We are taught to process information the same way over and over again instead of searching for alternatives ways. Once we think we know what works or can be done, it becomes hard for us to consider alternative ideas. We’re taught to exclude ideas and thoughts that are different from those we have learned. We tend to develop narrow ideas and stick with them until proven wrong.

Even when we actively seek information to test our ideas to see if we are right, we usually ignore paths that might lead us to discover alternatives. Educators discouraged us from looking for alternatives to the prevailing wisdom. Following is an interesting experiment, which was originally conducted by the British psychologist Peter Wason that demonstrates this attitude. Wason would present subjects with the following triad of three numbers in sequence.

**2 4 6**

He would then ask subjects to write other examples of triads that follow the number rule and explain the number rule for the sequence. The subjects could ask as many questions as they wished without penalty.

He found that almost invariably most people will initially say, “4, 6, 8,” or “20, 22, 24,” or some similar sequence. And Watson would say, yes, that is an example of a number rule. Then they will say, “32, 34, 36″ or “50, 52, 54″ and so on– all numbers increasing by two. After a few tries, and getting affirmative answers each time, they are confident that the rule is numbers increasing by two without exploring alternative possibilities.

Actually, the rule Wason was looking for is much simpler– it’s simply numbers increasing. They could be 1, 2, 3 or 10, 20, 40 or 400, 678, 10,944. And testing such an alternative would be easy. All the subjects had to say was 1, 2, 3 to Watson to test it and it would be affirmed. Or, for example, a subject could throw out any series of numbers, for example, 5,4,3 to see if they got a positive or negative answer. And that information would tell them a lot about whether their guess about the rule is true.

The profound discovery Wason made was that most people process the same information over and over until proven wrong, without searching for alternatives, even when there is no penalty for asking questions that give them a negative answer. In his hundreds of experiments, he, incredibly, never had an instance in which someone spontaneously offered an alternative hypotheses to find out if it were true. In short, his subjects didn’t even try to find out if there is a simpler or even, another, rule.

It’s as if when we learn something, we program it into our brain and stop thinking about alternatives. Over time these programs become stronger and stronger, not only cognitively but physiologically as well.

THOUGHT EXPERIMENT

Consider the following problem which involves multiples of five. It’s a complex problem which can only be solved thinking fluidly, inclusively and unconventionally.

05, 10, 15, 20, 30, 35,?

Of the five numbers below, which complete the series above?

06, 15, 18, 20, 25

The series is a progression of multiples of five and the expected answer should be 40. But 40 is not listed below. So a creative thinker would ask “How can I rethink the way I see the number 40?” Well it can be expressed many different ways, for example, Roman numerals and so on. But the answer must be listed below, so the thinker would wonder about different ways of looking at the listed numbers below. (ANSWER IS BELOW)

IT IS THE WILLINGNESS TO EXPLORE ALL APPROACHES THAT IS IMPORTANT

Whenever Noble prize winner Richard Feynman was stuck on a problem he would invent new thinking strategies. He felt the secret to his genius was his ability to disregard how past thinkers thought about problems and, instead, would invent new ways to think. He was so “unstuck” that if something didn’t work, he would look at it several different ways until he found a way that moved his imagination.

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ANSWER: Can they take some other form? One different way of looking at the numbers is to transform the numbers into alphabetical letters. F is the #6 letter of the alphabet; 15 = O; 18 = R; 20 = T; and 25 = Y. The numbers when converted to letters spell “Forty.” The answer to the problem is all five numbers complete the series. This problem can only be solved by considering the least obvious approaches as well as the conventional ones.