We all think we know how most of the things we work with a on a daily basis work. Take for example your computer, how does it work? How does the screen display those icons? How does the mouse/keypad work? How does the computer know when you’ve written on the keyboard?
To answer these questions we could easily go to Wikipedia or HowStuffWorks and find out everything there is to know about computers, including how they work. But most of the explanations you’ll find are very simplistic, they’ll give you the basics. What they won’t tell you is ‘why’ they work this way. Why it is the way it is.
And that’s exactly the types of answers we should be looking for because we think we understand how most things work, but the truth is we don’t. We have an illusion of how things work.
Just last week I scratched one of my favorite dress shoes. It killed me that I scratched them and was pissed off. I immediately started thinking of how I would go about creating a shoe that is un-scratchable, that stands the test of time (wouldn’t it be cool?!). My curiosity took me a look up articles and videos about how shoes are made (I thought I had good idea of how shoes are made but that’s far from the truth) to see what I was up against. Let me tell you that it’s not that simple.
This tendency to think we have a better understanding than we actually do is called the Illusion of Knowledge. Covered widely by Chris Chabris and Dan Simons in their book The Invisible Gorilla, they used an everyday object we all know as an experiment to prove their point. With a bike:
Spend a moment now and try to form an image in your mind of a bicycle. Even better, if you have a piece of paper, draw a sketch of a bicycle. Don’t worry about making a great piece of art—just focus on getting all the major parts in the right place. Sketch out the frame, the handlebars, the wheels, the pedals, and so on. For simplicity, just make it a singlespeed bicycle. Got it?
If you had to rate your understanding of how a bicycle works on a 1 to 7 scale, where 1 means “no understanding” and 7 means “complete understanding,” what score would you give yourself? If you are like most of the people who participated in a clever study by British psychologist Rebecca Lawson, you thought you had a pretty good understanding of bicycles; her subjects rated the level of their knowledge at 4.5 out of 7, on average.
Now either look at your drawing or refresh your mental image and then answer the following questions: Does your bicycle have a chain? If so, does the chain run between the two wheels? Does the frame of your bicycle connect the front and back wheels? Are the pedals connected to the inside of the chain? If you drew a chain connecting the two wheels of your bicycle, think about how the bicycle would turn—the chain would have to stretch whenever the front wheel rotated, but chains aren’t stretchy.
Similarly, if a rigid frame connected both wheels, the bicycle could only go straight. Some people draw pedals outside the loop of the chain, making it impossible to turn the chain by pedaling. Errors like these were common in Lawson’s study, and they are not trivial details of the functioning of a bicycle—the pedals turn the chain, which causes the back wheel to rotate, and the front wheel must be free to turn or the bicycle cannot change direction.
People are much better at making sense of a bicycle’s workings when the thing is sitting right in front of them than they are at explaining (or drawing) a bicycle purely from memory. This example illustrates a critical aspect of the illusion of knowledge. Because of our extensive experience and familiarity with ordinary machines and tools, we often think we have a deep understanding of how they work.
We think that because we’ve been around these objects for awhile that we understand them. But we mistake having a superficial understanding with having a deep understanding, and this makes us feel dumber when we start probing deeper. Only by testing ourselves can we actually determine whether or not we really understand.
I’m sure you’ve heard about the 5 Why‘s for problem solving technique, well they do exist for a reason. Not because asking questions makes you look smart and cool, but because getting to the root of things gets you to the real truth. It challenges your assumptions about what you actually think you know.
So if you want another reason why you should be curious like a child, this is why:
If you aren’t interested in the world around you, you’ll never even begin to understand how to fix it (or just make it suck less). But in order to do this, you have to go beyond the how and ask why.