How the illusion of explanatory depth impacts success

Do you know how a toilet works?

I’m sure you do.

But what if I asked that you explain it to me, in detail?

Feeling less confident?

The Illusion of Explanatory Depth

A while ago I wrote about the Simplification Paradox. The paradox is people don’t value something if it is simple, but can’t use it if it is too complex.

Under a similar theme, I’d now like to explore what Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil(2002) called “the illusion of explanatory depth (IOED).”

It works like this. We navigate our world with an inflated sense we know how things work. We believe we know why the sun rises, how telephones work and, of course, how a toilet flushes. But in reality, we don’t really know much of this in detail. As the researchers put it, “most people feel they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence, and depth than they really do.”

Over a range of experiments the researchers had people rate their knowledge about something like a device or earthquake, attempt to explain it to someone and then rate their knowledge again. Once confronted with their inability to really explain something, their confidence dropped.

How the illusion impacts sales

Let’s say you have explained your product or service to a customer and they seem to get it. “Leave it to me”, they say “I’ll talk to my colleagues (or family) about next steps”. Great, you think. Mark that as a sale. And then you wait, and wait. Nothing.

The illusion of explanatory depth likely means your customer has tripped up when trying to explain what you do to their stakeholders.  Suddenly they have discovered it is not as easy as they thought.

Two ways you can get around this. First, try to be involved in the stakeholder discussion, and second, have your customer explain it back to you so you can hone the story. (More ideas on arming your advocate here).

How the illusion impacts training

The illusion can also impact the effectiveness of training. I see it when I am teaching people my Behaviour Change Model. They nod their heads when I’m explaining it to them, but get nervous as soon as I ask them to explain it to each other. It is this exercise, though, that’s probably the most important part of the training and where the real transfer of knowledge takes place. We need to be confronted by our lack of depth to become committed to learning.

How the illusion impacts your performance

Now that you know you are affected by the illusion of explanatory depth, reflect on what things are important you actually know in detail.  I, for instance, really don’t care to know how a toilet flushes, but I do want to know everything I can about behavioural science. By writing articles like this – having to explain research and its application to everyday issues – I am addressing my illusion. If something is important to you, in other words, have a go at explaining it to someone.

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand” (Confucius).

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