The Difference Between That Which We Think and That Which We Know Is One of the Most Important Distinctions To Be Made

Kathryn Schulz is a “wrongologist”, with a stellar ability to explain why we shouldn’t regret regret and provides some very credible and compelling thoughts on being wrong. I am a fan. Her book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error is a terrific read and if you have never seen her TED talks, I recommend both. One of her quotes which I have used over and over again because of the brilliance of it is, “The miracle of your mind isn’t that you can see the world as it is. It’s that you can see the world as it isn’t.”

People make mistakes. They should. Theories need to be tested and will frequently be wrong or prove something unintended. Being wrong doesn’t make someone a bad person. Being wrong, however, can hinder our ability to be better at our jobs and in our lives when we fail to make distinctions between what we think – sometimes are beliefs not backed up by facts – and what we know – things that can be proven.

Over the past couple of decades being engaged with various social justice initiatives I have seen evidence over and over again that what we think is often different than what we know. The difference manifests itself in a couple of problematic ways. For one, there is a tendency to ignore knowledge when it flies in the face of what we think – on a personal, community or organizational level. For example, there is still a large group of people that think addiction is a personal flaw when we know it is a disease. People don’t make a conscious choice to have an addiction. And like any disease, people will respond different to treatment options (think of how different people respond to cancer treatments), have different perspectives on wellness and may or may not be ready for the life changes required to tackle the disease (think of someone with unmanaged diabetes).

On the flipside, once we know something there is a tendency to stop thinking about it and ignore opportunities for improvement. Take an example from your own life…you know Friday is garbage day so you stop thinking “What day is garbage day?” It is routine knowledge. The bigger flaw is when you stop thinking about things like “What can I do to make garbage day less arduous on Thursday nights or rushed on Friday mornings.” Or maybe your thinking leads you to questions like, “How can I reduce the amount of garbage my family creates?” In my professional life, I know for certain because of compelling evidence that people do better in housing than while homeless, but I need to keep thinking about how to make the experience of housing better for previously homeless people.

A lot of time people who are passionately trying to make their world a better place one person or family at a time are so busy doing that they fail to take time for thinking or knowing. They are so ingrained in routine without critical thought or discourse that they miss opportunities for professional development, personal growth and the ability to work and function in a true learning culture.

One of the tasks I love performing in my job is helping to develop emerging leaders and improving management practices within organizations. High performing organizations have been proven time and again to get better outputs, improved long-term outcomes, enhanced employees satisfaction, enhanced satisfaction reported from service users and less turnover within the organization. As part of that training, I use the table below with the leaders and managers within the organization.

Behavior % of Actual Time Spent on Activity % of Time Ideally Spent on Activity
Informing    
Clarifying    
Directing    
Persuading    
Collaborating    
Brainstorming/Envisioning    
Quiet Time for Thinking    
Observing    
Disciplining    
Resolving Internal Conflicts    
Praising/ Encouraging    
Learning/Improving Knowledge Base    

Time and again I find it interesting that many are spending 0% Thinking or Improving their Knowledge Base currently and put little importance on it in the ideal situation as well. It is my contention that “leaderfull” cultures embrace the importance of spending time both thinking and knowing. Senior managers, Board of Directors, Funders and Government Officials involved in program delivery need to value both thinking and knowing within organization and encourage people to take the time to do both. It doesn’t take away from doing. It makes the doing better.

Perhaps your experience is like mine – there are some very divergent (and dare I say misguided) thoughts about how best to address complex social issues. It is good to have hypotheses, but these have to be tested and positioned within a knowledge base to have merit in implementation and long-term impact. Remember that once upon a time people thought that things like blood letting were standard for a range of medical conditions, that mental illness was once thought to be demonic possession in some people, that the earth was flat, that the universe revolved around the earth, that drinking milk or wine would help people overcome the plague, and so on. These were all strong thoughts that translated into beliefs that existed for quite some time before we knew better.

And there are some thoughts that will remain in a state of flux because there isn’t an overwhelming knowledge base that is irrefutable and people’s beliefs can take the place of knowledge. The economy is one field in particular where this is abundantly the case…one need not look further that the various views on matters like taxation or social spending.

Knowledge requires acquaintance with facts, truths, or principles, as from study or investigation. At the core of knowledge is whether or not the information is indisputable. While one would hope that knowledge helps inform the train of thought that people have on a particular subject matter, it can be difficult for knowledge to trump personal beliefs. If ignorance is bliss, some people are downright orgasmic in avoiding facts.

In my keynote speaking, public addresses, media interviews and training there are certain pieces of knowledge that I draw upon frequently because I know it can collide with what many people in the room may think:

  • Most chronically homeless people want housing. How do I know this? I have been part of three research studies that have asked chronically homeless people this question. Overwhelmingly, they report that they want housing. This flies in the face of a thought that people overwhelmingly choose to be homeless as a “lifestyle”. The small percentage of homeless people in these three studies that reported that they did not want housing? Well, for many of them it was because a service provider told them they were not “housing ready”. I think it is unlikely the same service provider asked them if they were “homeless ready”.
  • Sobriety is not a precondition for housing success. How do I know this? Because the majority of the people in the Western World consume alcohol or other drugs and never experience homelessness. Sobriety isn’t a condition for housing success for people with substance abuse disorders either. How do I know this? Because most people with addictions to alcohol or other drugs will never experience homelessness either.
  • People who are meant to feel poor will spend more on lottery tickets, which in turn can actually increase their economic poverty. How do I know this? I can point to work done by the Chicago Reporter that points to lottery spending by zip code which found overwhelmingly that people in economically poorer zip codes spent more on the lottery without returns that got them out of poverty. I can also point to the study published by the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty that proved that people feeling economically poor were more likely to spend more on lottery tickets.
  • People who feel poor do not make more impulse purchases of big ticket items than the rest of society. How do I know this? Research shows the impulse control to buy things like a new flat screen TV or laptop or whatever is the same as the rest of society – it just has a much larger impact on their overall financial health and can place their housing at risk. But they are not worse at making choices than the rest of us. Higher income earners, however, can buffer the impact of the impulse better without putting as much risk on housing or other life necessities.
  • Economically poor people are amazing at budgeting money and getting by each month. How do I know this? While economic poverty can place people’s housing stability at risk, the truth is that most people with very low incomes never experience homelessness. Consider the millions of people that live below the Poverty Line or Low Income Cut Off in North America that scrape by month after month.

Those are just a few morsels. I’m not going to give away all my juicy tidbits in this blog. But one can hopefully see how knowledge can challenge some thoughts that may or may not be true.

He may have taken a ribbing for it in the media and late night talk shows – and the context and pretense for which the statement was made may be challenged by some –  but Former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was making an important and true statement when he said,

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know.

We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.

But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

The “known knowns” are things we need to celebrate in our practice of Human Service delivery. And while we can prove that certain approaches work better than others – that may be based on anecdotes or a sample size of one rather than rigorous study – we should still be thinking about how to make the things we know better.

When we know there are some things that we do not know, we should spend more time thinking and analyzing the situation. We may look to other fields of knowledge. We may set up tests to engage in discovery. We should remain thirsty for knowledge about the things we do not know enough (or anything) about when it comes to improving practice.

And there will always be things that we don’t know we don’t know. Until we have the opportunity for discovery, the knowledge won’t be presented to us in a way that we can understand or use in practice. If we are truly operating in a learning environment, however, we will be better able to detect when a lesson is present for the learning.

I hope you will keep thinking about how to make your work better, using knowledge as best as possible, but not confusing what you think may be true with what is actually true when there is evidence to the contrary. I hope you will be open to learning new knowledge and applying it in your work, even if it flies in the face of what you have thought or practiced for years. And I hope you will remain committed to contributing to the field so that we have an ever expanding body of knowledge to be nourished by to make the experience of service recipients better. We can’t be afraid to be wrong – we must embrace it; but we can’t be fooled into seeing or believing something that isn’t actually supported by knowledge.

Iain De Jong

About Iain De Jong