Lateral Thinking, Fast and Slow…

Recently, while trying to wrap a present (which was in a fairly large box), I hit an unfortunate block… the sheet of wrapping paper that I’d bought was not big enough to be wrapped all the way around the present. It was out by about 4cm, and for all my effort of trying to stretch the paper, it was just too big a gap to close.

As my partner returned home, I started ranting and venting my frustration at the insufficient size of the wrapping paper and also had a moan at the thought of having to go out to the shop to buy some more to solve the problem.
But at that point, she amazed me…

She nudged me out of her way and placed the box at an angle (each side facing a corner of the paper). She then started folding in the corners of the wrapping paper rather than the straight edges, and to my surprise the sheet of wrapping paper was more than enough to cover the entire gift!

It made me think about how I had subconsciously fell into the trap of applying “Critical Thinking” to set about the task of wrapping the present. Critical thinking is linear thinking, where you take the most direct route to solve the problem. I had automatically set about the task in such a way that I was so used to, as it was the way that I have wrapped presents my entire life – plonk the present in the middle and pull up the paper from the sides so they meet at the top… This was the way that I had been taught to wrap presents when I was young and it had just become automatic for me to wrap presents this way without putting any though into it.

My partner, on the other hand, was thinking laterally. She had taken an indirect and creative approach, that isn’t immediately obvious. She had thought about the situation more and worked out a creative solution that was different (and more efficient) to my solution.
(My solution being to just buy more paper)…

This then reminded me of a book that I read called: “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.

In his book, he pushes the compelling idea that the human brain thinks in 2 different ways; “System 1” (where it performs automatically), and “System 2” (where concentration and though process is required). For example, if someone asks you to do the sum: 1+1, you automatically know the answer without having to think. you will automatically respond with “2”. Daniel Kahneman describes this as “System 1” thinking. But if someone was to ask you to do the sum: 185937 x 42, then your brain does not have an automatic answer to this and some level of concentration is required to think about the problem and work it out. He describes this as “System 2” thinking.

I had automatically (subconsciously) performed the “System 1” thinking concept and began to wrap the present in such a way that I had been so accustomed to. Additionally I had even used “System 1” thinking for my solution! I had committed that I needed to buy more wrapping paper in order to complete the task, without thinking about the situation of there being other possible solutions.

My partner on the other hand, had stepped back to review the situation and used the “System 2” concept to think about a different, more viable and effective answer to the puzzle.

Or could it just be that she has learned to wrap presents using this technique  from stumbling across this problem herself previously and being taught to place the present at an angle from someone else?

Either way, I’m now confident that I’ll be able to put into action this technique whenever I’m in this situation again. Perhaps it will even become part of my “System 1” thinking!

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