The one question that will make you a better problem solver

Until 1970, suitcases were missing an ancient invention: wheels. People had to physically lug their monstrous luggages from car to terminal to airplane to destination. Wheels were ubiquitous on other objects, but no one thought to attach them to suitcases until Bernard Sadow came along. Inspired by the sight of a worker using a wheeled skid to roll a heavy machine, he decided to do the same for luggages. And the wheeled luggage was born.

What’s striking about this story isn’t Sadow’s eureka moment. It’s the fact that it took decades for someone to think of something as simple as putting wheels on suitcases. The explanation partially lies in what the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky call the availability bias. From a human perspective, not all facts are equal. We tend to incessantly focus on what’s in front of us and neglect other facts that may be hidden in a blind spot. We fail to ask: “What’s missing?”

For example, the number of people who purchase earthquake insurance skyrockets right after a major earthquake. Affected by the availability bias, people overestimate the probability of an earthquake and rush off to buy insurance to cover potential losses. As Kahneman puts it, “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.”

This tendency in part results from our genetic programming. We’re wired to respond to the obvious signs: The rattling in the dark, the smell of gas, the sight of smoke, the screeching of tires. Our pupils dilate, our heart starts pumping faster, and adrenaline is released. These essential survival mechanisms prevented us from being lunch for a saber-toothed tiger, but they also supersede other operations and cause us to miss crucial pieces of data.

Contrary to popular wisdom, what you don’t know can hurt you. In focusing on the facts in front of us, we don’t focus enough–or at all–on the missing facts. As the focal facts scream their 100-decibel sirens for attention, we neglect to ask, “What am I not seeing? What fact should be present, but is not?”

Sherlock Holmes knew the importance of asking these questions. In the mystery story Silver Blaze, Holmes reveals a theft to be an inside job by focusing on what’s missing.

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the nighttime.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

The dog guarding the property did nothing, so Holmes concluded that the thief couldn’t have been the stranger that the police rushed to lock up.

Our undue focus on the obvious facts also distorts our perceptions. If you’ve paid any attention to the news in the past few years, you might conclude that we’re living in a particularly violent period in history. Yet the psychologist Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature shows that rates of violence have steadily declined across the globe. In the United States, violent crime has fallen by more than half since the 1960s. Although Europe experienced a series of major terrorist attacks in the past few years, it experienced its worst years of terrorism in modern history from 1972 until 1992. We may, in fact, be living in the most peaceful moment in our species’ existence–even if it doesn’t feel like it.

What explains the disparity between our perceptions and reality? Pinker argues that our sense of prevailing violence rates is skewed by the undue attention we give to easily accessible information: “[The news] is always about events that happened and not about things that didn’t happen. So when there’s a police officer that has not been shot up or city that has not had a violent demonstration, they don’t make the news.”

The subprime mortgage crisis, the financial implosions of major companies, Britain’s exit from the European Union, and even the sinking of the Titanic all resulted because someone failed to raise their hand and ask, “Are we missing something?”

The pundits all missed something when they called Donald Trump unelectable. They focused on what was present and immediately available: a populist candidate who made inflammatory remarks designed to generate outrage. Distracted by his petulant tweeting, they missed the fact that his popularity failed to waver even after 16 Republican candidates went after him with everything they had. They neglected the suffering of the middle class, the lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton, and the low turnout rates for Democratic voters.

Our inability to see what’s missing also causes problems on a more human scale. When someone is late to a meeting, or a car cuts us off in traffic, we assume malice because all we can visibly observe is a tardy colleague or a careless driver. But we may lack access to critical pieces of data. Perhaps the guy who cut us off is rushing to a hospital. That gal who’s driving a gas-guzzling SUV? Maybe they had a terrible accident in the past, so they bought the sturdiest car on the market.

The next time you’re tempted to jump to conclusions, do what you do every time you drive. Don’t simply rely on the visible hazards from the rearview and sideview mirrors. Make a deliberate effort to turn your head and check your blind spot for missing facts.

You’ll be surprised to find what’s lurking there.

Before you go…

If you liked this article, you’d love the Weekly Contrarian — a newsletter that challenges conventional wisdom, celebrates unpopular opinions, and changes the way we look at the world. Subscribe and get the free Contrarian Handbook: 8 Principles for Innovating your Thinking.

Ozan Varol is a rocket scientist turned author and law professor. He has been featured on BBC, TIME, CNN, Washington Post, Slate, and Foreign Policy. He writes about contrarian thinking at http://ozanvarol.com.


Originally published at ozanvarol.com on September 27, 2017.


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