Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Figuring It Out...

What does it mean to "figure something out"?

I used to think, or at least imagine, that "figuring out" was a logical, rational, sequential process - that if you knew the process, you were just a few predictable steps away from knowing the answer. Kind of like an accountant's work: Give me the receipts, give me the expenses, and I'll tell you how much money you made. And for many formulaic, predictably presented problems, that's probably true.

Actually, that's what I feel like I spent most of my formal schooling learning to do - to "figure out" problems that fit, or almost fit, some recognizable pattern. I'm not complaining. For most of the routine or standardized tasks that I have gotten paid for in my life, those patterns and formulas served me pretty well.

But what happens when a problem is presented more amorphously? When the shape, size, type, features, whatever, don't seem to fit a recognizable process?

As a teacher, I probably shied away from the truly incomprehensible. Yes, I've learned to ask a series of open questions and listen, but in the past, it was usually with the idea that I would eventually see a logical pattern. Of course, that pattern doesn't always "emerge."

Lately, though, I have been reading a surprisingly eye-opening little book that might just offer a more powerful description of what "figuring it out" really means. Gerd Gigerenzer, a researcher from the Max Planck Institute, wrote this little book a few years ago: Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious.

Yes, I'm aware that others - notably Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Pink, and even some researchers at my alma mater have been generating some interest around these ideas in the last few years. But I'm intrigued with Gigerenzer's insistent efforts to help me see all of the ways in which human beings demonstrate better judgment and higher levels of success when they make good use of perceptual and semi-logical shortcuts.

These shortcuts all make intuitive sense: rules of thumb, the gaze heuristic, the "less information is more" approach. Gigerenzer weaves a story of research results that at the same time seem totally illogical and intuitively exactly right. I'm wondering how much of what I have taught helped others understand what they could really do; I'm concerned that, instead, I might have emphasized exactly the less powerful ideas, and maybe obscured the more productive approaches.

How do you "figure things out?" How much of our real human capability is scientific logic, and how much is a miraculous set of "shortcut" capabilities learned through observation and experience?

What do you think?

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