Seeing What Others Don't

The remarkable ways we gain insights

Different Paths, Different Pitfalls

Each of the Three Paths to Insight Runs into its Own Barriers.

My research has uncovered three different pathways for gaining insights: making connections (and also seeing coincidences); spotting contradictions; and a creative desperation path in which we break free from flawed assumptions.

Each path has its own set of weaknesses. 

Connection Path. The connection path runs into a problem if we get lazy in our thinking, adopt a passive mindset, and fail to pick up on the implications of new pieces of information. In my book The Power of Intuition, I contrast two nurses in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. A young nurse received a number of warning signs that the premature baby in her care was coming down with sepsis but she was just doing her job and not thinking about implications. In contrast, a more experienced nurse did make the connections between the symptoms and got the baby started on antibiotics, probably saving its life. 

In The Power of Intuition I also describe a young sergeant who was intent on operating his personal digital assistant correctly and getting all his coordinates accurate, leaving him little mental bandwidth to understand the implications of the scene that was playing out in front of him. He was so intent on doing his job correctly and error-free put him in a passive mindset. This happens to us when we think our goal is to avoid mistakes rather than to be more productive. 

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Contradiction Path. The primary thing that blocks the contradiction path is when we become impatient with idle speculation and don’t want to waste energy on “what-ifs.” The obvious answer is staring us in the face and it’s much easier to explain away an anomaly than to imagine what might happen if it was true. Thus, in 2007 most financial analysts assumed Bear Stearns would pull out of its difficulties with sub-prime mortgage investments because the firm had such a long and successful history. But one analyst, Meredith Whitney, deliberately took on a contrarian mindset to see if she could convince herself of the opposite—that Bear Stearns was entering into a crisis that might be unrecoverable. As a result, Whitney detected all the contradictions that convinced her that Bear Stearns was not likely to survive much longer. 

The contradiction path suffers if we give in to management pressures to keep on schedule and reduce uncertainty; insights are unpredictable and add uncertainty. Thus, in the NASA Challenger tragedy the engineers and analysts were under severe pressure to launch the shuttle despite forecasts for severe cold weather. They had come to view signs of O-ring damage as normal (even though they were never supposed to happen), rather than engaging in a disruptive exercise of considering what might be causing the damage.

The contradiction path to gaining insights also will run into trouble if we become fixated on flawed beliefs. A tragic example prior to World War II is Neville Chamberlain’s trust in Adolf Hitler’s promises. Hitler marched into the Rhineland, which was supposed to be demilitarized according to the Treaty of Versailles, but convinced Chamberlain that this was merely to correct a wrong, and would not lead to any further actions. Chamberlain believed him. Then Hitler arranged for Nazi-induced unrest in Austria and took over Austria as well. Merely to keep the peace there, he reassured Chamberlain, "This is the last action I will take." Chamberlain accepted Hitler’s word. Then Hitler took up the cause of the German minority in the Sudetenland, part of Czechoslovakia, and Chamberlain helped orchestrate the Munich Agreement to give Hitler that territory as well; Hitler soon used it as a springboard to occupy all of Czechoslovakia, in violation of his promises in the Munich Agreement. Chamberlain once again accepted Hitler’s word. Each time, Chamberlain dismissed the contradiction between Hitler’s current actions and his previous promises because Chamberlain held on to a belief that Hitler was rational, wanted to avoid war, and was merely attempting to right previous wrongs inflicted on Germany after World War I. Chamberlain held tight even though members of his party, especially Winston Churchill, were begging him to rethink the policy of appeasement that seemed to embolden rather than satisfy Hitler.

Creative Desperation Path. The creative desperation path fails most often because of flawed beliefs. Typically, we will hold on to hidden assumptions and never be aware of them, or how they are keeping us from our goal. In 1949 a forest fire at Mann Gulch, Montana got out of control and came roaring up the valley, threatening to kill the 14 smokejumpers who were in its path. There didn’t seem to be any way to escape – the valley was too steep and the fire was moving too quickly. Then the leader, Wagner Dodge, had an insight. He set an escape fire to burn out the tall grass in front of him, leaving a safe patch devoid of fuel. He shouted for his men to follow him into the ashes, but none did. They were gripped by the belief that fire was their enemy and they couldn’t appreciate how fire could become their friend. As a result, twelve of them died.

Because each insight path is affected by different barriers, we shouldn’t expect any universal remedy to free us from the mental and emotional shackles that stifle insights. In my next post I’ll describe some strategies that work for each of the individual insight pathways.

Gary Klein is Senior Scientist at MacroCognition LLC; his most recent book is Seeing What Others Don't: The remarkable ways we gain insights.

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