Seeing What Others Don't: The remarkable ways we gain insights by Gary Klein (2013)

, 28 Oct 2015

What a cool book

What is insight? How does it manifest? Which things favour insight? Which things prevent insight from happening? Which forms does insight takes? How can we increase insight in our private and work life? Klein does have the answers.

Klein departs from the analysis of the a classic work on insight, Graham Wallas's The Art of thought (1926), especially  the chapter "Stages of Control", which presents a four-stage model of insight: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. This model is still the most common explanation of how insight work. Klein acknowledges the good points that Wallas makes, but shows the deficiencies of this system  to provide an explanation to how many real cases of insight occur.

After doing his own research Klein proposes an alternative model, which allows researchers to explain all cases, major and minor, of insight. Klein calls it the Triple Path Model. In this model each pathway has its own means of altering the beliefs that anchor the way we understand things and restructure beliefs (that is, the story we use to understand events). Klein says that Wallas wasn’t wrong, he was addressing just one of the three paths.
Klein shows that there are five different strategies for gaining insights, although most insights are a combo of at least two: 1/connections, that is connecting the dots even when not all the dots are visible, which happens by being exposed to many different ideas. 2/ Coincidences, which are sparked by the question, what is going on here?. 3/ Curiosities, which comes for the realisation that there is something seriously wrong with the story we tell ourselves. That realisation can be achieved by having an open mind or just by having a critical sceptical mind to investigate paths that others have missed. 4/ Contradictions, which lead to paradigm shifts, and 5/ Creative desperation, which is the result of accidental unplanned events, of being in the right place at the right time. Point one four and five are the most common, while 56% of the cases were the 'aha!' type and 44% were gradual insights.

Klein digs in into his own research material and bibliography to try to understand the link among the five categories of connections. The second and third part of the book are devoted to an analysis of what interferes with insights and what promotes it. 

Among the elements that interfere with insight, beyond our daily moments of  stupidity fostered by  us being on autopilot, are 1/ flawed beliefs, 2/ lack of experience, 3/ a passive stance, and 4/ a concrete reasoning style, which is exacerbated by the constrictions that some software has in the work we do, the mere nature of the Internet, and organisational guidelines, procedures, filtering methods, and the zeal to reduce uncertainty and minimise errors with leads them to the  predictability trap and the perfection trap.
The ways unearthed by Klein to foster insights are 1/Critical thinking; 2/ opening up to contradictions and using other people's perspective and views; 3/ having encounters with different kinds of people, working in a variety of areas, peppering us with new ideas.; 4/ focusing on contradictions and 5/regarding organisations, it also involves not being so focused on the war on error, loosening the control filters, and increasing organisational willpower.

Klein makes a detailed and clear exposition of how he approached this research and is honest about the sources and method he uses. He uses a naturalist approach, that is, he uses examples from people acting in the real world under natural conditions, and not from people subject to artificial lab psychological tests. I am sure the Academia, the establishment, will hit back and question his approach, but I love when people who are part of the same Academia question it and come up with new approaches and theories. Klein is a Ph.D. scientist, a respected psychologist, who has been there, done what he is supposed to do and seen that it does not always work. When he criticises lab experiments in the field of Insight, he is not using generalisations or is not saying that lab research is not good, he is saying that lab research is leading nowhere in the field and that models developed in the early 20th century are not good enough to explain how insight occurs. His critique is elegant, tamed and conciliatory. I love that true researchers are always non dogmatic. They are the ones giving us breakthroughs in Science not the others.

The examples he uses for his study come from the real world: the military, astronomy, medicine, fire fighting, scientific discoveries, the stock market, corporate world, sports, and from Klein's own personal and family life, and they are truly illustrative, and very interesting for the lay reader.

Some brilliant quotes by Klein in this book
 >> "I don’t believe insights are the same as “aha,” any more than conception is the same as orgasm."
>> Systems such as Google determine what we don’t want to see and either filter it out completely or bury it so deep, perhaps on page 25 of the search results, that we probably won’t find it. The personalised searches we get from Google, Yahoo, and others gauge our preferences and then screen out the items we’re likely to find irrelevant. Pariser argues that searches also need to show us items that are challenging and even uncomfortable. They need to expose us to other points of view. (p. 147).
>> Our insights transform us in several ways. They change how we understand, act, see, feel, and desire.
>> Intuition is the use of patterns they’ve already learned, whereas insight is the discovery of new patterns (p. 27).
>> I don’t believe the purpose of science is to do “good” science. The purpose of science is to learn more about the world, including the world of insights. We don’t want to be sloppy about it. We want to use methods that yield results worth taking seriously. We shouldn’t, however, become so fixated on the methods that we lose sight of the object of our inquiry. We shouldn’t evolve a set of methods that don’t fully capture the phenomenon we want to understand. (p. 178)

The book has two main downsides. The first, is that Klein's considerations about his naturalistic approach are repetitive and redundant at times, split in two different parts of the book. A chapter on methodology would have sufficed and, honestly, I would have expected the editor to regroup Klein's considerations in whichever part was most convenient. Regarding content, many of the considerations that Klein makes regarding how to foster insight in the corporate world and organisations are a bit 'wouldn't be nice?', because although he solutions he proposes are great, they go against how the corporate world and organisations are structured and function internally. 

This is a book really easy to read, well structured, entertaining, and with substance, and some aha moments that make any reading always special.