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Jonah Lehrer: Outsider Intelligence

I’m blogging from Camden, Maine, at the wonderful Pop!Tech conference. This year’s a special treat. My wife, the lovely Velveteen Rabbi, and I are team-blogging, trading off posts. You can read her posts on her website, or just read all of ours on the Pop!Tech site, where Michelle Riggen-Ransom has been doing brilliant work thus far. There’s lots of bloggers in the crowd and on twitter – follow the #poptech tag for lots of different perspectives.

Science writer Jonah Lehrer, the author of “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” tells us about a relatively obscure 1919 essay. The essay was titled “The Intellectual Pre-eminence of the Jews in Europe“, and it was written by Nobel-winning sociologist Thorstein Veblen. A zionist group commissioned the essay, expecting that Veblen would argue that the jews would be even more intellectually productive if given their own, soverign, protected homeland.

But Veblen was a contrarian, and he argued that a Jewish homeland might actually reduce Jewish creativity. Jews as the consummate outsiders, he contended, able to see problems that no one else noticed. If Einstein had been tenured faculty at a university, he wouldn’t have been able to see the theoretical holes he saw as an outsider to the physics establishment, as a patent clerk.

When we’ve got hard problems, we turn them over to experts. That might be the wrong thing to do, Lehrer suggests.

There’s some new research that justifies this approach. An experiment at Indiana University brought in a group students and gave them insight puzzles, which measure divergent thinking and creativity. One was the compound remote associate test. If I give you the words “mile”, “sand”, “age” – what word can be added to all of them to make a valid word or a phrase?

One group was told that the problem came from researchers down the hall. Another was told that it came from a team in Greece. The people told that the problem came from Greece solved 40% more of the puzzles. (The answer is “stone”, by the way.)

How does this work? Well, if you’re standing in a corn field and thinking about corn, you think about the most obvious connotations of corn: the plant, the structure of the ears, the fibers, the stalks. But in Camden, we might think about biofuels, or degradable plastics. The farther we are away, the more our sphere of thinking expands. We go on vacation to avoid thinking about our problems – actually, we should go and meditate on our problems from outside them.

A second experiment on outsiders was conducted by economists at Northwestern Business School. They found two groups of MBA students: students who’d lived more than three months abroad, and those that hadn’t.Those who’d lived abroad solved 20% more of these creativity problems. Living abroad somehow expands our minds – it didn’t matter when they lived abroad, just that they’d had the experience of thinking as an outsider.

Innocentive.com is based around the idea of the intellectual outsider. It’s used by companies like Proctor and Gamble – a company that has more PhDs than MIT – to find solutions to intractable scientific and engineering problems. You’d assume that most people can’t solve the problems that Proctor and Gamble scientists can’t solve. But 33% of all problems posted with associated prizes get solved. If you post an organic chemistry problem, it usually won’t be solved by an organic chemist. It might be solved by a population biologist, someone just on the outside of the domain. There is a virtue in seeing something from the outside.

Lehrer ends on this intriguing idea: “Problems are intractable because we didn’t see them from the outside.”

And that’s it for us, folks. There’s one more session at Pop!Tech, but Rachel and I are hitting the road. It’s been a provocation and a joy – what more can you hope for? Thanks for reading.

3 thoughts on “Jonah Lehrer: Outsider Intelligence”

  1. Ethan,

    thanks for that great blog post at #PopTech. It really made my mind jump right from the first second.

    Seems like I am a similar kind of person, seeing things approaching that nobody else sees or thinks is worth mentioning. Some time later the things happen.

    Telling people about where the small problems will lead to and how this could be changed with almost no effort, budget and ressources, makes you OUTSIDER (automatically).

    So one has to keep the perspective from the outside and yet being able to be close enough in the client’s (that mostly where we see problems) system.

    I wonder is there a community where like-minded people can exchange thoughts and experiences?

    Best regards


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