Monday, July 6, 2009

Confirmation bias and curse of knowledge: The villain connection between “Black Swan” and “Made to Stick”

The villain connection: The two bestsellers “Black Swan” and “Made to Stick” appear to deal with completely different topics. “Black Swan” by Nassim Taleb deals with events which are high impact and highly improbable. “Made to stick” by Dan and Chip Heath, on the other hand, is about how some ideas survive while others die. However, I believe that these two books are deeply connected. In fact, I suspect that the chief villains of both these books are close cousins. Let’s find out how. Let’s start with the chief villain of Black Swan: Confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias: Before the discovery of Australia, people in the Old World were convinced that all swans were white. It was an unassailable belief completely confirmed by empirical evidence. Until one day, the sighting of the first black swan shattered this belief. This shows we have a tendency to generalize things based on what we know (such as all swans are white belief) and underrate the importance of what we don’t know (possibility of black swans). This tendency is known as “confirmation bias”.

Why is “confirmation bias” the chief villain of Black Swan? Confirmation bias makes it difficult for us to predict Black Swans like 9/11 attack or Harry Potter’s iconic popularity. It also gives us a false sense of “expertise”. And we act as though we know how future is going to unfold by projecting the past knowledge. For example, we invest in real estate assuming its prices will always go up because that is what has happened in the past.

Curse of knowledge: OK. So, who is the close cousin of “confirmation bias”? It is called the “Curse of knowledge” (see my previous article: In love with the villain). In a 1993 conference on “Algebra for All” a number of points were articulated in response to the question “Why study Algebra?” Two of the points were (1) Algebra provides procedures for manipulating symbols to allow for understanding the world around us (2) Algebra provides a vehicle for understanding our world through mathematical symbols. (source: Made to stick). This description assumes the reader is already familiar with “symbols” and their “manipulation”. A layman is likely to find this description abstract and uninteresting. As this Algebra description shows, experts have a tendency to forget what it is like not have the knowledge or expertise. This tendency is known as “Curse of knowledge”.

Why is curse of knowledge important? It is important because it is the chief culprit why presentations by experts are many times abstract, uninteresting and plain simple boring.

Next time when you are preparing a presentation for your idea or discussing the price of your favorite stock, see if you can watch the villains within yourself in action.

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