What are Unknown Unknowns?

What are they?

“As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know… It is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.” (Rumsfeld)

Unknown unknowns, therefore, are future outcomes, events, circumstances, or consequences that we cannot predict. They cannot be planned for either. We don’t even know when and where to search for them. They are, simply put, unknown unknowns. This terms is popular in project management, strategic planning, and business related fields. It is not commonly a term used in everyday life. However, life is riddled with unknown unknowns.

“We might think we understand something in depth, but when it comes time to put our money where our mouth is, it often turns out our understanding leaves a lot to be desired.” (Brotherton, 2015).

Types of Unknowns

A typical classification of risks is based on the level of knowledge about a risk event’s occurrence(either known or unknown) and the level of knowledge about its impact (either known or unknown). This leads to four possibilities (Cleden, 2009):

  • Known–knowns (knowledge),
  • Unknown–knowns (impact is unknown but existence is known, i.e., untapped knowledge),
  • Known–unknowns (risks), and
  • Unknown–unknowns (unfathomable uncertainty).

“Most unknown unknowns are believed to be impossible to find or imagine in advance. But this study reveals that many of them were not truly unidentifiable.” (Kim, 2012).

Why are unknown unknowns important?

“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision” – Bertrand Russell (1951)

Unknown unknowns are important in our lives, because there is always something we are completely unaware of. More significantly, we are unaware we are unaware.

 suggested that, across many intellectual and social domains, it is the poorest performers who hold the least accurate assessments of their skill and performances, grossly overestimating how well their performances stack up against those of their peers. For example, students performing in the bottom 25% among their peers on tests of grammar, logical reasoning, and humor tended to think that they are performing above the 60th percentile ().”

“To be sure, the incompetent are not alone in their difficulty with accurate self-assessment. These same studies suggest that top performers consistently underestimate how superior or distinctive their performances are relative to their peers. In  studies, the top 25% tended to think that their skills lay in the 70th to 75th percentile, although their performances fell roughly in the 87th percentile.”

“If one cannot rely on life experience to teach people about their deficits, how are people to gain self-insight? While this seems a difficult task, there are clues in the psychological literature that suggest strategies for gaining self-insight. If a lack of skill leads to an inability to evaluate the quality of one’s performances, one means of improving metacognitive ability—and thus self-insight — is to improve one’s level of skill.” (2008)

“School children who are taught that intelligence is malleable get more excited about learning, become more motivated in the classroom and achieve better grades (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, In Press).”

Why the Unskilled Are Unaware: Further Explorations of (Absent) Self-Insight Among the Incompetent:


What are Unknown Unknowns? Definition and examples:



Brotherton, R. (2015, November 17). The Brain has a Blind Spot for ‘Unknown Unknowns’. Discover Magazine. Retrieved from: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2015/11/17/brain-unknowns/#.XBBLWdtKguVhttps://marketbusinessnews.com/financial-glossary/financial-glossary-u/unknown-unknowns/

Clark, D. (2017, October 23). Simple Ways to Spot Unknown Unknowns. https://hbr.org/2017/10/simple-ways-to-spot-unknown-unknowns

Harvard. (2018). Teaching for Understanding: Educating for the Unknown. https://www.gse.harvard.edu/ppe/teaching-understanding-educating-unknown

Kim, S. D. (2012). Characterizing unknown unknowns. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2012—North America, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.


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