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.

  • 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.