ellul argued that the need to be right is deep-seated psychologically, and may also partially be the cultural by-product of living in a liberal democracy. In his masterwork, Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, Ellul writes:
One of man's greatest inner needs is to feel that he is right. This need takes several forms. First, man needs to be right in his own eyes. He must be able to assert that he is right, that he does what he should, that he is worthy of his own respect. Then, man needs to be right in the eyes of those around him, his family, his milieu, his ' co-workers, his friends, his country. Finally, he feels the need to belong to a group, which he considers right and which he can proclaim as just, noble, and good. 
Ellul goes on to argue that the psychological need to have the right answer is exacerbated by living in a liberal democracy. People are compelled to participate in government, therefore, everyone feels the need to have an opinion on everything no matter how complex the issue:
[The masses] are faced with choices and decisions which demand maturity, knowledge, and a range of information which they do not and cannot have. Elections are limited to the selection of individuals, which reduces the problem of participation to its simplest form. But the individual wishes to participate in other ways than just elections. He wants to be conversant with economic questions. In fact, his government asks him to be. He wants to form an opinion on foreign policy. But in reality he can't. He is caught between his desire and his inability, which he refuses to accept. For no citizen will believe that he is unable to have opinions. Public opinion surveys always reveal that people have opinions even on the most complicated questions, except for a small minority (usually the most informed and those who have reflected most). 
Suspending Judgement, Thinking Critically
Another error is an impatience of doubt and haste to assertion without due and mature suspension of judgment. For the two ways of contemplation are not unlike the two ways of action commonly spoken of by the ancients; the one plain and smooth in the beginning, and in the end impassable; the other rough and troublesome in the entrance, but after a while fair and even. So it is in contemplation; if a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties. 
When Bacon refers to the ancients, he is likely talking about the Socratic Method - a system of cooperative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions (raising doubts) to draw out underlying presumptions. It is a dialectical method, involving a discussion in which one point of view is questioned and one participant may lead another to contradict themselves in some way, thus weakening the defender's original point that they were very certain about before the process began. Asking questions is magic because you’re forcing someone to think about their sources and why they think a certain way.
You should also question your own conclusions. What Bacon is talking about is that it's never a good idea to reason from your conclusions (certainties) without having analyzed them first. We often do, however, because we have never been taught essential critical thinking skills, or because we get lazy and default to our pre-existing belief systems and fail to give each thing it's due (I know I'm sometimes guilty of this). The more essential to your beliefs a thought is, the more carefully it should be examined.
You can learn more about critical thinking at the Trivium Education website. To learn more about the 3 parts of rhetoric, see Ethos, Logos, Pathos. My friend Dr. Greg Sadler has also posted videos of his entire series of critical thinking lectures from one of his philosophy classes on Youtube.
Overcoming Know-It-All Syndrome: Humility and Curiosity
Jaques Ellul held that a reasonable person is humble enough to admit when they might be not have enough information or might be wrong. Being reasonably humble takes a certain amount of maturity, and Ellul felt that this quality is the proper end goal of social and personal development. We become more reasonable by continually expanding our capabilities for self-examination and judgement:
A reasonable person recognizes the limits and uncertainty of sources of information and shows a certain intellectual humility, being ready to cede ground to others in the light of additional facts or better judgements.
Consistent with research on the Dunning-Kruger cognitive bias, more competent individuals actually tended to be humble and underestimate their knowledge and abilities. Socrates felt that there was much he did not know despite the Delphic Oracle's assertion that he was wise. W.B. Yeats wrote something similar in his poem The Second Coming: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity." Similar observations have been made by Bertrand Russell, Shakespeare, and Confucius.
Thinking is fundamentally driven by questions, not answers. This is why doubt, not certainty, is so important. Doubt is the starting place that leads us to question the assumptions that have lead us to a particular conclusion, and doubt is what drives us to learn more if we will humble ourselves enough to consider that we may be wrong. Constant learning, from a place of humble confidence, rather than a place of arrogance, is the antidote to know-it-all syndrome.
2. Ellul, Jaques, Propaganda. p. 155
3.. ibid., p. 139
4. Bacon, Francis, The Advancement of Learning. http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/bacon-the-advancement-of-learning
6. Fortner, r. 2014. Handbook of Mass Media Communication Theory. West Sussex: Wiley. Google Books.
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