Evelyn Rodriguez posts a terrific story, lifted from Tom Asacker‘s new book, A Clear Eye for Branding:.

In the [psychological] study two people, A and B, were seated on opposite sides of the dividing wall, looking at a screen. Each person was instructed to learn by trial and error how to recognize the difference between slides of healthy cells and sick cells. For each slidee, they had to push one of two buttons in front of them, “Healthy” or “Sick,” at which point one of two lamps, labeled “Right” or “Wrong,” would light up.

Person A received true feedback, meaning that his “Right” lamp would light up when he was correct and his “Wrong” lamp would light up when he was incorrect. These people – the A’s – learned to tell the difference between healthy and sick cells with a high level of accuracy. Person B’s situation was quite different. His right or wrong lamps lit up based not on his own guesses but on Person A’s guesses. He didn’t know it, but he was searching for an order where none could possibly exist.

A and B were then asked to work together to establish the rules for determining healthy vs. sick cells. The A’s told the B’s what they had learned and what simple characteristics they had looked for to tell the difference. B’s explanations, by necessity, were subtle and quite complex – and completely bogus.

Here’s the amazing part. After the collaboration, all B’s and nearly all A’s came to believe that the delusional B had a much better understanding of healthy vs. sick cells. In fact, A’s were impressed with B’s sophisticated brilliance, and felt inferior because of the pedestrian simplicity of their assumptions. In a follow-up test, the B’s showed almost no improvement, but the A’s scores dropped because the A’s had incorporated some B’s completely baseless ideas.

This had me laughing out loud – as well as appreciating how it ties into the theme of valuing the ordinary.

10 thoughts on “Sophistry

  1. davidcoe...

    That’s interesting – I didn’t really find this amusing at all – my “insightful commentary” to Evelyn was…

    “K.I.S.S xxxxx”

    …which I felt was in tune with the piece??

    Maybe we need to redefine R.S.S?

    “Really Simple Stories”…

  2. Adrian Trenholm

    I like that. It ties in, I think with On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt. When we don’t know the “correct” answer, we make up all sorts of justifications; and we tend to accept those made up justifications from others, because calling bullshit on the other person is just not the done thing. So we end up adopting the bullshit as our own.

    Design Observer has a great post on this:

    In discussing design work with their clients, designers are direct about the functional parts of their solutions and obfuscate like mad about the intuitive parts, having learned early on that telling the simple truth

  3. Piers

    Intriguing experiment! But might one way of looking at it not be that, rather than being swayed by the slick, complexity of the B’s arguments, the A’s were swayed by the fact that B’s were explaining A’s own initial responses?

  4. Johnnie Moore

    Adrian: Great riff on the theme!

    Piers: Yes, it’s interesting that the A’s apparently were seduced by B’s complicated explanations rather than the simple principles of their direct experience. I suspect that tendency is the reason some experts consultants make a lot of money – but often don’t generate change…

  5. Adrian Trenholm

    On the expensive consultancy thing, I read a few months ago that a student did her PhD on top executives’ attitudes to advice. The findings were that advice which was paid for (ie consultancy) was always favoured over advice which wasn’t paid for (ie staff suggestions) even if the unpaid advice was, to any outside observer, clearly better. I didn’t bookmark this story, so if anybody knows the research I am talking about, please post a link.


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