Kaidi Wu and David Dunning wrote an article for Scientific American called Unknown Unknowns: The Problem of Hypocognition.

« Often, human fate rests not on what people know but what they fail to know. Often, life’s outcomes are determined by hypocognition…  Hypocognition, a term introduced to modern behavioral science by anthropologist Robert Levy, means the lack of a linguistic or cognitive representation for an object, category, or idea… [We are] hypocognitive of the numerous concepts that elude our awareness. We wander about the unknown terrains of life as novices more often than experts, complacent of what we know and oblivious to what we miss. »

« In Russian, for example, dark blue (sinii) and light blue (goluboi) are as distinct as red and pink. But in English, we know blue as a single concept. The deprivation of finer-grained color concepts poses a great perceptual disadvantage. English speakers more easily confuse blue shades, not because we have poorer vision, but because we lack the more granular distinctions in the language we speak. »

« Perhaps herein lies the greatest peril of hypocognition. It is facing a concept that captures something we cannot fathom, an exotic emotion we cannot grasp, a certain idea that arouses in others fervor and enthusiasm but strikes us as nothing but foreign and bizarre, a certain principle that must, against our own reason, be unreasonable. »

« If hypocognition impoverishes our knowledge and understanding, how do we become free of it? The attempt to reduce hypocognition should be a delicate pursuit, because going too far against hypocognition makes us vulnerable to its opposite—hypercognition. To suffer from hypercognition is to over-apply a familiar concept to circumstances where it does not belong. Psychological stress, for example, has a real yet complex relationship to physical illness. But people often overextend the concept. Despite what many believe, stress does not cause ulcers or irritable bowel syndrome. It might exacerbate an episode of eczema, but in no way is it the cause of the malady. »

« And who are most likely to fall prey to hypercognition? Experts. Experts who are confined by their own expertise. Experts who overuse the constricted set of concepts salient in their own profession while neglecting a broader array of equally valid concepts. Given a patient, a heart specialist is more likely to diagnose heart disease than an infectious disease expert, who is more likely to see the work of a virus. The bias toward what is known may lead to wrong or delayed diagnoses that bring harmful consequences. »


David Dunning is a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. He is famous for his work with Justin Kruger known as Dunning-Kruger Effect.

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