In any field, you will find a continuum of those who wish to discover things for themselves/forge their own path on one end, and those who wish to stick to methodologies from the past on the other. As with most distributions we encounter, the vast majority are somewhere in the middle, but there are always extreme outliers to be found. There is value in studying the edge cases to understand the value of each perspective and to better understand where we ourselves are operating from.
Extreme Path 1: Discovering Everything for Yourself
By valuing the quest, individuals on the extreme end of this path have a higher chance of producing completely original thoughts and methods. They enjoy the thrill of chasing ideas to their conclusion and creating something new. They are unencumbered by what has historically been considered difficult or impossible, and thus may accomplish many firsts. This perspective is necessary to move the world and intellectual discourse forward.
At the same time, by ignoring entire systems of thought developed over hundreds or thousands of years, it’s possible to lose out on valuable starting points. The route ultimately followed may not be the most effective, as it ignores the benefit of discoveries from previous attempts. This may not matter to the person who wants the thrill of the quest, but may come up later as they learn enough to see the limitations of relying exclusively on their own mind.
Extreme Path 2: Relying Exclusively on the Past and Tradition
By valuing the lessons and writings of the past, these individuals have the benefit of many historical and contemporary minds who have thought through the same thing they are currently contemplating. They can appreciate the multifaceted nature of problems by reading or listening to materials from varied perspectives. This can, at its best, be a form of distributed computing across space and time. They can parse out problems to the thinkers more appropriate to the task, and process only the final result in their mind before coming to a reasoned conclusion.
Over-reliance on traditional or historical methods, however, can impede innovation. Errors or incorrect thinking can be baked into the traditional cake of ideas and may be easily overlooked, as historicity can be mistaken for truth. Many unexamined assumptions can lurk in ancient texts. Even in modern-day scientific papers and meta-analyses, we encounter the problems of bias, p-hacking to artificially back into results, and simple consequences of equipment used, among many other factors. Articles like this one give an idea of why we should not take something for granted simply because it was published in a major medical journal. This is not to say we should discount scientific findings wholesale, but we also cannot forget that science is performed by humans using human-created instruments and mental frameworks, and there can be unforeseen issues with both.
A balance of these two extremes involves hearing/reading a variety of perspectives with a critical eye and ear, then using these to inform a reasoned opinion after applying our own unique perspective. We can avoid the traps of discounting the value of past systems simply because they are not our own, and of blind obedience to a concept purely on the basis of its historicity.
The middle path itself can be a trap as well. We can’t pretend that the extremes don’t have potential benefit to society. It takes all types – those who remind us of the value of history (antique dealers, historians, et al.), those who push the boundaries of what’s possible (innovators, Olympians, groundbreaking designers), and those who can keep the universe moving day to day (middle grounders).
Psychological and Reasoning Perspective
The preference for innovation vs. tradition and our approach when discussing relates to the personality dimensions of Openness to Experience and Agreeableness. These are part of the OCEAN (or CANOE, if you prefer) traits that make up the Big Five, which come from Goldberg’s work (along with many colleagues and predecessors).
Openness to Experience is a spectrum much like the one discussed earlier in this post. On one side (the low side) is a total reliance on routine and predictable behaviors that have worked in the past, and on the other extreme, complete creativity and unique ways of working and behaving.
Agreeableness determines how trusting we are, among other things. If we score low on this dimension, we’re predisposed to be suspicious of any pre-drawn conclusions and won’t hesitate to discount them. If we are highly agreeable, we may give the benefit of the doubt to incomplete evidence, or “go along to get along” if someone in authority suggests that something is true. To risk beating a dead horse, these are extreme examples, and most fall somewhere in the combination/middle area of the spectrum. Clearly there are issues with 100% agreeableness or disagreeableness.
Deductive and inductive reasoning also play a role in how we express these preferences. Deductive reasoning starts from a general premise and drills down into specific details. Inductive reasoning starts from the specific and evolves to the general. A preference for one or the other may influence the way we consume information in either style. I’d guess that deductive reasoning corresponds to favoring pre-drawn conclusions and inductive reasoning lends itself to original thinking, but I haven’t seen anything definitive proving this.
If you’re more familiar with Myers-Briggs, here is an overview of how it relates to the OCEAN attributes.
If you’re interested in the relationship between personality and reasoning in general, check out this study. The irony is not lost on me of linking an academic paper in a post discussing the fallibility of human thinking, but it’s worth a read anyway.
The degree to which non-compliance with tradition and social norms varies significantly across countries and cultures. Michele Gelfand’s book “Rule Makers, Rule Breakers” provides an interesting perspective on this. She categorizes groups into “tight” and “loose” cultures, which she describes as follows: “The tight mind-set involves paying a great deal of attention to social norms, a strong desire to avoid mistakes, a lot of impulse control, and a preference for order and structure. Relishing routine, it requires a keen sensitivity to signs of disorder. The loose mind-set, by contrast, is less attentive to social norms, more willing to take risks, more impulsive, and more comfortable with disorder and ambiguity. These different mind-sets influence our daily lives and relationships in ways that we might not be fully aware.”
The book provides a country and state-level breakdown of which mindset predominates, as well as a matrix of tight vs. loose and individualist vs. collectivist mindsets. Our ability to come to unique and unorthodox conclusions may be influenced by how much personal risk we take by doing so. In very tight, collectivist cultures, the level of risk in going against the norm may be much higher. Some may do so anyway regardless of personal cost, but the total number of people who have the courage to question may be reduced.
…And Finally, Analytics
In Myers-Briggs terms, many of us in analytics are NT types, which are “analysts” or “rational temperament” types. This draws us to the field, as it requires technical skill and ability to argue points. If we relate this to the attributes we discussed, we tend to be high in openness (O) and low in agreeableness (A). This translates to people capable of highly original thought and new insights who are slow to trust. (“Anne, have you been reading my emails?” No, but I probably share a lot in common with you. Personality systems are simply models, but sometimes useful ones.)
Knowing our tendencies and limitations can help us transcend them. Growth involves giving a fair hearing to ideas and individuals that we might at first dismiss, and allowing ourselves the benefit of the wonderful trove of knowledge that came before us (with appropriate levels of review).
My goal with all of this was to explore ideas from a few conversations I’ve had in the past week, and to draw together some common psychological traits we need to be aware of that are likely impacting our work. If you have any further thoughts, I welcome your comments!