The Pressure to "Know it all"

Continuing the discussion from We're all biased:

As I listened and reflected on @kathleen’s perspective, I wanted to think more about the pressure to “know it all.” Here are some of my initial thoughts; I’d like to hear from others if this is of interest to them.

I often feel the pressure to “know it all.” I can blame this on the expectations of others, but it’s probably motivated by my own pride.

For seven years I served students at Harvard in campus ministry. During that time I read Expecting Adam by Martha N. Beck. In it, she writes of rushing into a graduate seminar a few minutes late. The instructor calls her out and so she tries to explain herself: “I was upstairs in the Psych lab, watching rats swim around in a Smurf pool.” That is, in a nearby lab, one of her friends had rats swimming in a backyard pool tub decorated with pictures from the Smurf cartoons.

But to her surprise, her instructor, professor, and fellow graduate students all began to talk about their interest in Smurf’s research. Playing along, she said, “I think that Smurf is going to change the whole direction of linguistic epistemology.” And everyone expressed their agreement.

Martha observes, “And thus I learned that at Harvard, while knowing a great deal is the norm and knowing everything is the goal, appearing to know everything is considered an acceptable substitute.”

I’m no longer immersed in the Harvard bubble, but social media can exert the same pressure. As one academic paper found, “In sum, out-group language is the strongest predictor of social media engagement across all relevant predictors measured, suggesting that social media may be creating perverse incentives for content expressing out-group animosity.”

In simpler terms, the data shows that if you want to go viral on social media, your best strategy is to regularly show your tribe how awful their opponents are. “We’re right, they’re wrong” is a winning message.

The pressure is real. So here are two ways out:

  1. Make it a habit to say, “I don’t know.”
  2. Be curious about different perspectives

Do you feel the pressure to know it all? What helps you resist it?


I’ve been sitting with this more too! :slight_smile: What makes it difficult to say ‘I don’t know’?

Maybe there are some instances where I find it’s ‘acceptable’ to do so, but, for the most part, those words tend to get stuck in my throat. I always want to appear like I at least know something. Pride? Sure; it’s an element. But, for me, it’s also been about fear of judgement…particularly, fear of being condemned as incompetent…which, ultimately, is about me placing greatest value on being useful and helpful…having ability. Incompetence is NOT helpful. Competence is what’s needed. Able people are valuable. Incompetence, inability needs to be removed from the picture so that the system can function efficiently…helpfully.

Furthermore to say, ‘I don’t know’ in certain capacities could invite the cold retort: ‘Why not? You ought to. It’s your job to know. Is this laziness or stupidity?’ This kind of mindset leaves only two sources of ignorance – one is a moral failing, one a mechanical failing. Of course, what’s worse is to be both!

This is incredibly demeaning language, so it’s really no wonder that I sat that phrase hesitantly and reluctantly! :laughing: But I liked your encouragement to get into the habit of saying ‘I don’t know’ and then address ‘ignorance’ with curiosity. Responding with curiosity generally takes the sting out of shame. Humans are not machines. We are limited, and therefore, ‘ignorant’ of many things. Not knowing doesn’t have to be a shameful experience.

Carson, (or anyone else?) what would you say is beyond your desire to appear knowledgeable? Would it be similar to what I’ve expressed?