About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Tuesday, September 06, 2005
How not to be creative
One such behavior, according to Legrenzi, is the tendency to focus too much: this consists in a linear approach to solving a problem, as in the following example. Suppose the question is whether to engage in action A or not (shall we go to see that movie?). A focused approach will start by gathering information on A (but not on some suitable alternatives, B or C, which immediately narrows our range of options). Only if A becomes obviously unsatisfactory we switch our attention to the alternatives. This is similar, in science, to consider only one hypothesis at a time, rather than a series of alternative ones; the same goes for, say, police investigation when one focuses on one suspect, despite little initial evidence suggesting the closing of other venues of investigation at an early stage.
A second a-creative behavior, according to Legrenzi, is the tendency to get stuck on a particular answer to the problem at hand, which he terms "fixation." There is plenty of experimental evidence concerning this pattern of behavior. For example, consider the sequence of numbers 2-4-6 and suggest a rule by which the fourth number in the sequence can be obtained, trying to guess which specific rule the investigator had in mind. (Pause here if you wish to think about it) Most people, if they discard the obvious solution (even numbers increasing by 2 -- which most subjects rightly consider too easy to be the answer), get stuck into wanting to identify a precise rule the investigator might have had in mind, while in fact the target rule is "any sequence of increasing digits." The answer simply sounds too fuzzy to be true, but it is in fact perfectly compatible with the initial sequence (I venture to suggest that part of the reason for this failure is that the initial sequence appears to be tidy, with regularly increasing, all even, numbers. But of course, it is a small sample, and it shouldn't be considered a perfect representation of the underlying rule).
Interestingly, when experimental subjects are faced with the 2-4-6 problem and are given the opportunity to try out different rules they tend to do exactly the wrong thing from the point of view of scientific methodology: they attempt to prove a particular hypothesis they elaborated, rather than trying to disprove it. The few individuals who do the latter instead reach the right answer much faster. This is reminescent of philosopher Karl Popper's idea of "falsificationism" as opposed to confirmationism in science (I do have reservations about Popper, but the point is interesting nonetheless).
So, if you want to be creative, try to "de-focalize" (relax, consider several alternative routes simultaneously) and to falsify your preferred solutions, rather than butress them at all costs. As Q told Captain Picard in the last episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation, "Must you be so linear, Jean-Luc?"