Brainstorming really is dumb

The dreaded memo has come around again – management has called another brainstorming session. They are getting people together to solve a problem or, more commonly, to discuss future trends or challenges for the organization.

You cringe when remembering the previous awkward sessions, when too many flip charts were filled with half-baked “ideas.” But the managers seemed to be pleased that “people were involved.” If you are an introvert, you remember the sessions as downright painful. And those flip charts that were so important that day – they were soon forgotten as people returned to their usual work.

But everyone says they had a fun day, so we know the next memo will come around soon enough.

Brainstorming has been described as the placebo in the management medicine kit – everyone believes that it works despite clear evidence that it does not. A recent Fast Company article has declared, “brainstorming is dumb.” Brainstorming continues to be popular even though major studies have shown that positive results are rare, at best, and viable alternatives are readily available.

Getting people together to propose new ideas seems, on the surface, like a good thing. However, as the Fast Company article describes, “just because you throw people together doesn’t mean wonderful things happen.” Others have been more critical, describing brainstorming as nothing more than executive entertainment.

So, what does the research say, and what are the alternatives to brainstorming?

To dig into this, we first have to review where brainstorming came from, and how it was supposed to work. Alex Osborn, an advertising executive, made brainstorming popular — most notably in his 1953 book Applied Imagination. Brainstorming was described as a wonderful group creativity technique that could be used to generate great ideas or solve hard problems. The term came from the idea of storming a problem like a group of commandos, with each “stormer” attacking the same objective.

Osborn was quite detailed in describing how brainstorming should be done. He established instructions for brainstorming sessions, many of which are now ignored. Osborn said that brainstorming sessions should:

  • Involve groups of about 12 people, or perhaps less
  • Avoid judging ideas
  • Strive for idea quantity, because quantity leads to quality
  • Promote divergent thinking and wild ideas
  • Welcome combinations and improvements on ideas

Perhaps the most overlooked principles in Osborn’s technique were:

  • Carefully choose the topic to be amenable to idea generation and as specific as possible
  • Provide pre-session training on the technique
  • Provide background information and orientation to the problem before the session

Osborn claimed that brainstorming, conducted with these principles, produced 44% more ideas than people working alone. With this evidence, and the attractiveness of the sessions, brainstorming took off and was widely adopted in many organizations.

Almost immediately, there were criticisms. Soon after Osborn’s book was published, researchers reported that, contrary to the doctrine, individuals often performed better than groups. Promoters of the technique argued, however, that those studies used questionable designs — one widely quoted study compared people working in groups versus individuals working alone, but all participants received brainstorming instructions. So, they argued, this was not a fair test of the technique.

Questions about how to properly test brainstorming remain today. Should we compare?

  • Brainstorming groups vs. brainstorming individuals
  • Brainstorming groups vs. other groups
  • Number of ideas vs. quality of ideas
  • Variety of ideas vs. novelty of ideas
  • With facilitator vs. without facilitator
  • Pre-existing groups vs. random groups

With so many open questions, it should be no surprise that studies that test brainstorming have come up with inconsistent results. But very often, the results are negative, suggesting that brainstorming may not actually work as advertised.

A review by Scott Isaksen examined 90 different studies and found that brainstorming was often not effective. The review also showed that many of the principles proposed by Osborn were not followed in the studies, leading to questions about the validity of the tests. Other studies have often found that individuals produced more, better ideas. Researchers have even proposed that working in groups could actually inhibit the creative process, perhaps due to nervousness, free riding by some participants, and “group think” where teams fixate on a few early ideas.

With the tests of brainstorming showing mixed results, people have started to consider modifications to the original Osborn principles. Some have argued that the lack of criticism, something that Osborn thought was crucial for allowing creativity to flourish, might actually be a problem. Their studies showed that adding debate and criticism to the brainstorming sessions actually led to more ideas.

Other people have started to question the role of the group interaction. With recent tech developments, researchers have started to examine electronic brainstorming, where people work at computers or online. When online, people can work anonymously while still participating in groups, perhaps using a shared editing space or chat service. Working electronically might reduce some of the inhibiting social factors of group work, such as nervousness or introverted personalities.

Another derivation of the original brainstorming technique is brainwriting where, instead of sharing ideas out loud in a group session, people write their ideas down and pass them around. Others can read the ideas and perhaps build on them, while continuing to work on their own ideas. The Fast Company article suggests that brainwriting, done best when writing both alone and in groups, can be a lot less dumb.

So, when the memo comes around again, propose an alternative? Try brainwriting or electronic brainstorming. Groups should exchange ideas when working on a problem, but they should also work alone, probably before they work in groups. The 1950s-style, awkwardly social, too-man-flip-chart sessions are not the best way to come up with good ideas.

Suggested Reading

Brainstorming Is Dumb. https://www.fastcodesign.com/3062292/evidence/brainstorming-is-dumb

Groupthink: The brainstorming myth. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/01/30/groupthink

10 New Rules For Brainstorming Without Alienating Introverts. https://www.fastcompany.com/3067769/the-science-of-work/10-new-rules-for-brainstorming-without-alienating-introverts

The psychology of anti-vaccine beliefs

Here is an interesting article on understanding the psychology of anti-vaccine beliefs.

The anti-vaccine conspiracy theory holds that vaccines cause a long list of ills. This is taken as a given, an article of faith. Everything else necessarily flows from that premise. If vaccines cause disease, then the pharmaceutical industry must know it. They have done the research. One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to assume that corporations are hiding inconvenient information to protect their profits.

But then the narrative necessarily gets darker. Not only must pharmaceutical executive know that vaccines are causing harm, it must also be true that the medical profession knows as well. Who do you think is conducting that research? They review the data, and they make recommendations for treatment. The government must be involved as well, because they regulate vaccines. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reviews the published science and makes recommendations for the vaccine schedule. So they must be in on it.

Source: The Anti-Vaccine Narrative Just Gets Darker – Science-Based Medicine

Risk perceptions

An interesting introduction to a new book by Geoffrey C. Kabat on the psychology of risk perceptions.

…we have been encouraged to worry about deadly toxins in baby bottles, food, and cosmetics; carcinogenic radiation from power lines and cell phones; and harm from vaccines and genetically modified foods… When looked at even the least bit critically, many of the scares that get high-profile attention turn out to be based on weak or erroneous findings that were hardly ready for prime time.

Can almanacs really predict the weather?

One headline says that the recent winter storms in Vancouver were predicted “almost exactly”. Another headline, 4 days later, says that almanac predictions for the east coast of the U.S. were entirely wrong because springlike conditions occurred when one to two feet of snow had been predicted.

What is going on here? Can we trust an almanac to tells us what the weather will be like, as much as a year in advance?

It turns out that there are many almanacs, with some competing head-to-head. In the U.S., The Old Farmer’s Almanac started in 1792, while the younger rival The Farmers Almanac started publishing in 1818. These almanacs have had a long time to perfect their prediction methods and get things right. But, alas, time has not helped.

A recent article by Dr. Karen Stollznow in Skeptic Magazine provides a nice summary of the history and techniques used in making weather predictions:

The Farmer’s Almamac forecaster, who is only known by the mysterious pseudonym Caleb Weatherbee, uses a “top secret mathematical and astronomical formula, that relies on sunspot activity, tidal action, planetary position and many other factors.” These methods seem to be the “11 herbs and spices” of weather forecasting.

The other almanac uses a similar, secret formula. But how well do they work?

A study conducted in 1981 found that the Old Farmer’s Almanac was no better than chance at predicting the weather for 32 locations around the US. A careful reading of the predictions also shows that they are vague, generalized, and strongly tied to the seasonal averages. Much like astrology, almanacs are relying on the Barnum effect, where people will consider general statements to be very accurate if they believe the statements are tailored just for them (or their local weather).

Almanacs do offer more than weather forecasts, and that might explain some of their appeal:

Almanacs offer an awkward mix of science and superstition. They present factual astronomical information about moon phases, alongside spurious astrological claims. They still offer handy hints, gardening tips and recipes for comfort food, and teach you how to clean the toilet with Coca-Cola and keep fleas away from your dog naturally. Sticking to their roots of prediction, they provide the “best days” to cut hair to increase growth, to quit smoking, apply for a loan or shop for clothes.

So far, nobody can predict the weather far in advance, and certainly not an almanac. But maybe it can tell me when to get my hair cut.

 

Optimize your naps

It turns out that there may be an optimal time and length for the best nap.

New research involving 3,000 Chinese seniors suggests that naps soon after lunch, lasting about about an hour, were the best. Good naps let the seniors function as if they were 5 years younger.

The difference in overall cognition associated with these napping groups was similar to or greater than the decline in cognition associated with a 5-year increase in age.”

Source: The Best Nap Time For Big Mental Health Boost – PsyBlog

Avoiding mental rabbit holes

How can you stay calm under pressure? Are there mental techniques you can use to help you cope under stress? A recent article provides some interesting answers based on interviews with a bomb disposal technician.

Something’s going wrong. You’re worried and your mind starts to race. Your old friend Panic is nuzzling up to you and wants to snuggle. Your brain starts asking, “What if X happens? What if Y happens? What if? What if? What if?”

Navy [bomb disposal] techs refers to this as “the rabbit hole.” And if you go down it, things are going to get very bad very fast.

Source: How To Be Calm Under Pressure: 3 Secrets From A Bomb Disposal Expert

Sham peer reviews a growing problem

Peer review for the publishing of scientific articles is like democracy: a messy, imperfect system that is better than all the alternatives.

As Winston Churchill said:

No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.

Peer review, like science itself, should be self-correcting. A few bad papers may get accepted but eventually the work should be properly evaluated and treated accordingly.

But recently there is a growing trend for pay-to-publish journals to pretend to do peer review, while accepting just about any paper that an author will pay for.

Science has recently published a detailed article on this topic, including an experiment involving an obviously inaccurate article submitted by fictitious authors. The results are not encouraging.

The most basic obligation of a scientific journal is to perform peer review, arXiv founder Ginsparg says. He laments that a large proportion of open-access scientific publishers “clearly are not doing that.” Ensuring that journals honor their obligation is a challenge that the scientific community must rise to. “Journals without quality control are destructive, especially for developing world countries where governments and universities are filling up with people with bogus scientific credentials,” Ginsparg says.

Source: Who’s Afraid of Peer Review? | Science

More research questioning brain training

Can playing games increase your skills at sports and other tasks? Some research and commercial products suggest that they can, but other researchers are skeptical. A recent article in the NY Times examines a neurological game said to increase athletic performance.

But the notion that practice at one task could effectively bolster abilities in another — called transfer — has long been disputed. In 1906, the psychologist Edward L. Thorndike found that rigorous practice helped students’ ability to estimate the areas of rectangles, but it did not help them estimate the areas of other shapes. Another century’s worth of research has continued to reshape and redefine, expand and restrict this line of thinking. Sir Charles Sherrington, the Nobel Prize-winning neurophysiologist, also believed that “acquisition of a habit is not transferable beyond its application.” K. Anders Ericsson’s seminal study on expertise — the so-called 10,000 hours rule — emphasized training that was specific to the skill. This meant that memorizing an extraordinary amount of numbers is not likely to yield improvement in your recall of names. Practicing Tetris can improve your ability to play Tetris, but it probably won’t help you get better at juggling.

Source: Keep Your Eye on the Balls to Become a Better Athlete

When is brain development finished?

This is an interesting article on how the brain develops, and whether it ever finishes. There is also an interesting discussion of teenage thinking and emotions.

The human brain reaches its adult volume by age 10, but the neurons that make it up continue to change for years after that. … The pruning in the occipital lobe, at the back of the brain, tapers off by age 20. In the frontal lobe, in the front of the brain, new links are still forming at age 30, if not beyond.

Source: You’re an Adult. Your Brain, Not So Much. – The New York Times

Tattoos make men more attractive … to men

Men with tattoos are likely to provide serious competition for a woman’s attention, at least in the eyes of other guys, but women themselves actually aren’t that impressed. … the female participants didn’t rate the tattooed gentlemen as more attractive; moreover, they considered them worse prospects as partners and parents.

https://digest.bps.org.uk/2016/12/21/men-think-women-will-be-impressed-by-a-tattoo-but-theyre-not/