Made to Stick

Margaret bought me a copy of Made to Stick for Christmas, and since I’m only just warming up to the odd pursuit known as “reading” over the last week or so, I finished reading it a couple of days before I left for Pittsburgh. The book devotes itself to several moderately obvious premises (the authors show charming diffidence about the novelty of their insights), and the manifestly non-obvious implications thereof. Why, ask the authors, if the characteristics of “sticky” ideas are so obvious, do not more people generate more sticky ideas? (And likewise why do so many ideas turn out to be non-sticky, if not altogether repellent?)

The short answer: notions that are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotionally charged, and narrative in structure have a greater likelihood of sticking. This is easy enough to say, easy to illustrate, but much more tricky to put into effect; the Heaths devote the book to showing their analysis in practice, and the book merits attention (whether as a library take-out or a purchase) for its careful attention to the ways of stickiness. Despite the book’s casual logic of causality and its breezy rhetoric — which I’m quite content to ascribe to their expectation of reaching a mass audience — the Heaths make plausible points from which most people who traffic in ideas stand to learn.

One of the villains in their piece is the “curse of knowledge,” the extent to which greater depth of knowledge in a particular area blinds the know-er to what seems strikingly clear to a less-informed observer. One familiar example is the software application that performs a zillion different functions via commands and click sequences so obscure as to be quite useless. Some developer(s) presumably said, “All you do is invoke this menu with that key combination, find the check box, alt-click the check box, then highlight the selection and right-click-and-drag the selection” whereas a naive observer would say, “I can’t figure that out, I’ll never use it.” Combine the curse of knowledge with the [disputed] Dunning-Kruger effect, and you set in motion a typhoon of sticky-less-ness.

The Heaths gave me a lot to think about. The field of biblical studies fits very typically into those areas where the curse of knowledge effects a barrier between practitioners and their ostensible clients. We have to teach our students not solely “stuff about the Bible,” but also “why we would think about the Bible in these counter-intuitive ways.” The curse of knowledge has also played a role in selecting who enters the field of biblical studies; those of us with temperaments suited to our arcane modes of reasoning feel more comfortable reading and evaluating biblical scholars’ arguments, and we perpetuate those sorts of argument when we enter the field. That’s not because we’re uniquely brilliant, or have discovered the One True Path to Biblical Veracity, but because we do it more or less the way our forebears did. (By the same token, our knowledge is still very valuable knowledge; it’s just a mode of knowledge that particular sorts of people have worked out over generations, and it’s neither exhaustive nor exclusive.)

When I return to teaching, I want to have taken some time to think through (for instance) things that my students already know, that the practices of biblical interpretation resemble. I anticipate introducing interpretive problems and axioms more as a narrative about how readers of the Bible puzzled over things, and how they’ve resolved their puzzlements, than as conclusive “facts” about the New Testament.

Made to Stick also provoked me to wonder whether, alongside the curse of knowledge, there might be a “curse of authority.” This latter “curse” operates on those whom it affects by preying on their (actual) situation as decision-makers, truth-determiners, or authority-bearers, who eventually will have to arrive at plans, conclusions, and policies. The accursed authority figure supposes that since authority is vested in him, his perspective on a situation has to determine the course of action — without testing that perspective against, perhaps, the circumstances of the world around him. Un-sticky ideas might well develop from policy-makers whose authority exceeds their imagination.

In any case, I’d recommend Made To Stick firmly — as a library read at the very least. Once we get over the conclusion that the authors aren’t saying anything so very novel, and attend to the preponderance of evidence that most people’s ideas depart from the Heaths’ advice, we stand to benefit from their insight into how much we have to learn.

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