dealing with the Curse of Knowledge

I have to stop myself from quoting Ben Parker’s famous line about power and responsibility, but I can’t stop thinking about the frightening change, and its consenquences, happening in my head after reading a certain book or two.

There is nothing special about my case. The same could happen to you. The same will happen to you, after you read a certain book or two.

In my case, it happened with Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick. Gladwell examines why social change can happen so suddenly (crime in New York in the 90s dropping suddenly, why teens smoke more and more, how an unknown book became a huge hit etc.), and the Heath brothers explore what makes an idea stick in our heads (whether it’s from advertising, education, humanitarian work etc.) and how we can shape an idea that will be as sticky as possible.

After reading these two books, I’ve had one of those moments where you’ve just been given loads of amazing data, connected in an extremely meaningful way, along with several insights which challenge you, no, force you  to both change your oppinions and form new ones about important things and issues you didn’t even know existed or didn’t deem important. You basically can’t stop yourself, once you read these two books in a two day period, so that it’s all bundled up really tightly. You can feel all that knowledge being integrated into the way you perceive the world, make decisions and act them out. And, there’s that ever growing thirst for more. Because now you’re even more keenly aware of how much you really don’t know how this world and you in it works.

The reason I mentioned Uncle Ben there in the beginning is because once you’ve read those books, you gain a big insight into how easily we humans can be influenced. Seemingly irrelevant things can significantly change our behavior, things that we would never in a million years accept could influence us so much; and once you know what some of those things are, you also realize that you have a new responsibility – you know how to use those things, and you know what effect they have on people. You also know that often you’re safe from consequences because they’ll rationalize it all away, since we all believe that we’re completely in charge of our choices and our destiny (even though so many people are into astrology… you know, just in case).

So, once you know all this, you have to really (re)define your ethical values and boundries, especially when you want to do something which will influence a lot of other people, and especially when you know that they’ll think that it was their idea to do what you said all along. Before, you sort of dimly accepted that it was fair, because you thought everyone more or less knows the rules of the game. Now, you know you’ve learned some new rules which a lot of people don’t know about. So what becomes fair now?

In addition to all of this, as I said I’m now keenly (not to say desperately) interested in finding out what other things are influencing my behavior. I think that once you know them, you can adjust your strategy in dealing with them, and reclaim a bit more ground in your internal struggle for control over your actions and your life. As Steven Pressfield quotes Dalai Lama in his excellent War of Art (which I’ll also write about) “The enemy is a very good teacher”.

In closing, a big thank you to Jonathan Davis from Combat Consulting and Ryan Holiday for recomending these books on their blogs.

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3 Comments to “dealing with the Curse of Knowledge”

  1. As much as I enjoy reading Gladwell’s stuff (Blink is even better, I’ve just downloaded a free audio edition of Outliers from audible.com, and there are always loads of his writings at http://www.gladwell.com/archive.html ) I can’t help thinking he’s only rehashing old sociology/psychology papers and presenting them as absolute truths.

    Freakonomics had also tried to explain the ’90s drop in crime rate, but the authors at least presented several other possible explanations (and refuted several more). And the research on IAT (implicit association test) Gladwell gushed about in Blink is only now turning out to be not exactly as unambiguous as he had thought. It’s too bad his books don’t need to go through the same peer review process and reexamination that real science papers do.

    In any case, it’s an enjoyable read, sure. Just don’t get too carried away feeling all powerful among the mortals who hadn’t read it 😉

  2. While I am admitedly biased towards Gladwell and I’ll have to do some further reading, it’s the combined effect of his book and Made To Stick which had this effect – and not without good reason, I think.

    Take the example of the story about popcorn from Made To Stick (if you haven’t read the book, you can read about the popcorn story here http://www.madetostick.com/excerpts/). Art Silverman presented his idea in such a way that it made a huge impact and changed a certain pattern of behavior of milions of people. And yes, in this case, most if not all will argue that it’s for a good reason – the coconut oil used for the popcorn was very unhealthy, and once sales dropped drastically some theaters switched to popcorn with less unhealthy oil.

    So, with health it’s more or less clear, but what about influencing people’s moral or even religious beliefs? Sure, it’s not as easy as changing their opinion about popcorn, but it’s very possible to do – we all know what was happening in Serbia in the 90s, when the masses were swayed by the charisma and machinations of certain politicians.

    So, when you know that you’re not adressing the people’s rational mind, but rather their emotions, in such a way that they won’t so much think about their decision but rather rationalize it once they ,,make” it… well, I think that then it’s not so easy to which extent you’ll use such methods, and for what purpose (something which the politicians in this country have no problem with, either in the 90s or today). Since I am working with people a lot and I wish to change some aspects of this system, I have to really sit down and define which method’s I’ll use for getting my point across.

    And yes, I may have sounded a bit too megalomaniacish, I’ll tone down on it 😀

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