Catching Carmen Sandiego: Part 2- Razor Sharp Reasoning

Written by Hank Martin in Personal Development

The wise are instructed by reason, average minds by experience, the stupid by necessity and the brute by instinct.Cicero

Sharpening Your Smarts

This is part 2 of a multi-part series on developing detective skills, like deduction, observation and reasoning, that can enhance your life and travel experiences. In part 1 we discussed the benefits of observation and how you can hone your observation ability with a bunch of awesome games. If you don't know who Carmen Sandiego is, just want to get caught up, or if you have a tendency to miss out on things that are happening right before your very eyes because you can't stay focused then part 1 is definitely worth checking out.

Part 2 will explore how to take your observations and draw conclusions, or reason your way to accurate deductions. We will discuss the ins and outs of reason, how you can lose yourself down the rabbit hole of thought and make up stories that don't adhere to fact, and share some fun ways to make your reason razor sharp.

 

Improve Travel Reasoning

 

The use of reason is a simple process that usually ends in a convoluted answer. The problem lies not in reason, but in our ability to use reason. 

So now that your sleuth skills have given you superb powers of observation you have all of this really great information floating around in your head. Beyond the question of what information to keep and what to discard is the larger question: what does this all mean? 

Reason takes all of the raw data you have collected and draws conclusions based on fact. Reason is the coup de grace, the flashy end result of observation. Info gathering is the first step and deduction is the conclusion. Reason or deduction is an automated process, for most people, that happens so fast you are likely to not even know it's happening. At any moment of any day we take in, process, and reason millions of pieces of information.

But, over time, we've let some gremlins enter our reasoning process. These bad habits, instead of guiding us towards correct conclusions mislead us. The two habits that most of us pick up are the fairy tale habit and the rabbit hole habit.

 

Fairy Tales

The problem with stories is that we never get all of the pieces we need to make a 100% accurate conclusion. This idea is actually a literary technique used by legendary writers to add suspense and drama to their works. George R.R. Martin is a master at this in his legendary Game of Thrones series. In real life this Fairy Tale habit plays out like this:


A Police officer arrives on scene to find a biker cuddling the bent and mangled remains of her precious fixie bike. A cab driver is pulled over next to her with his flashers on; his face is red and his eyes are two fireballs burning with anger. The fixie bike hipster says the cabbie didn't see her crossing the street, even though she signaled her intention to do so. The cabbie claims the biker never used  hand signals to notify vehicles of her turning and that the hipster was trying to cut across three lanes of traffic. The squabble goes back and forth for a while before the police officer finally steps in and writes the cab driver a ticket for inattentive driving. He assigns 80% of the blame on the cabbie and 20% on the biker for not riding safely. Further he forces the cabbie to reimburse the hipster for her bike.

He reached this decision by the following process: bikes have the right of way and are at a huge disadvantage because of their size and speed. Plus since the hipster is female and looks friendly and nice (plus she only has one ear piercing and no visible tattoos), while the cabbie can barely speak passable English, the police officer agrees that the hipster is probably telling the truth and the cabbie is lying. 


Can anyone see the problem? The police officer uses such embellishments as the sex of the individual, the number of piercings and tattoos and the english speaking ability of the individuals as a basis for drawing his conclusion. He uses superfluous details as fact. All of these things have nothing to do with the incident but are merely observations, assumptions from past experiences or contrived conclusions that make a memorable story. Instead of listening only to the facts he fills in the gaps of the story  with his social biases. Our police officer above has a soft spot for women, has no patience for people who can't speak English and a strong aversion to piercings and tattoos. How do these things shape his conclusions of "fact?"

What are your social biases, and how do they shape your conclusions? We all have social biases, and it is extremely difficult to not let these biases fill in the gaps left by our observations. Instead of using only relevant details from that specific event or location we have a tendency to embellish and create our own fairy tale based on past experiences and perspectives. If we have things X, Y, and Z then we connect the dots with a story that incorporates all three variables, whether it is true or not. Making fairytales is one of the main reasons why travel always appears glamorous even when it is not. 

To draw more accurate conclusions about people, places and things we need to constantly ask ourselves: what details are relevant and what are superfluous? Instead of believing that more information leads to a better conclusion we need to stick to only what we know about a given situation. If you travel to learn and see the world then you owe it to yourself to make your experience as genuine as possible. This means being aware of our social biases and compensating for them when drawing conclusions.

Rabbit Holes

Just like Alice in Wonderland we have a tendency to lose ourselves down the rabbit hole when drawing conclusions. When I say the words sand, water and sun what do you think of? Some of you may think of a nice beach somewhere, maybe in Greece or somewhere else in the Mediterranean. Maybe you are thinking about several important ingredients in making concrete. You could be thinking about a sandbox at a nearby park, or building sandcastles. Either way, there are many lines of thought to follow from the three words listed above.

This problem, an overabundance of possibilities, is true in most cases when drawing conclusions from facts. This is why detectives seek out the wrong man as culprit, we misunderstand each other and why we have different political factions. Our perspective and life experiences shade the limitless possible of conclusions.

But there is a way to help us narrow down the conclusions and follow the right rabbit hole. Taking the example above let's add the word playground to the mix. So when you hear the words sand, water, sun and playground chances are good you are more likely to think of a park over ingredients in making concrete. By simply adding one more word, by collecting more information,  we narrow down possible conclusions. The key here is details and not embellishments or personal observations as described in the last section.

As this relates to travel, remembering that we can be misled by jumping to conclusions helps us seek out greater evidence and dig deeper into a person's behavior, why a culture has certain quirks, how people live and much more before reaching a decision. Minimizing our prejudgements until all of the facts are gathered helps eliminate stereotyping and prejudicial behavior. Plus we give ourselves the chance to experience deeper, more real moments.

 

Brain Boosting Exercises

  1. Sudoku- This game is a cross between crossword puzzles and tic tac toe. Given a 9x9 grid you must fill each row, column, and individual 3x3 grid with the numbers 1-9. This is the perfect game for thinking logically in a confined system. There is only one possible conclusion based on the facts set before you. Regular play will help sharpen your deduction skills and rational. Pick up a pocket size Sudoku book and play whenever you have free time. Or, go paperless and download a free app.
  2. Play Chess- the perfect game for thinking logically, planning ahead and psychological warfare. These days you don't even need a partner thanks to free chess programs online.
  3. Note taking- carry a pocket notebook with you and jot down the facts of a place or situation. What does a place smell like, look like, and feel like? How do people act? Jot down quick bullet points and focus on facts only. Later, reread what you've written and draw conclusions based on your observations.
  4. Reading- books have a cohesive and rigid structure. Read a good detective or spy novel and try guessing the ending. Take notes as you go, jotting down only the important facts. Stop reading with about 50 pages left and try to figure out the ending of the book based on the notes you've taken.


Learning to Become a Detective

The exercises in this part are very work intensive. Since your rational is part of the hardware that runs your mind it requires a bit of effort to change.

If you desire to get the most out of life, if you want to see and experience things as they really are and if you are curious about how the world works then you cannot afford to let your reasoning lax. Reasoning is the basis by which we make all decisions; if our logic is faulty then we end up making poor decisions that make our lives miserable. Living the happiest, best life possible requires a sound mind, a Sherlock Holmes' mind

About the Author

Hank Martin

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Traveling for a world education and writing about the life lessons learned.



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