Follow up to Blind Spots

IdeaConnection has Three More Questions for Madeleine L. Van Hecke, author of Blind Spots and Co-author of The Brain Advantage
By Vern Burkhardt
"…either it's better to trust your intuitions and go with your gut OR it's better to always stop and think, be very analytic. This kind of simplistic dichotomy is rarely helpful."

Vern's Note: I received feedback from one of our subscribers to last week's interview, "Illuminating Blind Spots." Joris V. had some questions he would have liked author Madeleine L. Van Hecke to answer. So I asked Dr. Van Hecke, and her answers follow.

photo of Madeleine L. Van HeckeMadeleine L. Van Hecke: Hey, Vern – nice to know that some people are responding actively to the article. Below are my responses to the questions posed.

Joris V.: "I wondered if there was a list of ten pitfalls."

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: Blind Spots itself is organized around ten common blind spots, focusing a chapter on each blind spot. So it's not hard to create a list of these blind spots just using the chapter topics. But I sometimes cringe a little when I see lists like these because the blind spots themselves, and the solutions to them, can sound so simplistic when reduced to a list.

For instance, urging people to "stop and think" before they act can make people say, "Well, DUH! Tell me something I don't know!" Yet the smartest people make mistakes because they failed to realize "this would have been a good time to stop and think."

So, I offer the following list, asking readers to keep in mind that the causes of our blind spots as discussed in the book are more complex than the list can capture, and the book suggests strategies for overcoming each of the blind spots beyond the suggestions I can mention in this response to Jorvis's question.

Ten Common Blind Spots and Our Pitfalls are:

  1. Not Stopping to Think
    Every time you say to yourself, "I realize now…" you are recognizing a time in the past when you had a blind spot and probably didn't stop to think about an alternative idea.

    Pitfall: Rushing under pressure – time pressure or emotional turmoil. Instead, train yourself to use that very pressure as a cue, a trigger to remind yourself to buy time to stop and think.

  2. Not Knowing What We Don't Know
    Whenever you're having trouble trying to solve a problem, you may be having difficulty because you're assuming that something is true – but it's not. The blind spot is that we don't know what we don't know.

    Pitfall: Being overly certain that we are right keeps us from questioning the beliefs we hold. Whenever you're absolutely sure that you are right, and others are totally wrong, consider the possibility that your beliefs may be at least partly in error.

  3. Not Noticing
    How could all the faculty, students, and staff at Texas A&M University not notice how dangerous the structure the students were building in order to have a big bonfire was becoming? In 1999, no one noticed until it was too late, when the structure collapsed killing 12 of the students who were climbing on it at the time. When something has become very familiar to us, our brain adapts to its presence and we often fail to really see what's happening.

    Pitfall: Familiarity breeds blind spots! Use strategies to help you see what you've been encountering in a different way. One artist I know does this literally by placing her works in progress in different areas – around a corner in a hallway, for example, so that she'll come upon them unexpectedly and see them with fresh eyes.

  4. Not Seeing Yourself
    Most of us have at least a somewhat skewed picture of ourselves, different from the ways that others see us. It's hard to be objective about our own abilities, performance, and physical appearance.

    Pitfall: Not seeking the right sort of feedback from the right sort of person. It's much easier to be open to feedback from people who are "in our corner," and who can be objective about us, but we have to seek them out.

  5. Not Seeing the Perspective of Others
    When other people believe ideas that we think are ridiculous or wrong-headed, or do things that appear stupid to us, it's hard to set aside our initial reactions and truly try to see the situation from their perspective. So overcoming this blind spot takes effort and practice.

    Pitfall: Too quickly deciding that the other person is "just stupid" or "a terrible person." It can help us overcome our blind spots if we can go "from furious to curious," and try to understand why they acted as they did.

  6. Thinking "Inside the Box"
    Engineers couldn't find any use for the material that we know today as Silly Putty. They were looking at this material as an "industrial product." That was the box, the category in which they had classified it.

    Pitfall: Failing to shift lenses so that we look at the world in terms of multiple categories. So often we fail to get the perspective of others who think differently, or are less experienced – yet these are the very people who are likely to see outside of the box.

  7. Jumping to Conclusions
    "That will never work," a colleague says after we've barely begun to describe our idea. Ask the person to tell you all their reasons why "that will never work," because that way you can see where the flaws in their reasoning might be. For example, they may be making unwarranted assumptions that you can then point out.

    Pitfall: Failing to examine the reasons – or the reasoning – that underlie our conclusions. Whenever we decide something quickly, it's a good idea to step back and take a closer look at the reasons that our decision is based on.

  8. Not Evaluating Evidence
    What evidence supports the claims we, or others, are making? How solid is that evidence?

    Pitfall: We often fail to look for counterevidence or counterexamples – this is the bias we all have to seek only confirming evidence or information. Instead, we need to actively search for possible counterevidence.

  9. Missing Hidden Causes
    In today's economic times, it's easy to explain everything in terms of the economy. For example, a business may automatically attribute its poor sales to the economy, and a job seeker might automatically attribute her problems finding work to the economy. When causes are vivid and obvious – like an economic downturn – we can easily miss more hidden causes. For example, maybe there are ways that the company's product line needs to be improved; maybe the job seeker is restricting her own opportunities because she is limiting the industries or the locations she's exploring.

    Pitfall: Failing to say to ourselves, "Well, let's assume X is not the cause – or at least not the only cause – then what other factors might be contributing to this problem?

  10. Missing the Big Picture
    One company lamented that its employees seemed very hesitant to take any risks. Yet the company motto was posted everywhere on its walls, "Nothing Less Than Perfection Is Acceptable." Given this pressure from "the system," how many employees would take risks?

    Pitfall: Failing to ask the simple question, "How is the larger system contributing to the problem we are trying to solve?"

Joris V.: "Who should read this book?"

cover of Blind SpotsMadeleine L. Van Hecke: Who should read this book? Anyone who would like to become a better decision maker and problem solver could benefit from Blind Spots because it offers practical suggestions describing ways to overcome our blind spots.

I believe that Blind Spots can help people be more innovative and creative because if you follow the suggested practices, you are teaching yourself to think differently. You are developing habits of mind that keep your mind open and train it to search for perspectives that aren't immediately obvious. This kind of openness to the unusual, the unlikely, and the less apparent is often a key to innovative thinking.

Joris V.: "Also, how does author Madeleine Van Hecke regard the field of applied problem solving – what problems and answers are there?"

Madeleine L. Van Hecke: The best resource that I have found in the area of applied problem solving is the CPS – Creative Problem Solving – approach developed by Donald Treffinger, Scott Isaksen, and K. Brian Dorval. Materials and a bibliography related to this approach can be found at www.creativelearning.com. I like CPS because it avoids regimenting the problem solving process into a series of inflexible steps, yet it offers a useful framework to follow.

One of the "problems" that I see in general about the problem solving field is that we are still figuring out just what intuition is and how we can call it into play in a useful way. Some problem solving approaches emphasize very rational kinds of approaches, which downplay or ignore "intuition." Then along comes a book like Malcolm Gladwell's Blink arguing that sometimes decisions made by the seat of our pants are better than decisions arrived at after painstaking analysis. So we get into an either-or kind of discussion: either it's better to trust your intuitions and go with your gut OR it's better to always stop and think, be very analytic. This kind of simplistic dichotomy is rarely helpful.

In the case of problem solving, we now understand more about how to develop our intuition by analyzing our past experiences, especially our past mistakes and the thinking that led to them, in order to increase the odds that our intuitive judgments will be on target in the future. One book that I think is terrific in helping people do this is Gary Klein's book The Power of Intuition. Klein makes the interesting point that we may need to seek further support for our intuitive judgments before acting on them – but that it's often better to start with our intuitions so that our analytic thinking doesn't bury them before they've had a chance to emerge.

Madeleine L. Van Hecke's bio:
Madeleine Van Hecke, is a licensed clinical psychologist; a former Professor of Psychology at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois; a lecturer at Common Ground in Deerfield, Illinois; and a speaker, trainer, and workshop leader for Open Arms Seminars.

As a full time psychology professor at North Central College for 15 years up to 1993, Dr. Van Hecke won numerous teaching awards, was actively involved in faculty development, and taught undergraduate classes in developmental psychology and clinical psychology. In 1993 she resigned her full-time position to have more time to think and write, but continued to teach classes in Creative Thinking and in Critical Thinking in the college's graduate program. A creativity exercise in one of her classes led her to develop the family word game, Wicked Words, which was carried nationwide by Barnes and Noble during one holiday season.

Madeleine Van Hecke received her PhD in psychology from DePaul University. She is the author of Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things (2007) and co-author with Lisa Callahan, Brad Kohler, and Ken Paller of The Brain Advantage: Become a More Effective Business Leader Using the Latest Brain Research (2010).

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