There’s an excellent way of finding out information, without asking any questions. In fact, it often works even better than if you were to simply ask.
Click start to play today’s Spell It, where we learn a new social skill that you can keep in your arsenal for a ‘rainy’ day.
Most people cannot stand to hear or see an incorrect statement. Just take a look at any online forums or social networks like Reddit and Twitter – any ‘wrong facts’ will be met with passionate arguments, and a torrent of erudition, where you actually end up learning more about the topic than if you had asked about it.
This phenomenon, known as Cunningham’s Law, is named after American computer programmer Ward Cunningham, who is responsible for much of the software that you can find today, on websites like Wikipedia. According to a March 2023 report in US-based multimedia news website Big Think, Cunningham’s Law is the observation that the best way to get a good, accurate answer is not to ask a question – it’s to post a wrong answer.
It may seem wild and bizarre, and suspiciously like trolling, but it’s not as modern a concept as you may think. Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates practiced it long before Cunningham came into the picture, when he would sit on a public bench and talk to whoever happened to take a seat next to him.
In one of his dialogues, Socrates explored the idea of virtue with his friend, Meno. He asked Meno to suppose virtue could be taught, and then, through clever reasoning, went on to reveal why that basis was wrong. The philosopher did this often, on various occasions. In fact, Socratic irony is the name given to the practice of pretending to be ignorant about something so that you can gain greater clarity about it.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
If you’d like to use this backdoor way to access knowledge – a handy tool when the front door is shut – here are two ways in which, you can use Cunningham’s Law.
First, you can use it in situations where no one can make a decision. For instance, has your group of friends ever stood around and wondered where to eat dinner? In such situations, questions like, “what restaurant should we go to?” don’t land an answer, and everyone stands around in awkward, polite stasis. Instead of asking directly, pitch an option – “Let’s go eat pizza” – and watch as the people around you suddenly seem to have a clear idea of whether they want to eat it or not, and begin to offer other options.
Another way to use Cunningham’s Law is when you’re unsure about a life decision, like whether you should quit your job or buy a new car. As arbitrary as it sounds, reach your decision with a coin toss. Here’s the catch – you don’t have to live by the outcome of the coin toss. But you can be aware of your reaction to whatever the outcome was. Were you happy when the coin turned up as heads? Or secretly relieved when it didn’t? This is a good way to understand where you subconsciously stand on a topic.
You may not have all the answers, but Cunningham’s Law is a good way to find your way, even if it takes a little pretending to get there.
What do you think of this curious phenomenon? Play today’s Spell It and tell us at email@example.com.