Matthew Cohen for Reader's Digest
In life, once on a path, we tend to follow it, for better or worse. What’s sad is that even if it’s the latter, we often accept it anyway because we are so accustomed to the way things are that we don’t even recognize that they could be different.
This is a phenomenon psychologists call functional fixedness. This classic experiment will give you an idea of how it works—and a sense of whether you may have fallen into the same trap: People are given a box of tacks and some matches and asked to find a way to attach a candle to a wall so that it burns properly.
Typically, the subjects try tacking the candle to the wall or lighting it to affix it with melted wax. The psychologists had, of course, arranged it so that neither of these obvious approaches would work. The tacks are too short, and the paraffin doesn’t bind to the wall. So how can you accomplish the task?
The successful technique is to use the tack box as a candleholder. You empty it, tack it to the wall, and stand the candle inside it.
To think of that, you have to look beyond the box’s usual role as a receptacle just for tacks and reimagine it serving an entirely new purpose. That is difficult because we all suffer—to one degree or another—from functional fixedness.
The inability to think in new ways affects people in every corner of society. The political theorist Hannah Arendt coined the phrase frozen thoughts to describe deeply held ideas that we no longer question but should. In Arendt’s eyes, the complacent reliance on such accepted “truths” also made people blind to ideas that didn’t fit their worldview, even when there was ample evidence for them. Frozen thinking has nothing to do with intelligence, she said. “It can be found in highly intelligent people.”
Arendt was particularly interested in the origins of evil, and she considered critical thinking to be a moral imperative—in its absence, a society could go the way of Nazi Germany.
Another context in which frozen thinking can turn truly dangerous is medicine. If you land in the hospital, it’s natural to want to be treated by the most experienced physicians on staff. But according to a 2014 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), you’d be better off being treated by the relative novices.
The study examined nearly ten years of data involving tens of thousands of hospital admissions and found that the 30-day mortality rate among high-risk patients with acute heart conditions was a third lower when the top doctors were away at conferences.
The JAMA study didn’t pinpoint the reasons for the decreased death rate, but the authors explained that most errors made by doctors are connected to a tendency to form opinions quickly, based on experience. In cases that are not routine, the expert doctors may miss important aspects of the problem that are not consistent with their initial analysis. As a result, although junior doctors may be slower and less confident in treating run-of-the-mill cases, they can be more open-minded with unusual cases. Here are 12 more quirky habits of people who are smarter than everyone else.
Matthew Cohen for Reader's Digest
Fortunately, psychologists have found that anyone can unfreeze his or her thinking. One of the most effective ways is to introduce a little discord to one’s intellectual interactions.
Consider a study performed about half a century ago. The researcher showed two groups of female volunteers a sequence of blue slides. In both groups, he asked each individual to state the color of each slide. In the experimental group, he had planted some actors who called the color green rather than blue. Whom were they fooling? Nobody. The experimental subjects ignored the deviant responses. When their turns came, most of them answered blue, just as the control group had.
Then the subjects were asked to classify a series of paint chips as either green or blue, even though their color lay between those two pure colors. Amazingly, the people who’d been in the experimental group identified many chips as green while those from the control group called the same ones blue. Even though no one in the experimental group had been convinced by the actors before, their exposure to the earlier misidentification had shifted their judgment and made them more open to seeing a color as green.
Other experiments have shown that dissent can not only sway us with regard to the issue at hand; it can also thaw frozen thinking in general, even in contexts unrelated to the original discussion. What this all means is that, as difficult as it can sometimes be, talking to people who disagree with you is good for your brain. So if you hate conspiracy theories and run into someone who believes that we faked the moon landing, don’t walk away. Have tea with him or her. It can broaden your thinking in countless ways. Next, don’t miss these 19 other tiny tricks that can make you smarter.
Read more on this in Leonard Mlodinow’s book, Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change.