Sophia McClennen, PhD appeared on a recent StarTalk episode and this quote caught me, “What we’re seeing today isn’t a distinction so much between ignorance and knowledge, it’s misinformed versus uninformed versus informed.” Forget the “today” aspect and focus on it as a stand-alone statement. This is a continuum worth writing down.
Before we can examine someone else’s argument we have to assess our own understanding. In its simplest form, we want to know what we think and why we think it. As Charlie Munger said, “I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.” Munger is OK with a strongly held view, so long as the person has put in the work. That also requires us to respect the depth and nuance of the data enough to know what would change our own mind. In other words, we must be able to think scientifically about opinions – which is where McClennen’s continuum becomes really useful. If we know what will change our mind, then we’re ready to diagnostically assess what could deepen someone else’s understanding or even change their mind.
In the world of financial advice, it’s never surprising to find some aspect of financial planning or investing that we know more about than our clients. After all, they do hire us for our expertise and perspective, so we should expect to find some gap. What is important is that we never take for granted what another person thinks they know. If someone is misinformed, there are a bevy of reasons why we’ll need to tread carefully. We’ll need to identify the “bad” information first, and then understand why it stuck with them before we go about trying to inform them. If someone is uninformed, we’ll need to gauge how much “good” information they’ll need to encourage improved behavior. Different people will require different qualities and quantities of information. If someone is already well-informed, we should consider what the best method of validation is.
If we use the continuum to help us understand a person’s starting condition, we can always tack by asking ourselves if they’ll be better informed after our interaction than they were before it, even if it’s just via validation. By making sure we understand the information as well as the difference in attitudes between being misinformed, uninformed, and informed prior to trying to help, we can improve our odds of making a positive and lasting difference.