Sequential Organization of Thinking: "Six Thinking Hats"

by JustinShovelain2 min read18th Mar 201014 comments


Modeling PeopleRationality
Personal Blog

Many people move chaotically from thought to thought without explicit structure. Inappropriate structuring may leave blind spots or cause the gears of thought to grind to a halt, but the advantages of appropriate structuring are immense:

Correct thought structuring ensures that you examine all relevant facets of an issue, idea, or fact.

  • It ensures you know what to do next at every stage and are not frustrated or crippled by akrasia between moments of choice; the next action is always obvious.
  • It minimizes the overhead of task switching: you are in control and do not dither between possibilities.
  • It may be used in a social context so that potentially challenging issues and thoughts may be brought up in a non-threatening manner (let's look at the positive aspects, now let's focus purely on the negative...).

To illustrate thought structuring, I use the example of Edward de Bono's "six thinking hats" mnemonic.  With Edward de Bono's "six thinking hats" method you metaphorically put on various colored "hats" (perspectives) and switch "hats" depending on the task. I will use the somewhat controversial issue of cryonics as my running example.1

Gather the inputs:
White hat - Facts and information
This is the perspective where you focus on gathering all the information relevant to the situation by deducing facts, remembering, asking colleagues, reviewing the literature, and conducting experiments.
Concrete declarative facts:

  • Most of the information is retained when someone is cryogenically frozen.
  • No one has been revived yet.
  • Bacteria, seeds, and human embryos may be frozen and revived.

Red hat - Feelings and emotions
This is the perspective where you think about or convey vague intuitions. These are rules of thumb, abstracted probabilities, impressions, and things in your procedural understanding. This is also the time to focus on anything that might be interfering with your objectivity.
Intuitions and vague inputs:

  • The technology will exist in the future to revive the cryogenically frozen.
  • People in the future will revive us if they can.
  • Family relations will be saddened by choosing cryonics.
  • Life will be better in the future than in the present. 

Invention and problem solving:
Green hat - New ideas
Going into this perspective you have gathered the evidence and intuitions. Now you focus on using these to solve the problem or invent new approaches. At this point the invented ideas do not have to be very good; your ideas are criticised and evaluated with the other hats.
New ideas:

  • How about we use something like hibernation instead of cryonics?
  • How about we find some sort of chemical concoction that stops the molecular processes and yet works at room temperature? 

Weigh the evidence:
Black hat - Critical judgment
Here you specialize, looking for the flaws in the argument, design, or concept. If you are the originator of a concept or otherwise have positive affect around one, the habit of using this perspective ensures that you look for flaws.

  • There are many possible future histories where the cryopreserved are not revived.
  • Spending money on cryonics means we cannot spend it elsewhere and the resources are locked in.

Yellow hat - Positive aspects
With this perspective, you look for the arguments for a position or come up with various uses you can put something to. If you are critical of a concept, this step ensures you look at its positive aspects.
Strengths and additional purposes:

  • Your life may be saved.
  • Believing that you will be revived gives you a near mode reason to care for the distant future.

Monitoring, directing, and deciding:
Blue hat - The big picture
This is the perspective where you figure out how valuable the various options are, consider opportunity costs, and choose. Here you also monitor your thoughts and interrupt the flow if something unexpected occurs internally or externally.
Monitor and choose:

  • If you are on your deathbed or in a risky occupation, making a decision now increases in importance.
  • If you are looking for criticisms (or positive aspects) and you mentally flinch, this warns you of possible bias and points out where you need to watch your step.
  • At some point, opportunity costs force you to decide one way or another. Recall that the absence of making a decision is a decision. 

As the example shows, Edward de Bono's six thinking hats method is useful for structuring thought, but it is admittedly limited:

  • There are many types of thought not covered or de-emphasized by the method (motivation, comparison, memorization, recall, doing, sensing,...)
  • The viewpoints overlap.
  • It doesn't tell you exactly how you should sequence and time the viewpoints only that you should consider them all, and it doesn't break each viewpoint into even smaller, atomic, components.

Nevertheless, I find a kind of useful simplicity and beauty in the method (or maybe I just love colors...).
What do you think of the method? Can you suggest other ways of "structuring thought?"

1. Disclaimer: I am pro-cryonics, but am using it solely as an example and do not intend to be comprehensive or have the feelings and analysis particularly resemble my own.


14 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 8:16 PM
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This type of process I find particularly important to use with groups. (Part of what I do in my secret identity is work as a "facilitator".) If you think individuals tend to "move chaotically from thought to thought", you ain't seen nothing till you've seen a group try to work orally on a complex issue. And yet, with some guidance, people in a working group talking to each other can cover a lot of ground quite fast.

A more "primordial" distinction than de Bono's six, to my mind, is that between a) factual observations, b) what we want to have happen, c) how we might get there. Or in other words Observation, Goal, Solutions. This is partially captured in Eliezer's "Hold off on proposing solutions".

Another very basic distinction is between the positive and the negative. In working groups (and teams) people find it very easy to say "what's not working", i.e. to gripe and whine, but tend to overlook "what's working" - this can really have detrimental effects when they implement a "fix" to a minor issue that actually turns out to undermine what was one of their strengths.

To some extent de Bono's hats have "too many moving parts" for use in groups that have not first been trained to apply the technique, when I've tried it people have tended to ask me "Remind me what Yellow is again", and gotten bogged down in self-consciously applying a technique as opposed to thinking things through.

If you use something that has these many segments, you need to be much more on top of the group. It's quite doable; I have used this format for group work for instance, with its "past - present - future" structure and a lot of substructure as well; but to use that successfully requires a lot of prep.

I like Morendil's three-part distinction because it foregrounds b, what we want to have happen. That's there in the six hats implicitly (especially feelings, critical judgment, and positive aspects), but it seems to be too focused on the particular proposal. What's good about this proposal, what's bad about it, how do I feel about it - all are asking secondary questions, when the primary questions should be what's good, what's bad, and what might be better - about the whole situation. Foregrounding "what we want to have happen" could be helpful in thinking about cryonics. What kind of future living do I want to have happen - ones in which future experiencers remember my experiences? Ones in which future agents carry out my (present?) goals? Ones in which some future person is me (and what does that mean)? Etc.

But I like the foregrounding of lateral thinking in one of the six hats (green hat). To my mind this is usually the most neglected step in human decision-making. Scott Adams (the Dilbert author) tells the story of a businessman who was notorious for bringing ten new ideas to every business meeting, at least nine of which were incredibly bad. The businessman was Ted Turner, founder of CNN. Having bad ideas costs extremely little - especially in a context where multiplication of ideas is the norm and evaluation of ideas is deliberately postponed. Having ideas in general, i.e. brainstorming, also costs little.

It's a well-kept secret that having good ideas, i.e. innovation, also lends itself to structured process; one of the ways to do that is to dissociate the idea-generation phase from the idea-selection phase. Brainstorming is one way to do the first, but if you only brainstorm without a way to do the second, you'll end up nowhere.

There are processes for idea generation other than brainstorming, one that has piqued my curiosity in the past (perhaps in part because of the way its informal name sounds) is the Zwicky box.

The six thinking hats can be a bit daunting at first. Consider just two hats:

Person A comes up with a new idea and is really enthusiastic about it. Before the idea is even slightly fleshed out, Person B immediately comes up with every possible reason why the idea won't work. Person A gets demoralized, and doesn't want to talk to Person B. Person B doesn't understand why their generous dollop of objective criticism has been rejected. Not a productive collaboration!

Using De Bono's terminology, Person A had the green ("new ideas") hat on, and Person B had the black ("critical thinking") hat on. A more productive strategy would be for both Person A and Person B to spend the first few minutes with a green hat on, and then both flip to the black hat. By having at least one person consciously steer and direct the thinking process, people avoid talking at cross-purposes, the conversational flow is improved, and a better outcome is reached.

To some extent we all naturally adjust our mindset according to context. If you're giving a eulogy you know it demands something resembling more of a yellow hat mindset ("positive thinking"), rather than the black hat ("critical thinking"). So in a sense there's nothing new about the idea of wearing different hats. I think perhaps the biggest value De Bono adds is to elevate what's often an instinctive process to a conscious one.

I had been uninterested in reading the original post, but this comment changed that. The concrete example makes the abstract concept clear.

I had the same experience.

I found de Bono's thinking hats extremely useful in one of my past jobs. I was a primary school teacher and the concepts were perfect for the 6 year olds. They are probably still useful for adults if they haven't internalised the different thought styles or if they prefer to use formal structure. The formal structure could be a tool that is useful if you have a bias on a subject that makes it difficult to see all sides but are sufficiently motivated towards rational thought to wish to overcome such bias. (I personally wouldn't use it but that may be just because I hate such structure.)

I personally wouldn't use it but that may be just because I hate such structure.

I'm currently looking through a lot of material regarding personality types in light of recent posts and am beginning to wonder if my distrust/dislike of such tests is due to my high independence/low conscientiousness/low agreeableness/high novelty seeking (an amalgam of traits that different tests seem to identify).

I guess that would be irony.

It might actually be useful if personality tests rated how much their different categories liked taking personality tests, as this could hint at how informal polls are skewed.

i.e. people type G are represented by 5% of voluntary test takers, but research shows they are 20% of the general population. If they are known to be 1/4 as likely to take tests, then you don't need to think your audience personality is skewed.

Definitely. I've never been able to drag myself through a psychetype test, but from reading descriptions, I believe I'm an I(mild)N(strong)F(strong)P(strong).

Can you suggest other ways of "structuring thought?"

The way that is usually associated with rationality/science as opposed to salience driven thinking(doing what comes to your mind).

Say you want to make a difficult decision a more systematic way would be to write down a list with all pros and cons. If thinking about a financial investment calculate the numbers of how much different possibilities will yield, etc...

write down a list with all pros and cons

The good old Benjamin Frankling method; the research on "reason based choice" which I've come across recently from Mercier and Sperber's paper suggests that it might lead to worse outcomes than going with your intuitive choice. (Attraction effect, sunk cost fallacy, etc.)

I read about the Benjamin method in Robyn Dawes "Rational Choice in an uncertain world" where it was promoted in a positive light. IIRC he also mentions than in certain choices the intuitive one might/will be better and I too read research that confirmed this. But, nevertheless, if you want to think systematically I guess it is good to write down all your options in the first place.

I think chaos is needed, at least initially. But then it is important for people to take on the role of organizing thoughts, for instance picking out when ideas are in opposition or just rephrasing of the same underlying thought.