Learned Ignorance
By Tyler
Learned Ignorance
Some ideas are so dumb, you have to be taught them. I call them “learned ignorance”. One of my favorite examples comes from economics and game theory. In Game theory there is a game called the “Ultimatum Game”. In the game one player is given the opportunity to provide an Ultimatum to the other on how to split some sum of money, say $10. The second player then has the option to accept or reject the offer.
Now according to theory^{1} the first player should offer the second only 1 cent, and furthermore the second player should accept. This is because the second player is better off with 1 cent than without. The First player knows this and so can maximize his own payoff by offering the smallest amount and taking the rest.
Now when behavioral economists started conducting studies on this game and actually running it, they found that very few individuals played it this way. In fact there was only one group that would consistently play the game as expected^{2}: undergraduate economics students. They found that regular individuals understood that others value being treated fairly and not just money^{3}. However the Economics students had been taught to think of people differently; as rational, utility maximizing calculators. In short, they had been taught to reject their own experience and common sense in favor of an academic theory.
Why does it happen?
I think this is caused by a breakdown of the teaching/learning dynamic. You see teaching and learning are part of a paradox. A teacher cannot physically give a student understanding. There are plenty of motivated teachers, parents and mentors that would do so if they could. A student is the principal and agent of their own learning. However a student cannot teach themselves. If they had the knowledge to teach themselves, they would not need to be taught.
If, however, the student seeks merely know what the “experts” believe, it is easy enough to memorize the talking points. He or she may even be able to sound educated at the next cocktail party, but they will not receive understanding. Conversely, some instructors want to be treated as an authority, and lazily do not want to guide their students to understanding. Horrifically, these two complement each other, with the “teacher” prattling off theories, and the “student” dutifully memorizing it.
How to Avoid it:
So how do we avoid learned ignorance? Well as students, We must keep in mind the purpose of our education, which is to gain understanding of truth. Understanding often means we are able to integrate the lessons we learn into our lives. If something we have been taught is at odds with every other experience, it may be a sign we have misunderstood.
As Teachers, we need to be diligent, and remember our role is as a guide. We do not get to gift truth, knowledge or understanding to someone. We can merely help bring them to it.

It depends on how you model each individuals payoff functions. However when the theory is taught the payoff function is usually modeled in monetary terms. ↩︎

I can’t find a source. This is what I was taught in my Behavioral Economics class. Perhaps I am a victim of a folk tale. If you have a source let me know. ↩︎

Again, game theory has ways to include “being treated fairly” as part of a utilitarian payoff, however such methods are rarely taught to Undergraduate students. The point isn’t that the academics are flat out wrong, its that they fail to teach their students how to understand their models properly. ↩︎