Things counter-intuitive

“That makes no sense!” … “How can that possibly work?” … “There is no way that I am trying that!

Are these the kinds of comments you have heard from beginners at … well anything that they consider “counter-intuitive”?

And how much experience does it take before the “counter-intuitive” becomes “intuitive”. (And, by the way, “experience” is the stuff that you get, when you don’t get what you want!)

In a recent CNN article, Penn Jillette draws parallels between:

  • dealing with the banking mess
  • correcting a skid while driving
  • eating fire
  • … anything “counter-intuitive”.

This is very interesting, because there are many things which are counter-intuitive.

Even more interestingly, some of them are not only counter-intuitive to “beginners”, but also to “intermediates” in the relevant skill or field … and, according to Alan Cooper in “The Inmates Are Running The Asylum” most of us spend most of our time as “perpetual intermediates”!

Have you sailed offshore and encountered weather which is worse than you expected? When inexperienced, your instinct is to return to the safety of the harbour. If you are lucky, then … you are lucky and you make it in time. But if the weather deteriorates rapidly, then you may find that, by the time you reach the harbour, it is too dangerous to enter it. More experienced sailors head for the open sea when the weather deteriorates because, out there, it is less likely that you will run into large objects, such pieces of land (as well as other vessels)! For the less experienced, this may be counter-intuitive; but experience has the effect of reversing the reaction.

Similarly when pilots are relatively new to flying, their reaction to deteriorating weather (particularly reducing visibility) is to descend so as to attempt to maintain visual contact with the ground. With more experience and training in additional skills (particularly instrument flying) comes the realization that as the visibility deteriorates it is safer to climb than to descend; as with sailing, this takes one away from the hazardous terrain. Again, experience has resulted in a response which, to the inexperienced, can appear counter-intuitive.

Not only does this apply vertically, but also horizontally. When contemplating flying when there is bad weather in the area, inexperienced pilots are inclined to fly away from the weather; whereas experienced pilots are likely to do the opposite and fly towards it.

Flying away from the weather puts the airfield between the aircraft and the weather; this risks ending up trying to race the weather to the airfield, which is not a healthy thing to do (as with sailing back to a harbour). Flying towards the weather means that the aircraft is between the weather and the airfield and can always return safely, although this may initially seem counter-intuitive.

There are many other counter-intuitive things in aviation. Perhaps the most specific example is, during an approach to land, the use of power to control height and pitch attitude to control speed; this even eluded early designers of automatic landing systems who omitted to ask pilots about this well-known model! Another example relates to safety: there is a joke that, when a young man joined the air force, his mother said: “Be very careful up there, Johnny. Don’t fly too high! And slow down for the corners!”. Well, flying low and slow is a notoriously dangerous combination; and to be turning at the same time risks a spin from which there may be too little height to recover! Clearly something which, it seems, Johnny’s mother would find counter-intuitive. And talking of spin recovery, the use of the “opposite rudder” can also be initially counter-intuitive; for many years, it seems to have eluded early pilots for whom entering a spin was likely to be fatal.

Where else do we find examples of counter-intuitive behaviour? Of course, it does depends on what one finds “intuitive”!

In parenting, the instinct to protect one’s children can have the effect of making them more vulnerable. First-born children seem to be less at ease with their surroundings than children born later; this seems to be a consequence of parents being more protective of their first child; they see and imagine every possible danger and strive to prevent the child being harmed by it. By the time that they have had three children, parents are more relaxed and realise that the minor bumps on the head are likely to help them to learn not to bump their head and decreases rather than increases the danger. It is better to make small mistakes and learn from them, than to be protected from them and, therefore, not to learn. Whether this is counter-intuitive depends on one’s experience of parenting!

Presumably, for people brought up in a political regimes in which all economic activity is controlled centrally, their familiarity with reliance on that control must make it more difficult to understand how a free market can possibly operate effectively. The idea that everyone does their own thing and the ensemble behaviour ends up being effective must seem like some like of optimistic mumbo-jumbo. The differences of viewpoint taken when describing creation and evolution might be considered to be of a similar counter-intuitive type.

There are business models which can appear counter-intuitive. For example, the eventual purpose of “lean” approaches to business processes is to generate “pull” (after having generated flow, mapped value streams and identified value in various forms). Starting from the more usual “push” messaging in the value stream, this reversal takes a leap of trust which is likely never to be undone. As with the sailing and flying examples, once “the penny has dropped”, additional experience serves to reinforce the new view; a watershed has been crossed.

How can things which actually work very effectively, not make sense to everyone? Well, it is just counter-intuitive, isn’t it?!



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