Why Didn’t I Think of That Before?
Ever suddenly discovered a really simple answer to something complex and asked yourself ‘Why didn’t I think of that before?’
Yesterday I was fitting out a small box room for my son’s use. Now this room had previously had in it a ‘shorty’ bed, that is a children’s bed, and actually the width of the room wouldn’t admit a bed any bigger. My son had set his heart on an office bed, you know, one of those bunk beds with an office underneath but of course as I discovered they don’t make office beds in a shorty size. So I used my brain and came up with an elaborate solution involving a bookcase and cupboard of similar height, several boards, a mattress and a stepladder – genius if I say so myself! It was only yesterday in constructing the first set of shelves that I realised what a simple error I’d made. I started to lay out the pieces of the shelf so I could put it together and of course the room was too small for me to lay them out width-wise, so I tried laying them out in a diagonal fashion. That didn’t seem to work either so I said to myself “Why don’t I try laying them out in the length of the room?” I tried it, and they fit … as would an adult size bed! What a first class idiot I felt! Seeing the bed that was already there I had not thought to question that you might put a bed along the other wall in that room. That wall was about 20cm longer. I could have bought him a regular office bed, and I would have got something perfect at a great price in the recent Argos sale!!! It’s rare to never that I stew in regret, but I did spend a few minutes kicking myself, before I started to see the advantages of what I’d done.
I had been the victim of what cognitive science describes as ‘functional fixedness’ – because of my previous experience with a particular object (the bed that was previously there) I had been unable to see a different way of using the object (putting the bed along the other wall). The opposite of this is ‘cognitive flexibility’ being able to transfer knowledge to novel situations. The classic experiment that displays these human tendencies of ours is Maier’s Two String Problem (1931). The subject is brought into a room in which two strings are hanging from the ceiling, given a chair and a number of objects including a pair of pliers and asked to join the two pieces of string. The strings are of such a length and such a distance apart that when you are holding one you are too far away to reach the other. Your task is to join the strings. The solution? You need to use the pliers in a novel way, as a weight, rather than as they were designed to be used, tie them to the end of one of the strings and set it swinging and then go grab the other string and wait for the first one to swing towards you, so that you can grab that one too! Most subjects in the experiment do not at first discover the pliers solution, although Maier found that if he walked across the room and ‘accidentally’ brushed against one of the strings, setting it swinging, then the subject often suddenly made the cognitive leap and worked out the solution. I too had accidentally discovered that a full size bed would have fit in the other direction, through trying to solve a different problem – that of how to construct the shelves in such a small room. Unaware of this experiment at the time, I redeemed myself in terms of cognitive flexibility later – by using an old pair of earphones as a string and a pair of pliers as a weight to give myself a line along which to nail the backboard to the shelf underneath that I couldn’t see … so I don’t have to feel too cognitively sorry for myself!!
How do you avoid ‘functional fixedness’ and embrace ‘cognitive flexibility’? In other words how do you become the kind of person that can come up with novel solutions to a problem? Well seeing as we tend to choose solutions based on our previous experience, I say ‘Get as Much Experience as Possible!’ Grab life by the horns, and learn everything you can – then you will have a great variety of previous experiences to choose from when finding a novel solution. I also recommend brainstorming and experimenting. When faced with an ‘unsolvable’ problem I like to use the ‘no holds barred’ approach, and list as many answers to the problem as I can, one after another, without filtering them for common sense or practicality. Sooner or later you then ‘accidentally’ discover a new approach that linear thinking would never have found for you. And if all else fails, sleep on it. How many times have you gone to bed with a question on your mind and woken up in an ‘Aha!’ moment, sometimes in the middle of the night, with the perfect key to your conundrum? By doing this you give your powerful and intuitive unconscious mind a chance to have a crack at it, and the solutions you discover are often so neat and simple that you can’t help asking yourself “Why didn’t I think of that before?!”
Have a week of novel approaches 🙂