Sunday, 31 January 2010


... is not something we're terribly good at as a species. That might seem an odd statement, given that we pride ourselves on being the most intelligent species on the planet. But let's explore it a little.

Long-term readers of this blog have probably been hospitalised by now, but there may be one or two survivors who recall me mentioning 'woolly thinking' way back in the day. By non-woolly thinking I mean exercising a rigorous mental analysis of a question or problem and arriving at a solution untainted by prejudice, preconception or emotion. Mostly we don't do this. We rely on 'gut instinct' a lot, and for the fairly good reason that gut instinct is what's kept us going as a species since our emergence on the African savannahs. When a lion-shaped animal was spotted approaching, the early hominid who insisted on a detailed and thorough analysis of the precise identity of the animal concerned, and a critical examination of statistics relating to lion/human attacks, turned rather quickly from an early hominid to a late one; a progenitor Darwin Award winner, if you will.

We can add to that the tendency of humans to have firmly-held opinions regardless of near-total ignorance of the subject in question; and also the tendency of humans to adopt the opinion of the peer group that seems most attractive to us. Herd instinct is another time-served and effective survival strategy.

However, the problems those of us in the developed world face today are not, by and large, the sort that are best dealt with using these old models. But our brains are not well wired for serious thinking. It hurts, damnit, and most of us will avoid it unless absolutely necessary.

Take these very simple questions. Are the obvious answers right? Of course not, as a moment's real thought will show. But most people find the obvious answers powerfully attractive.

First: If a brick weighs a pound plus half a brick, what do three bricks weigh?

Second: In a pub I buy half a pint of bitter and a box of matches. The bill is £1.10. The half pint costs a pound more than the matches. What do the matches cost?


  1. Sir, please Sir, I know how much the beer and matches cost Sir! The beer is £1.05 and the matches is 5p, and I know this 'cos Matron sends me down to the Yob And ASBO to get them. I tried them once. I liked the matches (pretty flames ...) but the beer tasted funny and made me feel sick. Matron says I'll get used to it.

    Mrs E

  2. Sir, Please sir (get off me Hudson, I know this!) - 3 bricks weigh 6lb. They aren't much use for anything though, except chucking as you run past the Yob & ASBO or to stop Matron in her tracks. It's like watching a Mighty Redwood hit the forest floor, complete with panicking wildlife, except a mighty Redwood wouldn't chuck the bricks back at you.

    Sir, please sir, make Hudson stop!

    Mrs E (O Level Maths (Failed))

  3. Excellent, Mrs E. Well done. Here is a lollipop.

    Oh, and could you introduce me to your Matron? I feel we should get on.

  4. I don't know. Matron got barred from the Yob & ASBO (something to do with arm wrestling) and she's trying to persuade the Chav & Hoodie or The Burberry Arms to let her back in if she promises she won't do that thing with the dominoes again. It frightened the old folk and the dog and someone had words about the stain.

  5. PS - where's my lolly?