We humans like to think we understand the world pretty well.
It gives us a fair amount of comfort to think our beliefs about how things work are spot on.
When our human-made devices, our friends, or other bits of the natural world don’t behave as we anticipate, it’s all too common to write off the experience as an exception.
It’s also normal to get somewhat peeved in the process.
Although these responses are typical and understandable, we often do better when we treat the surprise as a curiosity.
And apply scientific reasoning strategies to untangle it.
Treat the odd event as something interesting in its own right to question, explore and find out more about.
Doing so may not always be comfortable, but will help you make discoveries. And come to understand more about how things really work.
Dr. Kevin Dunbar of the University of Maryland conducted studies to better understand scientific reasoning strategies that help people make discoveries. In his research, Dunbar created a game-like simulation that allowed students to play scientists in a biology lab.
Their mission was to attempt to discover how particular genes work. The simulation was based on real findings and theory from genetics research originally conducted by Drs. Monod and Jacob.
The students, playing the role of would-be-famous biologists, were also given the same original belief about how the genes worked that Monod and Jacob had at the start of their research.
The hypothesis they were given was, in fact, wrong. However, it could still help explain and anticipate some of the data.
The biologist-players were able to conduct experiments to test this original hypothesis, and it was not long before they found evidence inconsistent with it. Surprise!
At this point, the players dealt with the unexpected results in one of two ways.
One group of players continued to seek evidence to support the original hypothesis, apparently sweeping the bad findings under the rug. They exhibited a confirmation bias.
None of this first group of students ever discovered the actual mechanism governing gene behavior.
Others instead paused to set a new goal. Instead of conducting more tests of their original hypothesis, they set up new experiments to try to explain the cause of the puzzling findings. Their scientific reasoning strategy was to pivot and embrace the surprise.
These students tended to come up with the correct hypothesis by the end of the experiment. They also learned more about how the genes worked, overall.
These, and other data, led Dunbar to conclude that people make discoveries when they encounter evidence that is inconsistent with their theories, and then try to determine the cause of the unexpected findings.
In our own research, we’ve found that people who are able to adapt quickly to new cultures apply this same scientific reasoning strategy to untangle cultural surprises.
It appears to be a highly useful, general cognitive skill.
Whether you are on a path to win the Nobel prize, or just want to better understand your computer or your spouse, making an effort to get to the bottom of the little puzzles you come across can help you to learn more about what makes things tick.
Image credit: Orin zebest
Dunbar, K. (1993). Concept Discovery in a Scientific Domain Cognitive Science, 17 (3), 397-434 DOI: 10.1207/s15516709cog1703_3