Cognitive psychologists Laurie Santos and Tamar Gendler answered Edge.org’s 2014 question of the year, “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?” by stating we should retire our unquestioned belief that, “Knowing is half the battle.” The phrase, “knowing is half the battle” was popularized by the 1980s G.I. Joe cartoon’s ending message, “Now you know. And knowing is half the battle.”
I am too old to have watched G.I. Joe cartoons…but somehow that meme worked into my brain and has colored my outlook on life. I’m always seeking new information. I want to know and then act based on that knowledge.
Santos and Gendler state that, “Recent work in cognitive science has demonstrated that knowing is a shockingly tiny portion of the battle for most real world decisions.” When it comes to making decisions, knowing about how our brains work isn’t enough to stop us from making irrational decisions, doing things in the short term that undermine our long-term goals, or being biased by seemingly incidental (and unimportant) information. In fact, knowing might even get in the way of taking appropriate action.
But I like to know how things work. I want to believe that if I knew more about how my brain works, that I could make better decisions, act more rationally, and be less influenced by my goofy cognitive biases.
Yet, when I read Santos’ and Gendler’s Edge response and dug into their research, I realized that I have been deluding myself. Knowing is rarely sufficient to overcome our “built-in” brain reactions.
Knowing isn’t intrinsically bad. It just isn’t sufficient to effect change. Yet I still want to know how things work. I still believe knowing is incredibly powerful.
So what good is knowing?
Knowing a name for some thing gives you the vocabulary to talk about it. In my review of Design Patterns, I said, “most importantly, it names these design constructs, allowing teams to share a common vocabulary.”
You aren’t a better designer because you know design patterns. There is so much more to design than knowing a few patterns or applying them to solve a problem. But knowing about patterns enables you to have more informed conversations about what you see in existing designs and what design possibilities there are.
Knowing about system 1 and system 2 thinking as described in Kahneman’s, Thinking Fast and Slow, and how they interact can help you talk about how you behaved the way you did.
Knowing about a thing or concept enables you to see it. Once I knew of the Cargill logo, I spotted it everywhere. On trains, buildings, products. Before that, it was invisible.
Knowing about cognitive biases can help you spot “irrational” decisions.
Knowing about some thing helps you focus attention on it (which can at times be good). But simply increasing awareness and attention won’t guarantee that you won’t miss something else important or avoid making poor decisions.
Simply knowing isn’t enough to eliminate undesirable associations or remove biases. Otherwise, you’d never have knee-jerk reactions and would always accurately weigh risks and rewards when making an important decision.
We can’t change our “system 1” thinking with its automatic fast associations. That’s how we’re wired. Associations are freewheeling, making us extremely susceptible to priming, anchoring, and myriad other cognitive biases.
Knowing increases awareness. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I believe increased awareness is the first step towards making any significant change.
Knowing doesn’t prevent the triggering automatic behaviors and reactions. But it helps us shape the words we can use to reflect on our actions and feelings. And then, what?
If we want to behave differently, we need to take some action to avoid tripping up in the future. But since we can’t turn off our automatic reactions, what can we do? Indeed, changing “automatic” reactions is hard.
And that’s the focus of my next blog post.