Low resolution thinking

by TheEditor

Categories: Investigative, Management

Low resolution thinking (LRT) is a cognitive mode that oversimplifies complex issues, reducing them to binary, black-and-white terms. It is a way of thinking that fails to appreciate the subtleties and shades of grey that characterise most real-world situations. When engaged in LRT, individuals tend to ignore important complexities and context, instead focusing on a single, salient aspect of a problem or situation. This oversimplification can lead to biased, suboptimal decisions and judgments, as it fails to account for the full picture.

LRT is often associated with ideological or political reasoning, where it manifests as the kind of rigid, partisan thinking that often dominates public discourse. In these contexts, LRT can create echo chambers where oversimplified, binary narratives are reinforced and balanced perspectives are dismissed. However, LRT is not limited to political contexts; it can affect any domain where complex issues are at stake. By understanding the pitfalls of LRT and actively working to counter it, we can strive for more inclusive, accurate, and effective thinking across a wide range of personal and professional contexts.

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LRT v Focalism

In a previous article I explored The Focalism Bias. The key distinguishing factors between Low Resolution Thinking (LRT) and Focalism Bias are:

  1. Cognitive process:
    • LRT involves interpreting information through oversimplified, often binary cognitive frameworks or schemas.
    • Focalism Bias involves overweighting the importance of a single, salient piece of information while underweighting or ignoring other relevant information.
  2. Attentional focus:
    • LRT is less about what information is focused on, and more about how that information is processed and interpreted.
    • Focalism Bias is primarily about what information is most salient or attention-grabbing.
  3. Context:
    • LRT is often associated with ideological or political reasoning, but can occur in any domain involving complex issues.
    • Focalism Bias can occur in various contexts, such as decision making, predictions, and emotional judgments.
Table 1 – Contrasting Low Resolution Thinking (LRT) with Focalism Bias
AspectLow Resolution Thinking (LRT)Focalism Bias
DefinitionOversimplified, binary thinking that reduces complex issues to simple, black-and-white termsOveremphasis on one aspect of an event, causing an individual to focus on that aspect and neglect others
Cognitive ProcessInterpreting information through oversimplified, often binary cognitive frameworks or schemasOverweighting the importance of a single, salient piece of information while underweighting or ignoring other relevant information
ContextOften associated with ideological or political reasoning, but can occur in any domain involving complex issuesCan occur in various contexts, such as decision making, predictions, and emotional judgments
Attentional FocusLess about what information is focused on, and more about how that information is processed and interpretedPrimarily about what information is most salient or attention-grabbing
ConsequencesCan lead to biased, suboptimal decisions and judgments, and can contribute to polarisation and echo chambersCan lead to biased, inaccurate predictions and decisions, and can cause individuals to overlook important contextual factors
Countering StrategiesEncouraging cognitive flexibility, considering multiple perspectives, and resisting the temptation to oversimplify complex issuesEncouraging individuals to consider multiple perspectives, to think about the bigger picture, and to resist the pull of salient but potentially misleading information
Cognitive RootsRooted in the way we construct and apply cognitive schemas and frameworks to make sense of the worldRooted in the way our attention is drawn to salient, emotionally resonant information at the expense of less immediately striking but potentially relevant information
TerminologySpecific term coined and popularised by thinkers like Ray Dalio and Jordan PetersonEstablished term in the cognitive bias literature, studied by researchers like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky

Historical evolution of LRT

The concept of LRT, while not always referred to by that specific term, has roots in various fields including cognitive psychology, political science, and philosophy. The idea has evolved over time, with different thinkers contributing to our understanding of this cognitive phenomenon.

In the early 20th century, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) discussed the idea of “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” which bears some resemblance to LRT. Whitehead argued that we often err by treating abstract concepts as if they were concrete, oversimplifying complex realities.

In the 1950s and 60s, cognitive psychologists like Jerome Bruner, Leo Postman, and others studied the ways in which our mental categories and expectations can lead us to oversimplify our perceptions of the world. Their work on “categorical thinking” and “expectancy effects” laid the groundwork for later research on cognitive biases and heuristics.

In the 1970s and 80s, political scientists and media critics like Murray Edelman and Neil Postman argued that political discourse often relies on oversimplified, emotionally resonant symbols and narratives. Edelman’s book “Politics as Symbolic Action” (1971) and Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (1985) both critiqued the way in which complex political realities are reduced to simplistic, misleading terms in public discourse.

In the 1990s and 2000s, cognitive scientists like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky further developed our understanding of the cognitive heuristics and biases that can lead to LRT. Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (2011) popularised the idea of two systems of thinking, one fast and intuitive, the other slow and deliberate, and showed how the former can lead us astray.

More recently, thinkers like Ray Dalio and Jordan Peterson have used the specific term “low resolution thinking” to describe this phenomenon. In his book “Principles” (2017), Dalio discusses the dangers of LRT in decision making, stressing the importance of considering multiple perspectives and resisting oversimplification. Peterson, in his lectures and writings, has similarly warned against the dangers of ideologically-driven, oversimplified thinking.

While the terminology has varied, the core idea of LRT has a long history in various fields. By drawing on these diverse perspectives, we can gain a richer understanding of this cognitive pitfall and develop strategies for promoting more contextual, and effective thinking.

Impacts of LRT

Personal life

Low resolution thinking (LRT) can have a significant impact on various aspects of our personal lives. Here are some key areas where LRT can be particularly problematic:

  1. Relationships: LRT can lead to oversimplified, binary thinking about our relationships with others. We might categorise people as “good” or “bad,” “friend” or “enemy,” without appreciating the complexities of human interaction. This can lead to unrealistic expectations, misunderstandings, and conflicts. By contrast, more conceptually relevant thinking can help us navigate the inherent complexities of human relationships.
  2. Personal growth and learning: LRT can hinder personal growth by leading us to oversimplify the challenges we face. We might think of ourselves as simply “smart” or “dumb,” “successful” or “unsuccessful,” rather than recognising that growth and learning are ongoing processes.
  3. Emotional regulation: LRT can contribute to emotional dysregulation by leading us to oversimplify our feelings. We might think of ourselves as simply “happy” or “sad,” without recognising the complex mix of emotions we often experience. A more encompassing understanding of our emotional lives can help us develop greater emotional intelligence and resilience.
  4. Decision making: LRT can lead to poor decision making in our personal lives by causing us to overlook important factors and consequences. We might make oversimplified judgments based on a single, salient factor, rather than carefully weighing multiple considerations.
  5. Self-understanding: LRT can lead to a simplistic, distorted understanding of ourselves. We might define ourselves in terms of a single characteristic or experience, rather than recognising the multifaceted nature of our identities.

In all these areas, the antidote to LRT is to actively cultivate more balanced, contextual thinking. This means taking the time to consider multiple perspectives, to appreciate complexity and ambiguity, and to resist the temptation of oversimplification. It means engaging in ongoing self-reflection and being willing to revise our views in light of new information and experiences. By doing so, we can develop a richer, more adaptive understanding of ourselves and our personal worlds, leading to more fulfilling and effective lives.

Work and business life

The following are some areas of potential impact in work and business lives.

  1. Leadership and management: LRT can lead to oversimplified, ineffective approaches to leadership and management. Leaders who engage in LRT might rely on rigid, one-size-fits-all strategies, rather than adapting their approach to the nuances of each situation and individual. They might also be prone to making snap judgments about employees based on superficial characteristics, rather than engaging in more conceptually focused performance evaluations. Contextual thinking can help leaders develop more adaptive, effective management strategies.
  2. Problem solving: LRT can hinder effective problem solving in the workplace by leading employees to oversimplify complex challenges. They might latch onto a single, obvious solution without considering alternative approaches or potential unintended consequences. The aims of a different way could help employees generate creative, well-considered solutions that address the full complexity of the problems they face.
  3. Innovation and creativity: LRT can stifle innovation and creativity in the workplace by causing employees to rely on established, simplistic ways of thinking. They might be resistant to new ideas that challenge their existing assumptions or that introduce ambiguity and uncertainty. Open-ended thinking can foster a culture of innovation where new ideas are welcomed and carefully considered.
  4. Collaboration and teamwork: LRT can undermine effective collaboration and teamwork by leading employees to oversimplify their understanding of their colleagues. They might make assumptions about others’ abilities, motivations, or personalities based on superficial characteristics or limited interactions. Empathetic thinking and interactions can help employees build stronger, more productive working relationships.
  5. Adaptation and change: LRT can make it difficult for businesses to adapt to change by causing employees and leaders to rely on simplistic, outdated models of their industry and market. They might fail to recognise emerging trends or changing customer needs, or they might respond to change with rigid, binary thinking (e.g., “this will never work” or “this is the only way“). More flexible thinking can help businesses stay agile and responsive in the face of change.

To counter LRT in the workplace, businesses can actively foster a culture of contextual thinking and creativity. This might involve training employees in critical thinking and problem-solving skills, encouraging open-ended discussion and debate, and rewarding innovative, out-of-the-box ideas. Leaders can be models for more refined thinking in their own decision making and communication and can create an environment where intellectual curiosity and continuous learning are valued. By doing so, businesses can harness the full cognitive potential of their workforce and position themselves for ongoing success in a complex, rapidly changing world.

Relevance of LRT to mental health services and psychiatry

Professionals face in navigating complex, real-world situations. Many struggle to keep in mind the multitude of complex and dynamically related issues, including the shades of gray between them. This struggle can lead to cognitive shortcuts like focalism or Low Resolution Thinking (LRT).

In a professional context, the pressure to make decisions quickly, coupled with the sheer volume of information and competing demands, can make it tempting to rely on these simplified modes of thinking. Focalism, with its emphasis on a single, salient aspect of a situation, can lead professionals to overlook important contextual factors and make decisions based on limited information. Similarly, LRT, with its binary, black-and-white categorisations, can cause professionals to miss the subtleties that are crucial to understanding and effectively addressing complex issues.

The challenge, then, is for professionals to develop the cognitive habits and strategies needed to resist these oversimplifications and engage with the full complexity of the situations they face. This requires significant conscious effort to step back from the immediate pressures and demands of the moment, and to intentionally consider multiple perspectives, competing priorities, and potential unintended consequences.

Cultivating this kind of multidimensional, contextual thinking is not easy, particularly in fast-paced, high-stakes environments. It requires a commitment to ongoing learning, reflection, and self-awareness. It also benefits from supportive organisational cultures and systems that encourage critical thinking, intellectual humility, and continuous improvement.

Ultimately, by recognising the tendencies towards focalism and LRT, and actively working to counter them, professionals can develop the cognitive agility and adaptability needed to navigate the complex, ever-changing landscapes of their fields. This not only leads to better individual decisions and outcomes but also contributes to the overall resilience and effectiveness of their organisations and professions.

For those working in mental health services, particularly in psychiatry, three key areas to explore in relation to Low Resolution Thinking (LRT) are:

  1. Diagnostic processes and treatment planning:
    • How LRT can lead to oversimplified, categorical thinking in diagnostic processes, potentially leading to misdiagnosis or overdiagnosis.
    • The importance of considering the full context and complexity of each individual’s unique risk profiles, experiences and symptoms.
    • Strategies for promoting more relevant, person-centred approaches to diagnosis and treatment planning.
  2. Therapeutic communication and relationship building:
    • How LRT can hinder effective communication and relationship building with clients by promoting oversimplified, stereotypical thinking.
    • The importance of actively listening to and validating each individual’s unique experiences and perspectives.
    • Strategies for promoting more subtle, empathetic understanding and communication in therapeutic contexts.
  3. Collaboration and interdisciplinary teamwork:
    • How LRT can lead to oversimplified, siloed thinking among different mental health professionals (e.g., psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers).
    • The importance of considering multiple perspectives and areas of expertise in providing comprehensive, coordinated care.
    • Strategies for promoting more involved collaborative thinking and communication among interdisciplinary mental health teams.

Strategies for managing LRT

There is a potential for the term LRT to be used as a criticism or label, which could trigger or worsen divisions and team working or friendly relations. Instead of using the term to criticize others, it is more productive to focus on strategies for promoting more encompassing, contextual thinking in oneself and others.

When interacting with someone who seems to be engaging in LRT, consider the following strategies:

  1. Lead by example:
    • Being a model for inclusive contextual thinking in communication and decision making
    • Demonstrate openness to multiple perspectives and a willingness to consider complexity
  2. Ask open-ended questions:
    • Use questions to encourage the person to think more deeply and consider alternative viewpoints
    • Examples: “What are some other factors we might need to consider?” or “How might someone with a different perspective view this situation?”
  3. Highlight complexities:
    • Gently point out the complexities that may be overlooked in an oversimplified perspective
    • Use specific examples to illustrate how the situation may be more multifaceted than initially assumed
  4. Emphasize shared goals:
    • Frame the discussion in terms of shared goals, such as making the best decision or finding the most effective solution
    • Emphasize that considering multiple perspectives and complexities is a means to achieving these shared goals
  5. Avoid labeling or blaming:
    • Refrain from using the term “LRT” or any other labels that could be perceived as criticisms
    • Focus on the specific thoughts or behaviours, rather than making global attributions about the person
  6. Provide resources and support:
    • Share resources (e.g., articles, books, workshops) that promote contextual balanced thinking
    • Offer support and guidance in developing these thinking skills, positioning it as a collaborative learning process
  7. Create a culture of intellectual humility:
    • Foster a team or organisational culture that values intellectual humility, openness to feedback, and continuous learning
    • Encourage everyone, including leaders, to acknowledge their own potential for biases and oversimplifications

Remember, the goal is not to criticize or condemn others for engaging in LRT, but rather to create an environment that supports and encourages a higher resolution of thinking. By approaching these situations with empathy, respect, and a focus on shared goals, it is more helpful towards effective communication and decision making without triggering or contributing to conflicts.

High Resolution Thinking

Readers may have wondered if there is such a thing. Yes, there is. The important big issue is how LRT compares with HRT.

Table 2 – LRT compared to HRT.
AspectLow Resolution Thinking (LRT)High Resolution Thinking (HRT)
Attention to detailRelies on broad generalisations and oversimplificationsPays keen attention to specific details and particulars whilst avoiding focalism.
Appreciation of complexityReduces complex issues to simple, binary termsRecognises and embraces the inherent complexity of situations
Contextual awarenessIgnores or downplays the larger context of a situationPlaces strong emphasis on understanding the broader context
Reasoning styleUses simplistic, black-and-white reasoningEmploys nuanced reasoning sensitive to subtle distinctions
Tolerance for ambiguitySeeks clear-cut, definitive answersComfortable with a degree of ambiguity and uncertainty
Intellectual postureMay exhibit intellectual arrogance or certaintyCharacterised by intellectual humility and openness to learning
Integration of perspectivesRelies on a single viewpoint or data pointSeeks to integrate and synthesise multiple perspectives
Problem-solving approachFavours quick, one-shot solutionsApproaches problem-solving as an iterative, adaptive process
Temporal orientationFocuses primarily on short-term outcomesConsiders long-term implications and consequences
Ethical considerationMay neglect ethical dimensions of decisionsAttuned to ethical considerations and stakeholder impacts

This table highlights some of the key differences between LRT and HRT across various dimensions of cognitive processing, problem-solving, and decision making. While LRT is characterised by simplification, rigidity, and a narrow focus, HRT involves a more nuanced, flexible, and comprehensive approach to engaging with complex situations.

It is important to note that these are not absolute categories, but rather represent tendencies along a continuum. Individuals and organisations may exhibit aspects of both LRT and HRT to varying degrees, depending on the context and the pressures they face. The goal is not necessarily to eliminate all traces of LRT, but rather to consciously cultivate the qualities of HRT as a means of more effectively navigating complexity and making sound, principled decisions.

Change

There may be a recognition among some that HRT is a better way. However, achieving that change is not easy. Knowledge is only a source of potential power for change. A microgramme of knowledge applied is worth more than a truckload of stagnant knowledge. LRT often lives unrecognised in many cultures – as if it is a norm.

The transition from Low Resolution Thinking (LRT) to High Resolution Thinking (HRT) is not just a matter of individual knowledge acquisition, but a process of cultural and behavioural change that requires leadership, discipline, and sustained motivation.

At the individual level, shifting from LRT to HRT demands a significant degree of self-awareness and self-regulation. It requires individuals to recognise their own cognitive biases and oversimplifications, and to consciously redirect their thinking towards more nuanced, contextual analysis. This is not a one-time event, but an ongoing practice that requires discipline and commitment.

However, individual change is often not enough, particularly in organisational contexts where LRT may be deeply embedded in the culture and processes. In these cases, leadership plays a crucial role in driving the transition to HRT. Leaders have the power to set the tone, establish expectations, and create the conditions that enable and encourage more nuanced, comprehensive thinking.

This might involve modeling HRT in their own decision making and communication, providing training and resources to support skill development, and establishing processes and frameworks that prompt more detailed, contextual analysis. It might also involve recognising and rewarding instances of HRT, while gently challenging and redirecting instances of LRT.

Motivating this kind of organisational change requires a compelling vision of the benefits of HRT – improved decision making, more effective problem-solving, greater innovation and adaptability. It also requires an understanding of the costs of LRT – suboptimal outcomes, missed opportunities, and increased risk.

Leaders must communicate this vision effectively, making a clear case for why the shift to HRT is not just desirable, but necessary for the organisation’s success and sustainability. They must also create a supportive, psychologically safe environment where individuals feel comfortable acknowledging their own tendencies towards LRT and working to improve.

Ultimately, the path from LRT to HRT is a journey of continuous learning and improvement, both at the individual and organisational levels. It requires a commitment to growth, a willingness to challenge one’s own assumptions and habits, and a dedication to the hard work of translating knowledge into practice.

The role of leadership in this journey cannot be overstated. By setting the direction, establishing the conditions, and providing ongoing support and motivation, leaders can create the cultural shift necessary for HRT to take root and flourish. As the saying goes, “The most powerful leadership tool you have is your own personal example.” By embodying the principles of HRT in their own thinking and action, leaders can inspire and enable others to do the same.

Summary and takeaway points.

Low Resolution Thinking (LRT) is a cognitive mode characterised by oversimplification and a lack of conceptual depth. When engaging in LRT, individuals tend to reduce complex issues to simple, binary terms, ignoring the shades of gray that characterise most real-world situations. This type of thinking can lead to biased, suboptimal decisions and judgments, as it fails to account for the full context and complexity of the issues at hand. LRT can manifest in various domains, from personal relationships and individual decision making to political discourse and organisational strategy.

The concept of LRT has roots in various fields, including cognitive psychology, political science, and philosophy. Thinkers like Alfred North Whitehead, Jerome Bruner, and Daniel Kahneman have all explored related ideas, such as the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, categorical thinking, and the pitfalls of fast, intuitive thinking. More recently, the specific term “Low Resolution Thinking” has been popularised by thinkers like Ray Dalio and Jordan Peterson, who have used it to describe the dangers of oversimplified, ideologically-driven thinking.

In the context of mental health services, LRT can have significant implications for diagnostic processes, treatment planning, therapeutic communication, and interdisciplinary collaboration. Mental health professionals can counter LRT by actively reflecting on their own thought processes, seeking out diverse perspectives, using structured assessment tools, and fostering a culture of intellectual humility and continuous learning. When interacting with others who may be engaging in LRT, it is important to avoid labelling or criticism, and instead focus on promoting thinking through open-ended questions, highlighting complexities, and giving weight to shared goals.

While High Resolution Thinking pays keen attention to specific details and particulars, it is important to distinguish this from focalism. Focalism involves a narrow fixation on a single detail to the exclusion of other relevant factors, leading to a distorted understanding. In contrast, HRT considers specific details as part of a broader, analysis. It involves the ability to move between different levels of analysis, using details to inform the larger picture without getting stuck on any one particular. By maintaining a balance between zooming in on specifics and zooming out to appreciate context and complexity, HRT avoids the pitfalls of focalism while still leveraging the power of detailed, comprehensive analysis.

The transition from Low Resolution Thinking (LRT) to High Resolution Thinking (HRT) is a process of cultural and behavioural change that requires leadership, discipline, and sustained motivation. At the individual level, it demands self-awareness and self-regulation to recognise cognitive biases and consciously redirect thinking towards more nuanced analysis. However, in organisational contexts, leadership plays a crucial role in driving the transition by setting expectations, providing resources, and creating a supportive environment that encourages HRT. Leaders must communicate a compelling vision of the benefits of HRT, model it in their own decision making, and establish processes that prompt more detailed, contextual analysis. Ultimately, the path from LRT to HRT is a journey of continuous learning and improvement that requires a commitment to growth, a willingness to challenge assumptions, and a dedication to translating knowledge into practice, with leaders playing a key role in inspiring and enabling this cultural shift.


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