Lateral Thinking

In tenth grade I had to take a course to prepare for the workforce. The class included interviewing a person in my career of interest, doing mock job interviews, and even some creative writing and public speaking.

One day the teacher told us we were going to do lateral thinking problems. As it turned out, lateral thinking was just another term for trick questions. They were designed to test if I could answer questions without making unwarranted assumptions.

Here’s an example: A man is walking down a country road that has no street lights. He is wearing black clothes and not carrying a flashlight. A black car with it’s headlights off comes speeding around the corner just in front of the man. It screeches to a stop, narrowly avoiding running the man over. How did the driver of the car see the man in the road?

You can have a lot of fun imagining possible answers. At that time cars didn’t have collision sensors, so let’s assume the car is old and it’s up to the driver to stop. It’s possible the walker was carrying some light other than a flashlight, like a cell phone, a headlamp, or glow sticks. Perhaps the driver was wearing night-vision goggles. Maybe it was just a coincidence.

As it turns out, none of these ingenious solutions is necessary. Nowhere in the problem does it state that it is dark. Check it out for yourself. Since lights are mentioned several times, the mind makes that assumption, but it’s not in the question.

This test still counts as one of the proudest moments of my life. I don’t think any of my classmates answered more than fifty percent of them correctly, but I only missed one.

You see, my brain is terrible at handling assumptions. That can be very helpful in programming and, to a lesser extent, business, but it’s a major liability in personal interaction. Allow me to demonstrate.

People often ask me questions. I’m good at answering them, provided they’re factual. If they’re not factual my brain will change them until they are. This is especially a problem with “How” questions. Not all “How” questions, mind you. Some just want you to describe a step-by-step process, such as “How do you download an email attachment?” or “How did you get up in that tree?” Those my brain handles just fine. It’s the other “How” questions.

Often when people ask how, it seems like they’re asking for a description. “How does the fish taste?” It seems innocent enough, but it’s a trap. “It tastes like a fish” is the wrong answer. So is “It can’t. It’s dead.” What people actually want is not a description, but a judgment. Intellectually I understand that, and yet my brain says, “Who am I to judge whether a fish is good or bad?”

This gets even more confusing with “How” greetings. “How are you?” doesn’t mean “What conditions led to you existing?” even though that’s what my brain hears. And since I can’t reliably judge a fish, I definitely don’t have enough information to judge my own condition. Of all the people on earth I am singularly unqualified to that task. So my brain gets a bit stuck.

Over time I have divined that the preferred answer is “Good, how are you?” Even “Hi” seems to be acceptable, though I have no understanding of how that is related. Just whatever you do, don’t try to answer the question literally. No one wants to know that.


    1. The grading in that class was a bit hazy. As far as I know the scores from that were for our information, kind of like a personality test. Also, I’m pretty sure I never had a teacher mention curving grades until 11th grade trigonometry, so no one was really worried about curve-busting.


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