Why are things ‘obvious’ in retrospect and not beforehand

August 2, 2023 | Jarrod Saxton

complex difficult task or question un business, problem concept, no obvious solution

“Well, duh! Obviously!”

Sometimes, this statement can be the outcome when one follows our thought process, reaching a logical solution. While on the surface, it may sound like an underwhelmed reaction; it is really a compliment in disguise.

Let me explain with a personal anecdote. The other day, I found myself engaged in a game of chess with my wife. Out of the blue, I lost a piece. To an outside observer surveying the chessboard, the suggestion might have been to move or defend the endangered piece – an apparently “obvious” action. So why didn’t I do it?

The ‘cognitive miser’

The answer lies in the game’s inherent nature.

Chess pieces move around continuously, with each player harbouring a strategic plan to checkmate their opponent. To better manage this flurry of information, we create a mental schema of the board – we take a snapshot in our mind of what the board looks like – and refer back to it to preserve mental energy. And in this energy-preserving mechanism lays the chess player’s paradox.

We base our strategy and decisions on this mental schema, often neglecting to take note of the current state of the board. It’s not that we are oblivious to the board’s reality; it is simply our brain’s nature to preserve cognitive resources. So, acting as a “cognitive miser,” our brain defaults to our snapshot of the board unless we consciously exert effort to reassess the board.

It is then a given that this schema can become outdated because of the rapid movements of the chess pieces.

It’s all in your head

This practice of taking snapshots and referring back to them isn’t confined to the chessboard alone.

It extends to various situations we face daily. You might have made assumptions that were logical and practical in a past context but no longer apply to the current state. These outdated assumptions create mental roadblocks. If you assume an unlocked door is locked, you might never attempt to open it.

The problem isn’t external but within your mind.

A thought experiment

Here’s a thought-provoking question: If you had absolute clarity about your circumstances, wouldn’t the solution always seem obvious?

When utilizing our BBIT thinking tools, what’s common – and arguably more valuable – aren’t the sudden epiphanies or big eureka moments. Instead, it’s the gradual understanding of your situation until a clear path forward emerges as ‘obvious.’

This journey of unveiling hidden assumptions, discerning a new path, engaging in intellectual and emotional exploration, and sharing your findings with others, may lead others to respond with, “Of course! That’s what I would have done. It’s so obvious!” But they probably would not have reached the same conclusion without the same logic and rigor that critical thinking tools require. When you present a logical and well-thought-out solution, it’s natural for others to perceive the ‘common sense’ in it.

So, the next time someone dismisses your solution as “obvious,” take a step back and consider it a compliment. After all, clarity often makes the complex seem effortlessly ‘obvious.’

To learn how to make ‘obvious’ decisions enrol in our next Thinking Foundations course.