Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Lessons from my grandfather III: Epoxy, Dental Floss, and Causal Understanding

You can't fix what you don't understand.
Art Markman, Ph.D.
This post is a response to Lessons from my grandfather II: Love others for who they are. by Art Markman, Ph.D.

My grandfather and meMy grandfather, Manny Gold, passed away in early July. I have written a few posts about things I learned from him. I appreciate the wonderful responses I have gotten from people about these posts. This one is the last in the series.

I did not realize how lucky I was as a kid. Few of us do, I guess. My grandparents visited every Sunday in the winter, and in the summer we went down to visit them by the New Jersey shore. When my grandfather came up to visit, he spent lots of time with us, taking us to the park or just walking around the neighborhood. But, a centerpiece of the weekly visit was a short list of things that needed to be fixed that he would take care of while he was visiting.

During the week, if anything broke (like an umbrella, a blender, or the station dial on a radio), we would put it aside to await his next visit. In the 70's and 80's, most things had mechanical parts in them, and so there was actually some hope that things could be fixed.

My grandfather was a pharmacist, so he had no particular mechanical expertise from his job. But he would sit down at a table armed with epoxy, dental floss, pipe cleaners, and string, and set about looking through what had broken. He'd take it apart, stare at it, trace through how it worked, and before long he had jury-rigged a solution that would keep things working.

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What I find interesting about this now, is that my grandfather found a way to really understand how things work. Most of us have what Frank Keil calls an illusion of explanatory depth. That is, we think we know how things in our world work, but we really don't. For example, think about the devices you have in your house like the doorbell, flush toilets, and umbrellas. Do you really know how they work? When you find something that you do think you understand, try to explain to yourself how it works.

I'll wait...

Ok. How did you do? You may surprise yourself to find out that your explanation was not so good. You may have missed a few steps or realized that you have seen the object working but don't really get how it works. Don't worry. If you had trouble explaining how things work you're in good company. Most people believe they know more about the way things work than they actually do.

The problem is, if you can't explain how it works, you're going to have a hard time figuring out what is wrong with it and fixing it.

So, where did my grandfather come up with the explanatory knowledge that he used to fix things? Micki Chi and Kurt Van Lehn argue that people learn about the way the world works through a process of self-explanation. That is, whenever we come across something new, we have to explain it to ourselves to find the gaps in our knowledge about the way it works and then fill in those gaps. Some people naturally explain things to themselves, while others have to be forced to do it. The ones who do it naturally are the ones who have the knowledge they need to fix things.

My grandfather was a natural self-explainer. When he had to repair something he hadn't fixed before, he'd spend time with it, figuring out how it was put together and how it worked. By first understanding the way it worked, he could then take some combination of floss, epoxy, and pipe cleaners, and put it back together.

From him, I certainly learned the value of epoxy. More importantly, though, I also learned that it takes effort to figure out the way things work. Effort that is quickly rewarded.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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