Posted by admin on February 11, 2010
The human mind delights in finding pattern—so much so that we often mistake coincidence or forced analogy for profound meaning. No other habit of thought lies so deeply within the soul of a small creature trying to make sense of a complex world not constructed for it.
– Stephen Jay Gould
In the previous post, we toyed with ambiguity. The observable facts were that the customer service representative said “no;” left briefly, taking a yellow sticky; returned; and said “yes.” We do not know what transpired during her brief absence that caused her to change her mind. It is fun to play with the possibilities. And, perhaps, the explanation that the magic word “francis” on a yellow sticky caused the change is as realistic as any alternative construal.
The human mind is marvelously adapted to pattern-finding. This capability, being instantly able to distinguish a branch from a snake, a bush from a tiger, served well to ensure the survival of our primordial forbearers. However, it is inherently problematic in our modern, ambiguous world in that it leads us to reach conclusions too quickly, to see patterns where there is ambiguity or merely randomness. We need to consciously question our patterns, our prejudices, and to deliberately maintain openness to differing interpretations of events. Recognizing this, when we do choose to hold a paradigm or worldview, we should hold it lightly, allowing for the chance that it may be misleading. As we must question the patterns we form, we must also question our worldviews, for these have far-reaching consequences in our lives.
The Challenger Explosion
Sociologist Diane Vaughan studied the events leading to NASA’s ill-fated Challenger launch decision. She determined that a perceptual bias had evolved within NASA. Managers perceived a pattern of success and thus discounted accumulating evidence that the O-rings were prone to failure. The perceptual bias, the innate tendency to see pattern even when there is none, led to the Challenger tragedy. Per Vaughan:1
How is this variety possible? Each person – the butcher, the parent, the child – occupies a different position in the world, which leads to a unique set of experiences, assumptions, and expectations about the situations and objects she or he encounters. From integrated sets of assumptions, expectations, and experience, individuals construct a worldview, or frame of reference, that shapes their interpretations of objects and experiences. Everything is perceived, chosen, or rejected on the basis of this framework. The framework becomes self-confirming because, whenever they can, people tend to impose it on experiences and events, creating incidents and relationships that conform to it. And they tend to ignore, misperceive, or deny events that do not fit. As a consequence, this frame of reference generally leads people to what they expect to find. Worldview is not easily altered or dismantled because individuals tend ultimately to disavow knowledge that contradicts it. They ward off information in order to preserve the status quo, avoid a difficult choice, or avoid a threatening situation. They may puzzle over contradictory evidence but usually succeed in pushing it aside – until they come across a piece of evidence too fascinating to ignore, too clear to misperceive, too painful to deny, which makes vivid still other signals they do not want to see, forcing them to alter and surrender the worldview they have so meticulously constructed.
I liken creating a worldview to building a house of cards. We take an event, observe it through a perceptual filter, find that it fits – even though the fit may require stretching reality or ignoring other plausible explanations – and place it in our worldview, the construal of the new event both propping up and being propped up by the construals of other events in the worldview. Over time, we accumulate many such events offering evidence confirming the validity of our worldview. But in the end, we have a dysfunctional worldview, one that does not validly interpret real events, one built on ambiguous evidence and dubious inferences, an imposing belief network but underlying it only a house of cards. Employing our unsound worldview, we respond inappropriately to signals from our environment. When our actions become too incongruent from reality, a crisis occurs, our house of cards collapses. We suddenly are forced to view the world through a different, more realistic filter. These life-altering experiences, or epiphanies, are the manifestations of the collapses of our houses of cards.
In Uncoupling , Vaughan finds that couples going through divorce follow this same house-of-cards process. One partner, and eventually the other, chooses to interpret aspects of the relationship negatively and gradually redefines the history of the relationship in terms of this frame of reference. Again, Vaughan:2
The partner’s frame of reference affects interpretation of the initiator’s signals. The partner fits the initiator’s behavior in with personal expectations about the duration of the relationship, and within the range of signals that he or she has learned to expect from the initiator. When a new signal does not fit – “I packed your lunch.” “Did you pack a gun in it?” – the partner will not take it seriously since it falls outside the frame of reference.
Once a partner chooses to construe events in the relationship negatively, it becomes difficult or impossible to salvage the relationship. In order to do so, both partners must choose to construe the relationship in positive terms.
This is true not only in relationships with others, but in our relationship with the world. If we choose to perceive events in our lives through a filter of anger, then we will perceive ourselves to be victims of events. Life changing events are events that allow us to grow by causing us to examine our perceptual houses of cards, and to choose new worldviews. We can help this process of growth by being conscious of our worldview. Do we choose to view our partner’s unique characteristics as endearing or annoying? If we choose to interpret our partner’s actions in negative terms, why? How do we interpret events in our lives? Do we regard ourselves as victims of external events or as the authors of our own life stories?
How Do You Choose to View the World?
Recognizing that the human mind is highly evolved to find patterns, so much so that it wants to find patterns even when events are random or interpretations are ambiguous, gives us the powerful insight that it is possible for us to choose our paradigms and by so doing, to change our lives. When faced with ambiguity, we can choose to accept the ambiguity or can choose to interpret it within a framework that we choose on the basis of its ability to help us reach our goals. In this way, changing our attitudes and beliefs, gives us the power to change our lives.
What paradigms are you choosing? Are you gaining confidence in your ability to use math as a problem-solving tool or do you discourage yourself, thinking “I’m not good at math?” Do you allow and expect that you will make mistakes when facing a new challenge or do you expect that you will be perfect then give up quickly in frustration when you are not? Do you tolerate ambiguity or do you force newly perceived events into an existing framework of belief? Do you view the actions of people in your life with love or with criticism?
Future articles will show you how to use the math and science facts you learned in school in new ways to critically understand everyday events and solve everyday problems. Before we start, though, you need to choose to believe that you can and will succeed. If you are not there yet, can you let go of the beliefs that are holding you back and replace them with a willingness to learn? If you can, will you? And, if you will, when would be the best time to let those beliefs go?
Okay! You said, “Now!” Right? Then we’re ready! Let’s take our math hammers, our willingness to try new things, our openness to ambiguity, and our belief that we will succeed and get started!
Have you experienced a breakup? Was it preceded by one partner increasingly interpreting the actions of the other negatively as suggested by Vaughan? Have you had a life changing experience? Did it cause you to view the world in a different way? I’d love to hear your comments!
1 Vaughan, D. (1996), The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA, University Of Chicago Press, Chicago.
2 Vaughan, D. (1986), Uncoupling: Turning Points in Intimate Relationships, Oxford University Press, USA.
Shelley Bergstraser Wild Wind Collies
Posted by admin on January 30, 2010
The power of a name is as ancient as naming. All throughout mythology, examples can be found of secret names, names that had the power to destroy, and names that had the power to bring great rewards.
-Kristen Hanley Cardozo
What, you may ask, does this have to do with engineering? It is an enigma, a puzzle, and engineers love to puzzle.
The Soon-to-Be-Infamous Fryer
A saner person would have stopped at the nearest fast food fish takeout but not me. Driving home from work July 7, craving fish and chips, I stopped at Wally World, bought a deep fryer, took it home, fired it up, and cooked myself a mess. Don’t worry; they were healthful; I used whole wheat flour.
The Mess of Fish and Chips
Although it served on a handful of occasions to make French fries, the fryer generally sat amidst the clutter of the small appliance cabinet, stuffed behind the blender, mixer, slow cooker, and food processor, all of which enjoyed more frequent usage.
One day last week, having half a bag of shrimp left in the freezer and a New Year’s resolution to declutter the kitchen, I remembered seeing a recipe for Masala Popcorn Shrimp on Monica Bhide’s blog, a blog inspired by the ingredients and flavors of South Asia and the Indian subcontinent , ingredients and flavors from a culinary tradition dating back to the bronze-age Harappan civilization and enjoyed by one fifth of the world’s inhabitants, a must-read if you enjoy experimenting with new ingredients.
Masala Popcorn Shrimp
I measured oil into the fryer, set the thermostat to 375F, poured a glass of wine, and slipped into the study to find and print the recipe while the oil heated. Returning to the kitchen, I poured a second glass of wine and began collecting the ingredients. It was then that I noticed that the oil was hot but the fryer was dead. I jiggled the plug, checked the breaker, checked the GFI, and tried a different outlet with no luck. With stomachs growling, my teenage son and his friend stared starvingly at me. “Fine,” I harrumphed, “we’re going out but you’re driving.”
The next day, after the oil had cooled, I strained it and cleaned the fryer. As I was drying it, I noticed a tiny, recessed reset button, undocumented in the manual. Using a chopstick, I pressed the button then plugged the fryer in. It was alive! I unplugged it, filled it with oil, plugged it in and set the thermostat. It started to warm up but after a few minutes I heard the reset breaker pop. The fryer was dead again. I thought I might throw it away instead of messing with it, since I seldom used it, but I didn’t. Instead I put the manual in the bag with my laptop and took both to work.
A few days later, having a spare moment I called the GE tech support number, 877-207-0923. After a few rounds of pushing 1 for this, 2 for that, and 3 for whatever, I was greeted by pleasant-voiced Francis who collected my contact information. No matter my frustration, I make being polite to support people a habit. I start by remembering and using their name. So, I wrote “francis” on a small yellow Post-It. We discussed the problem with the reset button. Francis asked if I had a receipt. “No,” I said. Francis said that the particular model fryer had a two year warranty, had been in production less than two years, and was only sold at Walmart. Therefore, even though I didn’t have a receipt, it was clear that the unit was under warranty and had been purchased at Walmart. She told me to clean it, take it to Walmart, take my cell phone, ask for a new one, and have them call her if they had any problem.
Two days later, I took the fryer to Walmart. I explained the problem to the customer service girl, who looked to be about 19. She asked if I had a receipt and I told her I didn’t. She asked how long I had it and I told her about 6 months. She said she couldn’t do anything if I didn’t have a receipt and it had been more than 90 days.
And then, it happened.
The Sticky with Mysterious Powers
I extended my arms, cell phone in one hand and the manual with the 877 number and the yellow sticky with the word “francis” on the front in the other, saying “Francis said to call her if you had any problem.” The 19-year old quickly peeled off the yellow sticky, blurted “stay here,” and bolted.
The New Fryer
She returned a few minutes later telling me to get a replacement fryer. I know she didn’t call Francis because she didn’t take the cell phone, she didn’t take the phone number, and she had been gone less than two minutes. So, I’m wondering what is the mysterious power that Francis wields over the people of Walmart, a mysterious power so compelling that the lone word “francis” on a yellow sticky causes customer service to bolt in terror, a word with the power to produce replacement fryers?
What Is the Point?
“What is the point,” you ask, and to tell the truth, I’m not sure. Perhaps it is that one should be nice to people at tech support. Perhaps it is the value of the individual person. Had I said, “Tech Support said . . .,” would the result have been the same, or was it only because that someone at tech support had a name? Perhaps it is that the universe is working against my ability to unclutter my kitchen? Perhaps it is that Francis’ good service inspired Walmart’s? Perhaps it is that the power of a name is as ancient as naming and the name “Francis” has the power to bring great rewards – at least at Walmart? Perhaps only Francis knows? Do you know Francis or do you know someone who might know Francis? Would you ask for me?
What do you think? Let me know by posting a comment!
Masala Popcorn Shrimp, photo by Nate Lankford, courtesy of Monica Bhide
German Shorthair Pointer, photo by Barbara Van Hoffman
Posted by admin on January 27, 2010
The most degrading experiences we have are in the simulator when learning a new aircraft. When we do something incorrectly, we are reprimanded and then get one or two chances to do it correctly. Not life and death in this instance, but the point is that we have to get it right in training because while actually flying the plane, we have to get it right since sometimes it is life and death!
First Officer Sarah Murphy Case
Delta Airlines Pilot
This is the second in a series of articles to help improve your critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Consider the very different world of the pilot and the engineer. The pilot gets one chance and has to execute perfectly every time. An engineer may consider tens of ways to approach a problem, narrow the options to a handful, evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of each, and prototype and test a few. During testing, problems will be found. More prototypes may be made and tested before finally putting a new product into production. Where a pilot demands of herself that she be successful on every try, an engineer expects to fail many times before he suceeds. Neither of these is right or wrong. Someone willing to make mistakes would not make a good pilot nor would someone afraid to make mistakes make an effective engineer.
These differing professions attract people with differing personalities. People naturally gravitate towards professions that are suited to their unique personalities. A pilot may prefer order and stability while an engineer not only embraces change but seeks to be an agent of change.
One of the classes in my MSEE program at Colorado Tech was Creative Leadership. My fellow students were a diverse lot, coming from a wide variety of graduate programs. The class was a hybrid, meaning half of the time was spent in a classroom and the other half in online discussion. I particularly enjoyed online discussions with another student who was a pilot. We had different ways of looking at the world, which resulted in lively and enjoyable discussions.
What Is Your Personality Type?
One in-class exercise was completing the DISC assessment, a personality test designed to “examine the behavior of individuals in their environment.“i The pilot and I had strikingly different profiles. She scored high on Steadiness and Conscientious, while I scored medium to low. She scored medium to low in Dominance and Influence, while I scored high in both:
Dominance: People who score high in the intensity of the “D” styles factor are very active in dealing with problems and challenges, while low “D” scores are people who want to do more research before committing to a decision. High “D” people are described as demanding, forceful, egocentric, strong willed, driving, determined, ambitious, aggressive, and pioneering. Low D scores describe those who are conservative, low keyed, cooperative, calculating, undemanding, cautious, mild, agreeable, modest and peaceful.
Influence: People with high “I” scores influence others through talking and activity and tend to be emotional. They are described as convincing, magnetic, political, enthusiastic, persuasive, warm, demonstrative, trusting, and optimistic. Those with low “I” scores influence more by data and facts, and not with feelings. They are described as reflective, factual, calculating, skeptical, logical, suspicious, matter of fact, pessimistic, and critical.
Steadiness: People with high “S” styles scores want a steady pace, security, and do not like sudden change. High “S” individuals are calm, relaxed, patient, possessive, predictable, deliberate, stable, consistent, and tend to be unemotional and poker faced. Low “S” intensity scores are those who like change and variety. People with low “S” scores are described as restless, demonstrative, impatient, eager, or even impulsive.
Conscientious: People with high “C” styles adhere to rules, regulations, and structure. They like to do quality work and do it right the first time. High “C” people are careful, cautious, exacting, neat, systematic, diplomatic, accurate, and tactful. Those with low “C” scores challenge the rules and want independence and are described as self-willed, stubborn, opinionated, unsystematic, arbitrary, and careless with details.
Each personality type excels in different environments. A person who challenges the rules may be good in some situations but disasterous in others. People with diverse personalities can form strong teams with each member taking on different aspects of a task, taking aspects that best fit their personality. For example, “big picture“ people may be good at getting projects started, but people who love detail are better at getting projects finished. Understanding personality differences can help you appreciate the people in your life. Appreciate the positive aspects of the personality types around you. The pilot in your life may be hard-headed and stubborn, but they’ll save you from leaving the house with the coffee pot on. Love them because their antics are humorous and worthwhile. They are reflections of the personality traits that make them good at what they do.
Why not také a personality test and compare the results with friends, family, and co-workers? There is a free test available online version here.
Expect to Make Mistakes
What this means for problem solving though, is that if you have a personality that thrives on following procedures and craves a world of order and perfection, you can become a better problem solver. Consider these tips:
- Be more accepting of yourself. Accept that mistakes and missteps are natural, expected, and necessary to problem solving. Expect that you will make mistakes, turn down a few blind alleys, and follow a few false leads.
- Be persistent. It is said that Thomas Edison tried 9,990 experiments before finding the right wire to make a lightbulb. If one approach does not work, do not get discouraged, try another.
- Open yourself up to more possibilities. Search for “creativity exercises“ on the Web and warm up with a few.
- Brainstorm. Write down as many ideas as you can. Then, write some more. Don’t judge any ideas as “bad.“ Allow the creative juices to flow. Only after you have written as many ideas as you can, select the most promising for further study.
When you are a pilot happily turning your jetliner for final approach at your base and the end your trip, revel in your perfection and your well-ordered world. But when you are on the ground and facing a dilemma, don’t be hard on yourself. When it comes to solving problems, don’t be a pilot. Although it may not come easily or naturally, avoid being discouraged when you do not come with an answer in one or a few tries. Make a conscious effort to open yourself to change and use techniques to increase your creativity. Accept that mistakes, missteps, and blind alleys are part of the process. Adopt an engineer’s perspecitive!
On a final note, watch for my upcoming article, “Don’t Be an Engineer: How to Eliminate Chaos, Clutter, and Insanity from Your Life in Five Easy Steps.“ It’s a work in progress. Expect it in, oh, say, a few years!