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  • Keith Hopper

The Illusion of Explanatory Depth

When trying to figure out if an innovative idea is going to work, it's common to see the situation as pretty straightforward and not question our current understanding. Turns out, there’s a weird human quirk that explains this called the “illusion of explanatory depth.”

Simply put, the illusion can be described as: thinking we understand something when we actually don’t, and it’s particularly strong when we’re faced with something conceptual or nuanced, like a thorny business problem or a novel solution approach.

Researcher Rebecca Lawson designed an experiment to highlight this phenomenon. She asked subjects to draw a picture of a bicycle, showing how it works - connecting all the bits in the way they should be connected. Turns out very few people could do it correctly, yet virtually everyone claimed to understand the way a bicycle works before they were asked to actually explain how it works.

When first imagining an innovative solution to a tough problem, we typically don’t invest in trying to learn more, because - like the bicycle - we simply don’t recognize that our understanding is limited.

In the case of a novel innovation, the problem and solution appear to be straightforward because we’ve never encountered it before in a way that exposes the critical elements, the key subtleties and the characteristics that matter. We haven’t had our illusion questioned. And when our illusion isn’t questioned, we run the risk of thinking we have all the answers and blazing forward with a mistaken approach.

The secret to overcoming the illusion of explanatory depth is to confront ourselves early with assumptions that might lie behind the problem and solution - how do we know the problem is important enough to solve? Are we targeting the right customer? Will users embrace our solution approach?

Even better, run a small test that reveals new information we didn’t know earlier. This new information can challenge our early explanation and show us that our understanding is limited.

Like being confronted with a sketch of a bicycle that doesn’t make sense, new information can shatter our illusion of deep understanding.

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