The 7 Illusions of Knowing

Can you trust what you know? It might seem like a strange question, but what I mean is, do you think you have a clear insight into what you know and what you don’t know? Alternatively, are you being tricked by your brain into thinking that you know something well when actually you don’t?

Illusions of Knowing

These tricks are called “illusions of knowing”. They are essential to consider when you are learning something new because otherwise, you can unknowingly end up with gaps in your knowledge and skills. Or, to put it another way, you can only really learn effectively if you have a good awareness of what you do, and what you don’t, already know.

Self-monitoring your learning progress and performance, whether at an individual level or as part of your organisation’s learning culture, is critical to ensuring that you can maximise your learning potential and reap the benefits of your expertise.


This ability to have an insight into your skills and abilities more broadly fits into what’s called “metacognition” in scientific terms. This is your ability to think realistically about your thoughts.

Within this, there are several different types of knowing illusions which interfere with your ability to accurately realise what you know, and which in turn impact with your own performance and the way you interact with others. They can also influence what you consider to be the real truth about something. In the worst case scenario, they can even allow you to think that you are really smart when you may be rather incompetent about something.

So what kinds of illusions of knowing are there that you could be susceptible to? Here are 7 to think about:

  • False memories.

    Memory is open to many biases and distortions. This is because memory isn’t like a movie reel but is instead a reconstructive process which requires you to rebuild the memory from pieces of existing knowledge. This reconstructive process is open to inference. For example, new or alternative pieces of knowledge can be included by accident, often without you realising, and causing your memory to morph over time. So you might think you know something, but actually, errors have appeared in your memory causing you to no longer have an accurate set of knowledge.

  • Hindsight bias.

    This is the idea that you know something better with hindsight. So you confidently announce that you knew exactly why something happened that day, self-confirming your knowledge, when actually that morning you had no idea what was going to happen. This hindsight bias can also mean that you forget how difficult it is for others to learn about a topic that you already know about. You fail to put yourself in their shoes and so find yourself unable effectively mentor them.

  • The feeling of knowing.

    This is the effect where something you hear repeatedly can be taken as being the truth even if it isn’t. This is simply because by repeating it, the information comes to sound more familiar to you and therefore you may be more likely to believe it. In this instance, you have learned factually incorrect or biased information, and therefore you still don’t know the real truth, even if you mistakenly think you do.

  • Fluency illusions.

    Fluency is the idea that something that is presented in a manner that is easy for the brain to process – for example using perceptually fluent visual styles which feel more familiar and easier to engage with – give the illusion of knowing. This is because the fluency of the content leads you to think that you have a good understanding of not only the content but also the underlying concepts. However, the truth is that you probably still only have a superficial understanding of the topic based on the presentation you saw, and still need to learn more to obtain a deeper understanding.

  • Memory conformity

    This is the idea that you tend to align your memories with those around you. The consequence of this is that your memories don’t just become infused with your recall errors, but also incorporate other people’s memory errors too. Things that they incorrectly remember can be “caught” by you, as people reminisce about shared experiences. 

  • False consensus effect

    This is the effect where you fail to realise that other people don’t see past and current events in the same way as you do. In other words, their memories and beliefs of a shared event are different from yours. This is because everyone’s’ brain is different. They perceive the world differently They attend to the world differently. They encode the world differently. Moreover, they interpret the world differently. So knowledge is not fixed. It is unique to you.

  • Dunning-Kruger effect

    The final effect on this list is the fact that some people tend to overestimate their abilities, especially if they are still only a novice in that skill or topic. The consequence of this is that they don’t see the need to improve further – they think they know it all already – and therefore, they can never improve. Interestingly, people who are already more accomplished in something don’t seem to have, such as an overinflated sense of their competence, so it is an early barrier on your learning journey to watch out for.

One thing that can help avoid this bias and some of the other illusions of knowing in this list is to gain a greater insight – or metacognition – into your abilities. So how do you do this? Well, one relatively straightforward way is by regularly receive constructive feedback from others to ensure you have a realistic view of your knowledge and abilities.

Check in with others

So next time you think you know something, just take a moment to check yourself. Do you have an illusion of knowing that is stopping you identify where you still have gaps in your knowledge? Or do you have a good awareness of what you know?

Either way, checking in with others to make sure you that have an accurate picture of your skills and abilities is always a useful exercise on the road of continual brain improvement.

For more interesting topics on attention please visit The Learning Lab

If you would like to find out more about the illusions of knowing and how to teach your organization to learn effectively please get in touch with us at Synaptic Potential.

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