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Knowledge Matters

Many now conclude that knowledge alone doesn't influence behavior. While that may be true, there's some subtlety that needs to be unpacked, lest we underestimate the importance of knowledge for our actions.

Educators, scientists, community organizers, and sustainability advocates are asking whether knowledge matters. The question that they are really asking though is: Does knowledge influence behavior? They are interested in this because they desire better environmental behaviors and wonder if education is an effective way to accomplish this.

This is an important question to ask given the seriousness of the issues we face. Education is often proposed as a solution to environmental problems. So we should be be certain that our efforts generate the desired effects. Some have questioned the effectiveness of the "knowledge deficit model" (KDM), which says that if ignorance (knowledge deficit) is the problem, then providing someone with knowledge should be a solution. However, citing various studies and anecdotes, critics have noted that just educating someone doesn't necessarily change their behavior.

I actually think the critique is more about questioning the usefulness of information than it is knowledge, but first there is an important distinction to make here, and that is between knowledge and information.

Knowledge is constructed from our individual or shared information and experience. It's important to note that knowledge and information are not synonymous. Information is every bit of data, observation, fact, trivia, etc. that exists in the world. Information doesn't become knowledge until we do something with it; knowledge is created by thinking about information. Stated "mathematically," Knowledge = Information X Thinking. Through the process of thinking we create our understanding of the world.

The knowledge we build forms our mental models. Mental models are our representation or understanding of reality. They aren’t reality itself. We continuously get feedback from real-world consequences on whether our mental models are good representations of reality. If we pay attention to this feedback, we can adjust our mental models to better represent reality.

mental models Image credit: Cabrera & Cabrera, 2015, Systems Thinking Made Simple

This brings us back to our primary questions. Does knowledge influence behavior? And does education have any impact on people’s behaviors? Let’s explore this with a couple examples.

Let’s start with the water in your house. Chances are good that you know that the water that comes from the faucet in your house is related to the rest of the water in the world, that it comes from some waterbody nearby (either surface water or groundwater), and that it goes somewhere after you use it carrying whatever you put in it. Your mental model of the water in your house contains your knowledge of water. You also know that water can do something useful for you, like wet your toothbrush and rinse the sink. You engage those mental models every time you brush your teeth. Most likely you turn off the water when you aren’t using it, you don’t just let it run while you’re brushing your teeth. Those mental models directly influence your behaviors. No one has to tell you to turn off the water, you use your own knowledge to make that decision.

Here’s another one. A scientist did some calculation of the velocity and deceleration of a bullet moving through water to determine how far the bullet would travel. He developed a mental model of the bullet’s movement in water. Then to prove his mental model was right, he got in the pool and had the bullet shot at him. Fortunately, his mental model was a good representation of reality and the bullet stopped short of him. The scientist’s knowledge determined his own actions.


Of course there are complexities and exceptions. We often have conflicting mental models and other influences on our behaviors. While our knowledge forms the basis for an action, another factor may limit that action. For example, my laziness or a distraction by a demand from my daughter may occasionally result in me leaving the water running while I brush my teeth, even though I know it’s not the right thing to do. I also know that leaving the water running for a few seconds isn’t going to really be that bad. There may be competing mental models, like when I want to have a late night snack. My mental model of healthy eating competes with my mental model of immediate enjoyment and tastiness.

Also, mental models aren’t black or white, binary, yes or no constructs. They are “fuzzy”. For example, I have a mental model of a dog. That mental model is that dogs are generally nice, fun, pettable critters. However, there’s also a little bit of uncertainty or risk aversion built into my mental model of a dog because I know they can also be aggressive, territorial, and mean. I use clues from seeing a dog to inform my response to each dog. If I see a dog wagging its tail, I think my mental model of the pettable dog has a high probability of being right. If it’s growling at me, I think that mental model is probably wrong. And, think back to the scientist in the pool. How confident was he in his mental model of the movement of the bullet. I’d bet somewhere real close to 100%. These complexities, however, don’t negate the importance of knowledge and the power of mental models in forming the basis for our actions.

The reason we question the knowledge deficit model has more to do with our mis-equating information and knowledge than it does with the importance of knowledge. It’s clear that knowledge matters. Fortunately, we know how to help people build knowledge. The four simple rules of systems thinking (making Distinctions, understanding parts and wholes of Systems, identifying Relationships, and viewing things from different Perspectives) provide the structure and tools through which knowledge is constructed. more of an introduction to systems thinking, check out this short article and a 12-minute video.

Education has an important role to play in building knowledge to address environmental challenges. Education is a common term, of course, that gets used indiscriminately, and it creates a lot of confusion. Like equating knowledge with information, we often equate education with memorization or transmission of information. Education is, or at least should be, the process of helping people to build knowledge. Education, then, has to be more than just transmitting information and making people memorize facts. Education also has to intentionally engage people in thinking about the information that is presented or explored. Education provides the thinking skills to structure information to build knowledge.

If educators help to build knowledge rather than transmit information, then education has an essential role to play in influencing people’s environmental and social behaviors. By integrating systems thinking into education, we can help people construct knowledge, that is, build mental models that are better representations of reality. This, in turn, will lead to behaviors that better support our ecological and social health.