zenpundit.com » psychology

Archive for the ‘psychology’ Category

Cognitive Tools for Creative Thinking

Friday, May 15th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen“]

It has been some time since I have touched upon this topic. Recently though, I initiated a discussion at work on ways to enhance and stimulate creativity and  creative thinking and presented a suite of methods for generating and refining ideas. I didn’t get into the insight-based aspects of creativity, nor the high-level kinds of synthesis you see with people who have genuine mastery over a field or domain. My focus was more on developing people’s ability to think divergently, generate or recognize novel ideas and then refine or develop them.

Therefore, many of these are active, intentional exercises or strategies. They tend to be productive but their creativity is not quite the same as what is produced, say, when a skilled musician is “jamming”, an inventor is tinkering or a painter or scientist is experimenting in the “flow“.  The following are also not an exhaustive list:

Creative Problem Solving (CPS)

Developed by Alex Osborn and Sidney Parnes, CPS seeks to harness Divergent and Convergent thinking in a holistic, multi-step, learning process. In essence, the students are sequentially alternating between Generating ideas and Focusing on refining, evaluating, applying them until the “problem” is solved. This is one of the older models of instilling creative thinking and has been widely used, particularly for well-defined or technical problems.

Edward DeBono Lateral Thinking Exercises

DeBono developed a system of forced choice and association exercises that are well suited to promoting critical and creative thinking at the same time as students address a concept or activity. Lateral Thinking exercises lend themselves naturally to being made into graphic organizers or as leading questions in class or group discussion. Some examples:

PMI – “Plus, Minus, Interesting”                             OPV – “Other People’s Views    

ADI – “Agreement, Disagreement, Irrelevant”  APC – “Alternatives, Possibilities, Choices”

EBS – “Examine Both Sides”                                      CAF – “Consider All Factors”

HVLV – “High Value, Low Value”                             AGO – “Aims, Goals, Objectives”

TEC – “Target, Explore, Conclude”                          PISCO – “Purpose, Input, Solutions, Choice”

Related to Lateral Thinking, but not the same, is Horizontal Thinking. While the former are concrete exercises, horizontal thinking is using a familiar area of knowledge to look for analogies and patterns in less or unfamiliar fields. Both Lateral and Horizontal thinking differ from the traditional model of analytical-reductionist Vertical Thinking associated with critical thinking done within a subject matter field. Vertical thinking and Lateral/Horizontal thinking complement one another




Variations on “Brainstorming

We all have used brainstorming. There are some ways to make brainstorming more productive.

Ideational Pools – Ask a series of open-ended questions to a group that creates a much richer, single “pool” of ideas than simple brainstorming

Uses, Instances, Similarities – this is usually about a physical object and the purpose is to generate as many alternatives as possible – i.e. “How many different uses can you think of for a piece of rope?”. It is both divergent and lateral thinking as an activity.

Synectics – Extends brainstorming by taking the results and developing metaphors, similes, metonymy/synedoche that describe/explain them

Group Roles (or stages)

  1. Generator: Comes up with ideas
  2. Conceptualizer: Organizes, categorizes, renames ideas
  3. Optimizer: Refines ideas with a view to action – the “How”
  4. Implementor Takes action


Morphological Synthesis

Morphological synthesis works through decomposition and forced association, There are several variations but it works best with well-defined problems. Examples.

  1. Define the problem or identify a thing. List all of the attributes.
  2. Combine and re-configure attributes in new ways


  1. Divide problem into parts
  2. Develop a solution for each part
  3. Combine solutions


Critical Question Mapping

A system of fast learning, developed by friend of ZP Dr. Terry Barnhart, discovers the “what” of a situation by having everyone brainstorm all of the critical questions that must be answered to find a solution. No declarative statements may be made, only questions asked. After the group has exhausted the potential questions, the questions can be organized into clusters, a learning strategy, divided for research, etc.


Scenario Exercises

The use of imaginative but realistic premises for a thought experiment and discussion. Popular in the fields of futurism, alternative history and physics, they allow the students to explore reasons behind making decisions, constructing hypothetical, framing problems or as an allegorical experience before exploring the real situation or problem. Scenarios come in different forms and draw on both critical and creative thinking:

Counterfactual: Ex- “What if the South won the Civil War?”

Futurist: Ex- Imagine a world entering a new ice age – how would Illinois ecosystems be impacted by the climate change?”

Physical: Ex- “Schrodinger’s Cat”

Paradoxical: Ex – “Could a man travel through time and kill his own grandfather? Could you drown in the fountain of eternal life?”



Juxtaposing opposing or incompatible authoritative views to encourage synthesis or reflective choice. This is a favorite technique of Charles Cameron in his Hipbone method of analysis that he employs regularly here at ZP.



Moral Reasoning

Like Scenarios, moral reasoning and ethical dilemmas push people to think both creatively and critically. Example:

“A madman who has threatened to explode several bombs in crowded areas has been apprehended. Unfortunately, he has already planted the bombs and they are scheduled to go off in a short time. It is possible that hundreds of people may die. The authorities cannot make him divulge the location of the bombs by conventional methods. He refuses to say anything and requests a lawyer to protect his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination. In exasperation, some high level official suggests torture. This would be illegal, of course, but the official thinks that it is nevertheless the right thing to do in this desperate situation. Do you agree?”

Many ethical dilemmas and student solutions can be analyzed according to Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development but the value for creative thinking is in creating the conditions of a forced choice requiring a resolution.



What techniques do you use for creativity?


T. Greer on Ibn Khaldun’s Asabiyah

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage has an exemplary post comparing the philosophy of English social contract theorist Thomas Hobbes with medieval Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, who described a critical component of a functional polity – asabiyah.  You should read Greer’s post in its entirety, but here is the take away as far as strategy is concerned:

….Asabiyah, then, amounts to the feeling among those dying that they are dying for their own. As soon as they begin to feel that they are not dying for their own, but are dying for the king, or for someone else’s clan, or for some obscure institution that is not them — well, that is when asabiyah is gone and the kingdom is in danger. Civilized life shrinks the asabiyah that once united people of different lineages, tribes, and occupations until the people of a kingdom only feel a sense of loyalty to themselves, of if you are lucky, those in their immediate neighborhood or caste. But at this point the feeling they have is not reallyasabiyah at all, but the narrow self interest Hobbes would appreciate. This leaves the kingdom open to attack from the next round of nomadic tribesmen united by charismatic leaders into one indivisible asabiyah driven force. 

Although it was not his intent, I think Ibn Khaldun here answers another puzzle apparent to the careful observer of human affairs. It has oft been held that a strong enemy unites a divided people. When faced with with a foe that threatens liberty and the integrity of the realm, private disagreements ought to be put aside until victory has been declared. But it is not apparent that history actually works this way. If one must compare the rising and declining eras of history’s great empires–here I think of the Romans, the Abbasids, the Ming, the great empires of Castille and the Hapsburgs, or the Russian Empire of Tsarist fame (no doubt other examples can be found with if more thought were put to the question)–it does not seem the enemies they faced in their early days were any less powerful or cunning than the enemies that pushed them to extinction. The difference was in the empires themselves; where the wars of their birth forged nations strong and martial, the wars of their decline only opened and made raw violent internal divisions. Even destruction cannot unite a people who have lost all feeling of asabiyah. 

Ibn Khaldun believed that asabiyah declined over time. He used the analogy of the transition from fierce desert life of equality, mutual glory and conquest to the effeminacy of sedentary decadence and servility of luxurious despotism and the fall of the dynasty in four generations to explain the effect of a decayed asabiyah. Greer continues:

The concept of asabiyah is applied most easily to the distant past. One cannot read histories of the early Islamic conquests and the slow hardening of state authority in Umayyad and Abbasid times without seeing Ibn Khaldun’s cycles within it. I have alluded to many examples of these same themes in East and Central Asian history, for I have found that his theories map well to state-formation among pastoral nomads across the world, including those places Ibn Khaldun had barely heard of. Indeed, Ibn Khaldun’s “independent science” can be applied to almost any pre-modern society or conflict without undue violence to his ideas. I recently wrote that in the pre-modern world, “internal cohesion and loyalty were often the deciding factor in the vast majority of military campaigns” [23]. Ibn Khaldun provides a convincing explanation for where such cohesion came from and why it so often failed when kings and princes needed it most dearly.

There are several reasons why it is difficult to see the hand of asabiyah in the rise and decline of modern great powers. Military science has progressed in the centuries since Ibn Khaldun wrote the Muqaddimah; the drills and training seen in the militaries of our day are capable of creating a strong sense of solidarity and cohesion even when such feelings are absent in the populace at large. In that populace the nationalist fervor that accompanies mass politics has eclipsed (or perhaps, if we take asabiyah as the nucleus of nationalist feeling, perfected) asabiyah as the moving force of modern conflict. This sort of nationalism, dependent as it is on mass media and technologies unknown to Ibn Khaldun,  has a dynamic of its own that he could not have foreseen.

The most important difference between Ibn Khaldun’s world and our own, however, concern the fundamental structure of the societies in which we live. Ibn Khaldun’s was a static age where wealth was easier to seize than make. This is not the case today. For the past two centuries military power has been intertwined with economic growth and industrial capacity. No more can poor ‘Bedouins’ living beyond the pale of civilized society dethrone kings and reshape empires. In the more developed nations of the earth there is so little fear of war that both asabiyah and nationalism are sloughed off with few misgivings. 

 Despite all these differences, Ibn Khaldun did articulate principles that remain relevant despite their age.  The first and most important of these is that social cohesion should be understood as a vital element of national power. Wars are rarely won and strategies rarely made without it. A nation need not be engaged in existential conflict to benefit from strong asabiyah. Absent solidarity, internal controversies absorb the attention of statesmen and internal divisions derail all attempts to craft coherent policy. Strategic malaise is one byproduct of a community deficient in asabiyah. 

Agreed.  In particular, it is difficult for foreigners to provide another society with an asabiyah that it lacks in order to fight and win counterinsurgency wars. You go to war with the asabiyah that you have and that has been a problem for Americans in places like South Vietnam and Afghanistan.

I’m not sure though that it is impossible to regenerate decaying or dying asabiyah if it can be built upon new myths that are harmonious with old ones, disguising innovations as fidelity to cherished values. The Meiji Restoration is the classic successful example of national revolution being presented as a reactionary movement to return to tradition, toppling the worn-out Shogunate and”restoring” a High Priest- Emperor whose ceremonial figurehead predecessors had not ruled Japan in eight hundred years, if ever at all.  There are also darker historical examples and we are seeing one play out now in the Mideast in the form of the ISIS “Caliphate”.

This kind of attempt to breathe new life into an eroding asabiyah operates at the moral level above strategy that John Boyd termed a “Theme of Vitality and Growth” and it can unlock atavistic passions and be extremely attractive. Simultaneously creative and destructive, society is suddenly remade – not as a plowshare, but as a sword in a strong hand.

Pinker, Blake and Moebius

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — looks like I’ll have an “Author’s blog” up soon to accompany a book I’m working on, and it’ll be called “Seeing Double” — which is what this post is about ]

Steven Pinker, I’m sorry to say, appears to be one of those

One can imagine a world in which oracles, soothsayers, prophets, popes, visionaries, imams, or gurus have been vouchsafed with the truth which only they possess and which the rest of us would be foolish, indeed, criminal, to question. History tells us that this is not the world we live in. Selfproclaimed truthers have repeatedly been shown to be mistaken — often comically so — by history, science, and common sense.

The characters I’m interested in here are the visionaries — and my point is that truth as fact is not the only truth there is.


Can “history, science and common sense” really detract from the “truth” of this image by Blake?


or this, by Moebius?

Moebius Floating City


Pinker is interesting — that single para of his just gave me a chance to rant — so let me return you to his whole piece.

I have other disagreements with him, no doubt, but he’s a mind to be engaged with.

Brief brief: of binding and loosing

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — really just a note to myself, but you may read it over my shoulder ]

Joas Wagemakers, blogging on Jihadi-Salafi views of the Islamic State at the Washington Post, was talking about the “caliphate” today, and as usual, I went off on my own DoubleQuoting tangent:

SPEC DQ bind and loose


Here’s Wagemakers’s para that triggered the above:

In 2014 the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria set itself apart from most other radical Islamist groups by actually settling in a certain territory and establishing a state there. The group even declared a caliphate on June 29 and changed its name simply to the Islamic State (IS). Even al-Qaeda, which has long had similar ambitions to establish a caliphate encompassing all Muslims, has never achieved this. In its justification for the announcement of its caliphate, IS has made use of classical Islamic concepts: its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been vetted by a group of scholars described as “the people who loosen and bind” (ahl al-hall wa-l-aqd), was found by them to be a pious Muslim ruler who fit all the criteria for a caliph and was therefore worthy of believers’ oath of allegiance (baya).

Do I detect an echo here, between the two phrases — or is the concept of loosing and binding so basic to human experience that it crops up all over?

It’s a question at the intersection of two of my fields of special interest — depth psychology and cultural anthro — see for example Anthony Stevens, writing under the subtitle Archetypes versus cultural transmission:

Essentially, the theory can be stated as a psychological law: whenever a phenomenon is found to be characteristic of all human communities, it is an expression of an archetype of the collective unconscious. It is not possible to demonstrate that such universally apparent phenomena are exclusively due to archetypal determinants or entirely due to cultural diffusion, because in all probability both are involved. However, the likelihood is that there will be a strong bias for those phenomena which are archetypally determined to diffuse more readily and more lastingly than those that are not.


Now go read Wagemakers.

Of morale, angels and Spartans

Saturday, January 17th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — how sky differs from heaven, and what that means for morale and jihad ]

SPEC Badr & Spartans


Okay, that Spartans / Battle of Badr DoubleQuote above is just a teaser, locating us in the general zone of morale..

What I’d really like to offer you here is another Badr-related DoubleQuote, of which the first part comes from Shadi Hamid, speaking about half way through the Charlie Rose show, A conversation about Islam and politics with Reza Aslan, Will McCants, Michael Hanna and Shadi Hamid, which aired on the 14th of this month (full video at the bottom of this post). He said:

We have to take religion seriously, but I worry sometimes, if we focus too much on religion we forget that there’s a political context. That if we want to understand the rise of Isis we can’t understand that without looking at the political vacuum that emerged in Syria. That didn’t happen by itself; there’s a series of policy decisions from the international community that helped contribute to the rise of ISIS.

So I guess the interesting question then is, How does religion interact with these political factors. So we have to bring those different variables into focus and I think we lose some of that, we lose that complexity if we’re just saying Islam is the problem. On the other hand, though .. these terrorists and extremists, they believe that what they’re doing, they’re going to be granted direct entry into Paradise, and that inspiration, motivation, is a very powerful thing that we shouldn’t underestimate. And ideology in this sense is a sort of force multiplier on the battlefield.

All of that seems relevant to me, but it’s his next few phrases I want to DoubleQuote (upper panel, below):

SPEC DQ Shadi Hamid & Quran

And whereas Hamid’s explanation, as befits a Brookings Fellow refers to a belief about Paradise, the Qur’an, as befits sacred scripture, treats the world as though it is thronged not with beliefs but with angels..


The comparison and contrast between our conntemporary, post-Enlightenment view of “the sky” (in which birds, planes, helicopters, missiles and drones may be found, but no angels, jinn, apsarases or faeries) and that of the world’s various scriptural and mythological “heavens” (in which helicopters and parachutes are generally absent, though angels, demons, gandharvas, apsarases and the rest abound) is one that has long fascinated me — but the two are usually kept distinct. Albrecht Durer will show you angels and demons just above the rural countryside in “heaven” — but you won’t find them in military aviations journals..

It is against that background that I find this piece of artwork about the Ghazwa e-Hind so interesting — it appears to envision both “sky” with its various planes and parachutist (most of the planes a little dated, alas), and “heaven” with its celestial cavalry, occupying the same visual space:

Great Ghazwa Sky meets Heaven


All this leads me to the question — which would seem to become ever more urgent as we move from textual to visually enhanced modes of communication —

How does one graphically depict morale or esprit de corps?

That’s my question for the day.

** ** **

Here, for those who would like to view it in its entirety, is the Charlie Rose show from which Shadi Hamid’s quote above was taken:

Switch to our mobile site