This oil spill sure is getting depressing. We’ve become extremely talented at hiding away the ill effects of our consumption decisions. We don’t see the inhumane chicken farms behind our chicken McNuggets, or the Chinese factories that produce our shoes, or the offshore oil rigs that extract our oil from the center of the earth. The end result is that, when we’re finally forced to confront the ugliness that makes our civilized life possible, we’re shocked and appalled. My cheap ground beef comes from that feedlot? My gas station depends on that infrastructure?
The danger of this lifestyle is that we become blind to potential problems. Because we don’t think about feedlots, we don’t worry (enough) about antibiotic resistance in cattle. Because those rigs are so far offshore – outta sight outta mind – we haven’t prepared for the possibility of this epic disaster. As a result, the unlikely event becomes inconceivable – this is the availability heuristic at work – and the inherent riskiness of a situation is underestimated.
And so we end up here, with an ecological catastrophe for which we are woefully unprepared. After ignoring the possibility of this event for decades, we’re now obsessed with the disaster, and have dedicated an army of engineers (and at least $1 billion) to stopping the leak. But nothing seems to work: at the moment, the BP team is back to square one, trying to fit a containment dome over the pipe. Nobody seems very optimistic, probably because every optimistic assessment so far has proven to be wrong.
I imagine the poor engineers trying to fix this catastrophe back at HQ are working around the clock, swilling coffee by the gallon and trying to stay focused amid all the pressure. Their bosses are probably driving them crazy, demanding instant solutions to a seemingly impossible puzzle. And so the engineers drink more coffee. They pull yet another all-nighter. After all, a problem this difficult requires every ounce of their conscious attention.
This post is about why those poor BP engineers should take a break. They should step away from the dry-erase board and go for a walk. They should take a long shower. They should think about anything but the thousands of barrels of toxic black sludge oozing from the pipe.
The reason for this counterintuitive advice is that there appears to be a tradeoff between certain kinds of creativity and the frantic sort of focus that comes when people are put in high stakes situations. Dan Pink, for instance, describes the fascinating work of the psychologist Sam Glucksberg in Drive. In the early 1960s, Glucksberg gave subjects a standard test of creativity known as the Duncker candle problem. The problem has a simple premise: a subject is given a cardboard box containing a few thumbtacks, a book of matches, and a waxy candle. They are told to determine how to attach the candle to piece of corkboard so that it can burn properly and no wax drips onto the floor. Nearly 90 percent of people pursue the same two strategies, even though neither strategy can succeed. They begin by tacking the candle directly to the board, which causes the candle wax to shatter. Then, they attempt to melt the candle with the matches so that it sticks to the board. But the wax doesn’t hold; the candle falls to the floor. At this point, most people surrender. They assume that the puzzle is impossible, that it’s a stupid experiment and a waste of time. In fact, only a slim minority of subjects – often less than 25 percent – manage to come up with the solution, which involves attaching the candle to the cardboard box with wax and then tacking the cardboard box to the corkboard. Unless people have an insight about the box – that it can do more than hold thumbtacks – they’ll waste candle after candle. They’ll repeat their failures while they’re waiting for a breakthrough. This is known as the bias of “functional fixedness,” since we’re typically terrible at coming up with new functions for old things.
Now here is where Glucksberg’s study gets interesting. Some subjects were randomly assigned to a “high drive” group, which was told that those who solved the task in the shortest amount of time would receive $20. The “low drive” group, in contrast, was reassured that their speed didn’t matter. Surprisingly, the subjects with an incentive to think quickly took, on average, more than three minutes longer to find the answer. The incentive backfired.
To understand these weird results, it helps to understand how powerful incentives (like $20, or an angry President) change the way we think. The first thing that happens is we become motivated to devote more attention to the problem. It’s now worth the expense of conscious analysis, a mental process that relies, in large part, on a brain area called the prefrontal cortex. While such focus is often essential – it helps us grind through difficult tasks – it turns out that our attention can also inhibit our ability to think outside the box. Unfortunately, such divergent thinking is precisely what we need when solving the candle problem or, perhaps, when trying to fix a broken underwater drilling rig.
Consider an experiment which investigated the problem-solving abilities of patients with severe damage to their prefrontal cortex. These patients all had severe attentional shortcomings. Here’s a sample problem:
IV = III + III
The task is to move a single stick so that the false arithmetic statement becomes true. (The answer is to move the first “I” to the right side of the “V,” so that it now reads: VI = III +III.) Not surprisingly, nearly 90 percent of prefrontal patients and control subjects were able to correctly solve the puzzle. But here’s a much more challenging problem, which requires a creative “restructuring”:
III = III + III
Only 43 percent of the control subjects were able to solve this problem. Most stared at the roman numerals for a few minutes and then surrendered. The patients with the prefrontal damage, however, were much more successful, with an 82 percent success rate. This incongruous result – a brain lesion leads to dramatically improved performance – has to do with the unexpected nature of the solution, which requires an ability to embrace alternative and unconventional approaches. The answer to this problem involves moving the vertical matchstick in the plus sign so that it becomes an equal sign, and the equation is transformed into a tautology: III = III = III. The reason this puzzle is so difficult, at least for people without brain damage, has to do with the conventions of math problems. We’re used to changing the answer, not the operator. As a result, our prefrontal cortex fixes our attention on an extremely narrow range of possibilities. Once we exhaust those possibilities, we assume the problem is impossible. In contrast, those patients with prefrontal damage were unable to focus, which allowed them to cast a much wider cognitive net. They didn’t just contemplate the obvious and the expected: they contemplated everything.
Does the BP disaster requires a creative restructuring? We’ve tried the obvious approaches and they’ve all failed, which is why BP is now repeating their failures. (In other words, we’re like a person stubbornly trying to tack the candle to the wall.) My advice to those engineers would be to give their prefrontal cortex a brief vacation. Because it’s when they stop thinking about the problem, and stop getting so stressed about the tick-tock of the clock, that the unexpected answer is mostly likely to arrive.
PS. In the meantime, I’m glad the EPA is holding brainstorming sessions like this.