isolation is powerful but misleading. For a start, while humans have accumulated a vast store of collective knowledge, each of us alone knows surprisingly little, certainly less than we imagine. In 2002, the psychologists Frank Keil and Leonid Rozenblit asked people to rate their own understanding of how zips work. The respondents answered confidently — after all, they used zips all the time. But when asked to explain how a zip works, they failed dismally. Similar results were found when people were asked to describe climate change and the economy. We know a lot less than we think we do about the world around us. Cognitive scientists call this ‘the illusion of explanatory depth’, or just ‘the knowledge illusion’.
As you start talking, what impression of yourself do You want to convey? The sociologist Erving Goffman called this desired impression your face: the public image a person wants to establish in a social interaction.
We put effort into establishing the appropriate face for each encounter. The face you want to show a potential boss will be different to the face you want to show someone on a date. Goffman called this effort facework. With people we trust and know well, we don’t worry so much about face. With those we don’t know— especially if those people have some power over us — we put in the facework. When we put in the facework and we still don’t achieve the face we want, it feels bad. If you want to be seen as authoritative and someone treats you with minimal respect, you feel embarrassed and even humiliated.
Skillful disagreers don’t just think about their own face; they’re highly attuned to the other’ face. One of the most powerful social skills is the ability to give face: to confirm the public image that the other person wishes to project. You don’t need to be selfless to think this is important. In any conversation, when the other person feels their desired face is being accepted and confirmed, they’re going to be a lot easier to deal with, and more likely to listen to what you have to say.
A team of psychologists at University College London invited subjects into the lab in pairs. The first person was hooked up to a little squeezing machine, which applied a very small force on her finger. She was then instructed to press down on the other person’s finger using exactly the same amount of force. Crucially, the other person had no idea about this part of the instruction.
‘The second person was then instructed to push back on the first person’s finger, using exactly the same amount of force as they felt. The two individuals traded finger pushes, while the scientists measured the precise force they used. In every pair of pushers tested, the use of force escalated quickly, until the two people were pushing down on each other’s finger with about twenty times the original force.
It’s an experiment that offers an ominous glimpse into the dynamics of human escalation. Each participant thought they were behaving proportionately to the other, and while nobody was deliberately raising the stakes, somehow the pressure rose anyway.
Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers wanted to persuade a potential mate or ally of their good intentions would be better at it if they could deceive themselves without ‘leakage’ of knowledge or intent; and the most efficient way to simulate truth-telling would be to erase internal awareness of the deception. The best liars would be those who were better at lying to themselves because they would actually believe their own deceptions when they made them. They would be more likely to survive and pass on their genes; hence our gift for self-deception.
Stories depend on the artful manipulation of what Loewenstein calls information gaps. In McKee’s words, ‘Curiosity is the intellectual need to answer questions and close open patterns. Story plays to this universal desire by doing the opposite, posing questions and opening situations.’ The storyteller plays a cat and mouse game with the viewer (or reader, or listener), opening and closing information gaps as the narrative unfolds, unspooling the viewer’s curiosity.
(It’s not insignificant that the word ‘person’ derives from the Latin word for a mask worn by an actor.) In Goffman’s view, we’re all actors who have half-forgotten that we’re acting. Most of the time we play a double game, aware that others are performing for us and yet believing in the performance at the same time.
You know, one of the things that really hurt Apple was after I left, John Sculley got a very serious disease. It’s the disease of thinking that a really great idea is 90 per cent of the work. And if you tell all these other people “Here’s this great idea”, then of course they can go off and make it happen. And the problem with that is that there’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product… Designing a product is keeping five thousand things in your brain and fitting them all together.
As the medical anthropologist Daniel Moerman has documented, one of the important determinants of a drug’s efficacy is the colour of the pill it comes in. When people suffering the symptoms of depression are given the same drug in different colours, they are most likely to get better when the pill is yellow. Sleeping pills, by contrast, tend to be more effective when they’re blue.
In a more recent study, psychologists from New York University asked students to estimate the distance between their own position and a full bottle of water on the table at which they were sitting. Beforehand, they fed some of the students a diet of pretzels to make them thirsty. The thirsty students judged the bottle to be closer than the other students did. Another study revealed that hills appear steeper to us than they actually are, and that this tendency is exaggerated when the observer is old, unhealthy, or wearing a backpack.