Mind of the Engineer: rational versus emotional?

-January 11, 2013

At DesignCon later this month, EE Times brand director Alex Wolfe and I will host a breakfast to present the results of the first ever cross-brand, global version of an EDN classic: “The Mind of the Engineer” study. We’ll condense the results of the sweeping study, which endeavors to tell you all about you: who you are; what you like; how you see yourself; how you think others see you; your concerns, worries, and fears; what makes you happy; what inspires you; how you view your peers; and, of course, your ambitions, goals, and the resources you depend upon to get you there. This year, we’ve even grouped you according to four main personas: Big Man on Campus; Salt of the Earth; New da Vinci; and the Quiet One. Come join us to find out where you fit.

[Click here to register for DesignCon 2013, Jan. 28-31 at the Santa Clara Convention Center. Options range from an All-Access Pass to Free Expo Admission, which includes the option to attend a dozen tech training sessions.]

It’s all very intriguing—after all, we all love to hear about ourselves—but is this really the mind of the engineer? I wonder about that.

A while back, my son gave me a riddle to solve. I started to ask questions, break it down, define the parameters and conditions, and generally pester him until he broke down and yelped, “Dad, you’re overanalyzing again; stop it!”

He was right; I do tend to overanalyze. That’s why I found the book How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer, so intriguing. Lehrer is a Rhodes Scholar and all-around smart guy who knows a lot about how the brain works, yet even he admits to having made two wrong decisions that later got him fired.

Lehrer’s exploration of human decision-making starts with a look at New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Lehrer notes how hard it is to break down what Brady does in real time at clutch moments on the field; during such moments, the subconscious takes over, and things just happen.

How does that process unfold? Can it be applied elsewhere? The answer is yes, but it requires the decision-maker to do something engineers are taught not to do.

In his book, Lehrer guides us on a journey through the writings of Plato to Freud and on to current-day cognitive psychology, all of which support what he calls “the privileging of reason over emotion.” Emotions, we are told, are bad impulses that should be controlled and suppressed, lest they get in the way of rational thought and good decision-making.

But then Lehrer relates the story of a patient he calls Elliott who lost the ability to make a decision after having a part of his brain removed to excise a tumor. In short, the surgery killed Elliott’s ability to “feel,” leaving him completely rational yet also completely unable to make a decision. Why was that?

In engineering school, we’re taught the importance of rational thinking. In fact, for many engineers, it’s the affinity for the “rational” that attracts them to the field in the first place. But Lehrer notes that Elliott’s inability to make a decision came down to lack of emotion: To make good decisions, we must learn to combine rational thought with emotional awareness. We’ve heard this before when we’ve been advised to follow or gut or trust our instincts.

Malcolm Gladwell, the consummate observer of human nature, points out in his book Blink that generals in the field make life-and-death decisions all the time in situations where they have only 60% or so of the information required. They are able to do so because they are attuned to their gut instincts, or “feelings” (gag)—which, according to Lehrer and other experts, we generate subconsciously, based on our prior experiences and accumulated knowledge.

These fascinating findings underscore the importance of combining rational thought with instinct to make the right decisions for your design. Your emotions are telling you something, so listen up. Got that nagging sense something is wrong? Don’t act until you find out the cause.

In the meantime, if you tire of thinking about you, you can find out what others think of you by joining Alex, myself, and the UBM Tech team on Wednesday, Jan 30, in the Santa Clara Convention Center, Room M3. You’ll also find me at the relaunch party for Planet Analog later that day, at 6 pm, in the Mission City Ballroom, Showroom 3.

Looking forward to seeing you!

For more on DesignCon visit its Web site and this collection of content on the event, or follow @UBMDesignCon on Twitter.

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