What’s the most important thing about problem solving? If you paid attention in school, you probably would respond: getting the right answer!
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get the right answer. Or is there? I want to raise four related concerns:
- The problem structuring concern: Problems don’t always arise in a form that has an identifiable single right answer. Often there are different best answers for different sets of possible criteria, with different sets of tradeoffs.
- The motivated thinking concern: The kind of thinking we do in order to feel we are right, to be seen by others as being right, or to advocate the right answer to others can overwhelm the kind of thinking needed to solve the problem in the best way.
- The my-side bias concern: We have a natural tendency to look selectively for evidence in favor of the first good guess we make explicit, to ignore evidence for alternatives, and to think in ways that support our favored alternative.
- The belief overkill concern: The my-side bias is often reinforced in such a way that that certain of our intuitions become treated as aspirations or universal facts of nature and this extends beyond things that can be verified empirically between observers. Compelling intuitions can guide our thinking into limited preferred patterns, reinforced by selective use of evidence and also by social patterns of polarized thinking.
I argue that these concerns, along with various inferences we can reasonably make about how the mind works, necessitates a certain approach to thinking, especially about more difficult problems.
These factors mean that we have to learn to adopt and leverage different perspectives in order to harvest all of the information available and the expertise needed to solve complex problems. This is why when it comes to problem solving worthy of the name, thinking clearly is more important than thinking correctly along predetermined lines.
At this point you probably have your own concerns. You might be wondering whether I am advocating some sort of fluffy relativistic “there’s no right or wrong and all perspectives are valid” sort of approach to thinking.
That’s not the case. I use the term Clear Thinking because I truly believe there is such a thing as identifiably better and worse thinking, leading to better or worse conclusions and that it very often makes a critical difference whether we get it right.
My point is just that all of us (not just other people) assume we are getting it right much more often than we really are getting it right, and that very knowledge about our own thinking processes is a key to Clear Thinking.
This means that when we need to think clearly about complex problems, we need to use our knowledge about and skill at problem solving itself to root out our own shortcuts, make our thinking more explicit, bring alternate perspectives into play, and in general consider more alternatives than would otherwise come to mind.