The Curse of Knowledge: What It Is and How to Account for It

The Curse of Knowledge

 

The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that causes people to fail to account for the fact that others don’t know the same things that they do.

This bias is most commonly associated with the domain of teaching, where it occurs primarily when experts in a certain field struggle to teach beginners, because they find it difficult to account for the fact that not everyone has the same level of expertise that they do.

Understanding the curse of knowledge can help you become better at predicting, communicating with, and teaching others. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the curse of knowledge, understand why people experience it, and see how you can account for its influence as effectively as possible.

 

What is the curse of knowledge

The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that causes people to fail to account for the fact that others don’t know the same things that they do. Essentially, this means that people who are more knowledgeable than others in some domain will generally struggle to act in a way which properly takes this difference in knowledge into account.

Accordingly, the curse of knowledge can hinder people in various ways, such as by making it more difficult for them to teach others, or by making it more difficult for them to predict other people’s behavior.

The concept of the curse of knowledge was first proposed in a 1989 paper published by economists Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein, and Martin Weber. In this paper, the researchers wanted to challenge the incorrect but prevalent assumption that in situations where there is an asymmetry of information (meaning that some people have more information than others), better-informed agents will always be capable of predicting the judgments of less-informed agents.

Their research showed that, in reality, better-informed agents are often unable to ignore private information that only they know, even when it is in their interest to do so. Based on this, they concluded that more information is not always better, since having more knowledge than others can sometimes hinder people’s ability to predict the behavior of others.

 

Examples of the curse of knowledge

The curse of knowledge can affect people in various domains. For example:

  • The curse of knowledge can make it difficult for experts to teach novices. Since experts are much more knowledgeable about the topic that they are teaching than their students, they often struggle to teach the material in a way that their students can understand. For example, a math professor might find it difficult to teach first-year students, because it’s hard for the professor to account for the fact that they have a different level of background knowledge than those students.
  • The curse of knowledge can make it difficult for people to communicate with each other. Since people’s communication depends on the knowledge that they share, it can be difficult for people who know different things to discuss the same topic, even when this discussion doesn’t involve direct teaching. For example, it can be difficult for a scientist to discuss their work with laypeople, because the scientist might struggle to remember that other people aren’t familiar with the terminology in their field.
  • The curse of knowledge can make it difficult for people to predict the behavior of others. Knowledgeable people often struggle to predict how people who are less knowledgeable than them will act, since they struggle to avoid taking the information that they have into account when imagining the other person’s thought process. For example, a professional boxer might be surprised by some of the moves made by a novice boxer, since the novice might make moves that are “wrong” from a technical perspective, and which most people that the professional boxer works with would never use.

 

The “Tapping Study”

One of the best-known examples of the curse of knowledge is the “Tapping Study”, which was published in the 1990 dissertation of Stanford graduate student Elizabeth Newton.

In this study, participants were randomly assigned to be either a tapper or a listener. Each tapper finger-tapped three tunes (which were selected from a list of 25 well-known songs) on a desk, and was then asked to estimate the probability that the listener will be able to successfully identify the song that they tapped, based only on the finger tapping.

The results of this experiment clearly demonstrated the role that the curse of knowledge plays in our thinking:

  • On average, tappers estimated that listeners will be able to correctly identify the tunes that they tapped in about 50% of cases, with estimates ranging anywhere from 10% to 95%.
  • In reality however, listeners were able to successfully identify the tune based on the finger tapping in only 2.5% of cases, which is significantly lower than even the most pessimistic estimate provided by a tapper.

Furthermore, when the previous tappers listened to the experimenter tap out the tunes that they had chosen, they still estimated that around 50% of people would be able to guess the tune that was being tapped by the experimenter, since they themselves had an easy time identifying those tunes, due to their previous knowledge. This was the case even when those original tappers were replaced by new people, who never served as either a tapper or as a listener.

Overall, the tapping study demonstrates how the curse of knowledge can affect people’s judgment. Specifically, it shows that people who know which tune is being tapped have an easy time identifying it, and struggle to accurately predict the perspective of others, who don’t have the same knowledge that they do.

Historical note: Newton’s 1990 dissertation is often referenced in scientific literature as having the title of “Overconfidence in the Communication of Intent: Heard and Unheard Melodies”. However, the dissertation’s original title appears to be “The Rocky Road from Actions to Intentions”, as evident in its title page and in its entry on the Stanford University website. This discrepancy appears to have occurred as a result of how the dissertation was referenced by Newton’s supervisor, Professor Lee Ross, in a 1991 book chapter that he published on the topic, which affected how other people referenced it ever since.

 

Why we experience the curse of knowledge

The curse of knowledge occurs due to the imperfect way in which we process information. Specifically, since we spend the majority of the time seeing things from our own perspective, we struggle to remember that other people’s perspective and knowledge levels are different from ours, due to our failure to fully adjust from the anchor of our personal perspective.

Essentially, this means that when we know a certain piece of information, we struggle to imagine the perspective of those who do not know it. As such, the curse of knowledge is a type of an egocentric bias, which is a cognitive bias that makes it difficult for people to account for the fact that other people’s thoughts, beliefs, and views are different from their own.

Note: the curse of knowledge has a similar effect to the empathy gap, which is a cognitive bias that makes it difficult for people to account for the manner in which differences in mental states affect the way that they and other people make decisions.

 

How to account for the curse of knowledge

Though it’s generally impossible to avoid the curse of knowledge entirely, it’s certainly possible to mitigate its influence to some degree.

In the following sections, you will learn about what you can do to reduce the impact that the curse of knowledge has on you, and see some important guidelines that will help you understand how to take this bias into account.

 

The basics

In order to successfully reduce the impact of the curse of knowledge, you first need to be aware that it exists, and cognizant of the fact that people have different levels of knowledge than you.

Reading this article should have already given you a good understanding of the curse of knowledge and of when and why you’re likely to experience it, which can help you identify the type of situations in which you should be especially aware of its influence.

Furthermore, in some cases, and especially when it comes to teaching, one of the best ways to account for the curse of knowledge is to ask for feedback from the people that you are communicating with, in order to confirm that they understand everything you are saying. This will allow you to the assess difference in knowledge levels between yourself and others, which will help you account for this difference properly.

In addition, a good way to prevent many of the issues which are associated with gaps in knowledge is to ensure that you explain every technical term and concept that you use as you are using it, even if it seems obvious to you, any time when you’re not perfectly sure that the vast majority of your intended audience will be able to understand it.

This can help in situations where you can’t rely on your audience to give you sufficient feedback, which can happen, for example, in situations where people aren’t likely to admit that they didn’t understand something, or in situations where the communication is primarily one-sided (e.g. if you’re writing a research paper).

 

Debiasing techniques

In addition to being aware of the curse of knowledge and asking for feedback from your audience, you can also use various debiasing techniques in order to help you account for the influence of this cognitive bias.

Many of these techniques are similar to those that you would use when attempting to reduce the egocentric bias, since your goal is to successfully understand the viewpoint of someone else, who has a different perspective than you due to the difference in your level of knowledge. To do this, you could, for example, visualize the perspective of the people that you are communicating with, or you can use self-distancing language, both of which will improve your ability to assess other people’s perspective.

In addition, you could also use various general debiasing techniques in order to cope with the curse of knowledge. Such techniques involve things such as slowing down your reasoning process and improving your decision-making environment, which will enable you to think in a clearer, less-biased manner.

 

It’s not just about being an expert

It’s important to remember that the curse of knowledge isn’t necessarily about the difficulty that experts have when it comes to communicating with novices, though this is one common way in which this bias manifests. Rather, the curse of knowledge is about the difficulty in communication that people have when they know something that others don’t.

As such, don’t try to account for the curse of knowledge only in situations where you are an expert in a certain field, or in situations where you are significantly more knowledgeable than someone else. Rather, remember that this bias can play a role in any situation where one person knows something that other people don’t, and then account for it accordingly.

 

Predicting other people’s behavior

Since most people are not aware of the curse of knowledge and therefore don’t know how to account for it, understanding how this bias affects people’s thinking can help you predict their behavior more accurately.

Specifically, if you know that someone else is more knowledgeable in a certain field than others or has some information that others don’t, you can take this into account when predicting how they will behave, by assuming that they will fail to account for the curse of knowledge when they try to assess the behavior and thinking of others.

For example, if you’re hosting a talk where a new graduate student is expected to explain their research to a non-academic audience, understanding the curse of knowledge can help you predict that the graduate student is probably going to give a talk that is too technical given their intended audience. Then, you can explain this issue to the student, and tell them what they can do in order to explain their research using language that their audience will be able to understand.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that causes people to fail to account for the fact that others don’t know the same things that they do.
  • The curse of knowledge means that people who are more knowledgeable than others in some domain will generally struggle to account for the difference in knowledge between themselves and others, and will therefore struggle to communicate with others or to predict their behavior.
  • The curse of knowledge can, for example, make it more difficult for experts in a certain field to teach novices, as in the case of professors who struggle to teach students, since the experts fail to account for the difference in background knowledge between themselves and the novices.
  • We experience the curse of knowledge because we spend so much time seeing things from our own perspective, that we struggle to remember that other people’s viewpoint and knowledge levels are different from our own.
  • In order to account for the curse of knowledge, you should be aware of its influence, avoid the automatic assumption of shared knowledge, solicit feedback from others, and use general debiasing techniques, such as slowing down your reasoning process.

 


Dominant and Dominated Strategies: What They Are and Why They’re Important

Strategic Dominance

 

Strategic dominance is a state in game theory which occurs when one strategy that a player can use leads to better outcomes for them than all the other possible strategies that they can use, regardless of which strategies their opponents use.

Accordingly, a strategy is a dominant strategy if choosing it leads a player to better outcomes than the other strategies that they can choose. Conversely, a strategy is a dominated strategy if choosing it leads a player to worse outcomes than the other strategies that they can choose.

In the following article, you will learn more about strategic dominance. You will start by learning about dominant and dominated strategies, and about strategic dominance in general. Then, you will see how accounting for strategic dominance can help you make more strategic decisions, and how it can help you predict your opponents’ behavior.

 

Dominant strategies

What is a dominant strategy

A dominant strategy is a strategy that is better than all the alternative strategies that a player can pick, regardless of which moves their opponents make. This means that, in a given game, a player’s dominant strategy is the best strategy that they can choose from a strategic perspective, since it’s the one that will lead to the greatest payoff for them.

 

What types of dominant strategies exist

There are two types of dominant strategies: strictly dominant strategies and weakly dominant strategies:

  • A strategy is strictly dominant if choosing it always gives a better outcome than choosing an alternative strategy, regardless of which moves other players make.
  • A strategy is weakly dominant if choosing it always gives an outcome that is as good as or better than choosing an alternative strategy.

 

Example of a dominant strategy

Imagine a scenario where you are given two choices:

  • You can get $10 now.
  • You can flip a coin, and if the coin lands on heads, then you get $10, but if the coin lands on tails, then you get nothing.

Clearly, the dominant strategy in this case is to take the $10 up front, since choosing to flip the coin will get you a result that is either as good as or worse than taking the money up front.

This example represents a very simple game, where it’s clear what the dominant strategy is, just so we can clearly illustrate the concept of strategic dominance. Later on, you will see examples of more complex situations, where dominant strategies also play an important role.

 

Dominated strategies

What is a dominated strategy

A dominated strategy is a strategy that is worse than all the alternative strategies that a player can pick, regardless of which moves their opponents make. This means that, in a given game, a player’s dominated strategy is the worst strategy that they can choose from a strategic perspective, since it’s the one that will lead to the worst payoff for them.

 

What types of dominated strategies exist

There are two types of dominated strategies: strictly dominated strategies and weakly dominated strategies:

  • A strategy is strictly dominated if choosing it always gives a worse outcome than choosing an alternative strategy, regardless of which moves other players make.
  • A strategy is weakly dominated if choosing it always gives an outcome that is as good as or worse than choosing an alternative strategy.

 

Example of a dominated strategy

Imagine the scenario that we saw earlier, where you can either get $10 now, or you can flip a coin and if the coin lands on heads then you get $10, but if it lands on tails then you get nothing.

Clearly, the dominated strategy in this case is to agree to the coin flip, since doing so will give you an outcome that is either as good as or worse than taking the money up front.

Once again, this is a highly simplified game, which is used to illustrate the concept of strategic dominance in a clear manner. In the next section, you will see an example of a dominated strategy in a more complex scenario.

 

Example of strategic dominance

Consider a situation where two companies, called Startupo and Megacorp, are competing in a new market.

This market has one product which is sold in two different versions: the simple consumer version and the complex professional version. Both versions of the products are equally profitable for the company selling them. Most people in the market (80%) are interested in the consumer version, and only a few (20%) are interested in the professional version.

Each company can decide whether it wants to sell the consumer version or the professional version of the product. If both companies decide to sell the same type of product, then the two companies have to split the market for that product. Otherwise, each company has the full consumer or professional market for itself.

As such, each company has two possible strategies to choose from, and there are four possible outcomes to the scenario:

  • Both companies enter the consumer market. This means that the companies split the consumer market (which accounts for 80% of the total market share), and that each company therefore gets 40% of the total market share.
  • Both companies enter the professional market. This means that the companies split the professional market (which accounts for 20% of the total market share), and that each company therefore gets 10% of the total market share.
  • Startupo enters the consumer market, and Megacorp enters the professional market. This means that Startupo gets the full consumer market (80% of the total market share), and Megacorp gets the full professional market (20% of the total market share).
  • Megacorp enters the consumer market, and Startupo enters the professional market. This means that Megacorp gets the full consumer market (80% of the total market share), and Startupo gets the full professional market (20% of the total market share).

Based on this, if a company chooses to enter the consumer market, they know that they will get either 40% or 80% of the total market share. Conversely, if a company chooses to enter the professional market, they know that they will get either 10% or 20% of the total market share.

Accordingly, for both companies, the dominant strategy in this scenario is to enter the consumer market, since regardless of which move the other company makes, they will end up getting a bigger portion of the market share this way.

Conversely, for both companies, the dominated strategy is to enter the professional market, since regardless of which move the other company makes, they will end up getting a smaller portion of the market share this way.

Note that this scenario can become more complex by adding more variables which frequently appear in real life, such as additional players, additional products, and different profitability margins for different markets. However, though these additional factors make the computations a bit more complex, the fundamental idea behind dominant and dominated strategies remains exactly the same.

 

Strategic dominance in single-player games

In scenarios where there is only one player, there can still be dominant and dominated strategies.

For example, consider a situation where you are walking along a street, and you know that you need to cross the road. As you reach the first of two possible (and identical) crosswalks that you can use, the light turns red. You now have two strategies to choose from:

  • Wait for the light at this crosswalk to turn green.
  • Keep going until you reach the next crosswalk, and then cross there.

Given that your goal is to minimize the amount of time spent waiting at the crosswalk, the dominant strategy in this case is to keep going until you reach the next sidewalk.

This is because, if you decide to cross at the current crosswalk, you’re going to have to wait for the full length of time that it takes the light to turn green. Conversely, if you keep going until you reach the next crosswalk, then once you get there, one of three things will happen:

  • You will reach the second crosswalk just as the light turns red, in which case you will have to wait the same length of time that you would have had to wait at the first crosswalk, which represents an outcome that is equal to the outcome that you would have gotten if you chose to wait at the first crosswalk.
  • You will reach the second crosswalk while the light is already red, in which case you will have to wait for less time than you would have had to wait at the first crosswalk, which represents an outcome that is better than the outcome that you would have gotten if you chose to wait at the first crosswalk.
  • You will reach the second crosswalk while the light is green, in which case you won’t have to wait at all, which also represents an outcome that is better than the outcome that you would have gotten if you chose to wait at the first crosswalk.

Since the strategy of going for the next crosswalk leads to an outcome that is equal to or better than the outcome of waiting at the current crosswalk, it’s the (weakly) dominant strategy in this case.

Note that, in this game, though there is only one player, the concept of “luck”, in the form of whether or not the next light will be green or red, can be viewed as representing a second player. However, the concept of strategic dominance can occur in even simpler conditions, where there is no element of luck.

For example, consider a situation where you need to choose between buying one of two identical products, with the only difference between the products being that one costs $5, and the other costs $10. If your goal is to minimize the amount of money you spend, then clearly buying the cheaper product is the dominant strategy in this case.

 

Not every game has strategic dominance

There are situations where none of the possible strategies are dominant or dominated.

A strategy that is neither dominant nor dominated is referred to as an intransitive strategy, and a game with no strategic dominance is referred to as a non-transitive game. This represents the fact that there is no transitivity, meaning that just because strategy A is better than strategy B, and strategy B is better than strategy C, that doesn’t mean that strategy A is better than strategy C.

For example, in the case of the game Rock, Paper, Scissors, each player can choose one of three possible moves (i.e. rock, paper, or scissors). Each of these moves can lead to a win, a loss, or a draw, with equal probability, depending on what move that the other player makes:

  • Rock wins against scissors, loses against paper, and draws against rock.
  • Paper wins against rock, loses against scissors, and draws against paper.
  • Scissors wins against paper, loses against rock, and draws against scissors.

In this case, there is a preference loop with regards to which strategy leads to which outcome, since each strategy is preferable, to an equal degree, in different situations. Accordingly, none of the strategies is dominant over the other strategies, and the game is said to have no strategic dominance.

 

Using strategic dominance to pick your moves

Accounting for strategic dominance can help you make better decisions.

In order to take strategic dominance into account, you should first assess the situation that you’re in, and take into account all the possible moves that you and your opponents can make, as well as the outcomes of those moves, and the favorability of each outcome.

Once you have mapped the full game tree, and ranked your outcomes in order of favorability, you can move on to identify your dominant and dominated strategies, using the criteria that we saw above. Then, if you have a dominant strategy, use it. Otherwise, try to identify any dominated strategies that you have, and rule them out.

For example, let’s say you have three possible strategies, called A, B, and C:

  • If strategy A is better than both strategy B and strategy C, that means that strategy A is a dominant strategy, and that you should therefore use it.
  • If strategy A is equal to strategy B, but both are better than strategy C, that means that strategy C is a dominated strategy, and that you should therefore rule it out.

In more complex situations, you might choose to repeatedly rule out your dominated strategies, in a process called iterated elimination of dominated strategies.

Eventually, doing this will leave you with either a single dominant strategy to use, or with a number of equally-viable strategies that you can choose from.

If all these strategies lead to outcomes that are perfectly equal to one another, one way to choose between them is to add a secondary variable, which will allow you to enhance the way you rank the favorability of the different outcomes.

For example, let’s say you’re trying to decide which laptop to buy, out of five possible options. At first, you might use price and reviews as the two most important factors to consider, which will allow you to filter out most of the options, until you end up with two possible alternatives to choose from, that are ranked equally based on these criteria.

At this stage, you can add an additional variable, such as warranty, that wasn’t important enough to take into consideration during the initial stages of your decision, but which you can now take into account in order to choose between these otherwise equal options.

In the rare situation where all strategies lead to outcomes that are truly equal, and there is absolutely no way for you to discern which one is better, you can simply pick one at random. In the case of games with multiple players, doing this has the added advantage of helping you make moves that are difficult for your opponents to predict.

 

Using strategic dominance to predict your opponents’ behavior

Understanding the concept of strategic dominance can help you predict your opponents’ behavior, which can allow you to better prepare for the moves that they will make. Specifically, you should make two assumptions regarding how your opponents will act:

  • You should assume that your opponents will use their dominant strategies.
  • You should assume that your opponents will avoid their dominated strategies.

However, there are a few possible exceptions to this. For example, there are situations where other players might not pick a strategy that you think is dominant, or might pick a strategy that you think is dominated, for any of the following reasons:

  • They know something that you don’t.
  • They have different goals than you expect them to.
  • They’re acting irrationally, and not doing what’s best for them from a strategic perspective.

As such, the better you can estimate your opponents’ knowledge and preferences, and the more rational your opponents are, the more likely they are to act in a way that you expect them to, when it comes to strategic dominance.

Furthermore, the more strongly a certain strategy is dominant over others, the more confident you can be that an opponent will use it, and the more strongly a certain strategy is dominated by others, the more confident you can be that an opponent will avoid it.

 

Nash equilibrium and strategic dominance

The concept of the Nash equilibrium is one that is often mentioned in conjunction with strategic dominance. Though it’s not crucial to understand what a Nash equilibrium is in order to understand what dominant and dominated strategies are, this concept can still be interesting to learn about, and it has some useful practical applications, that relate to strategic dominance.

 

What is a Nash equilibrium

A Nash equilibrium is a situation in a game with multiple players, where no player stands to gain anything by changing their own strategy while other players keep their strategies unchanged.

For example, in the example we saw earlier, where two companies can choose whether to enter the consumer market (80% of the total market share) or the professional market (20% of the total market share), the Nash equilibrium is the situation where each of the companies gets a 40% share of the total market by investing in the consumer version of the product, since neither of them will be able to increase their market share by switching to the professional market.

There can be more than one possible Nash equilibrium in a given game, and Nash equilibria are generally self-enforcing, since once players reach them, they have no incentive to change their strategy.

 

The connection between Nash equilibria and strategic dominance

There are several important connections between strategic dominance and Nash equilibria.

First, if a player has a strictly dominant strategy, then that player is going to use that strategy in each of the possible Nash equilibria in the game, since that’s the best strategy that the player can pick.

Furthermore, if each player in the game has a strictly dominant strategy, then there is only one unique Nash equilibrium in the game, since all players are simply going to pick their strictly dominant strategy when deciding how to act.

In addition, if a player has a strictly dominated strategy, they cannot use it as part of a Nash equilibrium, since they will always profit by using a different strategy.

However, if a player has a weakly dominated, that strategy can sometimes be a part of a Nash equilibrium. For example, in a situation where two players must agree to something in order to get the best outcome, a state where both players disagree can be a Nash equilibrium, since neither player benefits from switching their strategy (from ‘disagree’ to ‘agree’), unless the other player does the same, despite the fact that both of them will benefit from making the switch (i.e. from agreeing with each other).

 

Nash equilibria aren’t necessarily efficient

Though a Nash equilibrium is a situation where no player can benefit from unilaterally changing their strategy, that doesn’t mean that a Nash equilibrium represents the ideal solution to a game.

A famous example which illustrates this concept is that of the prisoner’s dilemma, where two prisoners, who have no way of communicating with each other, have two options: they can either betray the other prisoner, or they can stay silent. There are three types of possible outcomes to this game:

  • If both prisoners betray each other, they each get 2 years in prison.
  • If both prisoners stay silent, they each get 1 year in prison.
  • If one prisoner betrays the other, and the other stays silent, the one who betrayed gets to go free, while the one who was betrayed gets 3 years in prison.

For both prisoners, the weakly dominant strategy is to betray the other prisoner:

  • If the first prisoner stays silent, it’s better for the second prisoner to betray them, since this means that the second prisoner gets to go free instead of spending a year in prison.
  • If the first prisoner betrays the second one, it’s better for the second prisoner to betray the first one in return, since this means that the second prisoner will get only 2 years in prison, instead of 3.

Here, there is a Nash equilibrium in the state where both players select their weakly dominant strategy of betraying the other person, which ends up causing them both to spend 2 years in prison.

In theory, both players could benefit more from choosing to stay silent, which will allow them to spend only 1 year in prison, instead of 2. However, since there is no way for each player to guarantee the honesty of the other player, neither of them will be willing to switch to the ‘stay silent’ strategy, since if they do this alone, they will end up spending 3 years in prison (instead of 2), while the other person will get to walk away free.

Note: a related concept to the one illustrated here is that of Pareto efficiency (sometimes referred to as Pareto optimality), which is a state where any changes in strategy will make things worse for at least one player.

 

Why Nash equilibria are important

Nash equilibria should be taken into account when thinking about dominant and dominated strategies, because they can help you predict how people will act, and because they can help you identify situations in which players can reach mutual agreements.

As such, if you are doing a strategic analysis of a certain game, try to identify any possible Nash equilibria, and take them into account when predicting how people will act, and when deciding how to act yourself.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • Strategic dominance is a state in game theory which occurs when one strategy that a player can use leads to better outcomes for them than all the other strategies that they can use, regardless of which moves their opponents make.
  • A strategy is dominant if choosing it leads to better outcomes than other possible strategies, and dominated if choosing it leads to worse outcomes than other possible strategies.
  • If you have a choice between receiving $10 now or tossing a coin and receiving $10 if it lands on heads but nothing if it lands on tails, getting the money upfront is the dominant strategy while flipping the coin is the dominated strategy, since taking the money upfront leads to an outcome that is as good as or better than flipping the coin.
  • When deciding which strategies to use, you should strive to use your dominant strategy and to avoid your dominated strategies, and if necessary, you can iteratively eliminate any dominated strategies that you have, or introduce new criteria in order to choose between several dominant strategies.
  • You can predict your opponents’ moves by generally assuming that they will use their dominant strategies and avoid their dominated strategies, though there some exceptions to this, such as situations where your opponent is acting in an irrational manner, or has different goals that you expect them to.

 

If you found this article interesting and you want to learn more about game theory, take a look at “The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life“. It’s a good read for someone looking to understand basic game theory and how it applies to real-life situations.

 


The Value-Action Gap: Why People Fail to Follow Through on Commitments

The Value-Action Gap

 

The value-action gap is a psychological phenomenon where people act in a manner that is inconsistent with their values.

For example, a prevalent value-action gap exists between the way people feel about environmental issues and the way they act when given a chance to address those issues. Specifically, while most people say that they care about environmental issues, many of them are generally unwilling to take actions that will solve those issues, especially when the necessary actions will inconvenience them even slightly.

Since the value-action gap is a widespread phenomenon, it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about value-action gaps, see examples of them in real life, understand the psychology behind them, and learn what you can do in order to reduce the likelihood that you or other people will have them.

 

What is the value-action gap

The value-action gap is a psychological phenomenon where people act in a manner that is inconsistent with their personal values. This means that the value-action gap occurs when people act in a way that fails to support their values, or in a way that contradicts those values entirely.

As such, the value-action gap is indicative of a low attitude-behavior consistency in a person. This psychological construct represents the correlation between an individual’s attitudes and their tendency to act in a way which mirrors those attitudes, and the lower this correlation is, the less likely a person is to act in a manner which reflects their beliefs.

Note that the value-action gap is sometimes referred to by similar names, such as the attitude-action gap, the attitude-behavior gap, the intention-behavior gap, and the belief-behavior gap. Furthermore, there are also related concepts, such as the knowledge-action gap and the knowledge-attitude-practice gap (KAP-gap), which refer to the additional gap between what people know and the attitudes that they form.

 

Examples of value-action gaps

Examples of value-action gaps appear in many areas of life, but they are especially common in the environmental context, where people often fail to take actions that reflect their values. For example:

  • There is a gap between how much people say they care about recycling, and how much they recycle in practice.
  • There is a gap between how many people say they favor organic food, and how many purchase organic food in practice.
  • There is a gap between how much people say they care about carbon emissions, and how much they are willing to change their habits to reduce their carbon emissions in practice.

In addition, another domain where value-action gaps frequently appear is that of personal health, where there is often a significant gap between how much people say that they care about being healthy, and how much they are willing to take actions that will improve their health.

Finally, another domain where people frequently display value-action gaps is the domain of consumer decisions. For example, many people say that they care about the working conditions of the workers who produced the products that they are buying, but few people actually base their decision regarding which product to buy on these factors, especially if doing so carries any disadvantages, such as a slightly higher price.

 

Why people have value-action gaps

In the past, people’s failure to act in a way that could benefit them or other members of society was believed to occur as a result of an information deficit, which means that people’s inaction was assumed to happen because they were unaware of the necessity and importance of taking action.

Accordingly, pasts model assumed that simply informing people about relevant topics will lead them to form concrete attitudes and intentions with regards to those topics, which in turn will lead them to take the necessary actions.

However, as we saw earlier, modern research on the topic shows that even though it’s important to inform people of the importance of certain issues, this alone is generally not enough to get them to take action. This is because even when people are well-informed about certain topics, there is often still a gap between what they believe they should do and what they do in practice.

Specifically, people must go through all the following stages in order to get to a point where they actually undertake positive action:

  • First, people must acquire the necessary knowledge on a certain topic.
  • Then, people must process this knowledge in a manner which causes them to form appropriate values.
  • Next, people must translate these values into an intention to take action.
  • Finally, people must translate these intentions into real actions.

Under this model, it is clear that simply informing people isn’t enough to get them to take action.  Rather, even though informing people is crucial when it comes to getting them to form values, these values must then be translated into intentions, which must, in turn, be translated into actions.

A common reason why people fail to translate their intentions into actions is that doing so often entails accepting an attribute tradeoff, which means that the course of action that is in line with their values involves an unwanted side-effect, such as a higher price or a lower-quality product.

The bigger the tradeoff that you must accept in order to act in accordance with your values, the less likely you are to be willing to accept that tradeoff, and the more likely to are to act in a manner that is inconsistent with your beliefs.

For example, people might know that switching to a new type of energy is better, but the inconveniences involved with doing so often deter them from following up on their beliefs. Another example of this is the fact that people often say that they support products that are more ethically-responsible, as in the case of fair-trade coffee, but many are unwilling to accept the increased cost that is associated with such products.

Overall, people display value-action gaps because people’s values rarely translate directly into actions. Rather, people must actively translate these values into intentions, and then translate those intentions into actions. A failure at any stage of the process, which can occur due to the inconvenience of acting in accordance with one’s values, will cause a person to display a value-action gap.

 

How to account for the value-action gap

As we saw so far, the value-action gap plays a role in people’s thinking in a variety of situations, whenever people act in a manner that is inconsistent with their beliefs. This phenomenon is especially prevalent when acting in accordance with one’s beliefs incurs some cost, in the form of factors such as inconvenience or money.

Accordingly, if you want to account for the value-action gap when assessing the likelihood that people will take action, you must remember that it’s not enough to look at what people say that they care about. Rather, you have to look at what people, including yourself, generally do in practice.

Furthermore, when assessing the likelihood that people will take a certain action, you should generally assume that not everyone who says that they care about something or that they will undertake an action will follow through on their commitment in reality. Though it’s difficult to predict the portion of people who will actually act in accordance with their values, there are two main factors that you should consider:

  • The stronger people feel about the topic, the more likely they are to take action.
  • The more difficult it is for people to take action, the less likely they are to do it.

In addition, you can examine how people acted in similar situations in the past, which will give you insights regarding how they will likely act in the future.

 

How to reduce the value-action gap

Being able to reduce the value-action gap can be valuable both when it comes to your own behavior, as well as when it comes to other people’s behavior. There are several things that you can do in order to accomplish this:

  • Make people care more about the relevant value. Caring more about a certain value increases the likelihood that people will act in accordance with it. For example, to get people to care more about their values, you can emphasize why this value is important from a moral perspective, or why it aligns with their self-expectations.
  • Remind people of their values at opportune moments. Getting people to remember a certain value right before they have an opportunity to act on it increases the likelihood that they will do so. For example, you can remind people that they are trying to be more environmentally conscious, right before they purchase a car.
  • Make it easier for people to act in a way that is consistent with their values. The easier it is for people to take action that reflects their values, the more likely they are to do so. For example, you can make it more likely that you will avoid drinking soda when you’re in the office, by taking a bottle of water with you to work.
  • Make it harder for people to act in a way that is inconsistent with their values. The bigger the penalty for acting in a way that is inconsistent with a certain value, the more likely people are to act in accordance with that value. For example, a common type of penalty involves a negative social perception by others, which occurs when people act in a way that is inconsistent with the prevailing behavior of their peers.

In many cases, the technique that you will use in order to reduce the value-action gap will involve a nudge, which is a modification that you can make to people’s decision-making environment in order to alter their behavior in a predictable way. In this case, the goal of the nudge is to increase the likelihood that people will take action that is consistent with their values.

For example, to increase the likelihood that people who are interested in being healthy will actually buy healthy food, you can make that food more prominent by placing fruit at eye level at the cafeteria while placing cookies on a lower shelf.

Furthermore, you can use similar nudges in order to alter your own behavior. For example, you can increase the likelihood that you will buy healthy food, by setting up a daily reminder on your phone, which shows up each day right as you head to lunch.

Overall, there are various things you can do in order to reduce the value-action gaps that both you as well as other people experience.

In general, your chosen strategies can target people’s values, by increasing people’s commitment to a certain value or by reminding them of it at an opportune moment, or they can target people’s actions, by making value-driven actions easier and value-contradicting actions more costly.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The value-action gap is a psychological phenomenon which occurs when people act in a way that is inconsistent with their personal values.
  • Examples of common value-action gaps include people eating unhealthy food even though they care about their health, people ignoring green energy sources even though they care about the environment, and people buying products which were manufactured in unethical working conditions, even though they say they care about the workers.
  • Value-action gaps occur because people fail to translate their values into intentions or their intentions into actions, usually because doing so entails some sort of cost, in the form of increased prices or increased inconvenience.
  • You can account for the value-action gap by realizing that people, including you, are much less likely to act in a way that supports their values than they think, and by realizing that the less people care about the topic and the harder it is for them to take action, the less likely they are to actually do something.
  • To reduce the likelihood of a value-action gap, you can either increase people’s commitment to their values, remind them of their values at critical moments, make value-driven actions easier, or make value-contradicting actions more costly, all of which you can accomplish by using nudges, which are minor modifications to people’s decision-making environment.