We all want our children to be able to think for themselves, right? To evaluate situations in a balanced way, solve problems, interpret and analyse “evidence”, make effective decisions, but also have consideration for other perspectives? We probably also want them to come up with new ideas, be creative?
But how good are we at thinking and problem solving ourselves? You probably *think* you’re quite good at it, perhaps a little room for improvement. Did anyone watch BBC Horizon recently on decision making though?
One of the shocking conclusions was the extent to which we make many of our decisions on biased attitudes, and emotional (irrational) responses. Not me, I hear you say, I’m a very rational person. So how often do you stop and really evaluate a situation, identify all the contributing factors, write down the pros and cons, weight them, and see what the data says? Yes you may do sometimes, but for every decision? And even if you do, how do you know you’re not missing something a bit “left field”?
One example used in the programme was a question aobut whether a meek and mild man chosen at random from US census data was more likely to be a librarian or a farmer? Responses from the public overwhelmingly chose the librarian, based on a stereotype of the type of person a librarian is perceived to be. But statistically, the answer is a farmer, as there are so many more farmers than librarians in the US.
This was one example I used when I ran a seminar for the National Audit Office recently, my theme was: Creative thinking – challenging assumptions in problem solving. We covered quite a lot of ground, from assumptions and biases to template matching in the brain, from logic puzzles to lateral thinking.
Do you know how many decisions you make each day? Thousands (at least!). They range from which sock to put on first or what to have for breakfast, when should I change gear, to where should we go on holiday this year, and should I change my mortgage provider? Of course you don’t have to think about some of these – do you even know which sock you put on first this morning? Either you always do the same one, or you’re not even aware of the choice you made.
So a lot goes on under the surface, behavioural patterns that have become automated, situations and objects that we recognise as being similar to something we already know how to respond to. We can understand the mental processes in a number of ways, including exploring what is in our conscious awareness, what has become in our subconscious mind of knowledge we can access if we focus our attention on it, and what is in the unconscious forces that drive our behaviors such as beliefs and attitudes developed through our lifetime.
By focusing our attention on how we approach problems and the types of cognitive bias or emotional responses we may be subject to, we can start to recognise where and when our decision making is less effective than it might be. This then allows us to experiment with new approaches, or be more open to the suggestions and ideas from others.