REUTERS | Jose Miguel Gomez

Right, wrong, creative or delusional?

…or how do we make a decision and how do we know we are right?

There is a story about a student taking an exam at a university. He calls over the invigilator and says “I’m not trying to be funny, but the questions are the same as last year.” The invigilator replies: “Yes, but the answers have changed.”

The mad genius

On holiday this year I read a book called “Women Can’t Park, Men Can’t Pack” by Geoff Rolls. He considers a number of “propositions” from a psychologist’s point of view and looks for evidence for or against each. It’s a book well worth reading. One of the chapters looks at the nature of creativity and the archetypal “mad genius”.

University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson has discovered that creative people possess little to no “latent inhibition,” the unconscious ability to reject unimportant or irrelevant stimuli. He says that:

“… creative individuals remain in contact with the extra information constantly streaming in from the environment. The normal person classifies an object, and then forgets about it, even though that object is much more complex and interesting than he or she thinks. The creative person, by contrast, is always open to new possibilities.”

(Source: How Stuff Works)

If the thoughts that appear in your mind turn out to be a Nobel Prize winning advance in scientific thought then you are a genius. If the thoughts are that you are Napoleon then (assuming that you are not Napoleon) they are seen as either irrational or delusional.

In the past (and not so distant past) original thinking has also been seen as criminality. Albert Einstein called Galileo the father of modern science.  But Galileo’s contemporaries took a different view and his theories were regarded as heretical.

So if an original thought comes into your mind, how do you decide whether it is genius?

Facts perception and judgement

Some things are either right or wrong. The trick is finding out the truth and then proving it. For example, the question of whether the earth revolves around the sun should be capable of being ascertained by scientific methodology.

But some things can be looked at from a point of view which changes the perception of reality rather than the reality itself…

From the point of view of a stationary observer, who (i) only goes out on sunny days; (ii) needs to know the time; and (iii) hasn’t got a watch, the reality of the earth going round the sun is not useful.  A more useful model is that the sun goes round the sky and it reaches its highest point at noon.

Some things are neither right nor wrong. There might be a number of ways to deal with a particular problem.  Which one to use is a matter of judgement and you might never know whether the way you chose was the right way or the wrong way, unless the problem is exactly replicated and a variety of methods are used.

Right, wrong, irrational or delusional?

For questions like whether the earth goes round the sun your opinion can be perceived as being right or wrong.  As said above, the problem is proving it. As the student in the exam found out, the general view of what is right and what is wrong can change. If your view accords with the majority, you are “right”.

In matters of judgment we look at an aggregated range of majority opinion, which is sometimes called the “state of the art”.  If you are within the range you are your actions are treated as “right”.

If you are outside the majority or normal range, there are various words people use to describe you. These might be complimentary words such as “innovative” or “groundbreaking”.  Other words are slightly negative such as “unconventional” or “maverick”. The language then becomes more negative with words like “negligent”, “irresponsible” and “dangerous” eventually reaching “irrational” or “delusional”.

But who is right?

To work this out you need what a medical friend of mind calls the “retrospectoscope”. Only hindsight will “out” the truth.  But the problem with hindsight is that you never know when you have got to the end.

In the 2007 film Charlie Wilson’s War the Gust Avrakatos character tells a story:

There’s a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse… and everybody in the village says, “How wonderful. The boy got a horse.” And the Zen master says, “We’ll see.” Two years later the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, “How terrible.” And the Zen master says, “We’ll see.” Then, a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight… except the boy can’t ’cause his leg’s all messed up. And everybody in the village says, “How wonderful.”  Charlie Wilson gets the point and responds – but the Zen master says, “We’ll see.”

It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it

In most films, the “maverick” turns out to be right despite huge opposition from the “establishment”.  Many complain that this has led to “bad science”, where we are now more prepared to believe what one person writes on an internet blog than the majority view.

As a trainee solicitor, I was always told to bear in mind that I might be wrong and to build into whatever I did some sort of contingency, just in case.  The senior partner of my firm used to say that you should never write anything down that you would be any more than slightly embarrassed to have read out in court if it turned out that it was completely, utterly and totally wrong.

I have invariably found that people who (if you will forgive the expression) “push the envelope” and turn out to be right are the ones who (at least privately) give serious consideration to that fact that they might be wrong and are prepared to discuss it. My experience is that people who are so convinced that they are right that they are not prepared even to discuss being wrong tend to be the ones who turn out to be wrong in the end.

There is quite a body of research on this subject – click here for one example.

Knee jerk or brain ache?

My view is simply that a considered decision is more likely to be right that a “knee jerk decision”.

You often hear people saying that you should “go with your gut”.  I would recommend taking the brain along as well, if only for the ride.

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