Left for taking action

Those seven cognitive strategies I've used in the last two posts (Ready Fire Aim! and Incubating a Wise Decision) work superbly when we're taking action. Yet those very same strategies are not effective for diagnosing problems, resolving conflicts, relating to other viewpoints, and many other daily challenges we face. Here's a look at how each cognitive strategy is good for taking action and bad for something else.
  1. Categorical reasoning: To know if you're getting ahead, you've got to label some of your results "progress" and recognize other outcomes as "setbacks" or "getting nowhere". To make progress, you've got to identify some of your efforts "adequate" or "exceptional" and others as "tentative" or "lacking". If you fail to apply these labels, you may not make enough effort or make any progress. However, if you're trying to resolve an argument, labeling the other person, their viewpoint or their pattern of interacting with you (loser, troublemaker, nagging) -- will escalate the tensions and prolong the dispute.
  2. Dichotomous reasoning: Don't kid yourself: either you got it done or you didn't. It cannot get completed behind schedule and on time, it's one or the other. Either it succeeded as planned or something went wrong. Without clear cut dividing lines between polarized opposites, you won't get any satisfaction from accomplishments or an inclination to do better next time. However if you view people with dichotomies (winner/loser, ambitious/slacker, intelligent/stupid) you'll have a worse problem on you hands than when you tried to motivate them, teach them or give them advice.
  3. Compartmentalized reasoning: When you're fixing the gutter, that has nothing to do with fixing ice cream cones. When it's time to take a shower, it's not the time to read the newspaper. When we fail to isolate activities, they mess each other up and get neither done well. Yet if you're trying to solve a mysterious occurrence, compartmentalizing the problem will rule out the actual culprit, hidden connections and the unusual chain of events.
  4. Reductionistic reasoning: To make an omelet in your frying pan, scramble the eggs first in a separate bowl and break the egg shells before that. If you do that in the wrong order or wait for one of the steps to happen by itself, you won't get the omelet you wanted. Omelets are caused by people doing things in the right order without skipping a step. However, if you take a linear approach to a dying houseplant, you'll end up doing too much or too little of watering, fertilizing, transplanting or sunlight -- and then wish you could do something akin to unscrambling eggs.
  5. Empirical reasoning: When you're doing something for a reason, you need proof that the reason is served by your actions. You conduct experiments to see if it makes enough of a difference to take this action. You want to find out if you're doing this for "no reason after all" which can mean it's a waste of your time and resources. However, if you insist on proof of intentions, conduct or outcomes from people you care about, they will feel like you like you're interrogating them, losing trust in them and suspecting them of betrayals.
  6. Superficial reasoning: When you're hammering a steel flat head nail into a wall, the nail gets taken at face value. A nail is a nail, literally. Getting the nail hammered flush with the surface requires not second guessing yourself. You must fail to consider whether the steel nail is manufactured domestically, what trends the steel industry is facing, whether nails were the best choice for this job, and how much competition steel nails are facing from aluminum nails or steel screws. Yet taking another person's request of you at face value will miss what they're really asking between the lines and give you a reputation as insensitive, biased or arrogant for taking them literally.
  7. Convergent reasoning: When crossing a busy street on foot, it's essential to deal with the facts of the situation. Taking this action calls for focusing on the color of the crossing signal, the cars that should be stopped, the change in elevation at the curb and the amount of time before the light changes again. This is no time to ponder other possibilities, to ask what-if questions, or to play with situation as symbols in a dream. However, when you dwell on the immediate situation while encouraging others to make a change, you'll ride roughshod over their vivid fears, troubling past experiences and foresight about long term consequences of the change.
When I reflect on these seven cognitive strategies and how they can function both effectively or disastrously, I come to a conclusion. The left hemisphere of the neocortex deploys these strategies superbly for taking action. Those actions would not get completed effectively without these strategies. Yet the left hemisphere also blunders when overstepping its bounds into the realm where the right hemisphere's, polar-opposite, cognitive strategies get decisions made, issues resolved, relationships nurtured and innovations realized. When using our brains to take actions, the left brain does a better job.

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