Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Is the glass half empty, or half full?
How do you remove a band-aid: abruptly, or slowly and gently?
I bet you have used these sentences in many instances, either to mock the – apparent – futility of a discussion or to assess the optimism level of someone or her inclinations.
I guess you didn’t take the question seriously, yet I don’t want to blame you for failing to do that: whoa, I did the same thing over and over! However, there are simple solutions to the dilemmas. The point that I’d like to make in this post is that you can always learn something from a question, although not always in a straightforward manner, nor intuitively.
As a starter, let’s consider this graph, which some smart unsung hero posted on the internet:
As you can easily see, eggs came first, no question. However, this is not an attractive finding per se: as a byproduct, we learned something about the evolution of reptiles and birds, and that is not something directly related to the question. I think a larger lesson can also be drawn: when we are tracing the origin of something delving backwards into the past, sometimes we can overlook forks that would have been in plain sight going straight ahead from the past onward as if we were driving around in a car. We need to be always searching for a broader frame in which to work out our conclusions, and look in different directions every time we can.
Moving on to the second question, please have a look at another beautiful drawing (I don’t know the name of the author):
Silly as it may seem, the answer is correct in an absolute sense. What shall we take from it? That neither the optimist nor the pessimist are evaluating the problem correctly, as both are into a cognitive tunnel: they concentrate just on the first thing that is available to their attention. A more rational, or at least thoughtful, person should assess the situation with more clarity, thus noticing that it is not just a matter of quantity, but the question is designed specifically to hide some elements from our perception. When we hear a question or a statement it is always better to ask ourselves: “What am I not considering here? What’s missing from the situation I’ve been presented? Which part of the deal is my counterpart hiding?”.
Coming to how to remove a band-aid, a rational person would say “abruptly”, arguing that the pain is at peak level, but only for a tenth of a second, while removing it slowly does indeed cause a lesser pain, but for a considerably longer time. Thus, the “total suffered pain” is arguably greater in the second case. However, your memories say something different, and you remember a slow removal with less discomfort than a quick one. I won’t go into a detailed explanation of what is called “the peak-end rule”, a psychological finding defined by the great Daniel Kahneman as:
The global retrospective rating (of the experience) was well predicted by the average of the level of pain reported at the worst moment of the experience and at its end. The duration of the procedure had no effect whatsoever on the ratings of total pain.
So, the best decision we could take may not yield the most pleasant memory afterwards. I discovered this quite remarkable fact, and many others, reading “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Kahneman, an exceptional book that reconciled me with economics and psychology. I was able to consume it in audiobook format thanks to the prescriptions I gave myself in my previous post New Ear’s Resolutions. If you are afraid to go deep into 512 pages (or 20 hours of listening time), I can suggest you to watch at least this Ted Talk.
Going back to my point, I hope I’ve been able to show that even simple and apparently inconsistent or contradictory questions can hide a broader and meaningful insight.
Have you got other similar examples or experiences? Let me know in the comments below!
Until next time, think lateral.