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The Reasonably Rational Thinking Process, Part 1: Why Are Some Problems So Hard To Solve?

9 min

This post is part of a series (currently in progress) on the “Reasonably Rational Thinking Process.

The sense that “I should have solved this by now” brings a sickening mix of anger, frustration, and shame.

There’s no excuse, we think.

We work so hard, for so long, desperately seeking an answer..and get nowhere.

Eventually, our frustration leads to despair, and that despair leads us to simply stop trying.

We’re now in a state of Learned Helplessness.

“For science”

Torture a dog long enough and he will eventually stop trying to escape.

Psychologists Steven Maier and Martin Seligman discovered that learned helplessness emerged in the face of insoluble problems – and became internalized, changing behavior even in completely different situations.

From the New Yorker:

Seligman and Maier first attached dogs to a harness, a kind of rubberized cloth hammock, with holes for the dogs’ legs to dangle free. As the dogs hung, their heads were kept in place by two panels, which they could easily press with their heads. At random intervals, coming between sixty and ninety seconds apart, they would receive a series of shocks to their hind feet.

Some of the dogs could control the shocks with a simple press of the head against either of the panels; for others, the head-pressing did nothing. The moment the dogs with the functional panels touched either one, the shock ended. Otherwise, it lasted for thirty seconds to begin with, and for increasingly shorter durations thereafter.

The next day, each dog was set free inside a shuttle box, a two-compartment cage separated by an adjustable barrier. Each time the lights in the box went off, half of the floor would become electrified, shocking the poor animals. But if the dog jumped over the barrier and into the next cage, the shock could be avoided. This time, each dog had the power to end its discomfort quite easily.

When Seligman and Maier analyzed the results, they found a consistent pattern. The dogs that had learned to avoid the shocks by pressing their heads against the panels on the first day were quick to jump the barrier on day two. Not a single dog failed to learn to jump quickly after the first go-around. Those that had been unable to escape the shocks, though, weren’t even trying. They were free to move, explore, and escape—but they didn’t.

Two-thirds of them were still hovering in the electrified side of the box by the end of the experiment—and for the remaining third, the average number of trials to learn to escape was just more than seven, out of the total ten. A week later, five of the six dogs that had failed to learn were still unwilling to even try: they once again failed the shuttle-box test.

The effect of the harness experiment was been both severe and lasting.

The New Yorker – 2002

The lesson I take from Seligman’s work is that we all have a tendency to retreat in the face of helplessness; if we learn we can’t affect our future, then why bother? Why do anything?

Being faced with intractable problems creates real psychic pain. Eventually, the cost/benefit analysis stops working out, and we simply roll over and take our lashing.

But why are some problems so intractable, while others seem easy to solve?

In my experience, intractable problems have two key characteristics:

  1. They don’t have a clear cause.
  2. There is no clear next action.

Cause and Effect In a Complex World

Humans are narative creatures.

In all things, we try to explain our experiences through stories.

If we’re bullied in school, we may internalize that there’s something wrong with us. Contrarily, you could take that experience and come to the conclusion that people are inherently cruel.

In eithe rstory, the effect – being bullied in school – is not up for debate. Instead, it’s the cause that’s the subject of the story.

Why did this happen to me…and what does that tell me about the world?

Reality, however, is not so simple. Rather than basic cause and effect, the world around us is governed by complex system dynamics – a interlocking web of relationships.

The systems of the body…except that this map doesn’t include the connections between the varying systems.

All of these systems interact with one another, affecting each other in unexpected ways.

The complex systems of the body – except that this map doesn’t even show the interconnections, which is where the magic happens.

What’s more, qualities possessed by none of the component parts of a system can emerge from within the interactions of those parts.

Individual ants, which are extremely limited in their capabilities, can produce fantastic acts of intelligence at the colony level. No particular ant is smart; yet the colony as a whole is brilliant.

This is known as emergence – a trait not found in any of the component parts nevertheless appears in the system as a whole.

When you several complex interlocking systems together with emergence we get a world in which the “effect” is oftentimes very far away from the “cause.”

We dance, and it rains.

I pray, I heal.

I feel these things are connected…but how?

Late Night Snacking in a Complex World

Let me give you a real-world example.

For the past 4 years or so, I’ve been meticulously weighing and measuring my food. I tracked everything down to the gram and logged that data into a weekly spreadsheet.

I did this because my natural portion control is fairly poor, and it was the only method I found that gave me control over my weight without harshly limiting my food choices.

That is, up until 2019.

Around Thanksgiving of 2019 I decided to take a break from all the food tracking.

My weight was in a good place, and I wanted to enjoy the holidays without stressing about weighing my aunt’s broccoli and cheese casserole.

The plan was to take Thanksgiving to Christmas off and start up a new plan January 1st.

As I write this, we’re getting perilously close to March – and I’ve been absolutely unable to get back on track.

I find myself eating bowls of cerel in the middle of the night, raiding my kids Halloween candy stashes, and constantly craving snacks. I haven’t been able to remember to track my food consistently, even though this was something I did reliably for years. My caloric intake is see-sawing up and down, and despite resolving to fix the problem several times, I find myself repeatedly backsliding.

So – what’s going on?

Looking for a simple cause and effect relationship here can be frustrating.

Simple cause and effect often (but not always) doesn’t fully explain what’s happening around us…and this can be extremely frustrating when we’re trying to solve a problem.
We’ll come back to this diagram (and come up with an alternative) in our next post.

Am I simply weak-willed? Seems unlikely, since I was able to follow this same diet plan for years.

Is it just access to food? Maybe, but I removed most of the offending snacks and still found myself eating random things from the kitchen.

Have I simply given up? Maybe, but I still feel like I want to eat on plan.

The reality is probably far more complicated than any of these options make it out to be.

If I believe there’s a simple cause and effect relationship here, all I should have to do to prevent the effect is remove the cause.

Remove the candy from the house, you’ll stop eating.

Strengthen your will, you’ll stop eating.

Renew your motivation, you’ll stop eating.

But if this isn’t a simple cause and effect relationship, it’s likely that the effect will still occur even when I’ve addressed what I believe to be the cause.

And that is a recipe for deep frustration.

Remember – taking action and seeing no resulting improvement leads to learned helplessness.

Just like the dogs who learned that they couldn’t control when they were shocked, constantly banging my head against a seemingly insoluble problem doesn’t just mean I don’t solve this problem; it means I start to internalize an inability to solve any problem.

Realizing that we’re just one part of an interconnected web of complex systems can leave us feeling powerless, because we can’t see a way to exert control over our situation.

In other words:

If nothing I do works, then why bother?

You Can’t Move Forward Without a Next Step

Let’s talk about procrastination.

I don’t view procrastination as an entirely bad thing – it might be that our expectation of permanent peak performance (or 3P, as I will now refuse to stop calling it) is more fantasy than reality.

But it’s certainly true that the experience of knowing what you have to do, and wanting to do it but simply feeling unable to get started is a deeply frustrating one.

We tend to attribute this kind of procrastination to laziness. But I think there’s actually a much more common culprit:

Not knowing the next step.

Many of us think we know what the next thing we need to do is – “research cancer rates,” or “send memo to boss” or “write blog post.”

These seem like relatively simple tasks.

But those “simple” tasks are actually quite complex – there’s some uncertainty built in.

Research cancer rates…how?

Send memo to boss…saying what?

Write blog post…but what’s my argument?

Every task has within it a complex series of subtasks.

Even “google my company name” has a series of steps hiding inside it that we take for granted ..

(open up your browser…oh, well, first you’ll need a computer. So get your laptop out. It’s not charged? Find the adaptor, plug it in…OK, now open up your browser. Find the URL bar. Type in ““…etc.)

These sub tasks, if they’re not well understood, create the slightest sense of uncertainty.

And uncertainty leads to inaction.

Humans, in general, hate uncertainty. Acting under uncertain circumstances brings risk, and risk is, well…risky.

Better to avoid uncertainty altogether than risk looking foolish, or resource loss, or even (in some cases) death.

While it’s unlikely that you’re going to die while writing your next blog post, that tendency to avoid uncertainty remains, nestled deep within your reptilian brain. Hence, the endless ways we can find with which to avoid the task at hand.

(Ever find yourself suddenly cleaning a closet that’s been a mess for years, just so you won’t have to do the thing you’re supposed to be doing?)

Intractable problems tend to have no clear next step – whether because we can’t find the true cause (as discussed above), or because we can’t think of any way to help. Both of these situations lead to analysis paralysis – we don’t act because we’re not sure how to.

Solving Problems in a Complex World

Given that we’ve established the two characterists of intractable problems – a complexity that makes finding the root cause difficult, and no clear next step to take…

How do we go about solving them?

The best answer I’ve found is called the Logical Thinking Process.

Admittedly – not a great name.

It sounds pedantic, boring, serious – and not particularly applicable to everyday life.

If I go on to tell you that it was created in the 80’s by an Israeli physicist, it’s probably going to sound even less useful than it did before.

“I’m trying to stop snacking in the middle of the night, Dan, not send a god-damned rocket into space.”

And you’d be right.

The Logical Thinking Process, in the forms that it is currently available, is intimidating, overly complex, and not particularly useful in every day situations.


What if I told you that by utilizing a dead-simple diagramming process, you could:


And it’s only going to take me a few minutes to teach you each step.

AND, once you know it, you will immediately be able to teach it to someone else.

Over the next few posts I’m go to show you this exact process – boiled down so that it’s instantly applicable to your life.

The key here is that we already have within us the ability to solve nearly any problem.

The key here is that we already have within us the ability to solve nearly any problem.

Part two of this series will appear next week.

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