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585: In Defense of Ignorance

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Prologue

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. So one of the people who works on our radio show, her brother was going through a rough time. And he called their mom, kind of panicking. And the mom was like, you know, you just need to stop thinking about this stuff. And he was like, Mom, that is not possible.

And she was like, that is totally possible. What you have to do is you have to take the bad thought and put it into a box in your head. Then, you have to take the box out of your head, and put it in a cupboard, and shut the cupboard.

I love the completeness of that. It's like the box in the head was not enough, right? That image maybe worked for their mom when she was young. But then she was like, I have not extinguished the bad thoughts quite enough. I need more. I need a cupboard. Next time our producer and her brother were visiting her parents, she told me, the two of them were all just like, "don't open the cupboards!"

Denial usually gets a bad rap. Compartmentalizing your feelings, keeping it all inside, pretending things never happened-- these are not signs of psychological health. What they're signs of is adulthood. If you do those things, basically, you're an adult because being an adult means sucking it up, getting on with it, going to work even if you have a cold because you're an adult. You do your job.

I'm not complaining. In fact, today's entire show is a defense of not thinking about it, of not knowing-- a defense, in short, of ignorance. We have three very different stories. You can decide how convincing they are. Stay with us.

Act One: What You Don't Know

Ira Glass

Act One, What You Don't Know. Lulu Wang has this case study of people not admitting the truth.

Lulu Wang

When my grandmother was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, she was given three months to live. She was 80 years old, and my family, for reasons I'll get into in a minute, decided not to tell her. I was totally against this.

When I heard the news, I wanted to talk with my grandmother, comfort her. I wanted to grieve with her in the way that seems natural when someone you love is dying. But my mom-- she's the one who called me to give me the bad news-- quickly informed me that what I wanted, that what I thought was the right thing to do, would not be permitted and that I would have no say in the matter. I was stunned.

My grandmother, or Nainai, as I call her, lives in China, along with a lot of my other relatives. My parents and I live here in the United States. I'm really close to my Nainai. At 2 years old, I lived with her and my grandfather for a year so my mom could work. Nainai is 5 foot tall with a full head of permed, white hair. She's small, but when my Nainai walks into a room, everyone listens.

I wasn't the only one who felt weird keeping this a secret. My dad thought about going to his mom and telling her she was dying.

Lulu's Dad

But then what? I could not take care of her because I have my own family back in the United States, right? I have my job here. And then I won't be able to take the responsibility of being with my mom.

Lulu Wang

It's true. My dad wasn't the one on the ground looking after Nainai. He left China when he was just a teenager. His older brother has lived in Japan for 24 years. The person who was on the ground was Nainai's younger sister.

Little Nainai

[SPEAKING CHINESE].

Lulu Wang

This is her, my Nainai's sister, my great aunt. She looks almost identical to Nainai. In Chinese, I call her [CHINESE], which translates to Little Aunt Grandma. But I'll just call her Little Nainai for this story.

Little Nainai lives in the apartment right upstairs from Nainai, and they're very close. She was the one who picked up the results of Nainai's physical. It's customary in China for doctors to give bad news to family members rather than giving it directly to the patient, especially if the patient is older. Nainai's doctor recommended that Nainai be immediately hospitalized for treatment.

Little Nainai

[SPEAKING CHINESE].

Lulu Wang

She's saying the doctor told her the cancer was very advanced. To not hospitalize her would be irresponsible. Of course, in order to hospitalize Nainai, it means they'd actually have to tell her she's sick.

Little Nainai

[SPEAKING CHINESE].

Lulu Wang

Little Nainai told the doctor that Nainai is too old, that she couldn't handle a blow like this. It's not just that Little Nainai didn't want to upset her sister with the news of her death. She actually believed that not telling her was a way to prolong her life. Knowing Nainai's personality, Little Nainai worried that her sister would get overwhelmed with fear and depression. She'd stop eating. She'd stop sleeping. She'd lose interest in life. The Chinese believe that mental and emotional health are completely linked to physical health.

Little Nainai

[SPEAKING CHINESE].

Lulu Wang

She tells me there's a Chinese joke. Two people go get a physical. One of them is healthy, and one of them has a terminal illness. The hospital gets the results mixed up. The healthy person gets a terminal prognosis and vice versa.

So then the healthy person ends up dying while the sick person ends up living.

Lulu Wang

[SPEAKING CHINESE].

That's me asking Little Nainai, is that really a joke? It's not very funny.

Little Nainai

[SPEAKING CHINESE].

Lulu Wang

She assured me that it was. My family got a second opinion, and then a third. Same prognosis-- three months, maybe less. Little Nainai knew she needed a fake medical report to show Nainai, so she went to a print shop. They told her, we can't create a false medical record. If you want to make something up, we could photocopy it for you. Little Nainai whited out the real diagnosis and wrote down words that sounded vaguely medical but unalarming, something about the nine shadows.

My family built on that lie with an even more elaborate one. We realized we had a problem. How are we all going to manage to see Nainai before she died? Family from three countries needed to say goodbye without letting Nainai know we were actually saying goodbye. This would require more than Wite-Out. My dad had an idea.

Lulu's Dad

So I said, all right, your uncle, maybe we can just, you know, stage your son's wedding early, one year early.

Lulu Wang

Are you proud that you came up with this idea?

Lulu's Dad

Well, you know, I'm the-- everybody considered me as the smartest in the family. So I mean, it's a show. I mean--

Lulu Wang

This was our plan-- a giant goodbye party disguised as a giant wedding banquet.

Lulu's Dad

This is the lie that everybody agreed to lie.

Lulu Wang

And here's how it was going to go down. My Uncle Hai Bin's son, Liang-Liang, had recently married a Japanese woman. They planned to celebrate in China the next year, but now it would be in two weeks, and it would bring together family members who had not all been in the same place for 25 years.

My dad told Nainai that the wedding banquet had to happen immediately because that was when the groom Liang-Liang could get the time off work.

Lulu Wang

How did you feel about lying?

Lulu's Dad

Well, it's not, I mean, clear cut, this is a lie and that's-- you know. Because people think lie is bad thing. But in this circumstance, you don't think that you make a bad lie. You think you make a good lie because that's the way that everybody wants it. And that's the way that it's supposed to be.

Lulu Wang

But that wasn't the way I wanted it or thought it was supposed to be. And I still wasn't convinced it would be what Nainai wanted. I was so emotional that my mom said maybe I shouldn't go, that I might cry and blow the cover. I was afraid she might be right. But if I wanted to see Nainai before she died, I had to go, and I had to be part of the lie.

[AIRPORT SOUNDS]

This is from a video I took. I started filming as soon as I landed. I brought the camcorder with me to hide behind, hoping it would help me to keep it together. At the arrivals gate, I heard Nainai shouting my name through the crowd. She wasn't difficult to spot-- a squat figure waving a pink handkerchief from the front of the crowd. She was at least a foot shorter than everyone else, and her white hair stood out.

"Oh, my granddaughter," she cried. She looked me up and down. You're not very skinny, she observed. Your mom says you've been very busy with work. I thought you'd be skinny, but you're not that skinny.

Nainai didn't look or act like someone who was sick at all. I asked her how she was feeling, and she said she was doing well. She had some knee pain from the years she marched across the country with the People's Liberation Army when she was 14. If it weren't for my bad knees, she said, I'd be perfect.

My parents were delayed in Beijing that night, but the rest of the family gathered around Nainai's dinner table. Little Nainai held her little white dog on her lap, a dog they call Ellen. They named Ellen after an American exchange student who had stayed with them.

[TALKING IN CHINESE]

Ellen has one trick that she can normally do on command. Everyone here is yelling, "sing, Ellen! Sing, sing!" And then, finally--

[DOG SQUEALING]

[LAUGHTER]

[DOG SQUEALING]

After dinner, Uncle Hai Bin walked me to the nearby hotel where I was staying. Nainai is in one of the older neighborhoods in the area. There are still unpaved paths and small food stands, but her street is being slowly engulfed by shopping malls and high rises. "Nainai's very sick, you know," Uncle said as we walked. "She took care of you when you were little. She loves you so much."

He kept saying things I already knew, things that felt like he was trying to provoke an emotion out of me. "You have to be very careful not to tell her," he said. "You'll feel very sad, but you cannot cry." Looking back, I wonder if he was really just trying to coach himself. "You have to be happy," he insisted. "I know," I said, as I stared straight ahead at the brightly lit billboards across the street.

At most events, the emotional protocol is clear. You smile at weddings. You cry at funerals. The confusing thing here was that this was one situation masquerading as another. In China, you're actually expected to cry at a funeral-- a lot-- as a sign of respect. People judge you on how well you cry and how much you cry.

My uncle understood this protocol. At my grandfather Yeye's funeral in 1994, Uncle Hai Bin was tasked with the duty of performing a cathartic Chinese ritual to demonstrate his great grieving. As the eldest son, this was his designated role. He stood in the aisle in front of the coffin and raised a clay bowl over his head. While crying loudly, he smashed the bowl to the ground, shattering it into countless shards.

My mother hates these kinds of huge emotional displays, by the way. At her father's funeral, years ago, her family criticized her for not crying enough.

Lulu's Mom

The people over there, they expect you just fall on the floor and then like, like crazy people. And the shouting and crying, this is a Chinese part of, you know, their tradition. The people die, they hire the people. And if you have money, you can hire 100 people, come here, just cry. Say one, two, three, cry! And one, two, three, stop! I hate that.

[PEOPLE CHATTING IN CHINESE]

Lulu Wang

The next morning, my parents finally arrive. I'm videotaping as Nainai greets my dad at the door, asking him all kinds of questions about his flight, about a recent dental surgery he had. The rest of the family hovers close by, and I can see that my dad is so emotional that he can't say a single word. He can't even look her in the eyes. He tries to be playful and takes off her hat, then fiddles with his own sunglasses, trying to distract himself. Later, I was finally able to ask him what he was feeling when he walked through that door.

Lulu's Dad

Well, you know, it's just like every son, feeling that your mom is dying, and you cannot tell and thinking that that's probably the last time that you'll see your mom. All the family is around you. Everybody is there. And everybody knows what's going on except your grandma, except my mom.

I was afraid to say something, then you cannot hold myself, and I'll start crying, right? You want to say something, but you don't know what to say. It's just now, there's no words to choose from.

Lulu Wang

At one point, Nainai asks him, "what's wrong?" Even though he doesn't respond, it's like she can feel the weight of his grief, and she just starts sobbing. I wondered if she knew why we were all there. Or maybe when you're 80, this is just how you greet your son who lives so far away.

There are other relatives around, and my dad walks away from Nainai to get some space. On the video, you can hear my mom interject, her voice upbeat, trying to lighten the mood.

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

After a while, Nainai takes her usual role as the matriarch and gathers everyone around, taking charge. She reminds us why we're all here-- the big event of Liang-Liang and his wife's marriage. Yes, Liang-Liang's wedding is the big event, my dad confirms quietly.

We all urge Nainai to relax, but she's busy giving everyone their priorities. You check on the banquet hall. You guys need to prepare your wedding speeches. You need to get over your jet lag.

[NAINAI SPEAKING CHINESE]

Seeing Nainai, who probably should be in the hospital, get so worked up over this phony wedding banquet while we stood by and watched, it felt cruel. I went to Nainai's niece, who I call Gugu, with my concerns. Gugu lives close by and also helps look after Nainai.

I asked her, "what if Nainai has things she wants to take care of?" "Like what," Gugu responded. I said, "I don't know. None of us do. That's my whole point." "No," Gugu said. She doesn't have anything like that. And that was the end of the discussion.

The wedding celebration was held in the banquet hall of a newly-built hotel. Liang-Liang had on a black suit with a pale pink tie. His Japanese wife wore a blue chiffon dress with a floral shawl. Guests approached Nainai to congratulate her, smiling. Like a politician at a press event, Nainai smiled back. She shook hands. She kissed babies.

When it came time for the speeches, Uncle Hai Bin, my dad's brother, took to the stage first. He fumbled a while with the microphone before looking up. "It's a rare opportunity for us all to be here today," he started. "You all knew Liang-Liang as a young child, before we left China. And now, he's become a man. He's brought a wife back with him from Japan."

Uncle motioned to Liang-Liang's wife, who couldn't understand a word of Chinese. "I think we are all hoping that next time they return, they will carry with them a baby or two." The room chuckled. Liang-Liang translated this to his wife, and her face flushed.

"There's just one more thing," Uncle said, his voice starting to quiver. "They say that a mother's greatest joy is having her children by her side. My ma has sadly not had that fortune" -- he meant because he and my dad lived so far away -- "So she is lucky to have all of you to care for her."

He stared at Nainai in the audience, and then, as if in slow motion, tears began to stream down his face. I thought of Uncle Hai Bin at Yeye's funeral, gripping that clay bowl over his head as everyone watched, anticipating the explosion into a thousand pieces. But this wasn't a funeral. It was a wedding. No crying, only happy. He had warned me himself just the night before.

They were all watching. Nainai was watching. There was no turning back. "Everything I am, everything I've become is because of my ma." This releases the dam. He begins to weep uncontrollably on stage, his shoulders shaking.

Hai Bin

[SPEAKING CHINESE].

Lulu Wang

"Ma, you're the best mom in the entire world." I looked over at Nainai, who dabbed at her eyes with her handkerchief. Was she moved? Was she suspicious? Looking at her, I couldn't tell.

After the speeches, the bride and groom moved from table to table making toasts. It didn't take a mind reader to see that Nainai didn't like the new Japanese wife. "I think she's quite dumb," Nainai said. "She doesn't understand anything." "That's because she doesn't speak Chinese," I reminded her. "No, she insisted. It's because she's dumb."

The bride and groom weren't used to the heavy drinking rituals of the northern Chinese and got drunk fast. I mean, they had to drink at every single table. Liang-Liang, the groom, constantly looked like he was about to cry. And after the drinking, he could no longer hold it in.

He started to bawl until his face turned bright red. His wife's eyes were wide with panic as she scanned the room for help. Gugu motioned wildly to me from across the room as we all swooped in to try and form a barricade around the sobbing groom. We told Nainai that Liang-Liang was probably just too happy, that he was crying tears of joy.

The night after the wedding, we all went out to a restaurant. After a massive feast, we played a drinking game.

[TALKING IN CHINESE]

[LAUGHTER]

Nainai laughed so hard that she cried, and then laughed some more. It was hard to distinguish which smiles were real and which ones were faked for Nainai's sake. While I struggled with the grief of saying goodbye, Nainai focused on the future, a future she assumed she'd be part of. "When you get married," she told me, "I'll have an even bigger wedding banquet for you." She also asked when I'd have a baby, saying that she was looking forward to holding my child.

I had no idea when any of that might happen, but I played along. We planned what my wedding banquet would look like and talked about how to balance my career once I had this hypothetical kid. Lying made me sick to my stomach.

"Listen," my mom tried to reassure me, "your Nainai would appreciate that we're lying to her. Otherwise, why would she have done the same thing to your grandfather?" This was the first time I'd heard of this. I was only 10 when Yeye was diagnosed with liver cancer.

As it turns out, no one told him about his condition, either. As his wife, Nainai was the key decision-maker in that situation. He had severe jaundice and was barely lucid when Nainai finally gave him the bad news in the hospital. "I need to tell you something, old-timer," she began. He succumbed to the cancer three days later.

I asked my dad about this, and he said, in truth, Yeye knew. No one told him, but deep down, people can feel when they're really dying. They knew, and he knew, but everyone pretended not to know so they could all allow each other to save face. So did Nainai also know? Was she also lying to us?

Later, Little Nainai told me that there was, in fact, a secret that Nainai had kept from us.

Little Nainai

[SPEAKING CHINESE].

Lulu Wang

[SPEAKING CHINESE].

That's the sound of me being totally shocked. She tells me that in 2007, six years before the lung cancer diagnosis, Nainai had been diagnosed with breast cancer, not unusual for a woman in her 70s. But my dad didn't know. My uncle didn't know. I didn't know.

She had a mastectomy, and she'd been wearing a prosthetic breast for nine years. Nainai concealed this from our family and uncle's family not because she was ashamed, but so that we wouldn't worry. All this time that we were lying to her to protect her, she had also put on a show to protect us.

After I left China, I immediately Skyped Nainai from home. "I love you," she said in English, the few words that she knows. I managed to find time to Skype with her every day, just to check in. At first, she seemed to be doing fine and had no symptoms. Then one day, she started to cough, and my heart sank. "I just have a bit of the flu," she said. "It's nothing."

When the cough wouldn't go away, she suggested going to the doctor's office to pick up some medicine. Little Nainai panicked and immediately talked her out of it. But then, a few days later, Nainai stopped coughing. Three months came and went, and Nainai was still just fine. Everyone was baffled.

Eventually, I couldn't keep up with the daily Skype calls, and it dwindled down to once a week, and then once a month. A year passed. Nainai said she felt fine, so she just decided to skip her annual checkup that year. And another year passed.

During her 2015 checkup, the same doctor gave the same diagnosis and prognosis-- stage 4 lung cancer, very serious, no more than three months. This time, Little Nainai didn't even bother to mock up a phony document. She just told Nainai that she had lost the test results, but that everything was the same. Everything was fine.

It's been three years now since Nainai was first diagnosed. Little Nainai is certain her big sister is still alive because of her decision to lie to her, because we gave Nainai joy instead of worry. My mom told me about an old Chinese belief called chongxi. Chong means to rinse out, and xi is joy. So chongxi is the belief that you can wash away a misfortune with joy. Even though this term was never used while planning the wedding, that's essentially what we did.

And by the way, everyone in the family has their own idea of what saved Nainai. Gugu thinks it's partly because of her weekly prayers at the local Taoist temple. My uncle credits Nainai's survival to some expensive miracle probiotics he bought her from Japan. Since Nainai seemed to be doing fine, my parents suggested getting a less expensive brand of probiotics, and Uncle Hai Bin being freaked out. "If we switch it and she dies, then it's on you."

When this whole thing started, I felt like the only rational person in my family, the lone westerner defending my grandmother against old-fashioned beliefs. As it turns out, my mom agreed with me. But she and my dad just understand both sides.

Lulu Wang

I'm pretty sure a lot of other Americans would feel the way that I felt, that somebody's going to die. It's their right to know.

Lulu's Mom

Yeah. But we just think that's not your business. You not live with her, and so--

Lulu Wang

OK. But do you understand where I was coming from? Do you understand why I was conflicted?

Lulu's Mom

Yeah. I know. But that's China. That's a different world, OK? People go into a funeral, and you have to hold a pillow around the house three times. And in this country, you don't do that, right? So you not use your culture to push to them. This make chaos.

Lulu Wang

I wonder now if my mom or dad was diagnosed with something terminal and I knew and they didn't, would I lie to them? And if it was me, would I want to know? What my family did was kind, and it worked-- maybe. I'm reminded of a joke about a physicist visiting his colleague, Niels Bohr, and expressed his surprise at finding a good-luck horseshoe hanging on the wall. "Surely you're not superstitious?" "Oh, no," Niels Bohr says. "But I'm told it works whether you believe in it or not." I know that doesn't seem like a joke, but you know what I'm saying.

[BEEP]

[BEEP]

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Ira Glass

Lulu Wang. She's a filmmaker. Her first feature, called Posthumous, comes out this summer. Coming up, the stuff that all of us don't know we don't know, a scientist actually tries to measure it. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: Ignorance for Dummies

Ira Glass

This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, In Defense of Ignorance, stories making the case for not knowing-- a case, I admit, you do not hear very often. We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, Ignorance for Dummies.

So in the first half of our show, we heard a woman who was kept in ignorance by her family. In this half of the show, we're going to turn to people who are just ignorant. They just don't know stuff, and they don't know what they don't know, which-- hello-- turns out to be all of us. Sean Cole has details and empirical data.

Sean Cole

There's this story about ignorance that David Dunning really loves. He's a psychology professor, and he's even cited it in his research. It's about a guy named McArthur Wheeler, who in 1995 robbed a couple of banks in Pennsylvania and didn't wear a mask.

David Dunning

And he was arrested. And the police basically said, "well, we have you on the surveillance tapes." And he said, "no, you don't." And they showed him the tapes. And he saw his face. And he stared incredulously and said, "but I wore the juice. I wore the juice."

Sean Cole

The juice?

David Dunning

Yes. Apparently, McArthur Wheeler was under the impression that smearing your face with lemon juice made it fuzzy or invisible to video cameras. To his credit, he had actually tested this theory. He took a selfie, but I think he misaimed the camera.

Sean Cole

The thing about McArthur Wheeler wasn't just that he was an idiot. It was that he thought he was doing everything right, which made David Dunning think--

David Dunning

When people are wrong or when they're performing poorly or, for lack of a better word, when they're incompetent, do they know they're incompetent?

Sean Cole

And he had a guess, which was no. They do not know they're incompetent.

David Dunning

And so we decided to do some experiments and find out.

Sean Cole

Now, this may not sound like something you can easily test for. It's like trying to measure the height and weight of somebody's insecurity. But Professor Dunning and his grad student partner, Justin Kruger, figured out a way to do it.

They got different groups of undergrads together-- this was at Cornell University-- and gave them one of three quizzes. One was on grammar, another on logical reasoning, and another, weirdly, on humor-- like, which one of these jokes is the funniest? And they had a panel of comedians write the jokes ahead of time.

And at the end of the quizzes, they asked each student a simple question-- how well do you think you did? Or more specifically, in what percentile did you land? That is, what percentage of the other students taking the test do you think you beat? And then they gathered together all of that data and ran the numbers.

David Dunning

And I still remember looking at the first graph to this day. And the big finding is we took a look at the bottom 25% of people in each study. These are the people who had done the worst. Their scores are falling in the 11th, the 12th, the 13th percentile.

Sean Cole

In other words, really low scores.

David Dunning

But they think they're performing in the 60th, the 65th, the 70th percentile.

Sean Cole

Among the better percentiles.

David Dunning

That's right. They think that they've beat out a majority of their peers. One way to think about it-- if you look at people basically who are about to get D's and F's with the exam they've just handed in, they think they're getting B's, B-pluses with the exam they just handed in.

Sean Cole

In short, there seemed to be a direct correlation between incompetence and an overweening sense of self-confidence. It wasn't apparent in every poor-performing student, but it was in the majority of them. Most people who did badly thought they did just fine or even great. They had no idea.

Now, anybody who's ever gone to school, worked a job, or known any other people knows this phenomenon. There's that guy or lady who's cocky and yet has no idea what they're doing, and it's infuriating. But here in Dunning's lab, it wasn't just an annoyance. It was a repeatable finding.

They did this experiment four times with four different groups of students, and it happened every time. Bottom performers thought they were at least above average. And in 1999, Dunning and Kruger published their findings in a paper called "Unskilled and Unaware of It."

And their conclusion was this-- when someone asks, so how do you think you did, and you open your mouth to answer, you're drawing on the same skill set to answer that question that you used to answer the questions on the test.

David Dunning

That is, the lack of skill means not only are you going to make a lot of mistakes, but it also means you're not going to be able to catch mistakes, yours or anybody else's. You're going to think, often, that what you're saying is absolutely reasonable. This is the double curse.

Sean Cole

It's not that you're ignorant and also happen to be overconfident. You're ignorant, and it makes you overconfident. On the other hand, students who scored well, who really were in the higher percentiles, they tended to guess that they scored a little worse than they actually did, and for kind of an endearing reason.

They figured most of the kids around them knew as much as they did. In other words, they weren't mistaken about themselves. They knew themselves pretty well. They simply misjudged other people, thinking, well, they're probably as smart as I am.

Over the years, Dunning and other researchers have run the same experiment in different ways over and over again. And the result was pervasive-- competitive debaters who were doing badly didn't know they were doing badly, people at chess tournaments, trap and skeet shooters when they're quizzed on gun safety, medical professionals. Medical professionals.

David Dunning

You'll find for some procedures, for example, that the interns-- like catheterization procedures.

[DRAWING BREATH]

Exactly. 80% of them think they know this technique so well they can teach it to other people, whereas zero of their instructors agree. In fact, 50% of their instructors say, no. This person needs still to be supervised whenever they do this.

Sean Cole

Oy gevalt!

David Dunning

Yeah.

Sean Cole

And like all psychological phenomenon, this one pretty quickly grew a name. Dunning was insistent that he and Kruger had nothing to do with the coining of that name. The name-- the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

David Dunning

If you, for example, go on Twitter and type in Dunning-Kruger, you'll see the effect mentioned several times a day.

Sean Cole

Several times a day?

David Dunning

Several times a day.

Sean Cole

Well, I have a computer in front of me. And I'm going to Twitter. And let me just put in Dunning-Kruger. Oh, here we go. Trump is a static display of Dunning-Kruger in effect. Where did you get your biology PhD, Dunning-Kruger University? Your clueless rants merely reinforce your ignorance.

David Dunning

No, so very happy to get a meme out there in the world, unhappy that so many people use it as an epithet.

Sean Cole

That it's your name that they're using as an epithet.

David Dunning

Exactly.

Sean Cole

It's just become a scientific way of calling somebody stupid, which I guess we were sorely in need of.

David Dunning

But I think the thing that people in general miss is that we're not talking about the brain of the incompetent. We're talking about the brain of all of us because sooner or later, we step into that group. Sooner or later, we become the poor performers.

We all have our specific pockets of incompetence, and we know some of them. But there are a lot of them we simply don't know. And once we step into our own incompetence, we don't know we've made the step.

Sean Cole

This is really the disheartening stoner insight of this research. If you think you're doing well, it means one of two things-- either you're doing well or you're not doing well at all. Try not to think about it too long. Really. David Dunning, who has thought about it more than anyone, says it's made him particularly vigilant about the things he says and does and how he acts, like trying to catch a candid glimpse of yourself in a mirror.

This one time for instance, he was teaching a class, giving them an exam. And at the end of it, he asked the students the Dunning-Kruger question-- how do you think you did? And sure enough, when he looked back at the tests, he noticed this one kid in particular who got one of the lowest grades in the group and rated himself in the 80th percentile.

David Dunning

And I decided, well I am going to peek at the name because I just have a suspicion I'm going to see this person in my office. And indeed, when the test was handed back, he did come into my office because he did want to offer me a chance, graciously, to admit that the answers that I had designated as correct on the exam were actually wrong.

Sean Cole

Uh-huh.

David Dunning

And so he was really trying hard to be gracious. I could see some vibrations of outrage in his body. And part of my brain is going, watch this. Analyze this. What's going on? What's psychologically happening?

Then I've got another part of my brain kind of going, are you sure it's not you? Are you sure it's not you? Because I think it would be embarrassing for a person who has proposed the Dunning-Kruger framework to actually publicly display Dunning-Kruger.

But the sad, sad truth is what I'd dearly love would be to be able to see me in this circumstance, to be aware of, OK. I am having a Dunning-Kruger moment. But according to my own theory, I'll never have it.

Sean Cole

That's because other people can see when we're doing the Dunning-Kruger dance, but we can't. Which makes you think, why doesn't anybody say anything? When it's little stuff-- your fly is down, you have stuff on your face-- your real friends, and even some strangers, will tell you.

But somehow, when you're blowing a huge word balloon full of wrongness, that's when the rest of us decide to be polite, to go along. Because to correct that weirdly confident, know-nothing jerk in the office just seems mean, like it's not our place. But maybe it's meaner not to correct him.

David Dunning

The real sadness, for me, is that often, people are going to suffer for their mistakes. But they're never going to know it because if a person is a jerk in the office, what happens is all the parties they aren't invited to, all the wonderful social interactions, they just don't get to experience. And it's likely that they don't notice the absence of this.

So you don't know you're incompetent. You can't figure it out on your own. And the world is treating you by being silent. Well, how do you improve yourself under those conditions?

Sean Cole

I should say that Dunning and Kruger's research has been criticized over the years. Other researchers have tried to punch holes in their conclusion, even going so far as to publish papers with alternative statistical explanations for Dunning and Kruger's findings.

And Dunning says he and his partner have responded to those critics, in print, and may have convinced some, but certainly not all of them, which he actually takes to be a plus. Because the critics they haven't convinced are really confident in their opinions. And Dunning and Kruger are really confident in theirs. So one or the other is dead wrong and just doesn't know it.

Ira Glass

Sean Cole is one of the producers of our show.

Act Three: Forget Me? Not!

Ira Glass

Act Three, Forget Me Not. Our program today is about ignorance. And of course, a huge part of all of our ignorance is the stuff that we used to know that we've all forgotten.

All our lives, there's a huge undertow of forgetting that sucks old classmates' names into the abyss, the French that we studied that we never used, and the plots and casts of favorite movies we used to love. Most of us, of course, see this as a curse, according to Stephanie Foo.

Stephanie Foo

I have several large, unwieldy boxes stacked in corners of my apartment. I almost never open them. But I've schlepped these boxes through the 12 tiny apartments I've lived in in the past decade. They're full of notebooks, external hard drives, thousands of sheets of paper, photographs, VHS tapes, full of all my memories, starting with journals I wrote when I was five years old.

The idea that there are whole weeks, even months, of my life that have just disappeared into the abyss of forgetfulness is horrifying to me. If I can't take these memories with me through the rest of my life, then what's the point of even living them in the first place?

To hold onto the past, a couple times a month, I'll sit at my kitchen table, alone in my apartment, and I'll just start recording these long soliloquies about whatever. Here's one actual recording from February 24, 2014, 11 PM.

Stephanie Foo

--a six-pack of Corona and Pacifica was $11, which I thought was super atrocious. And so I tried to buy, like, whatever, like a four-pack of cans of Corona-- cans. And he was like, oh, that's $9. And I was like, well, I might as well just buy the [BLEEP] six-packs.

Because I'm sure in the year 2030, that memory is going to be helpful. So all this to say that my obsession with my ever-fleeting memories is what made me really excited when I heard about this condition called HSAM. It stands for Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory.

Stephanie Foo

June 10, 2006-- tell me what was the weather like and what day was that?

Joey Degrandis

So June 10, 2006 was a Saturday. And I remember it was a nice, sunny day because I was outside for a graduation party. I was actually deejaying the party. That was one of my part-time jobs in college.

Stephanie Foo

Joey DeGrandis is one of only about 60 people in the world who have been officially found to have HSAM. And by the way, I checked-- it was a Saturday and, in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, sunny.

Joey remembers very specific details from every single day of the last 25 years of his life. I'm sitting across the table from him when I ask him these random questions. He wasn't prepped on any of them. He's not using his phone to look anything up.

Stephanie Foo

When were the Oscars in 1999?

Joey Degrandis

The Oscars in '99 were on Sunday, March 21.

Stephanie Foo

Oh, my God!

Joey Degrandis

For a little bonus, I think Whoopi Goldberg hosted it that year. I think.

Stephanie Foo

OK-- which episode is the one where Rachel quits?

Joey Degrandis

OK. I like the first few seasons of Friends more than the others. So I think that that was season 3. I want to say December 12, '96.

Stephanie Foo

Oh, my God! Yes! That's amazing!

People with HSAM don't remember everything in their lives, and their memories can be flawed and biased, just like everyone else's. But they remember a whole hell of a lot more than we do and are particularly good at remembering things they care about.

People with HSAM who love sports have an encyclopedic knowledge of scores. Joey's really good with TV shows. And he tells me it's kind of like all the memories are available at any given time for him to sort of scroll through.

Joey Degrandis

For the show Mad Men, Don is pitching, I think, Kodak. And, you know, he's talking about the projector, how it's sort of a carousel of memory. And it's not spot on, how I remember things. But it's pretty damn close.

Stephanie Foo

A carousel of memory?

Joey Degrandis

Yeah. And I think that the words-- I'm trying to recall exactly the voiceover for this teaser. But it was something like, there's a rare occasion when the public can be engaged.

Stephanie Foo

Hold on. Here's that scene.

Don Draper

There's the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash.

Joey Degrandis

It's nostalgia.

Don Draper

Nostalgia.

Joey Degrandis

Delicate but potent, you know? It takes us to a place where we long to go again.

Don Draper

It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.

Joey Degrandis

You know? And that's exactly how I feel when I think about my memories.

Stephanie Foo

You want to be there?

Joey Degrandis

Sometimes I am there, whether or not I choose to.

Stephanie Foo

You know how Facebook gives you notifications about what you posted a year ago today? Joey DeGrandis plays that game in his head all the time. He texts friends on a regular basis, saying, "hey, you moved to New York three years ago today," or, "hey, six months ago today, we went karaokeing in that little basement bar." His friends tell me they enjoy the updates. It's like having your own personal biographer of your friendship.

But having HSAM is like constantly scrolling through your Facebook wall, 24/7. And just like any sort of late-night scrolling, it keeps him up at night. When Joey lies down, he just starts remembering too much.

Lately, he thinks over and over about a guy he dated, which seems normal, except their whole relationship only lasted for a couple of months. And it ended two years ago. But Joey can't help but go through their whole relationship in incredibly minute detail on a regular basis.

Joey Degrandis

March 19, 2014. We went to Max Brenner in Union Square and had sundaes and chocolate. And, oh, it was so fun and romantic! You know? Like, that was--

March 20-- and he's like, oh, my God, Joey! You're, like, the funniest person I know. And, of course, my heart grew three sizes.

Stephanie Foo

Oh, my God.

Joey Degrandis

Because I'm like, oh, this must be it!

The next day, he texted me a picture of his cat, and it was--

March 29, so that next week, was the first time that we had a sexual encounter. And that was really exciting for me because, again, this was just, like, more confirmation of the fact that maybe this is something. Maybe this is--

April 19, which was Easter weekend, 2014, everything just kind of went downhill. And so then it all fell apart, you know?

Stephanie Foo

That's the problem. How do you get over someone when you can't forget them?

Jill Price

Well, the way I explain it is you know how you've got your baggage? I got a steamer trunk.

Stephanie Foo

Jill Price also has HSAM. She just turned 50 and says she's got 50 years of stuff, and the steamer trunk is humongous. Or, shifting metaphors a little--

Jill Price

So if you were-- you know, you have, like, every day is like a bag of garbage. And then you go to sleep, and you wake up the next day. And it's a fresh day. And you can throw that garbage bag out from the day before. I don't have that. I got massive amounts of just piled up garbage bags everywhere.

Stephanie Foo

Jill lives in LA, and she's worked as a script supervisor. On set, her HSAM was really useful because her job was to make sure that continuity was preserved throughout the film-- that someone's hair looks the same from shot to shot, that a table is set in exactly the same way. And of course, Jill remembered how that table looked, even if the last shot happened weeks ago.

I called her up because I wanted to find out if resentment about the past is a side effect of HSAM for anyone other than Joey. Short answer-- yes.

Jill Price

Like, I'm still pissed about stuff from when I was five. And that's ridiculous.

Stephanie Foo

Jill says she can forgive, but she can never forget. But maybe not being able to forget sort of hinders her ability to forgive as well as the rest of us. Like, she told me she's still angry about this thing that happened in her first year at college, three decades ago. Jill had this calendar that she'd used as a diary, writing down details about each of her days in cramped handwriting, so minuscule it's barely legible.

Jill Price

Like written all over. I mean, everything was on there. 1983 was a really important year. Everything was on there, everything you can imagine-- could be the weather. Could be--

Stephanie Foo

Like what do you mean? Like snacks? Like who you talked to? Like, what is everything?

Jill Price

Everything! Yes. Everything.

Stephanie Foo

Jill left the calendar at her mom's house for a few months while she went back to school, and the next time she came back, the calendar was gone.

Jill Price

I can't find the calendar. I'm looking everywhere. So I hysterically go running through the house, trying to get my parents to understand what just happened, how important this was. Like, where's my journal? And they're like, well, we don't know.

And I remember they had somebody at the house they were talking to. So it was like I was interrupting some sort of a business meeting. But I was also freaking out, and I didn't really care. And even to this day, just recently, I said to my mom-- you know, I brought that up. I said, and you did not-- you really had no idea.

She thought I was rehashing things. Like, why can't you just get over what happened when you were five? What is this? So she couldn't understand why I was bothered or so upset about things that happened decades ago. Where to me, it was like yesterday.

Stephanie Foo

Why is it, like, super tragic that you don't have that calendar now?

Jill Price

Well, I do have it because I then went back a couple years later and I rewrote the whole thing. I mean, I couldn't write every single thing. But I tried to go back and redo the entire calendar.

Stephanie Foo

Oh, my God.

Jill Price

That was how important it was to me. Yeah.

Stephanie Foo

And if it's all in your head-- it's saved in there, anyway-- then why bother writing it down?

Jill Price

Because if I didn't write it down, I would have, like, 50 years of stuff just constantly swirling. And writing it down just sort of relaxes it. And it makes it so that it's there. It's happened. And it's put away. Does that make sense?

Stephanie Foo

Yeah. It makes a lot of sense.

I talked to a number of people with HSAM, and it seems like their days are filled with random memories showing up, like bees buzzing around their head, until they can get swarmed. By writing the stuff down, Jill manages the memories, like she's taking them one by one, cataloging them, and putting them into a filing cabinet. There's a link between obsessive-compulsive disorder, OCD, and HSAM.

Maybe having the power to remember so much makes you want to obsessively do it all the time. Or maybe it's the other way around-- desperately wanting to remember everything gives certain people the ability to do it phenomenally well. Either way, researchers say, they seem to go hand in hand.

About a year and a half ago, I had a really bad break up. And one of the ways I got over my ex was by managing my memories, which is a pretentious way to say I told myself he was a douchebag. I dwelled on all the bad parts of the relationship, all his irritating qualities. But recently, I was flipping through some entries in my journal from a few months before it got bad-- not for fun, for this story. I'm not that far gone.

In one entry, he intuited when I was feeling low and said exactly the right thing. In another, we went to a perfect dinner where we got free dessert. Restaurants were constantly giving us free food. We couldn't figure out why, but eventually settled on the idea that people liked us because we just looked so happy.

I had, of course, blocked all of these memories out because they didn't fit into the story I was telling myself. And I did not want them back. It had been good to forget. And the difference between me and people with HSAM is that I have the choice to stop reading the diary, to just walk away. Jill doesn't have that choice.

Jill Price

It didn't paralyze me until my husband died. Like, his death has really, like, paralyzed me.

Stephanie Foo

How is it paralyzing?

Jill Price

Because I will never, ever, ever, ever forget that.

Stephanie Foo

Of course, no one forgets their spouse dying. But for Jill, it's different.

Jill Price

I am still in March of 2005.

Stephanie Foo

When he died?

Jill Price

Yeah. Not every minute, but I could really put myself in that week and feel it and--

Stephanie Foo

So it hurts like it happened yesterday?

Jill Price

Yeah. Now, the feeling that I was not going to survive, I don't feel that way anymore because I have survived, you know? But--

Stephanie Foo

How often do you think about that?

Jill Price

Probably like 10 times a day. Even though I get up every day, I feel like I'm still standing in the same place. It's like-- it's really being stuck. It's being stuck in a moment that you can't-- there's no escaping it.

Stephanie Foo

Do you wish that you could forget it?

Jill Price

Yeah. Or remember it the way normal people remember it.

Stephanie Foo

How do normal people remember it?

Jill Price

I don't know. But it's not, like-- I mean, I don't think that somebody would be sitting here 11 years later still feeling it the way I feel it. See I wish you could understand, and I wish I could understand what it's like to be able to, like, let things fade and-- or not let, just that's the way it is.

Stephanie Foo

Jill says it's not like she's only reliving bad memories. She likes to go back to one of her favorite afternoons-- October 19, 1979, in the ninth grade, when she had a bad day at school, and her mom surprised her with homemade soup when she got home. But when the bad ones come on, she can't help but get emotional. And they come on all the time.

Stephanie Foo

If you did not have HSAM, how do you think your life would be different today?

Jill Price

I think that I would have been able to move forward. I think I probably would be married today. I don't think I would be so scared. I would be able to just walk forward instead of constantly looking back. OK. So let's reverse this so that maybe you understand. So your boyfriend-- you guys broke up.

Stephanie Foo

Yeah.

Jill Price

How long were you, like, upset about it or until the point where you felt like you can move forward without thinking about it all the time or move forward without it, like, ripping your heart out?

Stephanie Foo

Oh, God. Like, three months?

Jill Price

[LAUGHTER]. I don't have that luxury.

Stephanie Foo

And so are you jealous of me?

Jill Price

No.

Stephanie Foo

No?

Jill Price

Nuh-uh. Because on the flip side of all that, I can't imagine what it's like to not remember my life. I really can't understand how nobody does, even though it has tormented me. It's just, everything was just-- is so important to me that I just-- I hold onto it so tight that I wouldn't want to not be able to do that.

Stephanie Foo

I'm not jealous of her, either. Ever since talking to these people with HSAM, for the first time in my life, I actually feel just fine about forgetting. I know that sounds like it's the end of the radio story and this is just what you say, but, like, I cannot stress how sincere I am about this-- totally fine about forgetting.

Ira Glass

Stephanie Foo is one of the producers of our program.

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Sean Cole, Zoe Chace, Neil Drumming, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, Joel Lovell, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Lyra Smith, Alissa Shipp, Matt Tierney, and Nancy Updike. Help from Julie Snyder and Elna Baker. Support staff for our show-- Elise Bergerson, Emily Condon, Kimberly Henderson, and Seth Lind. Research help from Christopher Swetala and Michelle Harris. Music help today from Damian Graef, from Rob Geddis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, I always tell him, every day is a bowl of cherries. And he always responds--

Jill Price

Every day is like a bag of garbage.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.