Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insight
Author: Gary Klein
This book is about how we gain insights, ‘the transformative discovery of new patterns‘ which leads to a shift in beliefs (page 23). It is the outcome of the author’s extensive study of 120 remarkable people, on which he based his Triple Path Model of achieving insight (page 104). The author establishes three key criteria for developing insights: an openness to revising existing beliefs, a willingness to dispel wrong assumptions, and a reluctance to explain away anomalous findings (pages 102-103). The book makes the important distinction between insights and intuitions, which are simply the application of previously learned patterns (pages 36 and 27).
The author, a prominent psychologist, identified five strategies for gaining insight, and how these work form the foundations of the book. Coincidences, for example, set people on the path of discovery, whilst curiosities provoke further investigation of observed facts (pages 48-50). Creative desperation is the process of ‘finding a way out of a trap that seems inescapable’, while connections work by linking different ideas together (pages 75 and 80-86). Finally, contradictions expose alternative realities which lead to paradigm shifts. Unlike the other four strategies which require an open mindset, contradictions rely on having a suspicious and skeptical outlook (pages 74-75).
The author illustrated each insight strategy with very appropriate and effective examples. He referred, for example, to the theory of natural selection which evolved from Charles Darwin‘s ability to make a connection between his observations and his prior knowledge (pages 39-40). He illustrated how coincidences work with his very engaging account of how astronomer Jocelyn Bell, whilst studying quasers as a graduate student, discovered rapidly spinning neutron stars named pulsars (pages 46-47). The story of Michael Gottlieb showed how he resolved the mystery of AIDS by observing an emerging pattern of unusual fungal infections and reduced helper T immune cells in homosexual men (pages 12-14). He illustrated curiosity with the example of the discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Röntgen, and creative desperation with Napoleon Bonaparte‘s victory over the Anglo-Spanish forces at Toulon (pages 50 and 89). To show how contradictions work, the author related the story of John Snow‘s discovery that cholera was transmitted through contaminated water (page 70).
A common experience of people who try to promote their insights is the initial resistance and ridicule they receive from their peers and from society. This was the case, for example, when Barry Marshall discovered that stomach ulcers were caused by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, and when Walter Reed recognised that yellow fever was transmitted by mosquitoes (pages 56 and 59). These examples support the author’s assertion that ‘when people contradict the prevailing wisdom, even professional prominence won’t protect them’ (page 71).
On the flip side, the book cites many examples of how eminent people failed to make breakthrough insights in their fields of expertise. One such case is the failure of Rosalind Franklin to discover the structure of DNA, losing out to James Watson and Francis Crick (pages 130-138). The author asserted that people miss the opportunities for insight when they stick to flawed beliefs, apply concrete thinking, or adopt a passive stance (page 120). People may also refuse to abandon wrong assumptions, fail to detect clear anomalies, miss obvious connections, practice functional fixedness, or apply a mechanised state of mind-the Einsteintellung effect (pages 117 and 176- 177).
Failure to develop insights may also occur at the organisational level, often driven by misguided policies implemented to eliminate the risk of errors. Such policies may, for example, enforce checklists and protocols which induce mindlessness. The attainment of insight may also be inhibited by the hierarchical structure of many institutions which repress dissenting views and entrench groupthink (pages 161-167). The author illustrated how such policies led to the failure of big institutions such as Eastman Kodak and Encyclopedia Britannica (page 216).
The book made several recommendations to improve our chances of developing insights. These include developing curiosity when faced with inconsistencies; being open to perspectives that are contradictory to ours; and engaging in unfamiliar activities (pages 182-185). He urged people to make their own luck, and not rely on serendipity. He also advised organisations to ‘demonstrate willpower‘ by acting on insights (page 217).
This is an important contribution to the creativity literature, one based on close observation and practical examples. The author has covered the subject extensively, and he has provided guidance to encourage the development of insight. His review of the organisational resistance to insights is a gem. The book is easy to read and the lessons should be easy to apply.
Healthcare relies on insights and creativity, and this book has explored the subject in detail. It explains how insights develop, and how people may become more insightful. The author was particularly detailed in his discussion of the organisational characteristics that inhibit insight, and these apply to healthcare institutions. The whole subject is important to healthcare and I recommend the book to all doctors.
- Publisher, Place, Date: Nicholas Brealey, London, 2014
- Number of chapters: 18
- Number of pages: 281
- ISBN: 978-1-85788-619-1
- Star rating: 4
- Price: £9.48