Do Writers Care for What Psychology Has to Say About the Curse of Knowledge?

While the marriage of cognitive science and literature is interesting, there is always the lingering question of reproducibility and effect sizes around the studies.

In A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes, in typical Sherlock Holmes fashion, deduces something outrageous about Watson based on a few stray scratches on his shoes. Watson, in typical Watson fashion, is dumbfounded and asks Holmes to explain his logic. But after listening to Holmes’ explanation, Watson finds himself disappointed and can’t help but laugh. “When I hear you give your reasons,” says Watson, “the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning I am baffled until you explain your process.”

With those words, Arthur Conan Doyle might as well have been trying to define the cognitive phenomenon that has come to be called ‘the curse of knowledge’. Vera Tobin, a professor of cognitive science at Case Western Reserve University, Ohio, explains it thus: “the more information we have about something and the more experience we have with it, the harder it is to step outside that experience to appreciate the full implications of not having that privileged information.” Discovered in 1989, the curse of knowledge is now a part of growing family of psychological biases possessed by the human mind. The list includes crowd favourites like hindsight bias and survivor fallacy.

In her book, Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot, Tobin aims to illuminate how the purportedly detrimental effects of the curse of knowledge are essential for good storytelling. Just as magicians rely on the predictability of human attention, writers rely on the predictability of human memory or emotion. Writers use these unconscious habits of our minds to make us feel what they want – hope or suspense or edge-of-the-seat panic! These unconscious mental habits or heuristics are reliable enough that techniques to exploit them have existed since antiquity. For example, Bharata’s Natyasastra, which is about 2,000 years old, confidently provides aspiring artists with the ancient equivalent of tips and tricks to get their audience to the appropriate state of aesthetic rapture.

Of course, reading the Natyasastra for these tips and tricks might not be the most efficient use of your time; it’s primarily a book on aesthetic theory. Similarly, aspiring writers might not be the target audience of Tobin’s book. Writers don’t really need to know why their techniques work. They just need to know how to deploy them. Tobin’s book takes these various literary techniques and exhaustively cross-references them with psychological studies that explore their causes and effects.

Elements of Surprise Vera Tobin Harvard University Press, 2018

Elements of Surprise
Vera Tobin
Harvard University Press, 2018

For example, in one section, Tobin connects the cognitive phenomenon of anchoring with the literary technique of “finessing misinformation”. Anchoring is the bias where the mind latches onto an initial piece of information and uses that to “anchor” subsequent discussion. For example, in one study by Dan Ariely, students were divided into two groups and offered money to listen to harsh grating music. One group was offered 10 cents and the other group was offered 90 cents. After playing the harsh music once, they were asked how much they would need to be paid to listen to the music again. The group given 10 cents originally asked for 33 and the group given 90 cents asked for 73. The initial number “anchored” their estimation for what was a fair price. (Think about this the next time you’re at a salary negotiation. The first number put on the table has an outsized effect on what passes for “reasonable”.)

Anchoring is typically studied with quantitative information for obvious reasons but there have been numerous studies showing it is applicable even in qualitative situations. Tobin argues that authors exploit the anchoring effect to slip plot-related misinformation past their audiences. She writes, “Once a possible interpretation of events is introduced at all, it has a degree of persuasive force that derives from a manifestation of the curse of knowledge.” So authors will finesse misinformation to their readers through, for example, the opinions of characters. Or even more subtly, by disguising whether certain statements belong to the narrator or to a character. The more effectively this is done, the more satisfying finally revealing the truth can be.

In another fruitful section, Tobin discusses the value of “presupposition”. In linguistics, presuppositions are apparent truths that are tacitly assumed by some statement or question. By having characters presuppose information, Tobin writes that authors let statements “enter the narrative without explicit comment.”

For example, in the evergreen classic Kung Fu Panda (2008), Po’s father, the goose, is a popular chef. Po dreams of being a warrior, sure, but he’s also genuinely excited about learning the secret ingredient in his father’s Secret Ingredient Soup. This is the presupposition – it presupposes that there’s an ingredient to learn. Of course, in the end, Po’s father reveals that – spoiler alert – there is no special ingredient. But Po’s obvious belief helps slip this information past the audience “without explicit comment” and then the revelation is free to become the cornerstone of Po’s climactic transformation.

But while the marriage of cognitive science and literature is interesting, there is always the lingering question of reproducibility and effect sizes around the studies that Tobin cites throughout the book. For example, in one chapter where she elaborates on the “curse of knowledge”, she cites a 2007 paper by Susan Birch and Paul Bloom on false-belief tasks. In her discussion, she doesn’t mention a 2013 study by Rachel Ryskin and Sarah Brown-Schmidt that reviewed the Birch and Bloom experiments and estimated that “the true effect size to be less than half of that reported in the original findings.”

To be fair, this probably doesn’t really matter a great deal in terms of the general thrust of Tobin’s argument. But it does point at an issue with the process of going from psychology experiments to statements around the truth of how minds actually work, which looms over the entire book.

Thomas Manuel is the winner of The Hindu Playwright Award 2016.