Are you set in your ways?

[article]
Summary:

Do you ever do things the same old way because that's how you learned to do them - even when there's a simpler or more efficient way? In his ultra-fascinating book, Why We Make Mistakes, Joseph Hallinan describes how easily this can happen.

He reports the following research. In one experiment, researchers gave people the following challenge, using 3 jars of water:

Do you ever do things the same old way because that's how you learned to do them - even when there's a simpler or more efficient way? In his ultra-fascinating book, Why We Make Mistakes , Joseph Hallinan describes how easily this can happen.

He reports the following research. In one experiment, researchers gave people the following challenge, using 3 jars of water:

  • Jar A holds 21 cups of water.
  • Jar B holds 127 cups of water.
  • Jar C holds 3 cups of water.

The challenge? How would you get exactly 100 cups of water? Can you figure it out?

Here's the solution:

  1. Pour Jar B into Jar A till it's full, leaving 106 cups in Jar B.
  2. Pour Jar B into Jar C till it's full, leaving 103 cups in Jar B.
  3. Dump out the water in Jar C, and again pour Jar B into Jar C till it's full.
  4. You now have exactly 100 cups of water in Jar B.

I love problems like this!

The researchers had subjects solve several problems that followed the same pattern—Jar B into Jar A once, then Jar B into Jar C twice—till they became familiar with the pattern.

Then they posed a new problem, such as this one:

  • Jar A holds 14 cups
  • Jar B holds 36 cups
  • Jar C holds 8 cups

The challenge: How would you get exactly 6 cups of water? Try it.

If you followed the same pattern as before, you poured Jar B into Jar A, leaving 22 cups in Jar B. Then you poured Jar B into Jar C, leaving 14 cups in Jar B. Then Jar B into Jar C again, leaving the required 6 cups in Jar B.

That's what the majority of research subjects did. In running the experiment thousands of times, researchers found that between 64% and 83% of the subjects continued to use this same pattern - even (and here's the kicker) when a much simpler solution was available.

Did you come up with the simpler solution? It's at the end of this message in case you want to think about it a little more.

But get this: When the researchers tried this second problem on a new group of subjects who had not been given the first round of problems, between 95% and 99% figured out the simpler solution.

The compelling conclusion, as described by Hallinan: "People in the initial experiments became so set in their ways that they were blinded to the newer, simpler solution. But to those who came to the problem fresh, the simpler solution was obvious." (p. 181)

This research is an excellent reminder not to become so tied to certain ways of doing things that we become blinded to newer or simpler ways.

And here's the simpler solution: Simply pour Jar A into Jar C and you're left with 6 cups in Jar A.

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