Ephron still remembers the first day of her journalism class. Although the students had no journalism experience, they walked into their first class with a sense of what a journalist does: A journalists gets the facts and reports them. To get the facts, you track down the five Ws-who, what, where, when, and why.
As students sat in front of their manual typewriters, Ephron’s teacher announced the first assignment. They would write the lead of a newspaper story. The teacher reeled off the facts: “Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire high school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins, and California governor Edmund ‘Pat’ Brown.”
The budding journalists sat at their typewriters and pecked away at the first lead of their careers. According to Ephron, she and most of the other students produced leads that reordered the facts and condensed them into a single sentence: “Governor Pat Brown, Margaret Mead, and Robert Maynard Hutchins will address the Beverly Hills High School faculty Thursday in Sacramento … blah, blah, blah.”
The teacher collected the leads and scanned them rapidly. Then he laid them aside and paused for a moment.
Finally, he said, “The lead to the story is “There will be no school next Thursday”.
At the same time, we should be open-eyed about the challenges we’ll face as we make that shift. Take this example from Mexico City: City officials in 1989 banned the general public from driving one weekday per week, based on the last digit of their license plates. The intent was to encourage use of mass transit options and thereby improve air quality. It was a noble upstream effort to prevent air pollution.
It didn’t work. Many Mexicans bought a second car often an old clunker, to keep costs down—so they could drive every day. Air quality did not improve.
Good intentions guarantee nothing.
Beyond War would arrange “house parties,” in which a host family invited a group of friends and neighbors over, along with a Beyond War representative to speak to them. Ainscow recounts a simple demonstration that the group used in its presentations. He always carried a metal bucket to the gatherings. At the appropriate point in the presentation, he’d take a BB out of his pocked and drip it into the empty bucket. The BB made a loud clatter as it ricocheted and settled. Ainscow would say, “This is the Hiroshima bomb.” He then spent a few minutes describing the devastation of the Hiroshima bomb — the miles of flattened buildings, the tens of thousands killed immediately, the larger number of people with burns or other long-term health problems.
The French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupery once offered a definition of engineering elegance: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” A designer of simple ideas should aspire to the same goal: knowing how much can be wrung out of an idea before it begins to lose its essence.
Yale researcher Eric Havelock studies tales that have been passed down by word of mouth, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey. He notes that these tales are charachterized by lots of concrete actions, with few abstractions. Why? The ancient Greeks certainty had no problem with abstraction — this was the society that produced Plato and Aristotle, after all. Havelock believes that the stories evolved away from abstraction over time. When they were passed along from generation to generation, the more memorable concrete details survived and the abstractions evaporated.
Sticky ideas have to carry their own credentials. We need ways to help people test our ideas for themselves — a “try before you buy” philosophy for the world of ideas. When we’re trying to build a case for something, most of us instinctively grasp for hard numbers. But in many cases this is exactly the wrong approach. In the sole U.S presidential debate in 1980 between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, Reagan could have cited innumerable statistics demonstrating the sluggishness of the economy. Instead, he asked a simple question that allowed voters to test for themselves: “Before you vote, ask yourself if you are better off today than you were four years ago.”
In 1986, Jonathan Shedler and Melvin Manis, researchers at the University of Michigan, created an experiment to simulate a trial. Subjects were asked to play the role of jurors and were given the transcript of a (fictitious) trial to read. The jurors were asked to assess the fitness of a mother, Mrs. Johnson, and to decide whether her seven-year-old son should remain in her care.
The transcript was constructed to be closely balanced: There were eight arguments against Mrs. Johnson and eight arguments for Mrs. Johnson. All the jurors heard the same arguments. The only difference was the level of detail in those arguments. In one experimental group, all the arguments against her had no extra details; they were pallid by comparison. The other group heard the opposite combination.
As an example, one argument in Mrs. Johnson’s favor said: “Mrs. Johnson sees to it that her child washes and brushes his teeth before bedtime.” In the vivid form, the argument added a detail: “He uses a Star Wars toothbrush that looks like Darth Vader.”
An argument against Mrs. Johnson was: “The child went to school with a badly scraped arm which Mrs. Johnson had not cleaned or attended to. The school nurse had to clean the scrape.” The vivid form added the detail that, as the nurse was cleaning the scrape, she spilled Mercurochrome on herself, staining her uniform red.
The researchers carefully tested the arguments with and without vivid details to ensure that they had the same perceived importance — the details were designed to be irrelevant to the judgment of Mrs. Johnson’s worthiness. It mattered that Mrs. Johnson didn’t attend to the scarped arm; it didn’t matter that the nurse’s uniform got stained in the process.
But even though the details shouldn’t have mattered, they did. Jurors who heard the favorable arguments with vivid details judged Mrs. Johnson to be a more suitable parent (5.8 out of 10) than did jurors who heard the unfavorable arguments with vivid details (4.3 out of 10). The details has a big impact.
Contrast the following two statements:
- Scientists recently computed an important physical constraint to an extraordinary accuracy. To put the accuracy in perspective, imagine throwing the rock from the sun to the earth and hitting the target within one third of a mile if dead center.
- Scientists recently computed an important physical constraint to an extraordinary accuracy. To put the accuracy in perspective, imagine throwing a rock from New York to Los Angeles and hitting the target within two thirds of an inch of dead center.
Which statement seems more accurate?
As you may have guessed, the accuracy levels in both questions are exactly the same, but when different groups evaluated the two statements, 58 percent of respondents ranked the statistic about the sun to the earth as “very impressive.” That jumped to 83 percent for the statistic about New York to Los Angeles. We have no human experience, no intuition, about the distance between the sun and the earth, The distance from New York to Los Angeles is much more tangible. (Though, frankly, it’s still far from tangible. The problem is that if you make the distance more tangible — like a football field — then the accuracy becomes intangible. “Throwing, a rock the distance of a football field to an accuracy of 3.4 microns” doesn’t help.)
One morning in 1984 Barry Marshall skipped breakfast and asked his colleagues to meet him in the lab. While they watched in horror, he chugged a glass filled with about a billion H. pylori. It tasted like swamp water”, he said.
Within a few days, Marshall was experiencing pain, nauseam and vomiting — the classic symptoms of gastritis, the early stage of an ulcer. Using an endoscope, his colleagues found that his stomach lining, previously pink and healthy, was now red an inflamed. Like a magician, Marshal then cured himself with a course of antibiotics and bismuth (the active ingredient in Pepto-Bismol).
Even after this dramatic demonstration, the battle wasn’t over. Other scientists quibbled with the demonstration. Marshall had cued himself before he developed a full-blown ulcer, they argued, so maybe he had just generated ulcer symptoms rather than a genuine ulcer. But Marshall’s demonstration gave a second wind to supporters of the bacteria theory, and subsequent research amassed more and more evidence in his favor.
In 1994, ten years later, the National Institutes of Health finally endorsed the idea that antibiotics were the preferred treatment for ulcers.
Another study, conducted by Shafir and a colleague, Donald Redelmeier, demonstrates that paralysis can also be caused by choice. Imagine, for example, that you are in college and you face the following choice one evening. What would you do?
- Attend a lecture by an author you admire who is visiting just for the evening, or
- Go to the library and study.
Studying doesn’t look so attractive compared with a once in a life-time lecture. When this choice was given to actual college students only 21 percent decided to study.
Suppose, instead, you had been given three choices:
- Attend the lecture.
- Go to the library and study.
- Watch a foreign film that you’ve been wanting to see.
Does you answer differ? Remarkably, when a different group of students were given the three choices, 30 percent decided to study – double the number who did before. Giving students two good alternatives to studying rather than one paradoxically makes them less likely to choose either.
But, to us, the duo’s tension is captured best by an analogy used by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his wonderful book The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt says that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Riders control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched.
In other cases, compactness itself can come to seem an unworthy goal. Lots of us have expertise in particular areas. Becoming an expert in something means that we become more and more fascinated by nuance and complexity. That’s when the Curse of Knowledge kicks in and we start to forget what it’s like not to know what we know. At that point, making something simple can seem like “dumbing down.” As an expert, we don’t want to be accused of propagating sound bites or pandering to the lowest common denominator. Simplifying, we fear, can devolve into oversimplifying.