Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 45;   November 10, 2010:

How to Make Good Guesses: Tactics

by

Making good guesses probably does take talent to be among the first rank of those who make guesses. But being in the second rank is pretty good, too, and we can learn how to do that. Here are some tactics for guessing.
Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson

Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, in an illustration by Sidney Paget, captioned "Holmes gave me a sketch of the events." The illustration was originally published in 1892 in The Strand magazine to accompany a story called The Adventure of Silver Blaze by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is in this story that the following dialog occurs:

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

Gregory: "The dog did nothing in the night-time."

Holmes: "That was the curious incident."

From this, Holmes deduces that the dog's master was the villain. This is an example of what I here call "Look for what's not there."

Original book illustration, courtesy Wikimedia.

In the first part of this series, we examined strategies for making good guesses — overall approaches that lead to excellent conjectures. Let's now turn to tactics for making good guesses based on what you see — and what you don't.

Look for what's not there
Many guesses involve recognizing the absence of something important. Some missing factors are obvious, such as gaps in a sequence, or something missing that's usually implied by something that's present. See "On Noticing," Point Lookout for May 2, 2012, for more.
Other missing items are more difficult to notice. For instance, consider two factors present in the situation before you. Then ask, if these two are connected in some way, what would that connecting feature imply? That implied attribute of the situation might be missing. If it is, what does that tell you? See "On Noticing," Point Lookout for May 2, 2012, for more.
Examine temporal sequences
A temporal sequence is a sequence in which time of occurrence determines position in the sequence. Since time of occurrence is often confused with time of discovery or time of recognition, the first thing to sort out is temporal order.
Once you know the order, you can reverse it, and consider whether the reversed sequence is actually possible. If the reversed sequence or any subset of it could have happened in that order, it's possible that the order you believe you have is actually incorrect. What if it is? What does that tell you?
For people, focus on situation, not character
When most of us conjecture what others will do in a given situation, we tend to put too much weight on their character or motivation, and too little weight on how they experience that situation. This error is so common that it has a name: the Fundamental Attribution Error.
Since disregarding Many guesses involve
recognizing the absence
of something important
character or motivation is also an error, keep it in the mix. But think much more about how the situation looks to the people in question. What will they know? What will they not know? How will their past experiences influence what they notice or don't notice? What are others hiding? What disinformation is present? Focus on trying to see things from their vantage point, and then project the decisions they're likely to make based on the information they have.

Most important, watch others. You probably know someone who makes consistently good guesses. Actually, you probably know more such people than you imagine you do. Many great guessers conceal from others — and sometimes themselves — that they're guessing. They present a demeanor of knowledge and confidence designed to conceal their guessing.

When someone appears to "know" something you think they might not actually know, make a note of it. Later, imagine how you would have made that guess. This exercise, repeated over time, gives you a chance to build your guessing skills. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Durable Agreements  Next Issue

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