Saturday, May 30, 2009

Idea communication and curiosity gap theory

When I met Sachin last week he wasn’t in a good mood. Sachin is a Quality Assurance (QA) engineer working for a Fortune 500 company’s India office. He is passionate about two areas: test automation and security. He has been studying micro-viruses for the past few months. In fact, he sent an email to an onsite technical expert about how some of the applications can be made micro-virus proof. It has been a few weeks and he is yet to receive any response. What went wrong here? We don’t know about the correctness or novelty in Sachin’s idea. However, what we know for sure is that he violated a basic principle of idea communication: Curiosity before content.

In the bestseller Made to stick, authors Dan and Chip Heath outline a six-point framework to make ideas sticky. The book has one chapter for each of the six principles: Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotion and Story (S-U-C-C-E-S for short). The chapter on “Unexpected” talks about a theory called “gap theory of curiosity”. This theory proposed by behavioral economist George Loewenstein explains why some domains like movies, mystery novels, crossword puzzles create fanatical interest.

According to Loewenstein curiosity happens when we feel a gap in our knowledge. These gaps cause pain. It’s like having an itch that we need to scratch. For example, movies cause us to ask, What will happen? Mystery novels cause us to ask, Who did it? Sports contests cause us to ask, Who will win?

One important implication of the gap theory is that we need to open gaps before we close them. Our tendency is to tell people the facts (perhaps what Sachin has done in his email). First, though, they must realize that they need these facts. We have been coached to “Tell’em what you’re gonna tell’em, then tell’em, then tell’em what you told’em”. Steve Jobs doesn’t do this in his presentation, nor does Barak Obama.

So how can Sachin apply “gap theory of curiosity”? Perhaps he can point out some of the past issues due to security loopholes and ask if these are important to address immediately? Perhaps he can introduce a micro-virus in an application (without causing any real damage) and show step-wise how easy it was to introduce it. And then ask if this is an important enough issue to address. Sachin can write a blog on micro-viruses and what they can cause and send a link to onsite folks. If such techniques don’t arouse any curiosity, perhaps he is working on the wrong problem. He should move on to a different one. Any other suggestions?

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