Think Slow and Other Tricks for Better Problem-Solving

Think Slow and Other Tricks for Better Problem-Solving
From Recruiter - December 27, 2016

Article by Sam Eifling

As a kid, I was the sort of nerd who got serious about quiz bowl. During my senior year of high school, I was on a team that advanced to the state playoffs. In college, at a Big Ten university, I was on a team that traveled the Midwest playing other teams of fast-twitch buzzer-mashers.

Whereas some players had deep recall of Russian novels or the periodic table, I tended to skate by on loose-ends trivia: pop culture, sports, the occasional lucky stab at U.S. history. By the time I was old enough to drink, I was a solid bar-trivia player. In a weekly pub game, I once nailed down a win by correctly naming the capital of Uganda (Kampala) on the final question. A different night, a new teammate and I simultaneously blurted the answer apogee to a question about the moons orbit. Smitten, I asked her out, and we dated for the rest of the summer.

Like I said: nerd.

That was years ago, though, before Google even existedlong before everyone toted around wireless supercomputers that fit in our jeans. These days, any worthwhile trivia night strives to be at least partially Google-proof because huge swaths of the worlds loose knowledge have been rounded up and cataloged by the most complex network of machines ever devised. The instant recall of facts, formerly a marker of elite intelligence or at least the image of it, has become an affectation. You want to know the capital of Uganda? Two keywords in a search bar is all you need to get the answer faster than you could even ask the question. Quick recall is now a parlor trick, like grabbing a live fly out of midair or uncapping a beer bottle with a folded dollar bill. An intelligence predicated on stockpiling facts is outmoded, nave. Look what happened in the past 20 years to card catalogs, road atlases, and Rolodexes. The databanking that got you through multiple-choice tests no longer secures your relevance. Just ask a phone book.

But these are also heady days to examine the way you think, if youre willing: Neuroscience and the rise of artificial intelligence (more on that later) have given us new insights into the interplay between the mind and the brain, two interlocking (but sometimes competing) parts of ourselves.

For those of us who have long conflated a facile memory with actual smarts, though, analyzing our own thought habits is about as enticing as counting carbs or auditing credit card bills. Some routines are so entrenched that drilling into them requires a confrontation with the egoespecially if youre the sort who considers themselves a good thinker. This most likely describes most people, in part because they give so little thought to the matter. If you werent good at thinking, well, wouldnt that catch up with you? Surely, yes, of courseergo, theres no need to think about the matter any further. But if you did, being such a good thinker, would you not, assuredly, come up with a way to improve your thinking even further?

In his new book,Winning the Brain Game: Fixing the 7 Fatal Flaws of Thinking, Matthew E. May sets out a convincing case that no one much likes to examine the ways they think in part because were all so conditioned to receiving cheap rewards for quick answers that we scarcely bother to do much real thinking at all. May explains that hes the sort of guy whos hired by companies large and small to stump workers and executives with brain teasers. This sounds like great work if you can get it, and the way May writes about these sessionsbreezily, almost like a street magician recalling audiences he has stumpedmakes him sound like a guy who genuinely has hacked into something fundamental about being a person in the 21st century: We have access to so much external knowledge that weve forgotten how to ask ourselves decent questions. School rewards answersfast ones. Work rewards productivity, which is predicated usually on finding paths of least resistance.

Mays enduring thesis, and one thats hard to debate, is that weve been conditioned by a lifetime of what amounts to trivia contests to mistake the regurgitation of facts for the act of thinking. May argues that, actually, the rote recall of informationor the obligatory regurgitation of possible solutions at top speedtakes place somewhere outside the analytical mind. In other words, it is an act less intellectual and more glandular in nature.

Our brains are amazing pattern machines: making, recognizing, and acting on patterns developed from our experience and grooved over time, May writes. Following those grooves makes us ever so efficient as we go about our day. The challenge is this: if left to its own devices, the brain locks in on patterns, and its difficult to escape the gravitational pull of embedded memory in order to see things in an altogether new light.

This strikes me as likely true. Those of us who went through American schools have been conditioned to rely on those patterned responses for decades. Looking back, the best quiz bowl players always buzzed in before the proctor finished reading the question.


In his day job, May prods groups in any project to reach for what he calls elegant solutions. By and large, those are the simplest, cheapest, least-intrusive, most-effective changes you can make to a system. Lesser solutions, he finds, tend to trade quality for speed. He insists that many of the reasons we fail to find elegant solutions are self-inflicted. We overthink a problem, or we jump to conclusions, or we decide after a few minutes of mumbly debate that weve come up with a solid B-minus answer, and then were ready to move on to the next emergency. A less charitable author might describe those pitfalls themselves as lazy, but realistically, theyre the shortcuts we all use to navigate the zillion gnat-like tasks that drain our attention. You make mistakes and compromises because your brain has evolved over eons to value functional near-facts over perfectly crystalline truths. And often, the good enough is so-called for a reason. Duct tape and Taco Bell are revered for a reason.

InWinning the Brain Game, May describes a brain teaser he presented to a team composed of bomb technicians from the Los Angeles Police Department, the sort of group whose members regard themselves as unflappable thinkers and decision-makers. Heres the scenario May posed to them: You run a fancy health club that in its shower stalls offers fancy shampoo in big bottles that would retail for $50 at a salon. Unshockingly, these big bottles often go the way of a hotel bathrobe: Members take them home at a distressing rate, costing you. What solution can you devise that will be unintrusive, cheap or free, and protect your inventory?

Yes, sure, you could switch to travel bottles or force guests to check the shampoo out, but these will complicate operations at your otherwise immaculate and successful health club, so think harder.

May says the employees at the real-life club this problem is based on figured out an unintrusive and simple solution that cost no money. It is a solution any bright child could deviseand yet, the bomb techs didnt arrive at it in their few minutes talking over the problem (and neither did I as I read the book). In a health club where people are stashing a big ol bottle of fancy shampoo in their gym bags on their way out, it turns out merely uncapping the bottles, is one heck of a deterrent.

May writes that when groups tackle this problem, he sees all seven of the categories of thinking mistakes he lays out in the book. To summarize them as a holistic piece of advice for how to think smarter: Be more deliberate. Ask many questions before deciding on an answer. Do not accept a sloppy solution because it is easy. Do not talk yourself out of great ideas. Do not reject solutions because someone else came up with them.

All of this sounds rightly agreeable when laid out in those terms. No one thinks of themselves as a sloppy thinker, but then, such is the tautology; a careful thinker would already know the pitfalls in their own process. Even then, history is littered with terrible ideas that lasted for very long periods of time. As Carl Sagan wrote of the ancient Greek astronomer Ptolemy inCosmos,his Earth-centered universe held sway for 1,500 years, a reminder that intellectual capacity is no guarantee against being dead wrong.

The more you force yourself to think slowly, the more likely your brain becomes to engage that gear.

Its freeing to realize youre probably, profoundly, deeply wrong about something you believe very much. Freeing, because it gives you permission to think intently on what exactly that might be. Were all victims of our hard-wiring, you see, and May revels in citing studies in neuroscience and behavioral psychology that point to our flaws, as well as our ability to overcome them.

The brain is passive hardware, absorbing experience, and the mind is active software, directing our attention, May writes. But not just any softwareits intelligent software, capable of rewiring the hardware. I could not have said that with confidence a few decades ago, but modern science is a wonderful thing.

This is, in a nutshell, the value of bothering to bother. The more you force yourself to think slowly, the more likely your brain becomes to engage that gear.



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