Posts Tagged ‘the curse of knowledge’

Thinking with Other People

July 7, 2017

This is the sixth post in the series The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Unabridged), written by Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach. Thinking with Other People is a chapter in this book. The evolution of modern humans from other species of hominids was extremely rapid on an evolutionary time scale. It began with the emergence of the genus Homo on the African savannah 2 to 3 million years ago. Sloan and Fernbach note that the great leap that humanity took during that period was cognitive. The brain mass of modern humans is about three times that of our early hominid ancestors.

A compelling hypothesis, the social brain hypothesis, is that the driving force of the evolution of human intelligence was the coordination of multiple cognitive systems to pursue complex, shared goals. Living in a group confers advantages, such as hunting, but it demands certain cognitive abilities. There are needs to communicate in sophisticated ways, to understand and incorporate the perspectives of others, and the sharing of common goals. According to the social brain hypothesis the cognitive demands and adaptive advantages associated with living in a group created a snowball effect: As groups got larger and developed more complex joint behaviors, individuals developed new capabilities to support those behaviors, which in turn allowed groups to get even larger and allowed group behavior to become even more complex.

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar, whom we have encountered previously in healthy memory blog posts, tested the social brain hypothesis against the ecological hypothesis. He collected data on many species of primates on brain size as well as facts about the environment they live in like the extent of their roaming territory and dietary habits, and facts about their societies such as their average group size. Brain size and group size are closely related. Primate species that live in large groups have bigger brains. Environmental measures such as territory size and diet were unrelated.

Increased brain size led to language and what sets people apart from other species is the ability to seamlessly communicate ideas of arbitrary complexity. Members of a hunting party need to understand the intentions of others in the hunting party so that each can play their respective roles.

Sloan and Fernbach argue that we humans have the unique capability of shared intentionality. They argue that this ability is one that no other machine or cognitive system does: We can share our attention with someone else. When we interact with one another, we do not merely experience the same event; we also know we are experiencing the same event. And this knowledge that we are sharing our attention changes more than the nature of the experience; it also changes what we do and what we’re about to accomplish in conjunction with others.

Sloan and Fernbach contine, “Sharing attention is a crucial step on the road to being a full collaborator in a group sharing cognitive labor, in a community of knowledge. Once we can share attention, we can share common ground. We know some things that we know others know, and we know that they we know (and of course we know that they know that we know, etc.) The knowledge is not just distributed; it is shared. Once knowledge is shared in this way, we can share intentionality, we can jointly pursue a common goal. A basic human talent is to share intentions with others so that we can accomplish things collaboratively. HM thinks that Sloan and Fernbach are describing the ideal situation. It is not unusual for consultants and training to be required to make this happen. And many organizations continue to function in a state that is far from ideal.

Sloan and Fernbach note that the knowledge illusion is the flip side of what economists call the curse of knowledge. When we know something, we find it hard to imagine that someone else doesn’t know it. The curse of knowledge sometimes comes in the form of hindsight bias. “The curse of knowledge is that we tend to think what is in our heads is in the heads of others. In the knowledge illusion, we tend to think what is in others’ heads is in our heads. In both cases, we fail to discern who knows what.

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