Why you should say “I don’t know”

At one of my previous experiences, one of the things that my department head told me was “I don’t want you to guess, if you don’t know, just say you don’t know and tell me later when you find out”. It is only now that I realize how important that is.


I think that one of the scariest moments that we have as professionals is when there is something that we really don’t know the answer to. That isn’t something that we are “supposed” to say. We are supposed to be “professional” (which apparently means all-knowing). The problem that I see is that people are afraid to lose credibility. Naturally, losing credibility can have other undesirable consequences, such as being perceived as less competent than a more confident person.That can play a big role elsewhere too. Even if a person is less knowledgeable, but more confident, they can be incorrectly perceived by people as being more competent and become the first person that questions are asked to answer questions.


This is particularly a problem in cultures with a high power distance or high levels of  masculinity on Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions. In such cultures, leadership is supposed to convey a sense of knowledge, superiority, and confidence. The credibility loss can be quite large in contemporary Western society, but in such cultures, the credibility gap can be even larger.  It is viewed as a sort of moral failing and would make people question whether or not said person is truly fit to be the leader. I firmly believe that a lower power distance and a less masculine culture on these dimensions would serve all societies well.


One of the things I have found fascinating is that people will go to extreme lengths to avoid admitting that they do not know something. They may lie, save face (especially important in East Asian society), try  to make something else up on the spot, change the subject, or any other number of ways to avoid admitting that they really do not know. There is a Freakonomics article where Stephen Dubner and Stephen Levitt published a book Think Like a Freak, and it in they argue the hardest three words in the English language are “I don’t know”.


Increasingly, I have come to the conclusion that it is best to admit that you do not know and to say that you will look into the matter, or if necessary, refer the question to the right person that has the relevant expertise to answer the question. Naturally, you have to follow through and actually look into the matter.


There are other benefits to admitting when you do not know something:

  • Learn from other people: Often you will find people are more willing to help someone that does not know something, is humble, and demonstrates a willingness to learn new ideas or skills. You can often reduce your learning curve by building off the knowledge that other people have already built. It is human nature to want to help other people.
  • It can convey a sense of curiosity and a determination to get the job done: You do not know, but you plan to follow through and make sure that you do get an acceptable answer.
  • There is a very high probability that you will learn something from the whole experience. If you do not know something, there is a good chance that the person asking the question asked about something that you overlooked or did not think about. In the process of finding the answer, odds are, you will learn something new as well.


Finally, I believe that this also speaks volumes about what is wrong with our society. We seem to value confidence over actual competence. We say otherwise, but actions speak louder than words. The end result can be narcissists who are far less competent than a more humble person might be. Such people are far less likely to admit that they do not know and as a result, may be able to advance much faster than more humble people. The sad irony here is that narcissists can be quite dangerous to both themselves and everyone around them. Instinctively, we should know this, but we seldom act on it.


This can have huge consequences elsewhere. Going back to that Freakonomics interview, Levitt and Dubner noted that their experiences as business consultants that they had. I will quote the following from the interview:

DUBNER: This was a company whose unwillingness to experiment, to admit what they didn’t know, had pretty big consequences. It was a huge multinational retailer. They spent many millions of dollars in advertising in the U.S. alone. But they weren’t sure how effective the advertising was. So far, they had come to one concrete conclusion: TV ads were about four times more effective, dollar for dollar, than print ads. How’d they know this? That’s what their sales data told them. They advertised every week in newspapers. But because TV advertising is so expensive, they only bought ads three times a year: Black Friday, Christmas, and Father’s Day.

LEVITT: So then I said, I think I might understand why your TV ads seem to have a return on investment that is 4 times as great as your newspaper ads and they said, why? And I said, well, every single time you go and do a big advertising campaign, your sales go through the roof right afterwards. And they were like, yeah, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. And I said, don’t you think maybe if you didn’t do the ads you would sell stuff around Christmas and on Black Friday… and they said, yeah!

DUBNER: So basically this company is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on TV advertising to persuade people to go to their stores to buy stuff on the three times of the year when people were already going to be going to stores to buy stuff.

LEVITT: It was easier to spend a billion dollars pretending they knew than to actually find out the answer.

LEVITT: And it is truly amazing that the only piece of real learning they had, the only piece of real feedback that they were given is that the newspaper inserts didn’t work. And yet, it’s now 5 years later, and they’ve probably spent close to another billion dollars putting ads in the newspaper and the reason was because if they tried to do an experiment to see whether newspaper inserts worked or not, it would be an admission that they did not know whether newspaper inserts worked. It was easier to spend a billion dollars pretending they knew than to actually find out the answer.


I am sure that elsewhere, not knowing has huge consequences elsewhere too. The Dunning Kruger effect is a well researched phenomenon.  I would love to see a study on the true effects of the damage done on people who are unwilling to admit they do not know. It must be truly staggering.


Levitt and Dubner also note that it takes a certain degree of confidence to admit that someone does not know. I would agree with that in that you have to be willing to accept the consequences, and that you have to be confident that it will not damage your career. Perhaps that is a good advice on where to seek a career, a in place where you can be humble, and where you do not know the answers, can do so without fear for your career. Sadly not all organizations have this characteristic.  You have to be willing to stick your neck out on the line and tell the truth. Alas, that is often penalized.


The key thing I think that  truly draws though when people say they don’t know, but that they will find out, is that they aspire to be better. They aspire to actually find out, and are humble enough to seek out the answers. That is something I wish that our society would reward more frequently.  The questions that you do not know are often the complex questions, things that you overlooked, or questions that do not have simple answers. Admitting you do not know may just be the first step to ultimately solving them.


For my part, I will be more willing to admit when I do not know. What about you? Do you find not knowing scary? What about admitting when you do not know?


  1. Benjamin David Steele

    I’m fine with others knowing what I don’t know. Then again, I’m just a parking ramp cashier. Admission of ignorance won’t negatively effect my career. No one cares if I act confident and competent.

    There is a certain amount of freedom possible when one is on the bottom of society, especially when one’s job is unionized. Sadly, few people are in that position. In a Social Darwinian economy, truth is always sacrificed.

    I wonder what it is like in well functioning social democracies. You and I were talking about Norway over at my blog. With high employment rates and a strong social safety net (plus, high levels of political engagement), are Norwegians more open to speaking the truth, including speaking truth to power? Are people more or less likely to speak uncomfortable truths in a culture of trust?

    1. Chris Liu (Post author)

      I’d argue that being knowledgeable is important in any job. Not knowing should not be a crime – it is if you don’t care and don’t try to know that should be the most disappointing aspect of a person.

      I would argue that although far from perfect, an egalitarian society is far more likely to be one where people can have a frank conversation about aspects of society that they do not find comfortable.

      On the note of Norway and global warming, research has found that egalitarian and communitarian values are more likely to take action against global warming. Note that more likely does not mean will always do so though.

      On the other hand, what would a small conservative state do with all of that oil money? It would also be exported, only there would be a few people on top that would benefit and the rest of the population would see little to none of that wealth. Sadly, this happens in the developing world a lot and you could make the case that this is also what has happened in much of the Middle Eastern Gulf States.


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