The Illusion of Explanatory Depth and Personality

By PCS - 04/13/2021


As people, we construct our world to make sense. Despite our limited knowledge and understanding of the world, we are able to navigate complex situations primarily through the use of behavioral patterns and strategies. Perhaps as a result of our functional capacity, we gain a false sense of confidence regarding our understanding of the systems around us that form our world. This phenomenon wherein we overestimate our explanatory knowledge is known as the illusion of explanatory depth.

The illusion of explanatory depth was first researched in a study conducted at Yale University1. Within the study, participants were asked to estimate their understanding of common household objects such as locks, toilets, and zippers. Participants were then asked to write detailed explanations including the mechanisms by which each of these devices actually work. In doing so, participants quickly became aware of their limited understanding. Subsequently, participants lowered their subjective rating of understanding regarding each of the devices. It would seem that many of the ordinary objects we use in our daily lives are anything but ordinary and are, in fact, complex and brilliantly designed marvels of human ingenuity. It is only when we engage in the process of explaining these items that we fully come to realize and appreciate their complexity.

As I considered the illusion of explanatory depth I became curious regarding my understanding of not only common household objects, but also the thing I spend the most time with; myself. Do I actually understand myself to the depth that I believe I do, or is it just the illusion of explanatory depth in play? As a professional working within the mental health field, I regularly review personality assessments with clients. In doing so, I am often intrigued by the manner in which individuals come to understand themselves. We often believe we understand ourselves much better than we actually do. While some aspects of our personalities are quite apparent to each of us, much of the depth of our personality appears to exist outside of our passing observations.

Much like the zipper or lock within the aforementioned study, it is only when we actively engaged in the process of explaining the mechanisms of our personalities do we come to fully realize and appreciate the complexity found within each of us. Moreover, it becomes apparent that we are each challenged by engaging in accurate and effective self-assessment. I would encourage you to ask yourself the following questions:

“What is a personality?”

“What a does a personality do?”

“How does a personality work?”

In providing a detailed explanation to each of the questions above we can begin to understand ourselves better. Importantly, we can begin to outline how we might better meet our needs and the needs of others within our relationships. Given how much time we spend with ourselves and others, isn’t it time to better understand personality?

– Article by Jude Alatorre, Psy.D

1 Rozenbilt, L., & Keil, F. (2002). The misunderstood limits of folk science: An illusion of explanatory depth. Cognitive Science, 26, 521-562

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