Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Random thoughts on how people think

One of the sub-blogs at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen has a weekly "Monday Trivia" post.  Each day the question goes unanswered, the poser gives a hint, getting more specific as the week goes by.  I was the first to get the answer to this week's question/problem right, largely because the Tuesday-morning hint indirectly gave a lot of information.  If you're too lazy to go look, the question was basically "I'm thinking of three major league baseball teams linked together by a pattern in their geographical history.  What are the teams and what's the pattern?"

Patterns are something I've always been pretty good at, as have many of the people that I've worked with.  Other people don't seem to see patterns so easily.  Many years ago, I read a piece by a couple of psychologists that divided the population into two categories: people who see patterns, and people who don't.  They used this as a basis for explaining some of the problems that arose in management of technical people.  If a worker and her boss both fall into the same category, things work out pretty well; they're comfortable with each other.  If the worker and boss are of different types, though, you have one of two different problems.

In their argument, the psychologists said that technical people who don't see patterns learn to solve problems using cookbook-like procedures: try this, then try that, then try the other thing.  Given a good cookbook, many problems are tractable to such an approach.  Some problems aren't, though.  Pattern-seeing people, the psychologists went on, tend to make intuitive leaps to solutions that can't be found by using the cookbook; or at the least, finding the solution using the cookbook is time-consuming.

If the boss is a pattern-seer and the worker is not, both get frustrated.  The boss agonizes over the slowness of the worker, and the worker feels like the boss is pushing them to skip over the "standard" procedure with which they have always approached problems.  If the worker is a pattern-seer and the boss is not, the situation is somewhat different.  If the boss insists that the worker use the cookbook, the worker is frustrated (and in the psychologists' experience, usually leaves).  If the boss lets the worker use their pattern-seeing talent, the boss is often terrified.  To the boss, it looks like the worker has leaped off the edge of the cliff and, miraculously, landed safely on an answer.

My own views on US energy policy are that it's a problem that requires a pattern-seeing solution; there's not time to go through the cookbook, trying this and that and something else.  It's necessary to see all of the important trends and how they interact.  To recognize that some things are not possible, or at least not possible in the necessary time frames, and not waste time and money on them.  To recognize that some things are only possible in combination.  And most importantly, to recognize that most analysts over-constrain the problem.  We're going to have to answer the questions of what we will give up and what we will keep in reaching a workable high-tech future, because we can't keep it all.

That last paragraph is, of course, a total cop-out.  But it's too large a subject to do in a blog post -- it's a book-sized project.  I'm working on it.

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