Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Brilliance of Poor Penmanship

Please answer the following two questions:

It takes five machines five minutes to make five widgets.  How long does it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?  100 minutes or 5 minutes?

If a field of lily pads doubles in size every day, covering an entire pond on day 48, how many days does it take to cover half the pond?  24 or 47?

Got your answers?

I'm slowly making my way through Daniel Kahneman's brilliant new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, discovering all the ways we unintentionally sabotage ourselves.  The concept of fast vs. slow thinking--what happens when the wrong one emerges at the wrong time, or the kind of thinking you really need is just plumb tuckered-out--is endlessly fascinating.  This is not "left brain-right brain" pop psychology, either, but Nobel laureate material.

Coincident with reading Kahneman, I've also been bemoaning once again my hideous handwriting. I find my penmanship even more frustrating now that there are very cool apps for the iPad, like NotesPlus, that carefully translates all of my scribblings into (what is apparently) Hungarian.

As for the two questions above, they were given to two groups of Princeton students.  Everything was equal except one set of questions was neatly typed and easy to read, and the other set was in washed-out grey font the students had to work to read.

Of those reading the neatly typed questions, 90% got at least one wrong.  Of those struggling to read the washed-out questions, only 30% got at least one wrong.

Kahneman's conclusion is that those who were challenged cognitively to understand the problem were forced to think harder, and because of that, came up with the correct answer more often.

(There's another conclusion a Brown grad might make about a Princeton grad, but I'll hold on that one.)

If Kahneman's theory is correct, all the notes I've taken in my perpetual notebooks for the last 30 years should, upon re-reading, turn me into a flippin' genius.

By the way, if you'd like the answers to these questions, please send me a self-addressed, stamped envelope and I'll write them down for you.  I can't promise it'll help, though.