Posted by: Bill von Achen | February 26, 2010

Too Smart to Solve Problems?

Why is it that really smart people often fail to solve problems?  And what can we learn from them that will help us to better solve the problems that we face?

Writing in the January 2010 issue of Wired Magazine, journalist Jonah Lehrer (author of the 2009 best-seller How We Decide) discusses how our brains are literally wired to discard unexpected information that doesn’t fit neatly with our preconceptions. 

Using examples from the world of science (including research by astronomers in the 1960s that ultimately led to a Nobel Prize), Lehrer argues that, despite our claims of objectivity, we often evaluate data from a biased perspective, ignoring valuable information that doesn’t fit with our preconceived notions. 

The result?  We discard details that might lead to a fresh view of our problems, and insights that can lead to breakthrough thinking. 

Here are Lehrer’s four lessons for overcoming our natural reluctance to look ‘outside the box:’

Check your assumptions:  Ask yourself why your results feel like a failure.  What theory does it contradict.  Maybe the hypothosis failed, not the experiment.

Seek out the ignorant:  Talk to people who are unfamilar with your problem.  Explaining the issue in simple terms may help you to see it in a new light.

Encourage diversity:  If everyone working on a problem speaks the same language, then it’s quite possible that everyone is working from the same set of assumptions about the problem itself.

Beware of ‘failure-blindness:’  It’s normal to filter out information that contradicts our preconceptions.  The only way to avoid that bias is to be aware of it.

You can read Lehrer’s article, “Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up,” at the Wired website,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: