Tuesday, February 19, 2008

On the difficult art of SYNTHESIS

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?


SquirrelGurl said...

Funny you should write about this... last night on Animal Planet I caught a piece of a show that was talking about this exact topic. How humans are "hardwired" to look for/recognize differences but how humans can learn to accept these differences as being "normal" once we gain greater knowledge about the particular animal. They used elepants as an example, when people first saw elephants they thought of their trunk as simply an enlongated nose and regarded it as an oddity. Then they realized, after observation, that it was more than a nose but a useful tool.

Psychgrad said...

I have noticed that students have a really hard time with compare and contrast questions. They usually do the contrasting part, but not the comparison.

I agree with what you wrote: Perhaps the evolutionary pressures were such that it was much more important to recognize differences than be able to synthesize.

From a Social Identity Theory perspective, people are said to make comparisons to others to bolster the self. This would involve finding differences between the in-group and out-group to find evidence that the group to which the individual belongs is more desirable than the out-group. At least when it comes to the self, it seems that people have to have self-enhancing motivations to look for similarities.

In terms of heuristics, it certainly is much easier to use mental shortcuts when things are easily distinguishable.

All of these points make it seem pretty appealing to look for differences.

I can't help but wonder, though, why people wouldn't also be motivated to look for similarities in the world. It seems that it would be settling to find similarities rather than evidence contrasting your views. Wouldn't it be easier to make sense of the world if we could synthesize things into a greater whole? Perhaps this would only be relevant when achieving higher levels of the hierarchy of needs.

punchanella said...

amen, synthesis is much harder. that's why looking at my data set makes me CRINGE...

and i'm no psychologist but i can tell you from a biological standpoint that it's energy well spent to register changes in biochemistry over stasis.

Field Notes said...

Punch! nice to hear from you! Hang in there with your diss :D

SquirrelG - what a coincidence; that would have been fun to see!!


You make excellent points, psychgrad. I think the in-group/out-group distinction may be at the core of the evolutionarily based tendencies I'm wondering about.

I haven't done much research into it, but humans seem inclined to form subgroups the likes of which few species do. I have heard reports of chimps (raised in captivity, taught sign language) who have made such distinctions. They were raised by humans, I think that's an important point.

The albino gorilla, the only one known in the world, seems to have never been shunned for looking radically different from other gorillas in his group.

Your point about hierarchy of needs is thought-provoking.

kimono hime said...

Personally, I am more inclined to find similarities than differences. I don't know why, maybe something to do with how I was raised? My parents held rather Socratic discussions at the dinner table, and as the youngest child I benefited from my elders' wisdom.

Or something like that. Maybe I'm just random and weird.

Field Notes said...

I think it's because you function at a higher intellectual level, kimono hime!!