Is selection bias limiting your story?

Hidden Subway Entrance

How do you know what you don’t know?

It can be one of the hardest tasks to get students to go beyond their own opinions, especially those in the traditional college age range. I speak from two-fold experience: 1) When I was that age, I pretty much knew everything. Over the years, I have realized that I still don’t know what I don’t know, but I can tell that there is a lot within that area of the mental map labeled “There be dragons here.” 2) I’ve worked with thousands of college students at this point in my life (rough estimate: about 7,000). Bonus experience: I have four kids over the age of 25. Most have gone from thinking Dad was just stupid to thinking that maybe he know something worthwhile.

This goes beyond communication skills, but it is part of it. You may not realize that you don’t have full information. You may have a sense that there is a gap in your knowledge, but you have no way of knowing how deep it is. It’s like that door in the sidewalk above. You know there is something there, but how can you possibly know if it is a small room, a single level, or an entire underground city?

I was thinking about this lately when I saw the response of several friends to their results from a Web site. I learned about the site from a Twitter post, accompanied by the comment, “I identify most with somebody I never heard of!” In fact, that was the comment more often than not.

At this point, people have pretty much made up their minds in the U.S. presidential election, even though we have yet to officially hold the major party conventions. When I first heard of this site, there were still 13 or so Republican candidates. There are always multiple “third parties,” though no one in this country generally pays much attention to them (except this time, when the Libertarian Party is getting at least some traction).

I’m not so much thinking of politics as the focus here, though, but rather as the example. My general observation from both Facebook and real life is that people get pretty dug into their positions, and won’t consider alternatives, much less that there might be better alternatives than they current know about. I don’t think it’s a particularly American problem, though my ability to assess that is limited (I don’t know what I don’t know, but I know it’s there). It seems to be pretty universal from humans, based on what I see from social media and traditional media.

It is difficult, but (in my opinion) essential to help students recognize the need to listen to other people without necessarily either agreeing with them or arguing with them. That is a difficult line to walk. But our culture is poorer for our unwillingness or inability to do so.

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Author: Donn King

Donn King works with people who want to forge top-notch speaking skills to increase their influence and impact so they can advance their career or business. He is associate professor of communication studies at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.