The Frontal Cortex

High Stakes Innovation

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Mark Dykeman
    June 1, 2010

    You could also argue that BP shouldn’t be trying to fix this problem all on their own. I really don’t understand the extent to which government agencies are involved in trying to fix this problem, but I don’t get the impression that they are deeply involved in fixing the problem.

    What about other oil companies? Considering the bad press this is generating for the petroleum industry in general, maybe they should pitch in, too.

    And yes, those BP engineers should be taking rest breaks, working in shifts, or something. And getting outside help. The stakes are too high.

  2. #2 eff
    June 2, 2010

    2 more ways to solve the second problem.

  3. #3 Victor Antonio
    June 2, 2010

    Jonah,

    What I enjoyed most about this article was your ability to weave together: BPs’ Oil Mess, Environmental Consciousness, Availability Heuristics, Duncker Candle Problem, PFC Damage and some backhanded sarcasm to drive home your point. Thank you for a great piece!

  4. #4 Gam
    June 2, 2010

    maybe htey should open the brainstorming even wider, open it to the web for input, then filter that group of options.

    as in
    instead of trying to contain the spill with Dr who’s telephone box, what would happen if you try to contain it with the Cirque du soleils tent top, soft pliable and funneling gradually the spewing oil to much higher levels for removal, where the risk of oil solidification from freezing would be much reduced. Change the operator as your examples suggest, “contain” the spill much more gradually like when corralling livestock.

  5. #5 Tom Michael
    June 2, 2010

    I know what you’re talking about Jonah, when people are relaxed they are more creative, and come up with more novel solutions.

    However, I think you stretch your analogies to far. In the drive experiment, there is a novel solution that is not immediately obvious. In the Gulf of Mexico oil leak, there might not be an answer which is not immediately obvious.

    Seeing as how I work with people with frontal lobe and other brain injuries, I’ll make a point of asking them what they think we can do about the oil leak. They might come up with some novel solutions like “we shouldn’t drill for oil in the sea if its dangerous” or “we’ll have to wait until it stops leaking, and then clean it all up.”

    I’m not sure that people with damage to task monitoring and setting, multitasking, metacognition, behavioural self regulation, and initiation will be of much help to the BP engineers though…

  6. #6 Gina Pera
    June 2, 2010

    “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.”

    Excellent point, Jonah, and excellent post. Thank you.

    Gina

  7. #7 Brian Bayer
    June 2, 2010

    This is excellent advice. I troubleshoot IT problems for a living. Often there is a lot of money on the line and consequently a lot of pressure. Almost always I get to a point where I need to take a walk or do something else to take my mind off the problem for a while to find a solution.

    Thanks for the great post!

    “: )

  8. #8 Joey
    June 2, 2010

    I really enjoyed this post.

    I have a slightly off-topic question in response.

    I think its certainly possible that cell phones and/or wireless networks cause brain damage
    (good overview here: http://www.gq.com/cars-gear/gear-and-gadgets/201002/warning-cell-phone-radiation )

    In this instance, it is too easy to imagine that wifi beams warp the mind. It is too easy to believe that our cell phones cause brain cancer.

    How is the science behind this (potential) catastrophe?

  9. #9 Kristin
    June 2, 2010

    I have a great story that exemplifies this approach…

    After I graduated from college, I moved to NYC and with that move came my beloved orange Persian cat named Angus. En route to the city, Angus and I spent a long weekend in upstate NY with my sister on her farm. Angus had always been an indoor cat only so I was more than a little freaked when I noticed the front door to my sister’s house wide open and Angus nowhere to be found. I looked everywhere. I mean EVERYWHERE. The barn, in the rows of the garden, under the house, on the roof….no Angus. I was distraught. I decided to take a nap to try to calm down. I vaguely remember drifting off into a light sleep and then all of a sudden, I bolted upright and ran out in to the yard. Suddenly I knew where to find Angus….I had been looking in all the places that a cat who was used to being outside would be but NOT where an indoor cat used to finding his private space in the back of a tiny closet in a tiny apartment would….I found him, golden eyes blinking back at me in some kind of creature hole near the big tree in the front yard. On my search I passed this little hole a dozen times but never thought he’d be there because I wasn’t thinking about how HE would behave…only about how I would think he’d WANT to behave in the middle of this beautiful outdoor space! Fortunately for me, the outcome of resting my mind produced positive results….I hope the BP engineers take your suggestion to yield a similar “AH-HA” moment.

  10. #10 Wilson
    June 2, 2010

    What I don’t understand is why when BP experienced ice build-up on the first containment vessel did they not bring the containment vessel back to the surface (instead of leaving it on the ocean floor), fabricate and attach something along the line of a radiant heating system (similar to flooring) and try again. Keeping the walls of the containment vessel at +/- 45° would prevent freezing and or ice build-up and facilitate the flow of getting the oil to the tankers on the surface. Will BP retrieve all the debris they’ve littered on the ocean floor or are they going to leave it trashed?

  11. #11 Dave Trowbridge
    June 2, 2010

    Actually, there’s a second solution to the more challenging problem of correcting III = III + III by moving a single stick:

    II ≠ III + III (or many variants of the same)

    The same kind of solution applies to the first problem, for that matter.

  12. #12 curiousgeorgie
    June 2, 2010

    Every time I hear of the candle/corkboard/matchbook problem, I always think of a different solution. I always figured I could melt the bottom of the candle, stick the head of the tack in, wait for it to harden again, and tack it to the board. Then again, I’m sure that participants have tried this and it hasn’t worked.

    But with things like the matchsticks and the candle thing, I think it’s also easier because you have something physical in front of you that you can move around and play with. In the case of the oil spill, even if they’re using computer models, I wonder if it would be helpful to build a real model and literally look at it from all angles. Plus, as you move things around with your hands, anybody watching can see your thoughts and perhaps take a bounce off of your own leaps of intuition.

  13. #13 chris holden
    June 2, 2010

    Hurray for your post on decision making under pressure. The stress of an inconceivably difficult situation and the associated pressure from your superiors, can only help to crush one’s competence and true abilities. As for BP they can take the same advice, and stop pushing the same buttons over and over again, they have put themselves in the same situation! An “all hands on deck” approach, using fresh minds from every corner of the world would bring a multitude of solutions to this unprecedented disaster. Why has BP waited to attack this problem with the totally comprehensive approach it deserves?
    Jonah, can you help us and the world understand that?

  14. #14 ken
    June 2, 2010

    I understand the creative process. It seems like with all the difficulties being so deep underwater they have limits as to what they can try. Sadly, the ultimate solution is in a relief well which is months away. I vote for Kevin Cosner’s Company with its giant oil cleaning contraptions. Build more of them and put them to work. Hire microbiologists like Craig Venter to put together teams of scientists to figure out ways to safely clean up the mess!!!

  15. #15 Ian Kemmish
    June 3, 2010

    “After ignoring the possibility of this event for decades, we’re now obsessed…”

    I’d estimate that the number of people who’ve actually *ignored* possible problems with deep water drilling could comfortably fit in a single meeting room. The rest of us merely delegated.

    There are many reasons to delegate – being busy, having a different area of expertise, a feeling that it was a calculated risk, and so on. But I think that by assuming that everybody in the world delegated for the same casual reasons as himself, the author of this piece does much of the world a disservice.

    As for the engineers – well, I sincerely hope that they are *not* treating this as some kind of IQ test or management training exercise, and not just because the author is so smug. They will have man-decades of collective experience based on a century or so of other people’s experience, which is why they have a fixed menu of procedures, and are working through them to establish which are and are not robust in the hostile environment a mile down, and how to improve the less robust ones.

    Having armchair psychologists and Hollywood movie directors “offering help” is probably the last thing anyone either at BP or in the Gulf needs right now!

  16. #16 Rick Herrick
    June 3, 2010

    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.

    That can be true. The reverse can also be true. I worked for a major bank (that no longer exists on its own, through no fault of mine :) on the consumer Web site. For me, and I know for a few other people that I worked, the time and performance pressures during a deployment actually worked as a stimulant, really motivating us to deal with problems quickly and creatively. I developed heuristic patterns that helped me work through the various layers of the site architecture into the back-end and, much more often than not, come up with solutions to our problems.

    There’s a general point of human endurance: 48 hours without sleep diminishes mental functions. But the idea that the pressure itself is inherently limiting depends, to a large extent, on the particular persons.

    Re Mark Dykeman’s comment:

    What about other oil companies? Considering the bad press this is generating for the petroleum industry in general, maybe they should pitch in, too.

    I’ve read that actually other companies are pitching in, at least with technical and engineering resources. I think they’re well aware of the effect that this is going to have on future drilling and want to make it go away. At the same time, they don’t want to get tarred (no pun intended) with the same brush as BP by having their profiles become too prominently associated with engineering failures.

  17. #17 Ted Braun
    June 3, 2010

    I don’t think that the best answers will come from within the industry. I think it goes back to one of your past articles about anchoring. The engineering, construction, real estate business is very territorial and self protecting. They have isolated themselves from the critiques of those outside and have not been too quick to change their own methodology.

    Documents and testimony suggest that BP’s engineering of its Deepwater Horizon well — the one that has been spilling oil into the Gulf of Mexico for a month now –was faulty from the start. Engineering plans created an unobstructed path for pressurized natural gas to surge to the wellhead if safety systems failed, experts say. This disaster is because of engineering arrogance.

    I think it is time to rethink the whole approach to this industry and its high hidden risks. Unlike the Wall Street crises this one we can see, feel taste and see unfold before our very eyes and it will not allow us to just get back to business as usual.

  18. #18 Karin
    June 3, 2010

    You know who else works under pressure? Doctors. In fact, they have to deal with “stop the bleeding” all the time. I wonder why they weren’t invited to the brainstorming meeting? Part of the problem may be that the “experts” have too much stake in solving the problem in the ways they already know. Imagine if a bunch of “experts” in different fields were sitting around brainstorming (or better: taking a walk in the forest and generating ideas)?

  19. #19 Mike Huang
    June 3, 2010

    This is so true. As a programmer, I’ve found the best way to solve a problem I’m stuck on is to stop thinking about it consciously–I go surf the web, take a walk, or something else. Almost invariably the solution comes after I stop bashing my head against the wall, frantically trying to come up with a solution. I think this is true of a lot of jobs that require problem solving.

  20. #20 Tom Michael
    June 4, 2010

    Hi Jonah,

    I tested your idea that people with PFC damage might come up with some novel solutions to the oil leak problem, by asking brain injured clients I work with for their ideas of how to stop or clean up the leak. These 4 people all have PFC/frontal lobe injuries, although to slightly different PFC areas, and so are cognitively and behaviourally disimilar:

    1) “I’m not bothered about the oil, it doesn’t matter to me.”

    2) “They need to come up with a way to dilute it.”

    3) “I dunno to be honest.”

    4) “Maybe they can mop it up with sponges.”

    Those are reasonably outside the box kinds of thinking. Discounting answers 1 and 3, we are left with:

    -Dilute the oil – which is similar to the chemical dispersants that BP are already using, which are themselves polluting

    -Mop it up with sponges – which sounds a bit ridiculous, as you’d need a hell of a lot of sponges, but this might actually be a good idea to protect some of the inlets to the fragile ecosystem of the wetlands.

    Obviously I’d want to ask more PFC damaged people in order to get a better sample size to see if this was actually a good idea. I was pretty skeptical to be honest, and I still can’t tell if the sponges idea is genius or lunacy.

    Other people I work with have too severe PFC damage to be able to respond, i.e. akinetic mutism.

    Tom

  21. #21 Solution
    June 4, 2010

    111 =/ 111 – 111
    (does not equal)

    Was my solution in a few seconds. Guess I’m brain dead. :-P

  22. #22 Jordan
    June 7, 2010

    Could you not also simply slant the first two sticks in the second problem so that it reads:

    \/| = ||| + |||

  23. #23 sumin
    June 8, 2010

    Planetresource.net has a Eco friendly solution to clean up the tragedy British Petroleum has created, please watch the video animation:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=60bdQQQ3iVw and pass this along to as many people as you know.

    One person can still make a difference in this world, is that simple interactions have a rippling effect. Each time this gets pass along, the hope in cleaning our planet is passed on.

  24. #24 Mekhong Kurt
    June 8, 2010

    Fascinating article, and equally fascinating comments.

    I’ve long been interested in this subject, but from the other angle of the nature of creativity. And I’ve long believed that problem-solving and creativity are closely related.

    For instance, one of the discoverers of the double helix (O forget which) is said to have had a dream about two snakes intertwined, and woke up with his own “Eureka!” moment. Being asleep is about as far away from concentrating on a question or problem as you can get.

    Another example involves an author, an example involving both problem-solving and creativity. He wrote a novel but wasn’t satisfied. Eventually, he decided a minor character simply didn’t belong, so he removed that character and revised as needed. Still didn’t work. Disgustged, he put aside. But a few years later, while he was working on an entirely different work, the idea struck him out of the clear blue of a fully-formed character. Initially, he imagined the character in isolation, but thought about him, and in a few moments came *his* “Eureka!” moment. He dragged out his by-now-almost-forgotten previous manuscript, worked in the new character, and was entirely satisfied (as was the publisher!).

    Thanks for the article, and thanks to the others posting comments.

  25. #25 orion
    June 10, 2010

    IT would be a very good idea for the bp engineers to “go for a walk” to solve this problem, if it weren’t for the “let it happen” aspect of the story that is sure to stymie any sense of purpose

  26. #26 oturma modelleri
    November 10, 2010

    Himm Interesting article and one which should be more widely known about in my view. Your level of detail is good and the clarity of writing is excellent. I have bookmarked it for you so that others will be able to see what you have to say.

  27. #27 tdp lamp
    February 10, 2011

    Seeing as how I work with people with frontal lobe and other brain injuries, I’ll make a point of asking them what they think we can do about the oil leak. They might come up with some novel solutions like “we shouldn’t drill for oil in the sea if its dangerous” or “we’ll have to wait until it stops leaking, and then clean it all up.” Amazing..

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