Getting to new insights

If it weren't for laboratory rats and college freshmen, experimental psychology would cease to exist. They are the field's two staples when it comes to laboratory research. The rats are far more adept at learning to run mazes (true fact!), but there are still times when freshmen can be handy.

Management Speak: I’d like your opinion.

Translation: We’ve made a decision and want to feel good about it.

— An anonymous IS Survivalist feels pretty darn good about sharing his translation of this bit of management misdirection.

If it weren’t for laboratory rats and college freshmen, experimental psychology would cease to exist. They are the field’s two staples when it comes to laboratory research. The rats are far more adept at learning to run mazes (true fact!), but there are still times when freshmen can be handy.

When I was a freshman, I participated in a bit of research that probed human ability to recognise patterns. It was a game: isolated, I was to anticipate the next move of an unseen opponent. The other players and I all looked for and found patterns in our opponents’ play to help us win — proof of our naïveté, given that our common opponent was a random number generator.

This is just one reason I don’t consider gut feelings to be a reliable source of information.

Quite a few readers expressed concern over my recent column that advised using your brain instead of your gut to make decisions. Most of the disagreement resulted from a misunderstanding. My correspondents thought I’d said the right brain’s nonlinear, nonverbal processes have no place in an intelligent person’s cognition.

If that had been my advice, it would have been extraordinarily bad advice. Analytical thinking — the linear processing of facts with logic — will never get you to new insights. That takes creative flashes of inspiration, like Archimedes’ “eureka!” experience, that comes seemingly from nowhere, presenting a novel, exciting, unexpected solution to a previously intractable problem.

Archimedes didn’t, however, run naked from his bath through the streets of Athens to a podium from which to teach his insight. He ran to his laboratory to test and validate his discovery. Nonverbal mental processes may present you with the perfect solution to your problem, but along the way they’ll also deliver any number of bad ideas.

Other readers didn’t misunderstand. They’re of the opinion that the right brain is something of a parallel processor, integrating information far faster but just as reliably as the left brain’s linear approach to thinking.

‘Tain’t so. Want proof (or at least strong evidence)? Here’s a quick experiment: consider a chess game between equally matched opponents. Give one player five seconds to make each move — plenty of time to use his or her judgment, but not much time for logical analysis. Give the other player five minutes per move, so that he or she has time to think. Assuming the players are evenly matched, is there any doubt who will win?

Lewis is president of IT Catalysts, an independent consultancy specialising in IT effectiveness and strategic alignment. Send email to RDLewis@ISSurvivor.com.

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