Sloppy thinking

Rea­ding time: 4 minu­tes

Hamma kinne Hamma, näme mer dä Zang* — or: Why a cer­tain logic of thin­king is what makes us crea­tive beings in the first place.

If you Google the term “sloppy thin­king,” you will only get uses of the term with nega­tive con­no­ta­ti­ons. Sloppy thin­king is faulty, incon­sis­tent, illo­gi­cal, lumpy, some­ti­mes spi­rit­less and unmo­ti­va­ted. Someone has been sloppy. “Sloppy,” after all, sounds kind of fringy, inac­cu­rate, messy, and not very desi­ra­ble. Ins­tead, it’s bet­ter to think things through con­sci­en­tiously, pre­cis­ely, straight­for­wardly, with a clear head and razor-sharp mind. Should we?

Yet we can hardly get through ever­y­day life wit­hout sloppy thin­king. Espe­ci­ally when it comes to crea­tive pro­ces­ses, a cer­tain slop­pi­ness of thin­king is extre­mely hel­pful, because it makes it pos­si­ble to estab­lish devia­ting con­nec­tions, to see things in a new and dif­fe­rent way, to approach pro­blems more fle­xi­bly and vividly.

I will give you an exam­ple of a “pro­blem” which you can solve only with sloppy thin­king: Ima­gine that the two poli­ti­ci­ans Armin Laschet and Mar­kus Söder are both the num­ber 10, but the 10 is com­po­sed dif­fer­ently. For one of them, the 10 con­sists of 8+2, and for the other of 7+3. Now it’s your turn: which 10 is Laschet’s and which is Söder’s?

Sloppy thin­king is a pecu­lia­rity of a cer­tain way of approa­ching pro­blems, making con­nec­tions, crea­ting order, ope­ning up the world, for which there are many names: Intui­tive, ana­lo­gi­cal, late­ral, con­crete, trans­ver­sal, mime­tic, sen­sual, psy­ches­the­tic, wild, dream­lo­gi­cal, and many more: thin­king that fol­lows the rules of per­cep­tion, the sen­ses, and phy­si­cal­ity rather than those of for­mal logic and ver­bal lan­guage, that is com­pa­ra­tive rather than dis­cur­sive — and thus repres­ents a dif­fe­rent mode of what in psy­cho­logy is cal­led cognition.

A cen­tral prin­ci­ple of ana­lo­gi­cal, sen­sory thin­king is its tole­rance of fuz­ziness and ambi­guity (there is also the term fuzzy logic, sounds nice and sloppy too). We have no hesi­ta­tion to reco­gnize a cir­cle in the view of an apple, alt­hough the apple only pas­ses as cir­cu­lar with the best will in the world — or in fuzzy logic. In dif­fuse clouds we reco­gnize faces or in an adver­ti­se­ment simi­la­ri­ties to a hero story. Here a pos­ter, there a novel, we don’t take it too seriously. 

This thin­king in vague simi­la­ri­ties — or ‘thin­king over the edge’ as in sloppy pain­ting — is pre­cis­ely what gives us more free­dom. If I want to hang a pain­ting and don’t have a ham­mer handy, then some­thing somehow simi­lar will do, as long as it’s heavy and hard and fits well in the hand. Iso­mor­phism, the reco­gni­tion of struc­tu­ral simi­la­rity, only works if you don’t take it so nar­rowly. In Colo­gne they say: Hamma kinne Hamma, näme mer dä Zang (Colo­gne dialect for: If we don’t have a ham­mer, we take the tongs). 

The nice thing about it is: thin­king laxly, tasks and solu­ti­ons can also be twis­ted and tur­ned in the ima­gi­na­tion wit­hout cons­traint. If you walk through the world with crea­tive glas­ses, you can be inspi­red by ever­y­thing pos­si­ble and somehow-distantly-simi­lar. Bes­i­des, we can use a huge pool of memo­ries, ideas and asso­cia­ti­ons that come to us, even if they have only remo­tely some­thing to do with our pro­blem. What the heck. If it helps?

The cri­ter­ion for a good idea is not cor­rect­ness but cohe­rence. For the task with Laschet and Söder, there is no cor­rect result, only a coher­ent one, and — if you were to make a poll out of it — you would­n’t have a 100% result, because cohe­rence is only appro­xi­mate. Sloppy.

Of course, other aspects are important for crea­ti­vity, and sloppy thin­king does not mean to approach pro­blem solu­ti­ons hapha­zardly and unsys­te­ma­ti­cally. But that is ano­ther topic.

Fur­ther details:

In our study “Psy­cho­logy of Crea­ti­vity” we describe crea­tive thin­king as “sloppy thin­king”, among other things. The study is available here for free down­load (in Ger­man language). 

The term can be found for the first time in a book by Ursula Brand­stät­ter: “Erkennt­nis durch Kunst. Theo­rie und Pra­xis der ästhe­ti­schen Trans­for­ma­tion” (2013): “Thin­king along­side, thin­king slop­pily, thin­king at the fuzzy edges — all these ways of thin­king open up new spaces of thought bey­ond the firmly defi­ned boun­da­ries of con­ven­tio­na­li­zed thin­king” (p. 51). Brand­stät­ter is rec­tor of the Anton Bruck­ner Pri­vate Uni­ver­sity for Music, Drama and Dance in Linz/Austria.

The term “uncer­tainty tole­rance” of visual thin­king was intro­du­ced into psy­cho­logy by Max J. Kob­bert, fol­lo­wing the remarks of Gestalt psy­cho­lo­gist Rudolf Arn­heim. Kob­bert was a pro­fes­sor of per­cep­tual psy­cho­logy at the Müns­ter Aca­demy of Art and Müns­ter Uni­ver­sity of Applied Sci­en­ces in the Design Depart­ment until 2009.

We also describe fuzzy tole­rance in detail and with prac­ti­cal rele­vance for desi­gners in our book „Wie Design wirkt“ (here is a free chap­ter).

The idea of fuzzy logic goes back to Plato, who used it to describe solu­ti­ons that lie in a third realm bet­ween true and false (and who thus con­tra­dic­ted his stu­dent, the for­mal logi­cian Aris­totle). It plays an important role today in the field of arti­fi­cial intelligence.

The task with the poli­ti­ci­ans and the num­ber 10 is inspi­red by the essay “Inspi­ra­tion” by Fried­rich W. Heu­bach. Heu­bach was a psy­cho­logy pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Colo­gne (during my stu­dies there) and then at the Hoch­schule für bil­dende Künste in Ham­burg and the Kunst­aka­de­mie Düs­sel­dorf. Heu­bach was one of my most important tea­chers and also sup­ported us at INNCH as a supervisor.

* Trans­la­tion for non-Colo­gni­ans: “If we don’t have a ham­mer, we take the tongs”


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