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What’s Killing your Problem Solving Skills?

The same bias that kept manned flight a dream for centuries could be affecting you.
30 Oct 2014

What’s Killing your Problem Solving Skills?

Picture Credit:Luis Fernando Curci Chavier / Shutterstock.com


Pioneering efforts in flight primarily consisted of contraptions with flapping wings. Some were even adorned with features. For centuries, what kept these efforts from success was a kind of salience bias held by the designers.

Salience bias is the tendency to focus on the most easily recognizable features of a problem at the exclusion of other, less noticeable qualities.

Flying machine inventors saw that all flying birds and insects have wings that flap and so concluded that the key to flight must lay in the flapping of wings. The problem was that the secret to flight was not in the flapping motion; it was in something far less noticeable. As the Wright brothers eventually demonstrated, it is the curvature of the leading edge of any wing that creates the lift necessary for successful flight, a detail left uninvestigated for centuries.

Using the Salience Bias to Your Advantage

When presented with a problem, acknowledge that the most easily observable characteristics are merely your first observations and not necessarily where you will find your answer. The fact that they are obvious does not mean that they are more significant.Notice the following example.

As pointed out in the book The Five Elements of Effective Thinking by Edward Burger and Michael Starbird, while black students may typically score lower on standardized tests than students of other races, addressing the issue from the perspective of the most recognizable characteristic of students, race, might cause us to overlook factors that actually lead to the disparity such as quality of education, resources available to students, and socio-economic pressures. After all, race has zero impact on learning.

We can re-purpose our salience bias to simply be the first level of data collection that triggers further analysis. Many expert problem solvers use the Five Whys technique to identify all the components of a problem by asking, “Why?” in at least five iterations. Notice how it could have worked with the issue of flight:

  1. Why are birds able to fly? They have wings.
  2. Why do they need wings? Wings move air.
  3. Why is air movement important? The movement contributes to lift.
  4. Why does the movement of air generate lift? There is an upward force applied due to the difference in pressure below and above the wings.
  5. Why is that pressure difference generated? The shape of the leading edge of each wing alters the flow of air around the wing’s surface and creates the difference in pressure.

We get closure to the root cause of the problem with each iteration. When using this technique it is important to recognize when we cannot answer a question due to lack of knowledge and then do the appropriate research, experimentation, or get the needed resources so that we can answer with confidence.

Now apply this same technique to solving the problems you face on the job, in class, and even between friends. Let salience bias highlight the obvious characteristics of the problem and then intentionally dig deeper to get answers that might otherwise be missed.

Unlike the slow revelation of the secret of flight, finding your own successful solutions need not take centuries.

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