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Stop saying “I don’t know” when you do know

Illustration: Getty Images

Women often say “I don’t know” when it would be far more useful to take a chance and guess, advises Viv Groskop

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By Viv Groskop on

Do you think you don’t know when really you do know? This is something my favourite life coachy-type guru person, Tara Mohr, has written about recently. She’s the author of Playing Big, a book that encourages women to step out of their comfort zone and do the things that most terrify them. For example, she suggests, behave like a bastard if you have to just once in a while. It can’t hurt you to try it once and, if anyone criticises you, you can just say, “Oh, sorry, I was just experimenting with being a bastard on that day.” See why she is my favourite?

Anyway. Her new obsession is with women who fool themselves into thinking that they know less than they really do because they are scared of getting something wrong. She quotes a survey by Annamaria Lusardi, who is sadly no relation to Linda but instead professor of economics and accountancy at The George Washington University. (Or maybe Linda Lusardi has actually changed her name, abandoned acting and secretly taken up the academic life.) Professor Lusardi’s latest study on women and financial literacy has this extraordinary (and depressing) finding: compared with men, women are more likely to answer “I don’t know” in multiple-choice financial tests.

However, when the researchers took away the “I don’t know” option and women were forced to guess, they were more likely to get the answer right than the men. So, not only did they actually know the answer all along and were just unsure of themselves, but also they were actually more likely to be right than people (ie men) who were convinced they did know the answer but were actually wrong. Go figure!

When the researchers took away the ‘I Don’t Know’ option and women were forced to guess, they were more likely to get the answer right than the men

I think this is fascinating. And I feel myself doing this all the time. Or at least I used to in the past. It’s that “good girl” thing (another Tara Mohr obsession) of being so afraid to make a mistake that you don’t even take a risk – when, really, you would not have been taking that much of a risk in the first place. Now I just think, “Well, maybe I do know. And, even if I don’t know, it’s better to guess and get it wrong than say ‘I don’t know’ and not even be in the game.”

And, guess what, in the survey it also emerged that women are good at knowing what they don’t know, whereas men pretend to know loads of stuff that they actually know nothing about. But both of these are flawed positions. Yes, it’s good to be self-aware and know where your knowledge gaps are (because you can then fix them). And, yes, it’s bad to pretend to be knowledgeable when you are utterly clueless (because then you don’t fix anything).

But the traditional supposedly “male” attitude that the test revealed is actually more useful – it’s far better to pretend to know and have a chance of getting something right than it is to say “I don’t know” just because you’re not sure (when you actually have a good chance of getting it right). Obviously, this does not apply to pressing the nuclear button or life-and-death situations. Or at least I don’t think it does.


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