Why Do People Who Know More See Less?


At one time in history, the Swiss dominated the watch industry. The Swiss themselves invented the electronic watch movement at their research institute in Neuchatel, Switzerland. It was rejected by every Swiss watch manufacturer. Based on their past experiences in the industry, they believed this couldn’t possibly be the watch of the future. After all, it was battery powered, did not have bearings or a mainspring and almost no gears. Seiko took one look at this invention that the Swiss manufacturers rejected and took over the world watch market.

You no doubt have noticed that the biggest innovative breakthroughs seem always to be made by people who have far less information and know less than the experts in the field. Einstein, for example, was by no means the most knowledgeable theoretical physicist of the 20th century. He often displayed a profound ignorance about certain aspects of his field. In contrast, many of his contemporaries had acquired much more information, gone to better schools, had better teachers, only to find they were unable to offer the world one single innovative idea.

Why is it that people who know more, see less? Consciously or unconsciously, we are anchored to our first impressions unless we actively change the way we look at the subject. Chester Carlson invented xerography in 1938. He tried to sell his electronic copier to every major corporation in the U.S. and was turned down emphatically by every single one. Because carbon paper was so cheap and plentiful no one, they said, would buy an expensive copy machine. Their thinking process was anchored by their initial impression of the cost of a copier versus the cost of carbon paper. This impression closed off all other lines of thought. It was Xerox, a new corporation that changed the perception of cost by leasing the machines.

Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs attempted without success to get Atari and Hewlett-Packard interested in his and Steve Wozniak’s personal computer. As Steve recounts, “So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we’ll come work for you.’ And their experts laughed and said, ‘No.’ So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. You’re a college dropout. Go back and get your degree.”

What is it that freezes the expert’s thought and makes it difficult to consider new things that deviate from their theories? The figure below illustrates a series of progressively modified drawings that change almost imperceptibly from a man into a woman. When test subjects are shown the entire series of drawings one by one, their perception of this intermediate drawing is biased according to which end of the series they started from. Test subjects who start by viewing a picture that is clearly a man are biased in favor of continuing to see a man long after an “objective observer” (an observer who has seen only a single picture) recognizes that the man is now a woman. Similarly, test subjects who start at the woman end of the series are biased in favor of continuing to see a woman.

man to woman - Copy (2)

Once an observer has formed an image–that is, once he or she has developed an expectation concerning the subject being observed–this influences future perceptions of the subject. Similarly, people who have a lot of experience in a particular field develop hypotheses about what is possible and what is not. This hypothesis biases their judgement about new ideas.

Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., thought the idea of a personal computer absurd, as he said, “there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocketry, was ridiculed by every scientist for his revolutionary liquid-fueled rockets. Even the New York Times chimed in with an editorial in 1921 by scientists who claimed that Goddard lacked even the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high school science classes. Pierrre Pachet a renowned physiology professor and expert declared, “Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.”

If we experience any strain in imagining a possibility, we quickly conclude it’s impossible. This principle also helps explain why evolutionary change often goes unnoticed by the expert. The greater the commitment of the expert to their established view, the more difficult it is for the expert to do anything more than to continue repeating their established view. It also explains the phenomenon of a beginner who comes up with the breakthrough insight or idea that was overlooked by the experts who worked on the same problem for years.

Think, for a moment, about Federal Express and its founder Fred Smith. The US Postal Service, UPS and the airline industry tried to come up with an overnight delivery system of packages. They all decided it was not possible to do profitably. This solidified, over many years, into the established view. Fred Smith, an outlier, ignored the establishment and created an overnight system based on the hub and wheel concept for moving money and information. Still every delivery expert in the U.S. doomed Federal Express to failure because they said people will not pay a fancy price for speed and reliability. Fred smiled and said what they are willing to pay for is “peace of mind.” FedEx has become the model for delivery systems all over the world.

If you survey the history of science, it is apparent that most individuals who have created radical innovations did not do so simply because they knew more than others. Charles Darwin is a good case in point. He came back from the Beagle voyage and displayed his famous Galapagos specimens in London. Within six months of his return, most of the top naturalists in Britain had seen Darwin’s Galapagos finches and reptiles, and hence the crucial evidence that converted Darwin to evolution (and that we now consider the textbook case of evolution in action). None saw the connections.

John Gould, who was one of the greatest ornithologists of the nineteenth century, knew far more about Darwin’s Galapagos birds than Darwin did. Gould corrected numerous mistakes that Darwin had made during the Beagle voyage, including showing Darwin that a warbler was, in fact, a warbler finch and other birds that Darwin had not recognized as being part of the same finch family. Darwin was stunned by this and other crucial information that he received from Gould in March of 1837, and Darwin immediately became an evolutionist.

The strange thing is that Gould did not. He remained a creationist even after The Origin of Species was published. Hence the man who knew more saw less, and the man who knew less saw more. This is a classic example of the expert (John Gould) looking at nature for years and not being able to make the connections because of his long held hypothesis. Whereas Darwin looking at nature with no hypothesis made the connection immediately.

Consequently, Charles Darwin who knew less saw more than John Gould who knew more but saw less.

Michael Michalko


8 responses to this post.

  1. Mr. Michalko,
    I thought this was a good article. The only part I disagree with is the excerpt on evolution and how that Gould was less knowledgeable because of his belief in Creation & not evolution. Personally, the issue of Creation v. Evolution is very important to me & I have done immense amounts of research into the subject. As a Christian who believes the Bible because of its consistent historical, scientific, archaeological, & prophetical accuracy, I cannot accept Evolution as fact because the Bible declares otherwise. As a person who loves science & loves to learn I cannot accept it as fact because an unbiased examination of the evidence does not prove that evolution is anything more than just a theory. There is a verse in the Bible that supports the general concept of your article: II Timothy 3:7 – “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” I feel that this applies to the modern advocacy of evolution. Many scientists adhere to its doctrine and look for evidence to support what they want to believe instead of looking for evidence and then basing their opinions upon what they find. Thus they continue to learn, learn, learn but can never see what is right in front of their faces. The biggest thing I have against evolution is what it has done to the psychology of humanity. It has taught them that they are nothing more than the highest animal on a long food chain. It has taught them that they can do whatever they want to do & has removed morals & self-worth. Because, if we are just animals and natural selection is the name of the game, then who is to say I can’t do whatever I want even if that means harming another? After all they are just an animal too. Do some creative thinking and look back into history: before evolution, we didn’t have kids at school shooting each other over petty issues or for no other reason than they wanted to do it. We didn’t have the mess we have today. I believe that evolution and television (mass media in general) have been the two biggest reasons our society is where it is today.

    Anyway, you probably won’t agree with me seeing as you wrote in your article, but I wanted to let you know my thoughts since you say we need to be open to looking at things differently.


    • Posted by Tom Lampros on April 2, 2015 at 2:14 am

      I apologize in advance if this comes off as rude, but Trebrickley, yours is exactly the kind of reasoning that this article points out. By stating that you believe in the Bible, and therefore all future discussion is closed, you prove the author’s point.

      Likewise, you claim that it is because we have turned from the Bible that we now find ourselves in this moral abyss. You claim that life was so much better when we all believed in the stories written thousands of years ago by people who had no grasp of the nature of the universe, except that it was conjured by some omnipotent being who had our best interests at heart. The Bible tells people to go forth and kill, enslave, rape and generally male-dominate the planet, over which we allegedly have dominion. If you don’t see that as an example of people who “know more but see less” then you have no hope of converting people to an antiquated belief system. You need better arguments than “it says so in the Bible”.


      • Tom, it’s interesting how people who “know the truth” feel a need to spread their truth to others to the extent that others must accept it practically word for word.

        It’s also interesting that the way the brain works is to entrench ideas and to continue the past. Judgement thinking is much easier than creative thinking. The primitive part of our brain is designed to escape danger and to react quickly. This is the part that rushes to judgement and to argument.

        Thinkers take their time, look for alternatives, and never waste time in unproductive argument.

        As for creativity, it is not natural. It’s a skill that has to be learned. It cannot be taught by mere exhortation or imitation. There are creative tools that can be learned equally well by religious or non religious people. Creativity and good thinking is not the prerogative of a special group of people, neither is creativity a gift or a mystical quality. Creativity is a skill that can be learned, even though some people appear more creative than others. There will always be people who are better at creativity, but we can all improve our own creativity by learning the principles of lateral thinking and the tools of lateral thinking. Using the tools develop serious creativity!

      • Posted by trebrickley on April 3, 2015 at 11:23 pm

        Thanks for your opinion. Could we continue this conversation further via email so we don’t flood Mr. Michalko’s space with our dialogue? brickleytre@gmail.com

    • Mr/Ms Trebrickley


  2. Am recommending a very interesting book for you: “Practical Thinking” by Dr Edward de Bono. Beliefs are useful since they often save the time and trouble in thinking for ourselves. In a way, the Internet encourages laziness because there is the temptation to copy and paste from other people’s ideas. (Sharing articles etc.) The people doing the real thinking are for example the founders of Facebook, Google, and Tim Berners Lee, the founder/inventor of the world wide web.


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