The G.I. Joe Fallacy: Knowing is not enough

The G.I. Joe Fallacy: Knowing is not enough
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I have a problem.

One of my missions in life is to help spread facts and knowledge which helps individuals improve their creativity and innovation capabilities.

I make a concerted effort to ensure that this advice is evidence-based, so that people can use that knowledge to make changes in their lives which should be proven to work.

However, recent research shows that this may not be enough.

Professors Laurie Santos and Tamar Gendler have recently shown that merely having knowledge about the best thing a person should do does not usually result in that person making a change.

They termed this challenge the G.I. Joe Fallacy.

This was based on the popular 1980s cartoon series “G.I. Joe: A real American Hero”, based on the action figures of the same name. At the end of every episode, the main characters would teach children a valuable lesson, like how to deal with fires in your house. The children would always end up saying “Now I know“, and the G.I. Joe character would then finish by saying “And knowing is half the battle“.

However, research consistently shows that there is a clear disconnect between having knowledge and taking action.

For example, you may know that $19.99 is pretty much the same price as $20.00, but the first still feels like a significantly better deal.

In a 2021 paper, Santos and Kristal give the following examples:

Many of our most common self-regulatory failures have a shared feature— that is, we often fail to behave in a certain way even though we know the positive consequences of that behavior.

Many of us know that we should limit our sugar and fat intake, yet we still stop at the donut shop too often.

Many of us know we need to save for retirement, yet we fail to put enough money away each week.

Many of us know we should exercise to reduce our disease risk, but we still hit the snooze button rather than heading for the gym.

This disconnect between our knowledge and action does not just occur in the domain of self-regulation. There are examples throughout the field of cognitive science and decision-making where our behavior systematically deviates from rationality.

The G.I. Joe fallacy is especially important when trying to make people aware of their own unconscious biases, as merely making people aware of their bias is not enough to stop them suffering from their bias.

Even one of the pioneers of bias research noted this challenge:

“It’s not a case of: ‘Read this book and you’ll think differently.’ I’ve written this book, and I don’t think differently”- Daniel Kahneman on Thinking Fast and Slow (2011)

Santos and Kristal suggest there are two types of biases at play here:

  • Encapsulated biases: There are hardwired into the way we take in information, and are incredibly hard to change. Examples here are the way optical illusions work, or how loss aversion has evolved to keep us from harm.
  • Attentional biases: These are biases which are more likely to be overcome if you can think through a situation rationally, yet people still fall prey to such biases under conditions of distraction or limited attention during the moment of decision-making.

What does this mean for me?

Well, if I want to help more people, I cannot just give them the facts.

They need to be packaged in a way that make people aware of them and more willing to take action.

Through things like stories, metaphors or action plans.

So that is exactly what I will be doing.

Now I know.

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