I’m sure you know a friend or relative who has strongly-held opinions about a subject and is convinced that their position is right. But when asked about specifics, it becomes clear that they lack a basic understanding of the working parts that back-up that position.
A recent article by Tania Lombrozo, PhD., a cognitive scientist at UC Berkeley, highlights what causes these extreme positions and what can be done to moderate them. Lombrozo’s article is based on a recent paper by psychologist Phil Fernbach of the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado. Fernbach found that:
[…] people overestimate how well they understand the mechanics of complex policies, and this sense of understanding helps bolster politically extreme positions.The striking implication, for which the researchers find support, is that getting people to appreciate their own ignorance can be enough to rein in strong opinions.
The question becomes: How? How does Aunt Sally come to appreciate that she doesn’t understand as much as she thinks she does? This is not the best dinner conversation.
Fernbach found that one successful option is to ask her to explain the issue:
Here's how the study worked. People completed an online survey in which they first rated their agreement with several policies, such as sanctions on Iran and a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. They were then asked to estimate how well they felt they understood each policy and received an unexpected request: for two of the policies, they were told to "describe all the details" they knew about the impact of instituting that policy, "going from the first step to the last, and providing the causal connection between the steps."In other words, people were asked to explain the nitty gritty mechanics of how the policy would play out, an exercise that led many to subsequently lower their estimates of how well they actually understood the policy.Thus humbled, people's agreement or disagreement with the policy also became more moderate. More surprisingly, explaining also affected behavior: a follow-up study found that after explaining how various policies would work, people were less likely to donate money to an organization that supported the position they had originally endorsed.
This sounds familiar. When writing scripts for Common Craft videos, I’ve often had my perspective of a subject change in the midst of explaining it. The process of trying to make a subject understandable for others helps me see it from a new perspective. This is one of the more powerful aspects of explanation that is often forgotten. Through explaining, we learn. Lombrozo continues:
Why was explanation so effective? In a New York Times piece discussing this work, co-author Steven Sloman and Phil Fernbach suggest that explanation acts as "a kind of revelatory trigger mechanism" that forces people to confront their lack of understanding. When you think you understand, probe further. Ask yourself "how?" and "why?" Ask others the same.
That’s great advice. When I speak about the Art of Explanation, I encourage the audience to look for explanation problems and then write explanations that would solve them. I ask them to pretend they are writing a script for a video because by simply writing about it, they will start to see it from a new more informed perspective.
Paul Graham, who runs the venture capital firm Y-Combinator, said something similar about the writing process back in 2005:
I think it's far more important to write well than most people realize. Writing doesn't just communicate ideas; it generates them. If you're bad at writing and don't like to do it, you'll miss out on most of the ideas writing would have generated.
The next time you need to explain a complex idea, or even want to understand it better, start writing. It’s an exercise that opens up the new perspectives.
Bonus: Lomobrozo's article also includes this hilarious video from the Jimmy Kimmel Live that shows people trying to explain the fiscal cliff.
I highlight the work of Tania Lombrozo in my book The Art of Explanation.