Imagine someone asking you with a straight face, "The sun is flat, isn't it?". What would be your first reaction? Chances are, you would be surprised at someone else's ignorance and chuckle. And at the same time, you'll want to open the other person's eyes to the truth. You will fill the person with evidence, pictures, facts and details, convincingly proving that the version with flat sun has not the slightest basis. And, of course, you'd be absolutely correct.
Hold on a second.
Why would you feel the need to prove anything to anyone?
The answer is quite simple, really. As humans, we have a tendency to mold the world around us in accordance with our own perceptions of what's right. This inclination drives us to set others straight when they are wrong. In fact, this desire is so powerful that it can alter our behavior, even leading us to do things we hadn't initially intended. This subtle mechanism of influencing a person's behavior is known as Cunningham's Law.
What is Cunningham's Law?
Cunningham's Law is a joking phrase that legend has it that programmer Ward Cunningham once said (or not).
Cunningham's Law states, "the best way to get the right answer on the internet is not to ask a question; it's to post the wrong answer." It's highly likely that someone will promptly correct you, and in doing so, provide you with comprehensive information on the topic you're interested in.
The term itself appeared in 2010. The law is reminiscent of a French saying "prêcher le faux pour savoir le vrai that translates to "preach the falsehood to know the truth".
Generally, people aren't particularly keen on being helpful, but they do have a strong desire to be recognized as the smartest person in the room. This, in essence, encapsulates the essence of Cunningham's Law.
Practical Applications of Cunningham's Law
1. Problem-Solving with a Twist
This is a great way to solve a problem. If everyone in the meeting is stumped on a particular problem, throw out a stupid solution. If nobody can improve on it, then the last solution wins. This works surprisingly well because most people can criticize while they struggle to create from scratch.
Another example, you can answer your own question on Stack Overflow screamingly wrong to get your question answered faster. A smartass shall be summoned in less than a nanosecond by your side to correct your ignorance. Similarly, in the world of Linux, an effective way to seek assistance is by using a touch of trolling: bash.org.
Sherlock Holmes would probably agree with Cunningham's law. Thus, in the famous TV series Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch, there is a phrase: "People don't like telling you things. They love to contradict you."
2. Getting Shy Folks to Open Up
I often conduct interviews, and most people in our field are not very talkative to say the least. Imagine that a person doesn't want to talk about himself, I turn to a person and say, "You're a software engineer. Tell me about your experience", they usually says something like "I design different systems". Then I have to ask endless follow-up questions to get some details. Nobody likes that kind of answer.
However, if you deliberately pose a question with an error in it, such as: "Are you a software engineer? Does that mean you code in HTML and SQL?", you're likely to witness a remarkable change. Suddenly, the person becomes more engaged, eager to correct your misconceptions, and they'll go on to elaborate on what software engineers truly do. All you need to keep the conversation flowing is to occasionally interject with an incredulous, "Are you sure?" Doubt can be a powerful motivator.
3. Injecting Life into Dull Conversations
Sometimes, conversations just fall flat. There are awkward silences, and it's a struggle to maintain interest. This is when making mistakes can actually be advantageous. It's perfectly acceptable because a spirited debate can transform a lackluster exchange of words into a captivating conversation teeming with new insights. Even a small act of manipulation can ignite a dialogue that was previously devoid of energy.
Cunningham's Law undeniably influences people's behavior, but it does come with two notable disadvantages:
Risk of Looking Silly: You might end up looking a bit foolish and be treated accordingly. If you're more interested in the discussion than in people's opinions of you, that's not a problem.
It's a Bit Sneaky: Cunningham's Law is a form of manipulation, so it's best used sparingly. Stick to casual chitchat where it won't ruffle any feathers and will be quickly forgotten. Save it for folks you don't have a serious connection with.
In a nutshell, Cunningham's Law is like a social experiment that shows how people are often more motivated to correct misinformation than to lend a helping hand. It's a nifty tool for problem-solving, sparking conversations, and even coaxing shy folks to share their wisdom. But, remember, use it wisely, and don't overdo it!