Being Knowledgeable

There are two good stories in the Primary Sources section of this month’s Atlantic (subscription required). The first is a summary of a recent Pew survey that indicates

most knowledgeable Americans were those who got their news from the Web sites of major papers and those who watched programs like The Colbert Report or The Daily Show; they correctly answered 54 percent of the questions about current affairs, while regular viewers of local TV news and network morning shows got only about 35 percent right….

And while it’s hard to know which sources provide the best information, the report notes that well-informed people gather their news from an average of 7.0 sources—more than the average of 4.6.

The second is about being knowledgeable about the “enemy”. To understand any adversary you need to get inside their head. This is true for sports, business, and war (which are all related concepts sharing a common vocabulary of course). In a story about detecting lying, a behavior frequently accompanying by tells, those who worked with the subject culture, in this case kids, scored higher than those who did not.

The researchers selected a group of preschoolers and left each of them seated alone in a room, asking them not to peek at a toy that was behind them, out of their view. The researchers videotaped their actions, then asked each child, “Did you peek?” The responses were shown to 64 adults selected from summer courses at Rutgers University, who were asked to determine whether each child was telling the truth. The adults’ scores varied widely—they were right 12 percent to 84 percent of the time—but their average score was just 41 percent; chance alone would have given them 50 percent. (Most adults, including parents, erred on the side of suspicion, believing some children were lying when they were being honest.) But one group of adults—those who work with children professionally, including teachers and child psychologists—routinely outperformed the rest of the sample. More than a third of the professionals detected the liars at least 60 percent of the time; only one nonprofessional was able to match that rate.