Do you know how a zipper works and why we need each other

Do you know how a toilet works? How about your air conditioning at home? Dishwasher? Your local form of government? Chances are good, that you don’t know as much about those things as you think.

Want me to prove it?

Please Explain

In the late 90’s Frank Keil and Leon Rozenblit, cognitive scientists at Yale created a simple tool to measure how much people know about a given topic (versus what we think we know).

Keil and Rozenblit believed that we humans are prone to believe that we know more about something than we actually do. How rude of them. Unfortunately, for all of us, Keil and Rozenblit proved this to be the case. Again…so rude.

The two cognitive scientist rock stars (try to get that image in your head) created a tool that reveals our overinflated view of our knowledge.

Here’s the tool. You just answer the questions and presto, you’re not so knowledgeable:

  1.    On a scale of 1 to 7, how well do you understand how zippers work?
  2.     How does a zipper work? Describe in as much detail as you can all the steps that describe a zipper’s operation
  3.     Now, on the same 1 to 7 scale, rate your knowledge of how a zipper works.

Of course, you guessed it. Keil, and Rozenblit discovered that most people gave themselves a relatively high rating on question 1. But after they were required to explain how a zipper works, people were humbly forced to lower the number on question 3.

Another set of cognitive scientists, Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach, called this phenomenon, the knowledge illusion. It’s pretty simple really. We think we know more than we do about a lot of things, really about most things, OK, about everything.

There’s good news here too. In the book, The Knowledge Illusion, Sloman and Fernbach explain that it’s simply impossible to know all that much. There’s just too much “accumulated knowledge” to squeeze into one skull. And so, we must ALL hold PIECES of knowledge and then, drum roll please…share them. Knowledge lives not so much inside one brain but inside a tribe of brains.


Because knowledge lives in a community, it requires that we share it and collaborate to
use it. But we can take it a step further. Knowledge is also created “in relationship.” Though we spend a lot of time “thinking alone,” the reality is this: insights, new ideas, and creative solutions are created between people. Genius is tribal. In the West, we’ve just made it seem individual.

Genius Is Tribal

Because genius is tribal, we must get good at talking to each other. A haphazard approach to conversation lowers the possibility of the knowledge that leads to solutions.

 Let me help you talk to your tribe better so that you find the genius ideas that lead to the solutions and results you need.

Here’s my bit of help in this post:

5 Simple but important questions you can ask as your tribe talks about problems and possibilities.

Think of these questions as a tic tac for conversation. They’ll make it better, but the shelf life isn’t all that long. You have to keep asking and acting on them.

1.  Am I present? Are we present? If not, why not? If not, what should I/we do?

Lots of talking tanks because people are just not present. Attention matters. Scientists who study the brain have a discovered that when we pay attention during an action, our brain is happy about it. We also get better at the activity we’re doing. It’s kind of a win-win The same is true with conversation. Attention toward each other fires up neurons in our brain that give us the energy to continue. We already know this, right? Just replay the last time you talked with someone who “wasn’t there.” How did that conversation go?

2. Do we have one mind?

One mind is not “full agreement.” One mind is alignment around the goal of the conversation and the desired outcome. People bring all kinds of hidden biases, ideas, and agendas to conversations. It’s likely impossible to get all those out in the light. But, the more a group agrees on the reason for the conversation AND the desired outcome, the less power those hidden agendas have. Having one mind also makes it easier to see hidden agendas and maneuver through them. When you talk, make sure everyone knows why you’re talking and what you want from it.

3. Are we engaged?

There is a difference between “being present” and being engaged. Sure they are related concepts. But engagement adds a different dimension to attention. True participation in a conversation requires that each person adds energy to it. That means they add their best personal thinking, flexibility, and adaptability. No leaning against the wall watching everyone else play ball. To access the knowledge of the tribe, people have to “be in.” When some members are disengaged others will over-engage and still others will join the disengagement. Mutual engagement leads to better outcomes.

4. Do we strategically wander and narrow?

Getting to better ideas requires we hold the tension between wandering and narrowing. If we don’t leave space to wander in conversations (that is, consider a wide range of ideas), we box ourselves into quick but often puny solutions. Because we’re hungry for a solution, we hurry to the first idea. Unfortunately, rushing to an idea out of hunger can lead to a “Burger King” rather than “Ruth’s Cris Steakhouse” solution. We need better solutions. And that does require some patience to wander. However, if we wander too long and don’t narrow down our conversation to usable ideas, we waste time and resources. Too much wandering leaves you without “Ruth Cris” or “Burger King.” It just leaves you hungry.

There’s no one-and-done template that helps you determine how much you should wander or narrow. Figuring that out is a skill you learn as you read the ebbs and flows of your conversations.

5. Are our ideas usable?

A pie in the sky conversation lowers the desire to continue. Unproductive “blah blah blah” meetings wipe out energy and create apathy. I’ve seen the look a million times. You know the look. The, “I want to hurt myself by walking out in traffic because this meeting is a ginormous waste of time,” look. If you want to eliminate that look, GET TO USABLE IDEAS. Groups should regularly evaluate how many of their ideas get used. Of course, it’s true that it takes some unusable ideas to find the usable ones. But the ratio matters. If you have too many unusable ideas, you’ll lose hope in the conversational process.

There are, of course, other questions that are important to ask. These five, can at the very least, increase your tribe’s ability to create better knowledge and execute it with more ingenuity.

 Hey, How Does A Zipper Work?   

So…do you know how a zipper works? Do you know everything that goes into making one? I bet you don’t. But I bet your tribe could figure out more of the answer together than you could alone. That is unless you work in a zipper factory.


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Written by Dave Fleming