I know what I know. Right? Two authors I have been reading summarize research showing that we typically are not very good at knowing what we know now or recalling what we think we knew before.
In his 1976 classic Perception and Misperception in International Politics, Columbia University professor Robert Jervis summarizes research that shows, “People often not only have a limited understanding of the workings of others’ arguments, they also do not know the structure of their own belief systems—what values are most important, how some beliefs are derived from others, and what evidence would contradict their views. Particularly dangerous is the tendency to take the most important questions for granted…This often involves..failing to scrutinize basic assumptions” (410-411).
Highlighting a vast amount of recent research into the neuroscience of memory in his 2015 book The Brain, Stanford University professor David Eagleman writes, “Although we don’t always realize it, the memory is not as rich as you might have expected…The enemy..isn’t time; it’s other memories. Each new event needs to establish new relationships among a finite number of neurons. The surprise is that a faded memory doesn’s seem faded to you…Our past is not a faithful record. Instead it’s a reconstruction” (23-26). “Our picture of the external world isn’t necessarily an accurate representation. Our perception of reality has less to do with what’s happening out there, and more to do with what’s happening inside our brain” (38).
If we are not good at knowing what we know or remembering accurately, then what can we do? These same lines of research highlight two human strengths: (1) our partial perspectives and (2) our error-correcting ability to calibrate.
Our partial perspectives. We each perceive a rich world of sensations, inputs that we each are uniquely able to perceive and process. Combining a set of rich perspectives different individuals have about an experience can lead to a more nuanced, multi-dimensional understanding of a given phenomenon. This integrated set can then be tested against evidence: how the system actually behaves. Systemic, multi-stakeholder processes, like the ones we have tested and developed, at the Institute for Strategic Clarity, are one method for capturing, integrating, and validating this kind of richness.
Our error-correcting ability to calibrate. Our brains seem to focus on correcting errors in the mental representation it already has of the world. The brain is calibrating. “Instead of using your senses to constantly rebuild your reality from scratch every moment, you’re compaing sensory information with a model the brain has already constructed: updating it, refining it, correcting it” (53 The Brain). ”The brain generates its own reality, even before it receives information coming in from the eyes and the other senses…(For example, the) thalamus simply reports on differences between what the eyes are reporting, and what the brain’s internal model has predicted…what gets sent back to the visual cortex is what fell short in the expectation” (51-52 The Brain). This act of calibration is a strength. Using evidence-based mapping, we can see what actually exists more rigorously and use that mapping to calibrate our individual mental representations, the mental models we use all day long to make decisions.
To apply these concepts of partial perspectives, weak memory accuracy, and calibration to complex social issues like human agreements, we need rigorous frameworks for integrating and validating what we know. Especially since we also know that human agreements can be very hard to see, tools like Agreements Evidence Mapping are ever more critical for (1) capturing and validating partial perspectives, (2) integrating them into one whole, strategic representation that can be validated, around (3) often hidden agreements we have unconsciously accepted, that (4) we agree to shift. Maybe I do not know what I know, most of the time, but I can.