Flickr/Creative Commons
Source: Flickr/Creative Commons

My last essay, Missing Pieces, discussed the importance of noticing what didn’t happen — events that were expected but failed to occur. These are much harder to detect than events that did happen. And they can be very significant.

Why are some people better at noticing the absence of events than others? What does it take to spot the omissions?

Perhaps the most important quality is having an active, curious mindset. This type of mindset is central for gaining insights and I think it is also central for spotting gaps. A passive mindset merely records what’s in front of us. In contrast, an active curious mindset goes behind what we can see and hear, and starts puzzling when an expected event fails to materialize.  All the examples in my previous essay depended on an active, curious mindset: the child protective services caseworker who became uneasy when the mother of a two-month-old with a concussion failed to show any remorse. The navy patrol boat commander who got nervous when he wasn’t hearing reports from the lookout on the port side.

Sometimes, we aren’t fully conscious of the gaps we’ve spotted — we just know something is wrong. One of my first interviews with firefighters, described in my book Sources of Power, covered an incident in which a young lieutenant was called out on a simple house fire.  At least it seemed simple. The flames were coming from the rear of the single family, one-story home. Almost certainly the kitchen. Kitchen fires are pretty common, and there is a straightforward script for handling them: send the hose crew into the house and attack the fire from the inside. That’s what the lieutenant did. Then he ordered the water to be turned off, to see the effect. But there was no effect — the fire came roaring back with as much intensity as before. They tried again, with the same result. When they stopped spraying water on what they thought was the seat of the fire, the fire showed no reduction.

This was bizarre. The lieutenant gathered his crew back into the living room to plan his next move. And then he became tremendously uneasy — so uneasy that he ordered his entire crew to vacate the building. Just as they were leaving, the living room floor collapsed. If they had stood there another minute, they would have dropped into the fire below. Unbeknownst to the firefighters, the house had a basement and that’s where the fire was burning, right under the living room.

I had a chance to interview the lieutenant about this incident, and asked him why he gave the order to evacuate. The only reason he could think of was that he had extrasensory perception. He firmly believed he had ESP.

During the interview I asked him what he was aware of. He mentioned that it was very hot in the living room, much hotter than he expected given that he thought the fire was in the kitchen next door. I pressed him further and he recalled that, not only was it hotter than he expected, it was also quieter than he expected. Fires are usually noisy but this fire wasn’t. By the end of the interview he understood why it was so quiet: because the fire was in the basement, and the floor was muffling the sounds.

So a critical cue was what wasn’t happening: The noise he expected was absent. And that, as much as anything else, made him nervous and led him to order the evacuation. As a result of the interview, he could see that it wasn’t ESP that saved him, it was his experience. His experience enabled him to notice a cue — noisiness — that was missing.

We would certainly conclude that the lieutenant had an active mindset. He was furiously trying to sort out what he was facing because it certainly wasn’t the simple kitchen fire he expected.

Do we need experience in order to spot gaps? Experience certainly helps us. It provides the expectancies we use to be surprised.

On the other hand, I see many examples of children who notice that something is missing. Young children can be intensely curious, and can be troubled when today’s events don’t follow the pattern they observed yesterday. So perhaps the active curious mindset is central to our ability to notice missing pieces. On top of that mindset, experience allows us to spot more subtle indications, like a mother who doesn’t express guilt over a child’s concussion, or a commander who isn’t hearing reports from a lookout. Or a firefighter who notices that it is unexpectedly quiet. 

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