Thinking properly, part 1 – when Lady Destiny is a guy with a stutter

“Hello, is this Relja? I am calling concerning your interpreting services for the adoption case with the _______ family.”

“Ah, yes, I’ve received the email a couple of weeks ago. So, when am I needed?”

“Er, today.”

“Er, today?”

“Yes. I’m dreadfully sorry, there’s been a mix-up, and, well, please, I desperately need an interpreter for today’s case!”

The middle-aged lady’s heavily-British-accented voice sounds very sincere, but far from desperate – she was very composed, pleasant even, and I will soon find out why – the work she does is anything but easy.

Luckily, I’m free at the time she needs me, and I decide to spend an hour or so at one of my favorite cafes, a quiet tea house, before meeting with her, in order to prepare myself, both mentally and with the necessary vocabulary.

I enter the cafe and go up the stairs to take my usual seat. One of the girls who work there is talking with some guy. I say hi to her and, out of courtesy, to him, thinking that they’re friends or something.

“Oh n-no, we don’t kn-know each o-o-ot-other, but now th-that we’ve m-met, wo-would you li-like to par-par-participate in a psy-psy-psychologi-ca-cal test I’m do-doing for my fa-faculty?”

I stop and try to think. I have a very delicate adoption case in which I’m the interpreter. I have less than an hour to do at least some rudimentary preparation (e.g. google some common technical terms in adoption issues and their Serbian translations etc.). It is imperative that I am mentally relaxed; somebody’s future greatly depends on how well I’ll translate their words. I am short on time, and the guy who wants me to do the test has a stutter.


So, I sit down next to him. He takes out two dozen or so little wooden prisms of various shapes, sizes and colors. The task is pretty straightforward – I have to divide the shapes into 4 groups in some way which makes sense. When I think I’m done, or I’m stuck and I need help, I can ask him to check my choice, which he does by turning over two shapes in one group. Since every piece has a marking on the bottom saying which group it belongs to, by turning them over he can show me if I’m right or wrong.

Basically, he wants to find out how fast it takes people to figure out the solution, and he measures that by the number of “checks” the test subject demands – so, the lesser, the better. This checking also makes the subsequent attempts easier, because now you know that certain two shapes for some reason don’t belong in the same group.

I try to think, and my eyes notice the first most obvious thing – color. I count more than 4 colors, so it seems that color won’t be a factor in my choice. I say this out loud, and I see he can’t stop himself from reacting:

“Wow! A l-lot of p-people would have di-divided the shapes by co-color and used up a che-check for that! Yo-you’re good!”

“No, I’m not, I just try to use my brain occasionally.”

Which, after a good start, is precisely what I stop doing.

I rationally dismiss another option, again to his glee. However, after these two more or less obvious steps, I’m a bit stuck. I start mixing the shapes randomly, hoping to find a solution. I try one combination, and ask him to check.

“Nope, the-these two aren’t in th-the same group”

I think a bit more, but in fact, I’m relying more and more on gut feeling. I try another combination. The choice doesn’t seem right, but I basically force myself to rationalize it, thinking “Weeell, if I think of this group as having a such and such attribute, then this group…” I waste another check.

I stop, and look harder. The fact that I now know that some shapes aren’t in the same group is very useful, but I still can’t find the pattern. Then it hits me.

I notice that all the shapes, for all the obvious differences, can also be divided into groups in two subtle, but noticeable ways – by their height (which is either, say, 6 mm or 9 mm); and by their diameter (again, subtle, but noticeable and consistent – say 6 cm vs. 8 cm).

I divided them into these four groups – short heigh:short-diameter, short-height:long-diameter etc.

It’s correct. He’s extremely happy: “You’ve d-done it a-amazingly quickly, in fewer ste-steps than the va-vast ma-majority of people!”

I’d be lying if I didn’t feel a bit proud after he said that, but, at the same time, I was frustrated – why did I so quickly resort to my gut feeling, when this is a puzzle which obviously can be 100% correctly solved by rational thinking? To me, this was a symptom of something we all do very often, which is to in many situations we rely almost exclusively on our gut feeling, and instead of using the powerful rational part of our brain together with our previous experience, we use it to simply rationalize the choice we already made.

If I had had something like the following conversation with myself before attempting to solve the previous test, I would have succeeded on my first go:

“So, I have to divide these shapes in some way into 4 groups. This means that there must either be one attribute which is different in 4 ways (e.g. there are 4 different colors), or there is some division by several different attributes which can give me 4 groups. In any case, let’s first list the attributes, and then count the number of differences for each attribute.

I see that there is no one single attribute which allows me to divide the prisms into 4 different groups. So, it has to be a combination of more than one attribute.

I don’t see any combination where one attribute allows me to divide the prisms into 3 groups, and leave me with a group which doesn’t have the previous attribute (for instance, I divide them by 3 different heights, and all the prisms in the remaining group are of various heights (but not the same as in the previous groups), but they are also all red.

I try a combination of two attributes, each allowing for two options. I check my list of attributes, and I notice “height” is divided into two – taller and shorter. “Diameter” is also divided into longer and shorter.

I divide them correctly. I win. I am awesome.”

And so on. In any case, here using purely logic will get you straight to the answer. Relying on your gut feeling will basically mean relying on luck, and most likely you’ll do worse than with just logic.

I’m not saying that we have the time or the capacity (because a lot of situations are incredibly complex) to always slow down, analyze the whole situation rationally and thoroughly and then make a choice. I’m also not saying that using just your rational mind is always the best solution.

In fact, I think that in many ways we depend too much on what we call our rational minds, much to the detriment of our other capacities, as Ken Robinson so eloquently puts it (a must see). However, at the same time, I think that very often we use that rationality in a very wrong way, while also, ironically, not using our rational mind enough in places where we should. In many situations we tend to very easily give up on rational thinking, simply because it requires effort, and we sort of “wait” for the answer to pop-up in our minds, all the while thinking that we’re actually thinking.

My tea was getting cold as these and other thoughts were playing a hectic game of pinball in my head. I stare at the computer screen, lost in thought, while more and more situations from my life, where I should have thought but didn’t, pop up in front of my eyes.

The cell phone alarm jerks me back into reality. I pack up and head to the flat where a certain person’s future was to be decided, not yet realizing how different from that day forward my own future will be.

to be continued

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