Teaching people how to think

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In the words of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation and arguably the finest example of a fictional detective: “…when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth…” The lesson in this obvious – albeit elusive – concept is implied in the premise: What is the process of elimination required to find the truth? And how does one either learn or acquire the requisite skills?

The answers are as varied as the methods used to train every investigator. The complete skill set is similar to a tool kit. If the tool necessary to accomplish a task is present, then the task is simple. Lacking the required tool does not necessarily mean the task can’t be completed; however, while failure is always an option, it doesn’t accomplish the mission. Improvisation solves many problems, usually through an abuse of technology. When it works, it’s called “thinking outside the box.” A common misapplication of technology is knowing exactly which wrench to use to pound in the proper screw. While not an elegant solution, it does the job.

Thinking outside the box is not a gentle process. The most difficult part is getting from the inside to the outside where it can be observed in its entirety, from all angles; and, most often it’s in a cold, harsh, hard light. Breaking out of the box can be an easier process if the investigator can assume a persona, an alter-ego or a character. There is a reason detectives use disguises. People will relate to a complete stranger some tidbit of knowledge they would not otherwise disclose, simply because they feel more comfortable with the persona of the character they are talking with than they would having the same conversation with a professional investigator.

Learning the fine art of disguise is more of a mental process than a physical transformation. The simpler the disguise, the easier it is to maintain. Latex full-head disguises and cheesy accents make for great escapist TV fiction, but are next to impossible to use in the real world. It can be an eye-opening experience to an urban dweller of the northeast to talk with a real country cowhand, just visiting the Big City. Even if the farthest south that “cowboy” ever lived was the South Bronx. A change of clothes, a couple of hours of listening to a country-western radio broadcasting out of Texas, and some minor alterations in speech patterns will give an investigator a character they could hang a hat on.

Once information is gleaned from several sources, it is time to analyze the data. Analysis is the application of logic and critical thinking processes to produce workable results. This can be done on-the-fly while in persona, but for some, reflection and introspection is the better solution. When thinking in a time-sensitive situation or when snap decisions are necessary, the best investigators rely on a trait usually called “gut-instinct” or some similar term that describes the formulation of an answer given insufficient or misleading data.

One of the more frustrating obstacles to critical thinking is the separation of belief from experience. Belief is based on faith. Experience is based on observation. As much as one may believe Mack trucks do not exist, experience suggests it would be unwise to test that theory in the middle of an Interstate highway. Common sense isn’t common: Intelligence is knowing better, wisdom is doing better. The converse is also valid. Simply because something has not been experienced personally, does not necessarily imply it isn’t true.

Teaching people how to think is not simply learning to exercise the muscle between one’s ears. It’s necessary to learn how thinking works, what processes work better than others, unlearning bad or misguided thought patterns and breaking habitual assumptions.

Character-based role playing games (RPGs) have been popular for decades. From the earliest tabletop games, it wasn’t long before Live Action Role Playing (LARPs) appeared sporadically. With advent of the internet and the online community, it wasn’t long before the RPGs and primitive game software was integrated with LARPs. Now, the next logical step is the integration of LARPs and social networks at the real-world community level.

With limited time constraints, a local environment, with tangible rewards and goals, a simple game can and is a useful vehicle to educate, train and exercise thought processes required to become a true life detective. With practice, patience, and practical application, the student can become the master.

Getting outside the box is the first step.