Metacognition: To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom

Ahmed Arigbabu
5 min readMay 9, 2022

If you lack the knowledge to answer correctly, you also probably lack the knowledge to access your answers, which we are usually unaware of.
“I did the test well, but I still didn’t get a high score”, almost everyone at one point in their school journey (or not 🙄). Sometimes, we find ourselves in a situation where we have invested a lot of effort into defending our position, only to find out that we are on the wrong side.

“The wise man is one who knows what he does not know”
-Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu

No one likes the know-it-all

Blindly defending your opinion is often detrimental to your social reputation where people think you are just too proud to realize you are on the wrong side. I have had a few experiences with someone who thinks their position is right and willing to go to great lengths to defend it, but it is not. Growing up in Africa, I have often seen that correcting an older person is sometimes seen as rude, no matter how careful or polite you are (I have firsthand experience with this in my secondary school).
We might love to hate people who possess these characteristics, but quite often, we are usually in a position where we aren’t aware of being wrong or not welcoming corrections.

“He who knows all the answers has not been asked all the questions” -Confucius

We aren’t aware of it

No one wants to be deliberately wrong and fight to defend it unless you a psychopath. However, there are logical reasons why we do not realize our mistakes or do not take corrections easily.

Cognitive biases

While more biases might be at play, here are some of the most common reasons I suppose blind us from the truth. The first step to understanding our thinking is by knowing our cognitive biases.

Confirmation Bias
We often look for ways to justify our existing beliefs. Sometimes, we don’t do this consciously, but our subconscious mind draws us to details that confirm our existing beliefs. Contrast this by finding opposing views.

Conviction Bias (and sunk cost fallacy)
You irrationally cling to things that have already cost you something eg. time and money.
“I went to college for this!”, “I’ve been teaching this for X years”, “How can this book the wrong when it cost me so much”, “How can I be so wrong when I’ve invested so much in it.”, etc. are some familiar claims we make when our beliefs are challenged.
To regain objectivity, ask yourself: had I not invested in something, would I still do so now? What would I counsel a friend to do if they were in the same situation?

Availability Heuristic
Your judgments are influenced by what springs most easily to mind. Try to regain different perspectives and relevant statistical information rather than relying purely on first judgments and emotive influences.

Superiority Bias (and Ego)
We all like to think of ourselves as superior, likable, and rational. This comes into play when we are corrected. “You are just a kid, what do you know?” is common discrimination I’ve heard a lot.

Backfire bias
When your core beliefs are challenged, it can cause you to believe even more strongly. I think this is an ironic cognitive bias that stems from the superiority bias. I have seen this quite a lot in situations when giving an opinion on a fragile belief someone holds leads them to argue and protect their egos.

Dunning-Kruger effect
It would almost be a sin to talk about metacognition without mentioning the famous Dunning-Kruger effect. The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias whereby people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability. Incompetent people often overestimate how much we know about a given topic, and quite ironically, the more you know, the less confident you’re likely to be.

The Impostor Syndrome

As explained in the Dunning-Kruger effect, the more you know, the less confident you’re likely to be. Imposter syndrome is loosely defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud. It disproportionately affects high-achieving people, who find it difficult to accept their accomplishments. Many question whether they’re deserving of accolades.
Occasionally, we are not sure of exactly how much we know, so we prefer not to speak. This is the other side of metacognition, where we aren’t sure what we know.

Curse of Knowledge

Once you understand something, you assume it is obvious to everyone. Usually fueled by ego, we tend to believe everyone knows something or is aware of it. Knowing our own thinking is essential, but it is also essential to know how far others know and respect them for it.

Actionable Steps

Although I don’t know enough to write about this topic, my curiosity and awareness of my ignorance motivated me to delve into more in-depth research on metacognition, which leads to my first point…

  • Be curious! Always seek to learn more. Keep learning! The more we learn, the more we realize we don’t know enough. Always seek to learn from others.

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. The more I know, the more I realize I know nothing.”

“Even though you know a thousand things, ask the man who knows one”

  • Question your knowledge. If you’re asked a question about a topic you think you know about, don’t simply jump into an answer and defend it. Question everything you know. Question everything you have learned. Only then will you realize how much you truly know.

“Being entirely honest with oneself is a good exercise.”
-Sigmund Freud

  • Be humble! When corrected or questioned, don’t react negatively and see every challenge as an opportunity to learn more and become a better person. “It is impossible to learn that which one thinks he already knows.” Always remember you can be wrong and reassess your position every time

“There is no shame in not knowing; the shame lies in not finding out.”
-Brooke Taylor

  • Keep learning! The more you learn, the more you grow. Every day, spend an hour or two learning something new or improving your knowledge.

“Learning never exhausts the mind” -Leonardo da Vinci

To learn more, see:
Image about common cognitive biases
Another Image about common cognitive biases
Laws of Human Nature
Thinking, fast and slow.

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Ahmed Arigbabu

Developer and user experience designer with a keen interest in cognitive and behavioral sciences, philosophy, and how things work.