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Cunningham’s Law: The satisfying benefits of feigning stupidity

“Of course, the spleen is the biggest organ in the body.”
Credit: Annelisa Leinbach / Big Think; Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Some people love to correct others. They’ll put on their pedantic pants and make sure you know just how wrong you are.
  • Cunningham’s Law is the observation of how this occurs online. On sites like Wikipedia or busy forums, you’re more likely to get corrected on a false statement than get an answer to an honest question.
  • The “Coin Toss” and “The Bad Option” are two ways you can use this to your advantage.

I used to work with someone who was incredibly annoying, and I’ll tell you why. First, if you said something — anything at all — this person would try to find the tiniest and most insignificant bit of trivia to “correct” you. If they couldn’t conjure up trivia, they’d smile and nod patronizingly, as if to tell the room that what you said was so obvious that not even a trainee dunce would say it.

Some people love being right. They love it even more when everyone knows they’re right. In any given room, there’s almost always a portion of people who yearn to be seen as the best. They want others to gasp at their superior intelligence or their years of hard-won acumen. So, for a few years, I’d let my colleague wind me up, and I’d get increasingly and irrationally furious at her behavior. But then one day I realized how to beat her. I talked nonsense.

“Wasn’t that a Tarantino film?” I’d ask about Avatar. “I’m pretty sure that’s a kind of fish,” I’d say about a dolphin. “Of course, the spleen is the biggest organ in the body,” I’d throw out in passing.

With great relish, I would watch my patronizing nemesis splutter and choke in her haste to correct me. There’s nothing so petty and joyous as the fury of someone trying to tell you why you’re wrong.

Cunningham’s Law

Over time, I realized that what I was doing was also a great way to find out information. Rather than ask my colleague — or anyone — a question, I noticed that it was often easier to just feign knowledge of a wrong fact. Most people can’t stand an incorrect statement to go uncorrected. So often, as they put you right, they’ll give you a torrent of erudition. You’ll get a much better answer than if you simply asked.

This is known as “Cunningham’s Law.” It’s named after Ward Cunningham, who developed much of the software that is now used in wiki-type websites (of which Wikipedia is the biggest example). Cunningham’s Law is the observation that the best way to get a good or right answer is not to ask a question; it’s to post a wrong answer. So, if you want to know the leading causes of World War I, go to a history forum and post, “World War One was entirely caused by the British.” Sit back, grab some popcorn, and wait for the angry — yet probably informed — corrections to come flying in.

If you go to Reddit, Twitter, or any large Facebook page (Big Think’s will do), write whatever ill-informed, superficial nonsense you want, and watch to see what gems you get.

Socratic trolling

Of course, this does sound a lot like trolling. But it’s trolling of a multi-millennia vintage — the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, did a lot of it. Socrates would sit on some public bench and talk to whoever happened to sit next to him. He’d often open his dialogues by presenting a false or deeply flawed argument and go from there. He would ironically agree with whatever his partner would say, but then raise a seemingly innocuous question to challenge that position.

For example, in the dialogue called “Meno,” Socrates explores the idea of virtue. Socrates goes along with what his friend, Meno, says, hoping that they’ll elicit some further revelation on their conversational journey. “Okay, so let’s say that virtue can be taught…” Socrates will say. Then, through clever questioning, he will go on to reveal why that’s wrong. Socratic irony is where you pretend to be ignorant of something so you can get greater clarity about it. In short, it’s a lot like Cunningham’s Law.

Sadly, for Socrates, trolling was no more fun back in ancient Greece than it is today, and so he was eventually sentenced to death (by drinking poison). Ostensibly, it was for atheism and “corrupting the youth,” but it was quite probably because he just poked the wrong bears (and made the bears look silly).

Coaching it out

If you’ve been to any “away day” professional training recently, or spent enough time around bureaucratic middle managers, you’ll have probably come across “coaching.” Coaching is, essentially, a catch-all term for any strategy by which you can draw out answers from someone.

Asking someone, “How do you think you could be better at your job?” will be met with blank stares. But if you ask, “What obstacles are stopping you from being great?” or “Who do you think is excellent at their job and how do they do it?” you’re more likely to get better answers.

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Cunningham’s Law is an example of coaching. It’s a backdoor way of accessing knowledge when the front door is barred and shut. Here are two ways you can use Cunningham’s Law:

The Bad Option: Have you ever been in a group where no one can decide what decision to make, and so you hover about in an awkward, polite limbo? “What restaurant shall we go to?” gets nothing. Instead try saying, “Let’s go to McDonald’s” and see how others object and go on to offer other ideas.

The Coin Toss: If you’re unsure about any life decision — like “Should I read this book or that book next?” or “Should I leave my job or not?” — do a coin toss. Heads you do X, tails you do Y. You are not actually going to live by the coin’s decision, but you need to make a note of your reaction to whatever outcome came of it. Were you upset at what it landed on? Are you secretly relieved? It’s a good way to elicit your true thoughts on a topic.

Cunningham’s Law is a curious psychological phenomenon, and it’s one that can be used to great advantage. From getting detailed responses out of experts on the internet to illuminating some unconscious desire, sometimes feigning idiocy has its perks.

Jonny Thomson is our resident philosopher and the author of The Well, a weekly newsletter that explores the biggest questions occupying the world’s brightest minds. Click here to subscribe.


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