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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.