Plants fascinate me — that's no surprise to anyone who knows me. The fact that they can make their own 'food' out of light amazes me. Photosynthesis is really, really neat. But that's not what I'm going to talk about.
I am more interested in the ability, or rather lack of, ability to piece together disparate bits of sometimes conflicting information to create a coherent whole.
On our walk to work this morning, Mr. Field Notes and I fell into an engaging conversation about critical thinking skills. We agreed that people can readily describe how seemingly different things or ideas are actually different, but they have a much more difficult time seeing how two apparently different things or concepts are similar.
I pointed out that Bloom's taxonomy of thinking places "synthesis" at the top of a hierarchy of critical thinking skills students should develop. He pointed out integration is much more challenging for calculus students than finding derivatives.
There is just something different a brain has to do to integrate and synthesize.
I mused aloud maybe this is a symptom of the way our brains have evolved. Perhaps the evolutionary pressures were such that it was much more important to recognize differences than be able to synthesize, think 'outside the box' and be creative.
Most people are not all that create when solving problems. We rely on previously successful solutions, going with what worked in the past. This is so common that psychologists have a name to describe it - mental set. Psychologists have also determined that when people are accustomed to using an object a certain way, say a light bulb to light a room, they often cannot see any other way to use it - for instance as a heater. Psychologists call this functional fixedness. I can't tell you how many times I've seen students struggle because they can't break their habitual ways of solving problems.
From an evolutionary perspective, this sort of makes sense: If it ain't broken, don't fix it.
When it comes to solving problems, people also rely on short-cuts that psychologists have identified called heuristics. These rules-of-thumb are what many consider to be "common sense" and do oftentimes, but not always, lead to correct conclusions and solutions. The important thing to recognize is that there are times when these heuristic lead to faulty conclusions.
One of the most well-known and used heuristics is the availability heuristic. When asked to estimate the likelihood of something happening, people appear to have a bias toward saying memorable events or things that are more easily recalled occur more often.
I think this is because people don't really like to think. Thinking is taxing. It's much more comfortable to be on auto-pilot and cruise through life without trying to make sense of anything. People don't like contradictions. They like things, including other people, to be predictable, to fit a formula.
What do you think — do people really have an easier time pointing out differences than seeing similarities? Why?