If I close my eyes and relax, I can see the cartoon play before my eyes. It’s a public service announcement at the end of the program. I’m being given some kind of moral or citizenry lesson. And then the familiar sound plays: “And knowing is half the battle… GI Joe.” The “GI Joe” portion is sung, perfectly harmonized, an ostensible chorus of military men using their song stylings to co-sign what the animators have just taught the kids at home.
It is frankly catchy AF. And brings wonderful nostalgic energy from my childhood. But is it true? Is knowing really half the battle?
No, not really. And hilariously, there’s research on it. It’s literally called the GI Joe Fallacy.
What is the GI Joe Fallacy?
The GI Joe Fallacy is the name for a psychological phenomenon whereby we expect that knowing about a bias means that we can overcome it. Knowing is not half the battle. Not even close. Now, knowing about a bias does help — but according to research, it’s something like a tenth of the battle. Waaaaay less than half.
(If you’re interested in the empirical data surrounding this, here’s a wonderful high-level summary that’s available for free and cites a lot of primary research that you can dig up as well to broaden your understanding.)
When the GI Joe Fallacy Causes Problems
There are many ways that the GI Joe Fallacy can cause problems, but I typically encounter it most frequently when looking at how hard it is for people to forgive other people.
What’s the connection? Well, there’s a popular saying that goes a little something like this (possibly a paraphrase): “The best apology is changed behavior.” Sometimes folks will take it to a different place, saying something like, “The only true apology is changed behavior.”
I get why it’s popular. It’s punchy. Satisfying to say, I’m sure. And boy, is it great when someone changes unwelcome behavior.
But it’s logically flawed. Because on a fundamental level, it’s very hard to change behavior. Yes, even when someone wants to change their behavior. This is not solely due to the GI Joe Fallacy (there are other aspects underpinning how we learn and relearn — and how difficult it is). But it comes into play.
Knowing you need to change and actually effectively changing it are two completely different asks. Asking someone accept and know they need to change? Is reasonable and I think essential to repairing trust and moving forward from a bad situation.
Seeing changed behavior? It’s a long-term proposition at best. And if you need to wait until it happens before you forgive, you may be waiting a very long time.
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.