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I Am Right, You Are Wrong

Edward de Bono

The following is a brief overview of some of the points covered in Edward de Bono's book I Am Right, You Are Wrong. Naturally, a brief treatment like this misses many of the details that make the book such a powerful presentation. If at all possible, please get a copy of the book and read it for yourself.

Edward de Bono is the originator of the term 'lateral thinking' and has done quite a bit of breakthrough work in analyzing how human thought patterns work. He draws upon insights into the actual neurochemical processes that occur in the brain to explain the mechanisms of thought itself, and his ideas have been used to build computer models of this behavior that have evolved into the 'neural network' computer systems in use today. His lateral thinking techniques are taught in schools around the world.

The thrust of this book is not 'lateral thinking' per se, but is more an exploration of the difference between what he calls 'rock logic' and 'water logic.'

Rock logic (also referred to by him as 'tabletop logic') is the classic analytical discrete logic of the ancient Greeks; although it serves us well for the solution of engineering and technical problems, it is not particularly well-suited to creative thinking. In 'tabletop logic,' problems and situations are expressed as collections of discrete objects (apples, oranges, bricks, etc.) and we operate on those objects with the rules, axioms, and theorems of classical logic (an object cannot be both an apple and an orange, etc.).

Water logic, on the other hand, is the logic of perception and pattern-matching. Human intelligence is inherently a pattern-matching system. Although we can exercise the mental discipline of classical logic and get considerable benefit from it, the fact is that our native mental processes run primarily in terms of patterns; when confronted with new stimuli, our first instinctive response is to categorize the stimuli in terms of past experience (patterns that we've seen before). After that categorization has occurred (often at a low level of consciousness), we bring our analytical powers to bear and apply classical logic. This works well for many of our tasks like driving a car and walking through a crowded store, because our ability to recognize patterns quickly lets us make decisions 'on the fly' without having to grind through deterministic 'tabletop logic' algorithms and decide precisely and deliberately about which way to move, when to stop, etc. In other words, our natural pattern-matching ability is an appropriate response to normal life.

These two types of logic are fundamentally different, and they have completely different applications. Rock logic, in particular, relies heavily on exclusion ('That is NOT an orange'), uniqueness ('An object cannot be both an orange and a brick'), and opposites ('The opposite of a white chess piece is a black chess piece'). These and other bedrock concepts are what makes classical logic work; without some universal definitions and clearly-defined logical operations, you simply can't 'turn the crank' and generate the logical proofs that underpin our mathematics and engineering. With rock logic, we can build supercomputers and space shuttles and we can produce vaccines via the 'scientific method' of research. All of this represents the fantastic progress we've made since the Renaissance, when we finally rediscovered Greek thought and began to apply it to our problems. Rock logic, however, fails utterly when it comes to creativity, lateral thinking, and humor; our brains do not run on classical logic, and classical logic systems are quite simply incapable of processing those concepts. Historically, 'water logic' issues like genius, creativity, and humor have been ignored by classical logic; once in a while, someone has a brilliant flash of insight and solves a problem, but the logicians have never been able to create a stepwise logical process that leads to breakthrough ideas because the very nature of ideation is incompatible with formal logic. In the book, de Bono proposes that we should embrace the power of 'water logic' as a way to intentionally, intelligently make use of our powerful natural abilities to process and recognize patterns. Rather than dismiss creative genius and humor as quirks of human nature, we should develop an understanding of the nature of perception and use that knowledge to enhance our creative abilities.

The 'Same As' Trap

One of the worst enemies of the creative process is a thing called 'catchment' or 'same as..'. Since our brains think in patterns and pattern recognition, we have an inherent tendency to categorize any new input or idea in terms of our experience. This is a natural and necessary behavior in terms of survival and adaptability, but it can be a definite disadvantage when it comes to abstract creative problem-solving. When we do encounter a new idea, we often 'pigeon-hole' it so quickly that we don't take time to assess whether it truly matches our stored ideas and concepts or whether it should be placed in a category by itself. Once we have slotted the new idea into our existing framework of existence, it's awfully hard to drag it back out of its pigeonhole and give it the fresh look and analysis it may deserve. Also, we tend to throw an idea in the pigeonhole marked 'ridiculous idea' if it doesn't quickly fall into one of our predefined categories, and this reflexive rejection can deprive us of some truly brilliant ideas.

To combat this too-rapid categorization, de Bono proposes the idea of 'zero hold.' If possible, we should make a conscious effort to avoid the instinctive 'same as...' response when we're looking at a new idea. One of the other natural behaviors of our perceptual pattern-matching intelligence is the impulse to respond to the events of the moment immediately; again, this is a good thing when you're driving a car but not necessarily a good thing when you're trying to brainstorm a radical new concept. If we can convince ourselves that speed is not of the essence and pause for a moment to consider new concepts before quickly shoe-horning them into the context of our experience, we may be amazed to learn that the new idea requires its own classification (is not 'same as..' anything we've ever seen) or in fact belongs in a totally different category than the one we would choose off the cuff if we were in our usual hurry to classify input. When we're trying to break new conceptual ground, we should remind one another that the discussion is not a 'fight or flight' situation requiring rapid response; we should give ourselves permission to think more about new ideas before we rush to categorize them.

Learning Backwards

Sometimes, we have a brilliant idea but we can't come up with any way to get from the current state of affairs to the conditions required to make the new idea work. In many of these cases, our difficulty lies in the fact that we try to proceed forward in an evolutionary fashion from current conditions. Although we have historically held that all new knowledge can be achieved through the evolution of classical logic and learning, this is quite simply not the case. The quantum leaps that have 'evolved' our logical understanding over the centuries have in fact been random flashes of genius and inspiration ('water logic') that have been incorporated into our classical paradigms. Even when we have a flash of insight that looks promising, we can easily work ourselves to death trying to 'evolve' current understanding and give up on the new idea altogether. Out of all the millions of ways we could choose among the possibilities in front of us, perhaps only one sequence of steps leads to the goal, and there is not enough time left in the universe to explore all the paths.

If we look at the problem from the other end, however, we may be able to 'learn backwards.' Rather than randomly diving into present possibilities, we should look at what immediate precursors are required by our final goal. If we can express those precursors, then we repeat the process for them. Eventually, we build up a series of steps in reverse order that lead us back from the goal toward our current reality. When our 'learning backwards' exercise yields a set of conditions that we recognize as logical extensions of present-day reality, the fog of possibility lifts and we see a clear path to our goal. Paradoxically, this new path of logical steps tends to reinforce our conviction that we could have hit on the new path through the evolution of existing ideas, and we continue to discount 'learning backwards' as the occasional quirk of insight rather than pursuing it as a methodology.

Belief Systems

As de Bono defines them, belief systems are perceptions that serve to filter and categorize new stimuli in ways that reinforce themselves. Since this behavior is inherent in the nature of self-organizing pattern-matching intelligence, there is no place in the cycle of preception reinforcement for the application of classical logic. Hence, it is impossible to alter belief systems through logical argument. This is certainly not to say that belief systems cannot be changed, but we must understand that classical logic is simply not an effective tool when applied to belief. In order to change belief systems, new perceptions must be provided. In other words, you will have no luck telling someone that their belief is flawed because it is logically inconsistent. Rather than trying to choose a frame of reference and win an argument through the exercise of logic, you should instead provide a new perception or perspective; then, the person holding the belief can take the new pattern provided and integrate it into their collection of stored patterns, hopefully redrawing their internal category boundaries in the process and refining or completely rethinking their belief system.

Although the word 'belief' carries some semantic baggage relating to ethical and religious ideas, this is not de Bono's point. The crux of the matter is that there is a fundamental difference between a set of engineering calculations and a corporate mind-set. Calculations can be challenged and refined with formal logic through a clearly understood process; indeed, they cannot resist change implemented through logic. A corporate mind-set, on the other hand, is a belief system; in order to change it at all, you must operate within the rules that govern perception and pattern-matching. Formal logic is useless against belief, because belief systematically reinforces itself with each new input. When 'water logic' is understood and perceptions are provided that provoke people into reexamining belief systems, however, those belief systems cannot resist change any more than the engineering calculations.

This distinction between purely logical constructs like applied engineering and belief systems like corporate mind-sets goes a long way toward explaining why engineers get so frustrated trying to apply logical analysis to corporate direction and policy. The engineers are not 'failing,' and the corporation is not 'stupid;' the engineers are just using the wrong tool for the job because we have all been taught to apply logic to every situation that presents itself.


We see that 'learning backwards' can help develop a series of steps that link present conditions to the future state we desire, but how do we generate those desired future states in our minds? When we view our thought processes as patterns and realize that new ideas are often close to present realities when viewed in the context of a larger pattern, how do we 'cut across the grain' and leap from current reality to the breakthrough ideas?

The process of cutting across the grain of established patterns (as opposed to classical, progressive thinking) is what de Bono labeled 'lateral thinking.' The benefits of lateral thinking are obvious and have been proven over and over, but a number of things (our training in logic, the difficulty of thinking up ideas within the constraints of language that serves only to descibe past experience, etc) conspire to keep us from thinking laterally. In order to counter this resistance to lateral thinking, we can use 'provocation.'

In its simplest form, provocation involves mixing up concepts in such a way as to kick us out of our 'groove'; that is, to provoke us out of our accustomed thought patterns. Once we get knocked free from our normal thought patterns, the 'water logic' of our pattern-driven intelligence pushes us back into our accustomed modes of thought like rain making its way to a river, and somewhere along the way we may discover a new 'tributary' in our thought patterns that gives us valuable insight. If we then follow that 'tributary' of thought back to the 'mainstream' through the process of learning backwards, we find ourselves with a series of steps in hand that lead us to a goal we had never imagined before we were 'provoked' into cutting across our old habits of thought. In addition to using provocation to change our perspective to a different part of our perceptual 'watershed,' we should employ the technique of 'zero hold' to give us permission to pause a moment before trying to categorize the new perspective as being 'same as...' the patterns we already know.

A practical example of provocation played out in a meeting of automotive engineers once, with spectacular results. The provoking statement was "Cars have square wheels." The zero-hold technique kept the engineers from rejecting the idea as absurd out of hand, and the process of traveling from "cars have square wheels" back toward the conventional "cars have round wheels" idea led to the development of the active suspension (a major breakthrough that improves the ride of modern cars).

Provocation is a bit of an art form. Obviously, you would not expect a provocation like "Turtles have purple fur" to lead to the development of a new antibiotic. As we learn more about the nature of pattern recognition and self-organizing systems like the human brain, perhaps we will develop an art of 'directed provocation' that will serve the purpose of kicking us laterally across our thought patterns while also kicking us in promising directions.

Knife-Edge Discrimination

If you imagine the 'same as...' trap as being implemented as a set of funnels leading to different categorizations, it is easy to visualize what happens when two perceptual 'funnels' bump into one another. Where the two funnels touch, the decision on which funnel will 'catch' a new idea comes down to a knife-edge discrimination as to which funnel more appropriately contains the idea. Put another way, the 'same as...' trap works like the watershed areas that serve various rivers on a continent; when two watersheds meet, there's a point at which raindrops get captured by one river or another based on a very fine difference in position.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with knife-edge discrimination; in fact, like other attributes of our pattern-driven intelligence, this ability is vital and necessary for daily life. When we're breaking new ground and trying to think creatively, however, knife-edge discrimination can work against us. We must be sure to keep the 'zero hold' concept in mind in order to avoid premature categorization, and we must be careful to watch out for knife-edge situations that appear even after we have paused in our categorization process. The danger of the 'knife edge' situation is this: it is possible that our existing perceptual 'funnels' have spread out to cover space between them that should in fact have its own 'funnel' leading to an altogether new conclusion. If we find ourselves making repeated 'judgement calls' on how to categorize new ideas between a set of existing concepts, we need to determine whether or not those new ideas need a whole new paradigm of their own. In other words, our past experience may unwittingly lead us into making a series of arbitrary 'knife edge' distinctions between ideas that should be kept together and assigned a new category.


As I mentioned before, this is only a cursory glance at the ideas presented in the book. As books of this type go, this one is remarkably succinct; clearly, this book is the distillation of a vast amount of research and thought on the subject of human thought and classical logic. If the points listed in this short review catch your attention, then by all means get a copy of the book. After reading it, you'll see what I mean.

In the most general terms, then, I would say that this book identifies human thought as a self-organizing, pattern-matching system. Since this is fundamentally different from the classical Greek logic that society has been using since the Renaissance, problems of perception and applicability have plagued our fundamental problem-solving ability. We have 'gotten by' with incorporating random flashes of genius and insight into our system of classical logic, but technology is changing so quickly now that we need to understand and incorporate the 'water logic' of perception and patterns into our traditional 'rock logic' methods of discovery and analysis in order to speed up the pace of our breakthrough ideas. By exploring the techniques of 'provocation' and 'zero hold' (and others to be developed along the way), we hope to tame the random nature of genius and creativity somewhat so that we can reap the benefits of 'water logic' more quickly.

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