The Inevitable Indictment of Donald TrumpFranklin Foer, The Atlantic
I recently had the doubtful pleasure of self-administering a mail-order Covid test. It was a process that required simultaneously mastering the test itself, packing up the sample, and registering the procedure online. This administrative, logistical and medical triathlon would have been challenging at any time, much like applying for a driving licence while assembling an Ikea chair, parts of which I had to insert into various orifices. Still, the bewildering instructions did not help.
They were supplied in two not-quite-identical versions for an anxiety-inducing game of spot the difference. Mysterious components went unexplained. On a third instruction sheet was a stern admonition to write down the parcel-tracking number, which could have referred to any of a dozen serial numbers, since the whole kit was festooned with more barcodes than a branch of Tesco.
Why couldn’t these people design a less mind-boggling set of instructions? The answer, my friends, is “the curse of knowledge”. The phrase, coined by three behavioural economists, describes the difficulty a well-informed person has in fully appreciating the depth of someone else’s ignorance.
A veteran of parcel delivery knows exactly what a parcel-tracking number looks like. It is so obvious that she will use the term without a second thought, much as you or I would use the word “it”.
Of course, the word “it” can itself be devilishly ambiguous. There’s a PG Wodehouse story in which Bertie Wooster warns a bedroom intruder that his valet will soon be bringing him morning tea: “He will approach the bed. He will place it on the table.” The intruder is perplexed as to why the valet would place the bed on the table. In Wodehouse’s tale this is comical, because in context “it” is not remotely ambiguous.
But when an expert is trying to explain something to a novice, there is no context. “It” could mean anything, as could “parcel-tracking number”. We humans are egocentric creatures. We can’t help but see things from our own perspective. In his book The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker offers a pithy example of this egocentrism at work. He receives dozens of coursework assignments with file names such as Pinker.doc. For his students, it makes sense to give such a file name to an essay for Professor Pinker, but it betrays a striking failure to put themselves in his shoes.
The most famous study of this problem is by a graduate student in psychology, Elizabeth Newton. She put experimental subjects into pairs and asked one person to tap out a well-known song on the table. Using only their knuckles, they would perform “Baa Baa Black Sheep” or “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”. The other person had to guess the song. The listeners found this extremely hard, succeeding fewer than three times out of 100.
But the tappers thought the task would be much easier and that listeners would guess the song about half the time. This is because Newton’s tappers could hear the tune in their heads as they tapped out the rhythm. They simply could not imagine what it felt like to hear only the tapping. In 2005, the psychologist Justin Kruger and his colleagues studied this egocentrism problem in the context of written communication.
Participants were asked to write two sentences, one of which was straightforward while the other was dripping with sarcasm. Then they were asked to estimate how difficult other people would find it to spot the sarcasm. They believed the recipients would get it right almost every time. This was far too optimistic: 20 per cent of sentences were misinterpreted.
In the context of a work email, that failure rate is easily enough to ruin your day. The curse of knowledge isn’t new. The catastrophic charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War in 1854 was essentially the result of ambiguous orders being misinterpreted. In a world where so much information is now conveyed in writing — email, text, social media — it is worth paying attention to how to prevent 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 most straightforward solution is to check how the message is being interpreted and then to check again. Alas, it is the nature of the curse of knowledge that we often fail to appreciate how necessary such checking is.
It is one subject that we journalists do understand, which is why this column has been read by numerous editors before reaching you. If the final result is confusing, I apologise. But you should have seen the first draft. Package designers need a second and third opinion too. I suspect that if the testing company had spent more time watching people like me trying 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 thoughtfully at me. Unlike Bertie Wooster’s “it”, there was no misunderstanding which idiot she had in mind.
Tim Harford’s “The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” is now out in paperback
Q&A with the writer on going to university late in life and why she regrets never having learnt to play the guitar properly.
Heather Morris, 66, became a bestseller with her award-winning first book The Tattooist of Auschwitz, published in 2018, which has sold more than three million copies. What was your childhood or earliest ambition?
I lived in a very small town in New Zealand. I wanted to get out and explore the exotic other countries I’d only read about. Private school or state school? University or straight into work? Local state schools. I lived in a time and place where girls going to university just wasn’t the done thing. I did the secretarial stuff — I was the top shorthand typist in Te Awamutu high school.
It wasn’t until I was a mother of three that I woke up one morning and said I was going to university. My husband was headhunted to Australia, so I completed my BA in political science and sociology at Monash University in Melbourne.
I was then in the social work department at Monash Medical Centre for 21 years. I’d always read but, doubting my ability to write a book, I decided to try screenwriting, which you can learn, because there are rules. So I went to workshops and seminars — I loved the whole notion of writing dialogue. Who was or still is your mentor? Glenda Bawden, my boss for 20 years at Monash Medical Centre — the most amazing, compassionate, fair woman.
She remains my friend. Her wise counsel over the years has been great. How physically fit are you? Not as fit as I should be. About three years ago it occurred to me that I was sitting on my butt too much, and I now have a treadmill in my office, so things are improving. Ambition or talent: which matters more to success? Ambition. You need it to get the talent that will propel you to be successful. But I don’t think success can be measured by writing a best-selling novel or running a marathon — success is just trying something. How politically committed are you?
I have been politically active in both Australia and New Zealand. I speak up and I march in the street when I feel the need. Right now, it’s about the concerns that we all should have for climate change, at the global level.
What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess? There are fewer and fewer things I want to possess. What is important for me is time with my family. What’s your biggest extravagance?
My daughter and son-in-law have recently given me a grandchild. I can just fit three child seats in the back of my car, but I’m going to treat myself to a new car.
In what place are you happiest? In the company of all my family — with my three children and five grandchildren is my totally happy place. What ambitions do you still have? I’ve always said I want to live my life with not one single regret. The only regret I have right now, at 66, is that I’ve yet to learn how to play the guitar properly. What drives you on? The people I meet.
There’s nothing more thrilling for me than to talk to strangers — big groups, little groups, one on one, they’re all wonderful. What is the greatest achievement of your life so far? I have given the community three amazing adults who are making a difference in the lives of others. What do you find most irritating in other people? People who are offended for no other reason than they want to be.
Not treating people who make mistakes as human. Intolerance. If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would she think? She’d be surprised that I’m still on this planet. My 20-year-old self indulged in a bit of risky behaviour that she perhaps shouldn’t have.
She’d say: “You made it this far — well done, congratulations.” Which object that you’ve lost do you wish you still had? My great-grandmother’s wedding ring. I think I must have taken it off during pregnancy, when your fingers swell.
I never saw it again. What is the greatest challenge of our time? Climate change. It has to be. Do you believe in an afterlife? No. If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score? 9.5. I still can’t play the guitar.
Spies, lies and non-stop sex: John le Carre's novels are a masterclass in subterfuge. But as the lurid memoir of an ex-mistress reveals, his love life was even more audacious than his stories, discovers RICHARD KAY