23 July 2014

On Gary Klein on Insight

Klein G (2014) Seeing What Others Don't; the remarkable ways we gain insights London and Boston MA; Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

I first encountered Gary Klein (not in person, though) through his Edge interview in 2011. Anyone who has Daniel Kahneman as his warm-up deserves attention and respect. So when I spotted this book in Heffers the other day, I was immediately interested. Klein specialises in the psychology of intuition, decision-making, and here of insight.

But he does it naturalistically. He doesn't bring his subjects into a laboratory to put them through some experimental protocol; instead he listens to their stories of life in the real world. Indeed, sometimes he relies on historical records or news reports, contaminated though they may be. He sets out his reasons very cogently in ch.13 of the book. His approach is idiographic, rather than nomothetic, to use Allport's (1937) terms. He argues that standardised methods are by definition incapable of capturing the lightning strike which is "insight".

He embraces the messiness of contextual and confusing variables, but tries to find the common features underlying them all. This is typical of much educational research, too. It's one reason why so much of it is so poor. So it is good to read an account of painstaking qualitative research undertaken on an opportunistic sample of 120 instances of insight, with some discussion of necessary and sufficient conditions for accepting an instance, ranging from backwoodsman Daniel Boone rescuing his daughter from marauding "Indians", to the identification of the Aids virus—and the stories are terrific. Malcolm Gladwell should look to his laurels (and endorses Klein, but not this book specifically, on the cover).

Educational researchers could benefit from reading this account of methodology (scattered throughout the book), but... there's a lot left out.

And that is interesting, because from page 4, Klein introduces a notional equation:

(I've prettied it up a little: I may have occasion to use it...)  It's reminiscent of Herzberg on motivational hygiene. But if Herzberg's point (originating in the 1950s) was about minimising the downers, Klein is broadly about boosting the uppers.

He argues powerfully in Part II that emphasising "not getting it wrong", or minimising error creates a culture not only of "quality assurance" but also of risk aversion and closes the door on innovation, and he has the anecdotal evidence to demonstrate it. It's an important argument, but Klein is well aware of its limitations. His final section on creating an organisational culture which encourages insight is not convincing, but then it is speculative. Someone would have to give it a try...

That's the problem. It's the discourse, stupid. More precisely, it's the market. Klein has moved (according to his bio.) from academe, to government service, to consultancy. So his pitch has changed. That is not in itself a criticism; but it's not enough to explore the issues. In that world you need answers. Hence Part III of the book: "Opening the Gates; how can we foster insights?" which is definitely the weakest part, and indeed comes close to contradicting the insights of the earlier parts. Despite arguing that insights are disruptive and unpredictable (p.153) he ends up talking about how to manage their creation. It don't work like that.

Klein writes accessibly: sometimes too much so. Every point is referenced back to one or more of his case-studies, which makes the argument easy to follow if you can remember who Gopnik is, and what her distinctive insight is (about infants' "theory of mind"—and well worth remembering) but he does tend to treat his corpus of case-studies as definitive. He does pepper the book with disclaimers about the limitations of the studies, but in practice these are tokenistic. Ch. 13 is salutary on the problems of experimental design in this area, but his own approach does need monitoring for the likelihood of Type I errors, and would not be allowed to stand alone in sound academic circles.

But then they would come up with hedged, boring, qualified claims which no-one would be able to relate to or actually use.

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