Mind the Gap

You experience the gap numerous times each day. Everyone does. The gap, in this case, is the discrepancy between what you expect will happen and what actually happens. Because your brain finds this gap to be very unsettling, it responds by rushing to close it (i.e., explain it) as quickly as possible. Ostensibly, the purpose of an explanation is to help you understand what’s happening—or give you the sense that you understand—so you can determine a course of action to take.

This is an automatic process that works reasonably well in a variety of situations, especially if they’re straightforward and/or familiar. Coming up with explanations is so automatic and so fast that you probably don’t stop very often to question the validity or accuracy of the expectations that gave rise to the gap that needs explaining.

But if your expectations are based on unfounded assumptions or an incorrect analysis of the situation—or if they are missing critical information—then your explanation is bound to be flawed. And it turns out that most such explanations are flawed.

In truth, when we set out to explain our actions, they are all post hoc explanations using post hoc observations with no access to unconscious processing. Not only that, our left brain fudges things a bit to fit into a makes-sense story. Explanations are all based on what makes it into our consciousness, but actions and the feelings happen before we are consciously aware of them—and most of them are the results of nonconscious processes, which will never make it into the explanations. The reality is that listening to people’s explanations of their actions is interesting—and in the case of politicians, entertaining—but often a waste of time. —Michael Gazzaniga, Professor of Psychology, UC Santa Barbara

You can’t avoid having expectations. If your brain wasn’t predictive, you wouldn’t be able to function in the world you find yourself in. But those predictions are based, to a great extent, on the mental model the unconscious part of your brain maintains of what’s normal for you. Naturally, you feel pretty confident about them. But the degree of confidence you have in your explanations is not a reliable guide to their validity or accuracy.

When the gap is generated by a flawed explanation based on unfounded expectations, the action you take to correct or respond to it won’t get you the result you want. Instead you will be faced with yet another gap to explain and contend with. Continuing down this winding road can take you very far afield from your original destination.

As a result, the conscious part of your brain (the part you think of as “I”) may become more and more dissatisfied, frustrated, and even confused. You may give up or at least feel like giving up. The unconscious part of your brain, on the other hand, is likely to be quite satisfied with this state of affairs.

We have a big brain capable of greatness with hardwiring for survival. –David DiSalvo

The unconscious part of your brain is, as Cormac McCarthy put it, “a machine for operating an animal.” This particular machine’s prime directive is survival, and it thinks the best way for you to survive is to maintain your status quo. It has a variety of tricks up its sleeve to deceive you into thinking you’re moving forward when, in fact, you’re expending a lot of mental energy running in place on the hamster wheel.

The Myth of Self-Sabotage

Self-sabotage is a great example of an explanation created to account for the gap between the expectation that our behavior ought to be based on our conscious intentions and the experience of doing something other than what we consciously intend to do. If you accept the self-sabotage explanation, the logical action to take is to try to determine how and why you’re sabotaging yourself. This is a diversionary expedition that leads to a dead end. It contributes nothing in the way of helping you change your behavior.

The expectation that our behavior ought to be based on our conscious intentions is based on several unwarranted assumptions. The reality is that since we operate on autopilot most of the time, most of our behavior is generated by unconscious impulses, not by conscious intentions. And the unconscious part of our brain wants to maintain the status quo. You’re far more likely to keep doing what you’ve been doing than you are to do something different.

You may not like it, but the fact that you don’t always do what you consciously intend to do should not surprise or confound you. The logical action to take (instead of trying to figure out how and why you’re sabotaging yourself) is to retrain your brain to make the desirable behavior part of the status quo.

When you follow the path of least resistance by unquestioningly going along with your brain’s interpretation of events and behaviors, you end up digging yourself deeper into your rut. If you want to expand your mental model, change your direction, and give yourself more opportunities to succeed, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to develop the habit of questioning your expectations.

Elementary, My Dear Watson*

When you’re trying to solve a complex problem, determine a course of action, or evaluate others’ conclusions, you’ll need to engage logical System 2 reasoning, which is the opposite of System 1’s quick assessments.

I never guess. It is a shocking habit—destructive to the logical faculty. —Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of Four

It can be helpful to understand different types of reasoning, be able to identify the type—or types—of reasoning that are being applied in a given situation, and know how accurate each type is likely to be.

But recognizing and/or applying a reasoning process to your problem or evaluation process isn’t enough to guarantee that the outcome of that reasoning process will be sound or accurate. Skillful reasoning doesn’t compensate for faulty premises or missing or biased information.

The following descriptions (but not the examples) of deductive, inductive, and abductive reasoning were provided by Alina Bradford, writing in Live Science (livescience.com).

Deductive reasoning: conclusion guaranteed

Deductive reasoning is a basic form of valid reasoning. Deductive reasoning, or deduction, starts out with a general statement, or hypothesis, and examines the possibilities  to reach a specific, logical conclusion, according to the University of California. The scientific method uses deduction to test hypotheses and theories. “In deductive inference, we hold a theory and based on it we make a prediction of its consequences. That is, we predict what the observations should be if the theory were correct.  We go from the general—the theory—to the specific—the observations,” said Dr. Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller, a researcher and professor emerita at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

In deductive reasoning, if something is true of a class of things in general, it is also true for all members of that class. For example, “All men are mortal. Harold is a man. Therefore, Harold is mortal.” For deductive reasoning to be sound, the hypothesis must be correct. It is assumed that the premises, “All men are mortal” and “Harold is a man” are true. Therefore, the conclusion is logical and true.

Examples:

  • It is dangerous to drive on icy streets. The streets are icy now so it is dangerous to drive now.
  • All birds have feathers and robins are birds, so robins have feathers.
  • Elephants have cells in their bodies and all cells have DNA, so elephants have DNA.

[Caveat: Deductive inference conclusions are certain provided the premises are true. It’s possible to come to a logical conclusion even if the generalization is not true. If the generalization is wrong, the conclusion may be logical, but it may also be untrue. For example, the argument, “All bald men are grandfathers. Harold is bald. Therefore, Harold is a grandfather,” is valid logically but it is untrue because the original statement is false.]

Inductive reasoning: conclusion merely likely

Inductive reasoning is the opposite of deductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning makes broad generalizations from specific observations. “In inductive inference, we go from the specific to the general. We make many observations, discern a pattern, make a generalization, and infer an explanation or a theory,” Wassertheil-Smoller told Live Science. “In science there is a constant interplay between inductive inference (based on observations) and deductive inference (based on theory), until we get closer and closer to the ‘truth,’ which we can only approach but not ascertain with complete certainty.”

Even if all of the premises are true in a statement, inductive reasoning allows for the conclusion to be false. Here’s an example: “Harold is a grandfather. Harold is bald. Therefore, all grandfathers are bald.” The conclusion does not follow logically from the statements.

Examples:

  • John is a financial analyst. Individuals with professions in finance are very serious people. John is a very serious person.
  • Jennifer leaves for school at 7:00 a.m. and is on time. Jennifer assumes, then, that she will always be on time if she leaves at 7:00 a.m.
  • The water at the beach has always been about 75 degrees in July. It is July. The water will be about 75 degrees.
Abductive reasoning: taking your best shot

Another form of scientific reasoning that doesn’t fit in with inductive or deductive reasoning is abductive. Abductive reasoning usually starts with an incomplete set of observations and proceeds to the likeliest possible explanation for the group of observations (Critical Thinking Skills, Butte College). It is based on making and testing hypotheses using the best information available. It often entails making an educated guess after observing a phenomenon for which there is no clear explanation.

Abductive reasoning is useful for forming hypotheses to be tested. Abductive reasoning is often used by doctors who make a diagnosis based on test results and by jurors who make decisions based on the evidence presented to them.

Examples:

  • Given a particular set of symptoms, a medical doctor needs to determine the diagnosis that would best explain most of them.
  • Jurors have to decide whether the prosecution or the defense has the best explanation to cover all the points of evidence although additional evidence may exist that was not admitted in the case.

While using one of these three types of reasoning is a function of System 2 (conscious) cognition, evaluating them—and their results—is an example of metacognition, which is a higher order of System 2 cognition. Metacognition is a skill you can develop to help you think smarter and improve outcomes in all areas of your life.

I cannot live without brain-work. What else is there to live for? —Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of Four


*This quintessential Sherlock Holmes quote was never actually uttered in any of Conan Doyle’s stories about him.

Bats, Balls, and Biases

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly, rationally, and objectively and to understand the logical connection between ideas. It’s an active rather than a passive process. Because it requires System 2 (conscious) attention, it doesn’t come naturally to us and it isn’t easy.

In some instances, we equate difficult with boring. In fact, after reading the short paragraph above, you may already be bored. Critical thinking? Who cares and why bother?

Well, for one thing, it’s possible that improving your critical thinking skills might help you become a better person. But more importantly, it might help you get more of what you want and less of what you don’t want. That’s because good critical thinking skills are essential if you want to master the art and science of change. And unless you master the art and science of change, you’ll continue to be stuck with whatever the status quo happens to be—or to become.

On the BIAS

We all view what happens in the world and what happens to us through our own individual perspectives (our mental models). That means we are all biased.

Here’s an easy way to remember bias:

Beliefs and Values
Interpretations
Assumptions
Stereotypes

Beliefs are ideas or principles we have come to accept as true.
Values are our personal principles or standards.
Interpretations are explanations or understanding.
Assumptions are suppositions: what we take for granted or assume.
Stereotypes are generalizations and oversimplifications.

All of these elements operate in the background (System 1) so we aren’t usually consciously aware of them. Being biased is the normal state of affairs. We don’t have to make an effort to be biased. We have to make an effort to become aware of our biases so we have a fighting chance to act in our own best interest rather than automatically.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the human condition is that we think of the conscious part of the brain (System 2) as “I.” Yet it’s the biased unconscious part of the brain (System 1) that usually runs us. It takes no time or effort to come up with a System 1 reaction or response to a situation, question, or event because System 1 is fast, vast, and always on.

As Daniel Kahneman says in Thinking, Fast and Slow:

Everybody recognizes the difference between thoughts that come to mind automatically and thoughts that you need to produce. That is the distinction.

System 1 has an answer for everything. And its answers are correct often enough to lull us into accepting them unconditionally most of the time. But you’re not going to get change from System 1; you’re going to get same old/same old.

In addition to understanding our own biases, we also need to develop the capacity to know when it’s OK to go along with System 1’s response and when it isn’t. Well-developed critical thinking skills can help us make important decisions and solve significant problems by allowing us to effectively evaluate both the information at hand and the “intuitive” suggestions spontaneously arising from System 1.

Do I need an umbrella?

If you look outside and observe rain falling, you could safely jump to the conclusion that you need to take an umbrella with you when you go outside. You would not increase your chances of making the best decision by checking the weather report on your smartphone (getting more information) or analyzing your interpretation that rain falling means you’re likely to get wet if you go out in it.

How much does the ball cost?

On the other hand, you may not want to count on the first response that comes to mind as an answer to the following question:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10.
The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?

If you jump to the conclusion that the ball costs 10 cents, you would be wrong—no matter how confident you might feel about your conclusion.

That’s because if the bat costs one dollar more than the ball and the ball costs 10 cents, the bat would cost $1.10 for a total of $1.20. So the correct answer is that the ball costs 5 cents and the bat costs $1.05 for a total of $1.10.

Did you do the math, so to speak, or did you jump to the quick—and erroneous—conclusion? If you jumped to the wrong conclusion, how confident did you feel about your answer? And does it make you feel any better to know that between 50% and 80% of college students also come up with the wrong answer.

Demystifying Creativity

demystifying creativityEach day, we create thoughts, ideas, meals, impressions, relationships, goals, deals, situations, and objects of all types, shapes, and sizes. We create sadness, happiness, love, peace, violence, and everything in between. We create order out of chaos and chaos out of order. Our creations run the gamut from tiny to monumental, practical to completely frivolous, transitory to long-lasting, and helpful to harmful. I had fun writing about some of the things I created when I was in elementary school.

To a great extent, we also create ourselves.

Yet, the many myths and mysteries surrounding creativity get in the way of our ability to unleash our full creative potential. So let’s do a little myth-busting and demystifying.

What is creativity?

There are many different definitions of creativity, some of which are quite complex. I think simpler is better. Creativity is the ability to see what already exists in a new light, to think of new ideas, and to make new things.

Is there a difference between actually creating something and just thinking creatively?

Some creativity “experts” make this distinction and suggest that unless the creative form (the new idea or object) is widely accepted (valued) in the field within which it was generated, it isn’t entirely legitimate. But that seems like a very high bar and one most people would fail.

Certainly creative thinking is a prerequisite for being able to create something new. But being a creative thinker has many rewards apart from the products of creativity. For example, compared to a non-creative thinker, a creative thinker is less likely to be bored, is more likely to have greater problem-solving abilities, and is very likely to get more general enjoyment out of life.

Is creativity something you’re born with or can you train yourself to be creative?

Based on their orientation to tradition, authority, and conformity, some personality types may have a greater or lesser tendency to think creatively. But everyone has the ability to be creative, and people who are already creative can become more creative.

Is being creative the same as being artistic?

Absolutely not. This is one of the biggest myths about creativity. Creativity is extremely useful, even necessary, in mathematics, science, computer technology, education, medicine, business, and many other “non-creative” fields. It may be even more important to note that being artistic is not the same as being creative.

Do you have to be “right-brained” in order to be creative?

The myth of people being either “right-brained” or “left-brained” has contributed to the stereotype of the free-spirited creative person who is high on imagination and low on logic and practicality. Although the two sides of the brain do have different functions, they are in constant communication with each other and both are essential to creative thinking.

Are creative people more eccentric than other people (maybe even a bit mad)?

Well, in the case of highly creative people, the answer seems to be…maybe yes; maybe no. For more on the link between creativity and mental illness, you can read this post with links to some of the research. But learning how to think more creatively is unlikely to lead you down the slippery slope to eccentricity or madness if you weren’t already traveling along that path.

Is brainstorming an effective technique for increasing creativity?

Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is yes and no. Beginning with a group brainstorming session is not the best approach to creative problem solving. But research shows that if the members of the group first consider possible solutions on their own before participating with the group, group brainstorming produces more numerous and better quality ideas.

How practical is creativity in the real world?

As counterintuitive as it may sound, creativity may be the best hope we have for solving most, if not all, of the real-world problems that now exist. As Einstein is quoted as having said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Think INside the Box

The concept of thinking outside the box is a metaphor for thinking differently, unconventionally, or from a new perspective. It’s also a cliché about clichéd thinking. You can’t actually think outside the box, anyway, since you are constrained by the mental model your brain constructs and maintains for you. The mental model is the box, and you are always inside it. Contrary to some branches of popular thought, that’s not a bad thing.

Here’s a story that’s meant to illustrate thinking outside the box but that’s actually an excellent example of just the opposite—thinking inside the box.

Island of Safety*

On August 5, 1949, 15 firefighters and their foreman, Wag Dodge, were airlifted to Mann Gulch in Montana to extinguish what they thought would be a relatively small brush fire on one side of the gulch. They parachuted onto the opposite side of the gulch, joined one fire guard, and began descending with the wind at their backs.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, the wind reversed, and the fire jumped over to ignite the grass on their side. As the flames rapidly approached them, the men began to climb the slope to try to outrun the fire, pausing only to drop their heavy equipment.

But Dodge, the foreman, realized the fire was moving too quickly for that to work. He stopped and lit the grass in front of him with a match. The dry grass immediately caught fire and the wind blew the fire up the side of the gulch, away from him. That left a patch of charred ground Dodge crawled onto. When the advancing fire arrived, it flowed around and then away from his island of safety.

The other men misunderstood what he was doing and in spite of his exhortations for them to join him, continued up the slope. Only two, who had found shelter in a narrow crevice, survived.

Notice that it was the foreman who had the idea to fight fire with fire.

As the foreman, Dodge presumably had more experience and knowledge than the men he was supervising. The other firefighters not only didn’t come up with the idea, they also didn’t understand it when he showed it to them. The “box” Dodge was thinking inside was different from the boxes of the other men.

While you can’t escape thinking from inside your own box, you can continually remodel and expand it, thereby increasing your possibilities for original, innovative, and creative thinking.

Here’s another thinking-inside-the-box example.

WALL-E*

Andrew Stanton of Pixar Animation Studios was working on the screenplay for WALL-E, about the last robot left on a hopelessly polluted earth abandoned by humans. He was struggling with the design of WALL-E’s face, which he wanted to be both machinelike and expressive.

At a baseball game one day, he borrowed binoculars from someone sitting next to him. When he mistakenly turned them around so that the lenses were on the wrong side, he realized the binoculars looked like a face. After flexing the inner hinges several times to create different facial expressions, he decided WALL-E would look like a “binocular on a stem.”

Stanton had been writing and directing animated films for 20 years by the time he started working on WALL-E. He had already framed—and attempted to solve—the problem of WALL-E’s appearance before his binocular incident. And just as Wag Dodge did, he had a vast reservoir of experience and knowledge to draw upon.

The contents and the connections inside his box made it possible for him to come up with the solution.

The best things you can do for yourself to live a healthy (on every level) life also happen to be the best things you can do to expand your mental model: learn, move, create, challenge yourself; repeat.


*The two stories were drawn from The Eureka Factor by John Kounios and Mark Beeman.