What should we make of all this? The probability that there is a secret mental trick that at one stroke will enable the human mind to solve complex problems better is practically zero. It is equally unlikely that our brains have some great cache of unused potential. It such things existed, we would be using them. Nowhere in nature does a creature run around on three legs and drag along a fourth, perfectly functional but unused leg. Out brains function the way that they function and not otherwise. We must make the best of that; there is no magic wand or hidden treasure that will instantly make us deep and powerful thinkers.

Real improvement can be achieved, however, if we understand the demands that problem solving places on us and the errors that we are prone to make when we attempt to meet them. Our brains are not fundamentally flawed; we have simply developed bad habits. When we fail to solve a problem, we fail because we tend to make a small mistake here, a small mistake there, and these mistakes add up. Here we have forgotten to make our goal specific enough. There we have over-generalized. Here we have planned too elaborately, there too sketchily.

The subject of this book is the nature of our thinking when we deal with complex problems. I describe the kinds of mistakes human beings make, the blind alleys they follow down and the detours they take in attempting to cope with such problems. But I am not concerned with thinking alone, for thinking is always rooted in the total process of psychic activity. There is no thinking without emotion. We get angry, for example, when we can’t solve a problem, and our anger influences our thinking. Thought is embedded in a context of feeling and affect, thought influences, and is in turn influenced by, that context.

Thought is also always rooted in values and motivations. We ordinarily think not for the sake of thinking but to achieve certain goals based on our system of values. Here possibilities for confusion arise: the conflict between treasured values and measures that are regarded as necessary can produce some curious contortions of thought - “Bombs for Peace!” The original value is twisted into its opposite. Motivations provide equally ambiguous guidelines. There are those who would say that what counts are the intentions behind our thinking, that thought plays only a serving role, helping us achieve our goals but failing to go to the root of the evils in our world. In our political environment, it would seem, we are surrounded on all sides with good intentions. But the nurturing of those good intentions is an utterly undemanding mental exercise, while drafting plans to realize those worthy goals is another matter. Moreover, it is far from clear whether “good intentions plus stupidity” or “evil intentions plus intelligence” have wrought more harm in the world. People with good intentions usually have few qualms about pursuing their goals. As a result, incompetence that would otherwise have remained harmless often becomes dangerous, especially as incompetent people with good intentions rarely suffer the qualms of conscience that sometimes inhibit the doings of competent people with bad intentions. The conviction that our intentions are unquestionably good may sanctify the most questionable means.

Dieter Dörner The Logic of Failure, translation Rita and Bob Kimber October 1, 2008
Posted on October 1, 2008