The power to put yourself in someone else’s shoes

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I recently had the dubious pleasure of self-administering a Covid test by correspondence. It was a process that simultaneously required mastering the test itself, packaging the sample, and recording the procedure online. This administrative, logistical and medical triathlon would have been a challenge at any time, much like applying for a driver’s license while assembling an Ikea chair, parts of which I had to insert into various holes.

Still, the baffling instructions didn’t help. They were supplied in two not quite identical versions for an anxiety-provoking game of spotting the difference. Mysterious components have remained unexplained. On a third instruction sheet was a stern warning to write the tracking number of the package, which could have referred to one of the twelve serial numbers, as the entire kit was adorned with more barcodes than a subsidiary of Tesco.

Why couldn’t these people come up with a less mind-boggling set of instructions? The answer, my friends, is “the curse of knowledge.” The phrase, coined by three behavioral economists, describes the difficulty a knowledgeable person has in fully appreciating the depth of someone else’s ignorance. A parcel delivery veteran knows exactly what a parcel tracking number looks like. It is so obvious that she will use the term without ulterior motive, just as you or I would use the word “that”.

Of course, the word “it” itself can be devilishly ambiguous. There is a story from PG Wodehouse in which Bertie Wooster warns an intruder in the room that his valet will soon bring him morning tea: “He will approach the bed. He will place it on the table. The intruder is puzzled as to why the valet would place the bed on the table. In Wodehouse’s tale, it’s comical, because in the context “it” is not ambiguous at all. But when an expert tries to explain something to a novice, there is no context. “It” can mean anything, just like “parcel tracking number”.

We humans are self-centered creatures. We can’t help but see things from our own point of view. In his book Sense of style, Steven Pinker offers a concise example of this egocentricity at work. He receives dozens of coursework assignments with filenames such as Pinker.doc. For his students, it makes sense to give such a filename to an essay for Professor Pinker, but it betrays a stark failure to put himself in his shoes.

The most famous study of this problem is that of a graduate student in psychology, Elizabeth Newton. She put the experimental subjects in pairs and asked one person to type a well-known song on the table. Using only their knuckles, they sang “Baa Baa Black Sheep” or “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”. The other person had to guess the song. Listeners found it extremely difficult, scoring less than three times out of 100. But tappers thought the task would be much easier, and listeners would guess the song about half the time. This is because Newton’s tappers could hear the melody in their heads as they hit the beat. They just couldn’t imagine what it was like to hear only the tapping.

In 2005, psychologist Justin Kruger and his colleagues studied this problem of self-centeredness in the context of written communication. Participants were asked to write two sentences, one of which was simple while the other dripped with sarcasm. Then they were asked to rate how hard it would be for other people to spot the sarcasm. They believed the recipients would get it right almost every time. It was far too optimistic: 20% of the sentences were misinterpreted. In the context of business email, that failure rate is enough to ruin your day.

The curse of knowledge is not new. The catastrophic charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War of 1854 was largely the result of ambiguous and misinterpreted orders. In a world where so much information is now transmitted in writing – email, text, social media – it’s worth paying attention to how to avoid such confusion.

Anyone who has assembled a Lego set can attest that with enough care it is possible to provide clear instructions even for complex tasks. The easiest solution is to check how the message is interpreted and then check again. Alas, it is the nature of the knowledge curse that we often fail to appreciate how necessary such verification is.

This is a subject that we journalists understand, which is why this column was read by many editors before it reaches you. If the end result is confusing, I apologize. But you should have seen the first draft.

Package designers also need a second and third opinion. I suspect that if the testing company had spent more time watching people like me try to follow their instructions, they would soon find improvements. My wife agrees. “They just need to hire an idiot and watch him try to figure out the test,” she observed. Then she looked at me thoughtfully. Unlike Bertie Wooster’s “it”, there was no misunderstanding of what idiot she had in mind.

by Tim Harford “The next fifty things that made the modern economy”Is now in paperback

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