Sequential Organization of Thinking: “Six Thinking Hats”

Many peo­ple move chaot­i­cally from thought to thought with­out ex­plicit struc­ture. Inap­pro­pri­ate struc­tur­ing may leave blind spots or cause the gears of thought to grind to a halt, but the ad­van­tages of ap­pro­pri­ate struc­tur­ing are im­mense:

Cor­rect thought struc­tur­ing en­sures that you ex­am­ine all rele­vant facets of an is­sue, idea, or fact.

  • It en­sures you know what to do next at ev­ery stage and are not frus­trated or crip­pled by akra­sia be­tween mo­ments of choice; the next ac­tion is always ob­vi­ous.

  • It min­i­mizes the over­head of task switch­ing: you are in con­trol and do not dither be­tween pos­si­bil­ities.

  • It may be used in a so­cial con­text so that po­ten­tially challeng­ing is­sues and thoughts may be brought up in a non-threat­en­ing man­ner (let’s look at the pos­i­tive as­pects, now let’s fo­cus purely on the nega­tive...).


To illus­trate thought struc­tur­ing, I use the ex­am­ple of Ed­ward de Bono’s “six think­ing hats” mnemonic. With Ed­ward de Bono’s “six think­ing hats” method you metaphor­i­cally put on var­i­ous col­ored “hats” (per­spec­tives) and switch “hats” de­pend­ing on the task. I will use the some­what con­tro­ver­sial is­sue of cry­on­ics as my run­ning ex­am­ple.1


Gather the in­puts:
White hat—Facts and in­for­ma­tion
This is the per­spec­tive where you fo­cus on gath­er­ing all the in­for­ma­tion rele­vant to the situ­a­tion by de­duc­ing facts, re­mem­ber­ing, ask­ing col­leagues, re­view­ing the liter­a­ture, and con­duct­ing ex­per­i­ments.
Con­crete declar­a­tive facts:

  • Most of the in­for­ma­tion is re­tained when some­one is cryo­geni­cally frozen.

  • No one has been re­vived yet.

  • Bac­te­ria, seeds, and hu­man em­bryos may be frozen and re­vived.

Red hat—Feel­ings and emo­tion­s
This is the per­spec­tive where you think about or con­vey vague in­tu­itions. Th­ese are rules of thumb, ab­stracted prob­a­bil­ities, im­pres­sions, and things in your pro­ce­du­ral un­der­stand­ing. This is also the time to fo­cus on any­thing that might be in­terfer­ing with your ob­jec­tivity.
In­tu­itions and vague in­puts:

  • The tech­nol­ogy will ex­ist in the fu­ture to re­vive the cryo­geni­cally frozen.

  • Peo­ple in the fu­ture will re­vive us if they can.

  • Fam­ily re­la­tions will be sad­dened by choos­ing cry­on­ics.

  • Life will be bet­ter in the fu­ture than in the pre­sent.

In­ven­tion and prob­lem solv­ing:
Green hat—New ideas
Go­ing into this per­spec­tive you have gath­ered the ev­i­dence and in­tu­itions. Now you fo­cus on us­ing these to solve the prob­lem or in­vent new ap­proaches. At this point the in­vented ideas do not have to be very good; your ideas are crit­i­cised and eval­u­ated with the other hats.
New ideas:

  • How about we use some­thing like hi­ber­na­tion in­stead of cry­on­ics?

  • How about we find some sort of chem­i­cal con­coc­tion that stops the molec­u­lar pro­cesses and yet works at room tem­per­a­ture?

Weigh the ev­i­dence:
Black hat—Crit­i­cal judg­men­t
Here you spe­cial­ize, look­ing for the flaws in the ar­gu­ment, de­sign, or con­cept. If you are the origi­na­tor of a con­cept or oth­er­wise have pos­i­tive af­fect around one, the habit of us­ing this per­spec­tive en­sures that you look for flaws.
Flaws:

  • There are many pos­si­ble fu­ture his­to­ries where the cry­op­re­served are not re­vived.

  • Spend­ing money on cry­on­ics means we can­not spend it el­se­where and the re­sources are locked in.

Yel­low hat—Pos­i­tive as­pect­s
With this per­spec­tive, you look for the ar­gu­ments for a po­si­tion or come up with var­i­ous uses you can put some­thing to. If you are crit­i­cal of a con­cept, this step en­sures you look at its pos­i­tive as­pects.
Strengths and ad­di­tional pur­poses:

  • Your life may be saved.

  • Believ­ing that you will be re­vived gives you a near mode rea­son to care for the dis­tant fu­ture.

Mon­i­tor­ing, di­rect­ing, and de­cid­ing:
Blue hat—The big pic­ture
This is the per­spec­tive where you figure out how valuable the var­i­ous op­tions are, con­sider op­por­tu­nity costs, and choose. Here you also mon­i­tor your thoughts and in­ter­rupt the flow if some­thing un­ex­pected oc­curs in­ter­nally or ex­ter­nally.
Mon­i­tor and choose:

  • If you are on your deathbed or in a risky oc­cu­pa­tion, mak­ing a de­ci­sion now in­creases in im­por­tance.

  • If you are look­ing for crit­i­cisms (or pos­i­tive as­pects) and you men­tally flinch, this warns you of pos­si­ble bias and points out where you need to watch your step.

  • At some point, op­por­tu­nity costs force you to de­cide one way or an­other. Re­call that the ab­sence of mak­ing a de­ci­sion is a de­ci­sion.

As the ex­am­ple shows, Ed­ward de Bono’s six think­ing hats method is use­ful for struc­tur­ing thought, but it is ad­mit­tedly limited:

  • There are many types of thought not cov­ered or de-em­pha­sized by the method (mo­ti­va­tion, com­par­i­son, mem­o­riza­tion, re­call, do­ing, sens­ing,...)

  • The view­points over­lap.

  • It doesn’t tell you ex­actly how you should se­quence and time the view­points only that you should con­sider them all, and it doesn’t break each view­point into even smaller, atomic, com­po­nents.

Nev­er­the­less, I find a kind of use­ful sim­plic­ity and beauty in the method (or maybe I just love col­ors...).
What do you think of the method? Can you sug­gest other ways of “struc­tur­ing thought?”

1. Dis­claimer: I am pro-cry­on­ics, but am us­ing it solely as an ex­am­ple and do not in­tend to be com­pre­hen­sive or have the feel­ings and anal­y­sis par­tic­u­larly re­sem­ble my own.