The myth of not knowing



I think most people in their life have answered a question with ‘I don’t know.’

But often that answer is a lie.

I don’t know can mean:

  • I’m not willing to work out the answer
  • I think I know but I might be wrong
  • I don’t want to tell you
  • I don’t think you’ll like what I have to say

A common example of using the phrase is in education. I remember being around 13 years old and being asked questions in class. I would only ever want to answer a question if I was certain that I would be right. So, when the teacher would pick on me to answer a question I didn’t feel certain about, I was always reluctant to offer anything more than the three words, I don’t know. If it was in maths class and I had to work something out I hated the thought of having everyones eyes on me as I made a mistake. Just the thought of it made me uncomfortable. It was easier to not try because I was scared to fail.

I think the feelings I associated with failing or getting things wrong was greater than the effort it took to try.

There was a theory I learnt in sociology class about crime. It was something along the lines of people choosing to commit crimes when the the reward is high and the risk is low. The theory explained the choice to commit crime as a rationalised thought process. Relating this back to my previous point. When I would get asked a question the reward would be praise from a teacher and if the question was particularly challenging, praise from classmates. However, the attention of being praised didn’t really appeal to me much. So in my case, the reward didn’t outweigh the risk.

However that example is more specific to cases where there is a set answer.

Often the answer of ‘I don’t know’ comes when there is no answer. For example, discussing ideas in a group. There have been times when I’ve sat in groups and not been willing to give an answer or offer an idea for various reasons. Sometimes it’s because I don’t think what I offer to have is good enough, or I don’t think everyone else will like what I have to say, maybe they wont think its good enough.

The use of ‘I don’t know’ can be linked to a confidence thing, a comfort zone thing or maybe you’re just lazy.

But here’s an idea:

It’s far better to fail time and time again than to not try at all because it doesn’t really take effort to decide that you never want to be wrong. And not ever being wrong creates the illusion of infallibility.

I think that the worst of all is saying ‘I don’t know’ when someone asks your opinion because it’s understandable to not want to be wrong but why would you commit yourself to not having an opinion?

The next time someone asks you a question how about instead of saying ‘I don’t know’ be willing to give your self a point of view. You don’t have to commit yourself to knowing the right answer but at least try and figure it out.




3 thoughts on “The myth of not knowing

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