Rosy Retrospection and Declinism: Why the Past Looks Great and the Future Is Frightening

Rosy Retrospection and Declinism


Rosy retrospection is a cognitive bias that causes people to remember past events as being more positive than they were in reality. Because this means that the past often looks better than it really was, the future can sometimes appear bleak in comparison. As such, rosy retrospection is associated with declinism, which is the tendency to view the future with a pessimistic outlook.

These two forms of thinking can be problematic, since they distort our perception of reality, and hinder our ability to make rational decisions. In the following article, you will learn more about how rosy retrospection and declinism affects our thought process, and about what you can do in order to mitigate their influence.


Rosy retrospection

What is rosy retrospection

Rosy retrospection is a cognitive bias that causes people to recall past events in a way that is more positive than how they experienced those events in the first place.

Examples of rosy retrospection are apparent in various areas of life, and can range from specific memories, such as the memory of a vacation that you went on with your family, to more general recollection of certain periods of your life, such as your childhood or college years.

This cognitive bias is attributed to the fact that when we experience a certain event, we tend to have both positive and negative thoughts, the latter of which are caused by the various issues, distractions, and disappointments that we encounter during the event. However, the negative thoughts tend to be relatively short-lived, so that within days after the event is over most people end up forgetting them, while still retaining the positive memories that they created, which leaves them with an overall positive evaluation of the event.


The implications of rosy retrospection

The sort of biased positive-recollection which is brought upon by rosy retrospection can sometimes be beneficial, since it can help you feel better about past events. This is valuable when having a positive memory of an event will make you happier in the long term, than having a negative memory of that event, and especially when forgetting the bad things that you experienced can help you cope with them.

For example, if you gave a presentation which went pretty well aside from a few mistakes, you would generally feel better if you focus on having done well, than if you focus on the mistakes that you made.

This is especially true if you have anxiety, which might cause you to overemphasize your mistakes, and focus on them to an unhealthy degree when thinking about past events. As such, in this case, having a rosy retrospection could help you feel better about your presentation, by serving as a coping mechanism which diminishes the negative impact of your past mistakes.

Furthermore, knowing that we tend to have a rosy outlook in retrospect can be used as an operating principle, when deciding on our future actions. You can, for example, choose to participate in certain events because you know that you will enjoy the recollection of those events, even if the events themselves won’t live up to your expectations at the moment. This can lead you to take more positive risks in your life, in order to create happy memories for yourself.

However, there are also situations where rosy retrospection can influence you in a problematic way:

  • Ignoring mistakes that you made can be an issue if it means that you fail to learn from your past experiences. In some cases, it can be beneficial to ignore your past mistakes, and especially if examining them further won’t help you improve yourself in any way. As such, as long as examining the mistakes that you made can help you learn how to avoid them in the future, this is certainly something that you want to do. However, if having a rosy retrospection means that you are ignoring all the mistakes that you made, then it could hinder your process of learning and self-improvement.
  • Ignoring the negative aspects of past experiences can be an issue if it causes you to place yourself in dangerous or negative situations unnecessarily. In some cases, being able to forget negative aspects of a certain experience can be beneficial, if it helps you overcome the fear of wanting to try again. For example, a single bad public-speaking experience shouldn’t mean that you never attempt to give a speech again, and in this case, rosy retrospection can help. However, there are also situations where being able to recall negative aspects of past experiences is crucial in order to protect you from placing yourself in dangerous situations repeatedly. An extreme example of this can be seen in victims of domestic violence, who sometimes forget negative experiences that they underwent at the hand of their abuser, which can cause them to return to situations where they might be harmed.

Overall, rosy retrospection represents a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can be beneficial in cases where it helps you cope with past events, create happy memories, or push yourself to take necessary risks. On the other hand, it can be problematic when it means that you fail to learn from past mistakes that you made, which can hinder your personal growth, and cause you to place yourself in negative situations that you should avoid.



What is declinism

Declinism is the belief that the condition of a certain entity (such as a country or a company) is declining, so that they are headed towards a future collapse.

This form of thinking is in many cases related to rosy retrospection. Essentially, since rosy retrospection causes people to recall past events in a favorable way, the present and future often end up looking bleak in comparison.

Declinist arguments have been used in many areas of the political landscape, by people with widely different perspectives.However, due to the general tendency to regularly recycle declinist arguments, including those that have been proven false in the past, this form thinking has often been criticized, particularly when it is politically motivated.

The tendency to recycle declinist argument is illustrated well by the webcomic xkcd, which collected several examples that demonstrate how, throughout history, people have repeatedly made similar complaints on the decline of modern society. Consider, for example, the following selection of quotes:

“The art of letter-writing is fast dying out. When a letter cost nine pence, it seemed but fair to try to make it worth nine pence… Now, however, we think we are too busy for such old-fashioned correspondence. We fire off a multitude of rapid and short notes, instead of sitting down to have a good talk over a real sheet of paper.”

The Sunday Magazine, 1871


“Conversation is said to be a lost art… Good talk presupposes leisure, both for preparation and enjoyment. The age of leisure is dead, and the art of conversation is dying.”

Frank Leslies Popular Monthly (Volume 29), 1890


“There is a great tendency among the children of today to rebel against restraint, not only that placed upon them by the will of the parent, but against any restraint or limitation of what they consider their rights… This fact has filled well minded people with great apprehensions for the future.”

Rev. Henry Hussmann, in ‘The Authority of Parents’, 1906


“Our modern family gathering, silent around the fire, each individual with his head buried in his favorite magazine, is the somewhat natural outcome of the banishment of colloquy from the school…”

The Journal of Education (Volume 29), 1907


“We write millions more letters than did our grandfathers, but the increase in volume has brought with it an automatic artificial-like ring… An examination of a file of old letters reveals not only a remarkable grasp of details, but a fitness and courtliness too often totally lacking in the mechanical curt cut and dried letters of today.”

Forrest Crissey, in the ‘Handbook of Modern Business Correspondence’, 1908

These examples are fascinating, because despite being over a century old, many of them can still be heard today, with only minor modifications. This demonstrates the issue with the declinist viewpoint, and shows why it often ends up leading people to form the wrong conclusion regarding the state of things.


The link between age and declinism

Declinism is a phenomenon that is most commonly associated with older people. A notable reason for this is the fact that older adults show increased emotionally-gratifying memory distortion for autobiographical information and past choices compared to younger adults.

This means that older people have an increased tendency to view their past in an unrealistically positive way, due to their predisposition towards rosy retrospection, which makes their present and future look unnecessarily bleak in comparison.

This is exacerbated by the fact that once somebody believes that the past was better and the future is going to get worse, they might interpret new information that they are encounter through the lens of the confirmation bias. This is a cognitive bias that influences the way people process information, and causes them to interpret information in a way that confirms their preexisting beliefs, so that once someone believes that the future is going to be worse than the past, they tend to interpret new information in a way that enhances this declinist belief.

For example, if an older person believes that there was less crime in the past, they might overemphasize crime-related events which appear in current media. Because of this, even if crime rates were higher in the past, an older person might still feel that they are higher now, and that the nation is headed towards decline.

Note: interestingly, older adults are best at remembering things from the period of life between the age of 10 until the age of 30. This disproportionately higher recall of early-life memories compared to memories from later in life is referred to as the reminiscence bump.


The implications of declinism

So far, we saw that declinism represents an outlook which is motivated by a distorted view of the past, and which often causes people to reach an incorrect conclusion about the state of things.

This kind of thinking can become problematic when it leads us to develop an overly pessimistic viewpoint, that doesn’t help us prepare for the future in a realistic manner. This is because such pessimism can have various negative effects on our physical health and on our mental wellbeing, while impacting our ability to make rational decisions.

However, this is not to say that a belief in something decline is always wrong. For example, consider the Roman Empire, which ended up declining at some point, leading to its eventual collapse. Similar downfalls have occurred in various other situations, from the decline of other empires, to the decline of companies, and even to the decline of brilliant scientists.

Accordingly, in cases where declinist beliefs end up being correct, declinism can help us think through issues that we might encounter in the future, and prepare ourself accordingly. In doing this, declinism represents a type of defensive pessimism, which helps us protect ourselves in risky situations.

As such, it’s important to be aware of the concept of declinism, and to understand how it affects you and why. This will allow you to account for it properly when thinking about the future, which will help you consider the future in an optimal way.


Final words on rosy retrospection and declinism

Overall, understanding rosy retrospection and declinism can help you understand how you think and make decisions, as well as how other people think. Specifically, it can help you understand the distortion in the way that people view the past and the future.

This knowledge can be valuable when it helps you identify areas where these forms of thinking have a positive impact, so that you can benefit from them more. In the case of rosy retrospection, this occurs when it helps you take future risks and cope with past events, while in the case of declinism, this occurs when it helps you prepare for future events, in situations where you might otherwise have an overly optimistic viewpoint.

Understanding these forms of thinking can also be beneficial in helping you identify cases where they have a negative impact, so that you can mitigate their influence. In the case of rosy retrospection, this occurs when you fail to learn from your past mistakes, while in the case of declinism this occurs when you have an overly pessimistic viewpoint, which has a negative effect on your wellbeing.


Summary and conclusions

  • Rosy retrospection is a cognitive bias that causes people to remember past events as being more positive than they were in reality. This occurs because people often tend to forget about negative aspects of past events, while remembering the more positive aspects of those experiences.
  • Rosy retrospection can be beneficial, when it helps you cope with past events, create happy memories for yourself, or push yourself to take positive risks. However, it can be detrimental if it means that you fail to learn from your past mistakes, since this can hinder your personal development, and cause you to place yourself in negative situations that you should avoid.
  • Declinism is a form of thinking where people believe that things are going to get worse in the future. This occurs for a variety of reasons, among which is the tendency to have a rosy retrospection, which makes the present and the future look bad in comparison to people’s distorted version of the past.
  • While predictions based on declinism can sometimes be correct, they are often unnecessarily pessimistic, and many common declinist arguments have been repeated constantly in similar formats throughout history, even though they have generally been shown to be factually incorrect. Older adults are especially likely to suffer from this bias, because they are more likely to have an emotionally-gratifying memory distortion for autobiographical information and past choices.
  • Declinist beliefs can sometimes be beneficial, when they help you adopt a defensive outlook for the future, which helps you prepare yourself for undesirable outcomes in risky situations. However, declinism can be detrimental when it leads you to adopt to an overly pessimistic view of the future, which can have a negative impact on your wellbeing, as well as on your ability to make rational decisions.


Gish Gallop: When People Try to “Prove” Things By Using Overwhelming Nonsense

Gish Gallop


The Gish gallop is a debate technique which involves overwhelming your opponent with as many arguments as possible, with no regard to the relevance, validity, or accuracy of these arguments. This debate technique is rapidly becoming more and more commonplace, so it is important to understand it.

In the following article, you will learn more about the Gish gallop technique, and about how you can recognize and counter it in debates.


What is the Gish gallop technique

At its core, the Gish gallop focuses on overwhelming one’s opponent in a debate by bombarding them with as many arguments as possible. Because the Gish galloper focuses on the number of arguments at their disposal rather than on their quality, the arguments which are used are often dubious, inaccurate, or irrelevant to the discussion.

The Gish gallop is frequently used by proponents of pseudoscience when they attempt to criticize various scientific findings. Despite the inherent logical issues associated with this technique, it remains in use for two main reasons:

  • It’s far easier to raise numerous unsubstantiated points than it is to refute them properly. Accordingly, the Gish gallop technique is often successful at overwhelming those who are committed to proper scientific discourse, especially if they are unfamiliar with this type of argument.
  • People generally prefer short and simple arguments, which are easy for them to process. The Gish gallop contains a large number of such arguments, which often offer a more compelling explanation than the complex scientific explanations needed in order to refute them.

When implementing this technique, the Gish galloper will often use a pre-concocted list of arguments, which are easy to fire off rapidly. Accordingly, if the person they are arguing with the Gish galloper manages to successfully refute a certain argument, the Gish galloper simply moves on to the next item on their list.

This means that the Gish galloper always appears prepared, with additional arguments that they can use in order to support their stance. Furthermore, it means that the use of the Gish gallop often appears to successfully discredit the opposing stance, because a person is unlikely to be successful at refuting every single point presented against them during a Gish gallop.

Note: the Gish gallop is generally considered to be a rhetoric technique, rather than a logical fallacy per se. However, it generally relies on various forms of fallacious reasoning, and can be considered fallacious in itself when someone assumes that just because a certain stance is backed by a lot of arguments, then that means that this stance is correct, even if those arguments are mostly invalid.


History of the Gish gallop

The Gish gallop technique is tradionally known by other names, such as argument by verbosity, proof by verbosity, and shotgun argumentation. It was given its current name by Professor Eugenie Scott, who was the executive director of the National Center for Science Education.

Specifically, Professor Scott used the term ‘Gish gallop’ in order to describe the debate technique of Duane Gish, a Young-Earth creationist, by describing it as a format where “the creationist is allowed to run on for 45 minutes or an hour, spewing forth torrents of error that the evolutionist hasn’t a prayer of refuting in the format of a debate”.


Examples of a Gish gallop

As we saw so far, a Gish gallop consists of a collection of various problematic arguments, which includes any combination of the following:

  • General unsubstantiated claims that are difficult to refute. For example: “I saw that they recently published several papers in prominent journals which disprove global warming, so clearly scientists don’t believe that it’s happening anymore, if it ever did”. This kind of statement is hard to argue against, since there isn’t a single concrete piece of evidence here that you can debunk directly, and because it’s hard to disprove that such papers have been published. This means that you have to rely on indirect evidence regarding the scientific consensus on the topic.
  • Anecdotal statements with little to no scientific value. For example: “you keep saying that there is a global warming going on, but my town got a lot of snow just last week”. This is an anecdotal piece of information, which purports to disprove global warming, despite the fact that it is meaningless from a scientific perspective (since large amounts of snow in one area don’t disprove global warming in any way).
  • Intentional or unintentional misinterpretation of truthful facts. For example, a Gish galloper might say that “there is still a lot of debate and disagreement in the scientific community regarding whether or not there is global warming”. The truthful fact here is that there is an ongoing discussion regarding various aspects of global warming, and that there are a few scientists who disagree with the idea of global warming. However, the reality is that the vast majority of scientists agree that we are undergoing some form of significant global warming, which is why the above statement misrepresents the truth.
  • Outright lies. For example: “the majority of scientists don’t believe that there is global warming”. This is false, since as we saw above, the majority of scientists do believe that there is global warming.
  • Truthful statements that are either irrelevant to the discussion, or which don’t provide meaningful evidence. For example: “it might be true that the climate is changing now, but Earth’s climate has also changed many times in the past”. While it’s true that the Earth’s climate has changed many times in the past, this doesn’t invalidate the fact that research shows that we are currently experiencing a man-caused global warming, on a different scale than anything that occurred naturally before.
  • A refutation of statements that no one has actually made. For example, if one person says “there is an increase in overall temperature averages across the planet”, the Gish galloper might reply with “it’s wrong to say that this is the first time in the history of Earth where there have been changes in the overall climate”. Even though the Gish galloper’s argument is refuting a statement that no one has made, it may appear to some people as if the Gish galloper has successfully refuted their opponent’s argument.
  • Statements that involve a lot of unnecessarily technical jargon, or which require esoteric scientific knowledge in order to refute. For example: “global warming was debunked by a study by Schmittner et al. which assessed the impact of future anthropogenic carbon emissions by examining the equilibrium of climate sensitivity with regards to the ECS2xC point, and specifically by calculating the posterior probability density functions of climate sensitivity using Bayesian inference, which examined the likelihood of the observations ΔTobs given the model ΔTmod(ECS2xC) at the locations of the observations”. This is an unnecessarily complex way of summarizing the findings of the study in question, and discussing it in this way helps hides the fact that the study’s findings are misrepresented here, which discourages people from trying to refute this point.
  • Self-referential statements, which are supported by previous statements made by the Gish galloper. For example: “there is a lot of scientific disagreement on the topic of global warming, since, as I showed earlier, we just experienced record snowfalls in some parts of the country”. Using their own previous arguments as evidence helps the Gish galloper pretend to have a lot of supporting proof for their stance, and helps them chain their arguments together, even if the initial premise of these arguments is wrong.
  • Slightly-modified versions of previous arguments, which are simply used in order to increase the total number of arguments that the Gish galloper appears to have at their disposal. For example, if the Gish galloper starts by saying “you claim that there is global warming, but there was a lot of snow in New York last month”, they might later follow with “if there is global warming, then it would be difficult to explain why there were record snowfalls on the East coast a few weeks ago”. Both arguments are similar versions of the same anecdotal information, and neither provides meaningful evidence against global warming.

Note that, as we discussed earlier, many of the arguments which are included in the Gish gallop rely on various logical fallacies, such as strawman arguments or appeals to nature.


How the Gish gallop technique is implemented

The Gish gallop plays a role in various types of discussions. In live debates, for example, the person using the Gish gallop will usually just fire off numerous points rapidly, in an attempt to overwhelm their opponent, or in an attempt to “score” more points than them, by listing as many arguments as possible.

Furthermore, if the opponent of the Gish galloper manages to successfully refute one or several of their arguments, the Gish galloper will usually just counter this by saying “yes, but…” and move on to the next point on their list, in an attempt to wear their opponent down.

In online discussions, the Gish galloper will often just list a large number of sources that supposedly support their stance, without actually verifying that they do so. The person using the Gish gallop in this case will usually just search for the relevant keyword that applies to the discussion, and then list everything that they find without checking that those sources actually support their point.

For example, someone erroneously claiming that yoga is a cure for terminal cancer might list various papers that contain the relevant keywords as if they support this viewpoint, such as the paper “Yoga for Cancer Patients and Survivors“. However, a closer inspection of this paper will show that it simply suggests that practicing yoga could potentially lead to minor improvements in the physical and mental wellbeing of cancer patients, and that it doesn’t actually propose that yoga could be an effective cure for cancer.

This method works because the majority of users won’t bother tediously going over the list of sources in order to confirm that they support the stance proposed by the Gish galloper, and most people will just see the large list of sources and assumes that they are valid and relevant. If the Gish galloper’s opponent wants to show that these sources fail to support the purported view, then they will usually have to tediously go over a significant portion of these sources, which takes much more work compared to just finding them.


How to counter the Gish gallop technique

As we saw so far, it’s relatively difficult to counter the Gish gallop technique successfully, because of the asymmetry between the small amount of effort required to produce multiple weak arguments and the large amount of effort and expertise required to refute them. However, this does not mean that there is nothing that you can do if you want to counter someone using a Gish gallop.

Below are the possible techniques that you can use in order to counter the Gish gallop technique successfully. Different circumstances will call for the use of different techniques, based on what you believe will work best:

  • Full rebuttal- this consists of going over every point made by your opponent, and refuting each of them individually. While this is often considered to be the proper way to respond to an opponent’s argument, in the case of a Gish gallop this is very difficult to accomplish. Furthermore, this sort of a rebuttal is made more difficult by the fact that if even a single point is not refuted properly, the Gish galloper will likely focus on that, and claim that it invalidates the entire refutation attempt.
  • Sample-based rebuttal- this consists of selecting a representative sample of your opponent’s arguments, either randomly or based on some criteria, and then refuting only those arguments. While this method is simpler than the full rebuttal, it suffers from similar issues, since it will generally require more work on the part of the person refuting the arguments, and since a single incorrect refutation will be used in an attempt to invalidate the entire refutation attempt. Furthermore, the Gish galloper will often accuse you of cherry picking specific arguments to refute, and can always respond by drawing the attention back to arguments that weren’t addressed in this rebuttal.
  • Thematic rebuttal- this consists of identifying the overall theme of your opponent’s argument, and arguing against that, instead of focusing on the individual points made during the Gish gallop. This method is relatively effective, since it allows you to address your opponent’s arguments in a valid way, while at the same time taking away the advantage that the Gish galloper gets from being able to pile on multiple irrelevant arguments. Note that you can either try to formulate your opponent’s theme for them, or ask them to do it for you. Asking them to explain their overall argument by themself can be beneficial, since it makes it harder for them to claim that you misunderstood them, while also allowing for a more constructive discussion.
  • Grouped-point rebuttal- this is similar to a thematic rebuttal, but instead of arguing against your opponent’s overall theme, you divide their various arguments into distinct groups, each of which consists of related arguments, and then address each of these groups separately.
  • Best-point rebuttal- this is also similar to a thematic rebuttal, but instead of arguing against your opponent’s overall theme, you try to address only their strongest piece of evidence. Here too, you can either identify such evidence yourself, or ask your opponent to do so. The problem with this technique is that even if you successfully refute their strongest evidence, the Gish galloper might simply fall back to the next argument on their list, which you haven’t addressed.
  • Worst-point rebuttal- this consists of refuting only the weakest pieces of evidence included in the Gish gallop, in order to discredit your opponent’s overall argument. Doing this has the same issues associated with it as the best-point rebuttal.

Overall, the most effective techniques tend to be the thematic rebuttal and the grouped-point rebuttal, which allow you to address your opponent’s arguments properly, while also taking away the advantage that they gain from using the Gish gallop.

Regardless of which technique you end up choosing, you can generally benefit from also calling out the use of the Gish gallop explicitly, especially if you need to explain why you’re not providing a point-by-point rebuttal.

When doing this, you need to show how your opponent is using this debate technique and explain why it’s problematic, which is best accomplished by demonstrating how your opponent is attempting to use a large number of weak arguments. In particular, you will benefit from highlighting a few egregious arguments used by the Gish galloper, and showing how they are representative of your opponent’s overall stance.

Keep in mind that you can also choose to disengage from the debate entirely. This can be the best option, for example, in cases where you have a one-on-one debate with a person who is well aware of what they are doing, meaning that nothing that you say will make a difference. If such a debate is taking place in front of a crowd, you can call out the use of the Gish gallop as we saw above, and use that to explain why you are choosing to stop the debate.


Other considerations when countering the Gish gallop

The strength of the Gish gallop technique lies in the fact that it frames the course of the debate, and creates the appearance of credibility and control. Because this framing gives an inherent advantage to the Gish galloper, your best course of action is to avoid playing their game in the first place.

This means that, if possible, you shouldn’t let the other person establish this type of argument. Instead, stop them as soon as they start firing off multiple invalid arguments, and start refuting those arguments immediately. Of course, this may not be a viable option in some cases, such as in online discussions.

If your opponent already used the Gish gallop, one thing you can do is ask them to defend specific pieces of evidence that they provided.

Since the arguments used in a Gish gallop are generally weak or invalid, the Gish galloper will often struggle to justify them. This is further compounded by that fact that people using this technique often only have a superficial understanding of what they are saying. Accordingly, doing this takes away the Gish galloper’s inherent advantage, and shifts the burden of proof back to them.

For example, if someone claims that the fact that it snowed a lot yesterday means that there is no global warming, you can ask them to explain their rationale, and why they believe that this counts as sufficient proof against climate change.

That is, don’t try to explain why their arguments are wrong yourself, but rather ask them to justify why their arguments are right. The more incorrect arguments the Gish galloper presents, the more difficult it will be for them to defend those arguments later on.


Summary and conclusions

  • The Gish gallop is a debate technique that involves someone attempting to overwhelm their opponent by using as many arguments as possible, with no regard to the relevance, validity, or accuracy of those arguments.
  • This technique is often effective because it’s easier to make multiple unsubstantiated arguments than it is to refute such arguments properly, and because people generally prefer simple explanations, which are easy for them to process, over complex scientific refutations. As such, the Gish gallop is frequently used by proponents of various pseudoscientific theories, in order to support their stance during debates.
  • The Gish gallop will usually include a combination of unsubstantiated claims, anecdotal statements with no scientific value, misinterpretations of truthful facts, outright lies, truthful statements that are irrelevant to the discussion, statements that involve unnecessary technical jargon, self-referential claims, slightly modified versions of previous arguments, and various logical fallacies.
  • To successfully counter a Gish gallop, you can either provide a full rebuttal, a sample-based rebuttal, a thematic rebuttal, a grouped-point rebuttal, a best-point rebuttal, or a worst-point rebuttal, though a thematic rebuttal or a grouped-point rebuttal are usually the best options. Keep in mind that these rebuttals can often be supplemented by calling out the Gish galloper explicitly, and that in some cases, it’s best to simply disengage from the debate with them entirely.
  • Another thing that you can do is shift the burden of proof back to the Gish galloper, by asking them to justify some of the arguments that they made, instead of trying to explain why these arguments are wrong yourself. Because the Gish galloper’s arguments are generally invalid and because their understanding of these arguments is often superficial, the Gish galloper will generally struggle to justify their stance when questioned about it.


How to Be Innovative: on the Untapped Potential of Obscure Features

How Obscure Features Lead to Innovative Solutions


Coming up with innovative solutions is hard. Most people assume that being innovative is a fixed personality trait, so that you either have it or you don’t. However, research shows that while personality does play a role, innovation is something that can be taught, even to people who think that they have no natural aptitude for it.

In the following article, you will learn about a research-based theory which explains how the innovative process works. Then, you will see a few simple guidelines which have been shown to successfully help people learn how to become more innovative.


The Obscure Features Hypothesis

The Obscure Features Hypothesis was developed by researchers who examined the thought process behind the development of over one thousand historic inventions. This theory suggests that there is a two-step process that leads to the development of most innovative solutions:

  • First, a new or infrequently observed (i.e. obscure) feature of a problem is noticed.
  • Then, this obscure feature is used in order to solve the problem in a novel way.

A classic example of this innovation process is the following:

“…consider the two-rings problem, in which the participant has to fasten together two weighty steel rings using only a long candle, a match, and a 2-in. cube of steel… Melted wax is not strong enough to bond the rings, so the solution relies on noticing that the wick is a string, which can be used to tie the rings together. Once people notice this, they easily devise a way to extricate the wick from the wax (e.g., scrape away the wax on the edge of the cube).”

Innovation Relies on the Obscure: A Key to Overcoming the Classic Problem of Functional Fixedness

In this example, the obscure feature is the candle’s wick, which people often don’t realize can be separated from the rest of the candle, and used a string. Noticing this allows people to realize that the candle’s wick can be used in order to tie the two rings together, which allows them to successfully solve the problem at hand.


The effectiveness of teaching innovation

Beyond just describing how people innovate, the research on the Obscure Features Hypothesis also showed that teaching people to understand this relatively simple innovation process can help them improve their problem-solving skills and become more innovative.

For example, one study examined how well people were able to solve various brain teasers which require creative thinking, such as the two ring problem which we saw earlier, or the candle problem, which we will see now.

In the candle problem, individuals are presented with a candle, a box of matches, a small cardboard box full of thumbtacks, and a corkboard. They are then asked to find a way to connect the candle to the upright corkboard, in a way that allows it to burn without the wax dripping on the table below.

The solution is simple: participants need to first empty the box of thumbtacks, and then use the thumbtacks to pin the box to the corkboard. Then, they need to place the candle inside the box, where it can be lit without having wax drip on the table.

Essentially, the obstacle here is to overcome our inherent functional fixedness, which is the tendency to fixate on a typical use of an object or of its parts. As such, being able to solve the candle problem depends on a person’s ability to notice the box of thumbtacks, and realize that it can serve an additional purpose beyond just being a container that holds the thumbtacks.

When it comes to teaching people how to think in a way that can help them find innovative solutions to similar problems, the researchers found that even a brief training session has a huge impact.

Specifically, people who underwent a single 20-minutes training session, ended up solving, on average, 67% more problems than people who did not undergo such training. This demonstrates how effective this type of training can be, and shows that people can be taught how to be more innovative, even if the creative process isn’t something that they find naturally intuitive.

In the following section, you will learn the main techniques that the researchers used in order to teach people how to be more creative, and see how you can easily implement them yourself when you’re trying to find innovative solutions to your problems.


How to become more innovative

So far, we saw that one of the keys to finding innovative solutions is to identify obscure features that are related to the problem that you’re trying to solve, and to then figure out how to take advantage of that feature in order to solve the problem. In the section below, you will learn three helpful techniques that will allow you to do this easily, even if you’re not a naturally creative person.


Learn how to overcome functional fixedness

As we saw earlier, functional fixedness is the tendency to fixate on a typical use of an object or of its parts. Because this tendency can prevent you from considering creative uses for the objects at your disposal, you want to overcome this form of thinking.

An effective way to do this is by constructing a generic-parts diagram, which you create by deconstructing each object that you have into its components, and then describing each of these components in depth by listing their various properties.

For example, a candle can be described using the following diagram:


Generic parts diagram


In this generic-parts diagram, we see that there are two main components to a candle: its wick, and its wax. Furthermore, we see that the wick is essentially a type of string, which can help you realize that, beyond its original use, it can also be used to tie things together.

The main advantage of this technique it’s simple and easy to implement, even if you’re not a naturally creative person. All you have to do is deconstruct the relevant objects in a comprehensive but relatively straightforward way.

Keep in mind that when doing this, your goal is to be as thorough and as methodical as possible. Building the generic-parts diagram isn’t a highly creative process in itself, which is why almost anyone can do it successfully, regardless of whether they’re naturally creative or not. Rather, by building this diagram you’re giving yourself a powerful tool, which will help you when you need to find an innovative solution later on.


Learn how to overcome narrow verb associations

Many verbs have more than one meaning. Unfortunately, people usually focus on only a single specific meaning when describing the problem that they are trying to solve, which causes them to unnecessarily limit the range of possible solutions. By learning to overcome these narrow verb associations, you can become more successful at finding new approaches to solving any problems that you encounter.

For example, consider the two-rings problem which we discussed earlier, which is the brain teaser where people are told to find a way to fasten two rings to each other.

When people were taught to think about the various ways in which one can fasten things, they were better able to find the solution to the problem. They did this by creating a list of troponyms, which are verbs that indicate a specific way of performing a general action.

Below, you can see some of the relevant troponyms of fasten, which describe the action of fastening something in a specific way:


Verb associations list


In the context of the two-rings problem, some of these verbs, such as screw and buckle, were easily ruled out as irrelevant. However, realizing that the action of fastening could be accomplished by tying things together prompted people to notice that the candle’s wick could serve as a string which could be used to tie the two rings.

As such, learning to overcome narrow verb associations, by coming up with a list of relevant verbs that describe the process that you are trying to perform in various ways, can help you come up with more innovative solutions. As in the case of creating a generic-parts diagram in order to overcome functional fixedness, this too is a relatively straightforward process, that can easily help you improve your innovation process, regardless of whether you’re naturally creative or not.

Note that although this technique is used primarily for verbs, it can also be helpful when thinking about other aspects of your problems, by looking at the hyponyms of relevant nouns, adjectives, or adverbs.

Furthermore, you don’t have to try and come up with a list of hyponyms yourself, though it can help you contemplate the problem that you are addressing. If you want a tool that can do this for you, simply use an online thesaurus or Princeton’s WordNet project, which contain synonym and hyponym lists for different words.


Learn how to overcome assumption blindness

Assumption blindness is the tendency to develop assumptions that limit our thought process, without being aware of them. This occurs because when we think about a problem that we are trying to solve, we often end up intuitively making various assumptions regarding the problem, which are implicit in the language that we use to describe it.

For example, the researchers who developed the Obscure Features Hypothesis presented a case where they were given a previously unsolved problem: how to make a coating adhere to a non-stick Teflon surface. They claimed that one of the reasons why this problem went unsolved was that the use of the verb adhere, which was used in order to describe the problem, generally caused people to immediately look for a certain type of solution, while ignoring other viable options.

Specifically, when people heard that the goal of the project is to make the coating adhere to the non-stick surface, they tended to make the following assumptions:

  • That adhere implies that a chemical process should be used. This means that people preemptively assumed which type of energy the solution should rely on.
  • That adhere implies that two things were being adhered to each other. This means that people preemptively assumed that there should only be two materials involved in the process.
  • That adhere implies a direct contact between the things being adhered together. This means that people preemptively assumed what kind of a spatial relationship should be between the materials involved.

Because people made these implicit assumptions, they failed to come up with a solution to the seemingly impossible problem of making something adhere to a surface that is designed to prevent things from adhering to it.

Accordingly, identifying these assumptions and negating them is what allowed the researchers to find the solution to the problem in this case. Specifically, they decided to construct a three-layered sandwich, where one outer layer contained the special coating and the other outer layer contained a special magnetic surface which caused the coating to adhere to the Teflon, which was in the middle layer.

This demonstrates how being aware of your underlying assumptions can help you find new, novel solutions, by helping you think outside the box. Similarly to the process of overcoming assumption blindness and narrow verb associations, this process too is relatively straightforward, and can be performed even by someone without much natural creativity, which is why it’s such an effective tool in the innovation process.


Summary and conclusions

  • The Obscure Features Hypothesis is a theory which explains the innovation process that led to the creation of many prominent inventions. This theory suggests that new inventions are developed when someone notices an obscure feature related to a certain problem, and then uses that feature in order to successfully solve the problem in a novel way.
  • It’s possible to teach people how to become more innovative, by helping them understand how to identify relevant obscure features, using a few simple techniques. A brief 20-minute training session on the topic helped people solve 67% more problems which measure innovative ability than people who did not undergo similar training.
  • One way to improve your ability to innovate is to learn how to overcome functional fixedness, which is the tendency to fixate on a typical use of an object or of its parts. You can do this by creating a generic-parts diagram, where you deconstruct each object that you have into its components, and then describe each of these components in depth. For example, in the case of a candle, using this technique can help you realize that the wick can be used as a string, which can be used to tie things together.
  • Another way to improve your innovation skills is to learn how to overcome narrow verb associations, which is the tendency to fixate on a specific meaning of a verb. You can do this by creating a list of troponyms, which are verbs that describe a specific way of performing an action that is described by a more general verb. For example, in the case of the verb fasten, this can help you realize the numerous ways in which you can accomplish the fastening action, such as by buckling things together, tying them, or zipping them up.
  • Finally, another way to improve your ability to innovate is to learn how to overcome assumption blindness, which is the tendency to develop implicit assumptions that limit your thought process when trying to come up with a solution to a problem. You can do this by identifying any such assumptions that you might have, and negating them before you start looking for a solution to your problem. For example, when given the task of making a coating adhere to a non-stick surface, you could negate the assumption that the verb adhere implies that a chemical process should be used, or that the coating and the non-stick surface should be the only two materials involved in the process.