Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Strategies of thought: When do you search for something? When do you stop?

I’ve been thinking… What causes someone to start searching?  When do you get motivated enough to actually stop whatever you’re doing now and expend the energy to look up something?

I got to thinking about this the other day when I looked up the phrase “Revolution is Not a Dinner Party.”  You with a richer reading of history will recognize this as a well-known phrase from Mao’s Little Red Book. 

But I didn’t know that.  It was just the title of my daughter’s book she was reading for school.  I stopped what I was doing and did a search because… because… I’m not really sure why....  I think I did it because the phrase struck me as slightly non-standard.  It’s not a typical title, there was something just a bit odd about it.  (Think about it: most juvenile books of this genre are given titles like “Never a Princess” or “A Wrinkle in Time.”  Titles aren’t typically six words long.)

Now, I’m by nature a curious person, which simply means (when you think about it) that I will, more often than not, spend the energy to look things up.  I even always carry a small notebook with me so I can write down items for checking-out when I get to a computer. 
Bottom line: something was funny/odd about that title, so I looked it up, and found that it’s from a fairly well-known long Mao quote about why the pursuit of the revolution will cause collateral damage to people and institutions.  The idea fits perfectly with the idea of the book (which is about a young girl growing up during the Cultural Revolution). 

In this case, I wasn’t sure what I’d find—it really was just a scratch to satisfy a curiosity itch. 
More often, I’ll find myself looking for a specific piece of information.  This week I kept track of a few of them.  At different times I was looking for good dive sites in Puerto Rico, the population of Uttar Pradesh, and a short history of the development of ice skate blades. 
But then there were the other times I did some research to answer curiosities that aren’t so neatly defined: What is the political relationship between Kashmir and Pakistan?  Or…  How are slime molds related to fungi? 

Early this week I looked for a table of rainfall in the Bay Area with a sub-hour time resolution.  I found that data set in order to draw a chart to convince myself that rain in Seattle falls in a different pattern than rain in San Francisco (I found the data, charted the rain and found that it is different).

These questions weren’t hard.  But sometimes there’s no good answer.  This week there was the fruitless hour looking for the artist of a pointillist picture that a friend found in Paris.  Each time I was searching for something in order to understand the world… or to be able to make a convincing argument… or to write a paper… or… just to fill in a perceived gap in my understanding. 

Curiosity is boundless; the question really is, how much energy, time and skill will you devote to tracking down something? 

Or, as I tried to say at the start—what makes you curious enough to search in the first place?  What are the clues that make you think there’s something interesting enough to look up? 
I admit that I don’t really know the answer to that.  I do know that some people have a predisposition for thinking (in personality theory, that’s called the “Need for Cognition”).  And that people with high NFC tend to think that searching for information is intrinsically valuable and that looking for it is enjoyable. 

So there’s that first itch—a need for information.  You look something up to answer a specific question, or to get something done, or to fill in a gap.

But why? 

When I did the “revolution” search, I didn’t know ahead of time what I’d find.  Often you do—you know the answer will be something very specific: a time / a date / a place / a fact / a plan / an image.  You’re looking for something to answer a question or complete a part of the story.  Search often begins when something breaks down—when you can’t answer a question or explain how something works to your satisfaction. 

However, search is tricky when you don’t know what you’re looking for…  When you’re counting on recognition of the solution  to kick in, it becomes an inexact process at best.  “I know the answer to this question must exist.  I believe it’s somewhere on the web.” 
And search is even more tricky when you don’t know that there’s a question lurking in your thoughts or implicitly in what you’re reading.

So, here’s the deep insight:  Search begins by the recognition of a question, and ends when you recognize the answer… or at least a plausible answer.

Of course, there are many ways to fall off the path along the way.  You might think you recognize the answer, but it turns out to be the answer to some other question and not the answer to your question at all. 

This is probably the biggest error I see searchers make-settling for AN answer that looks plausible, but then really isn’t.  The real trouble is that people often don’t know enough about a topic to estimate whether or not something is a realistic answer and they stop searching too soon.  (Ironically, when you know the least is when you need search the most!) 

In study after study, we ask people the answer to fairly simple questions; questions that have answers that are clear and straightforward.  Yet we nearly always get a large range of answers, often spanning an impressive range.  Example:  When we ask “What’s the distance from Earth to the moon?”  we’ll get different responses.  Why?  Because searchers don’t check their answers.  Just as validating your arithmetic was important in 6th grade, so too is double-checking your search results, especially for answers that you can’t fact-check with a back-of-the-envelope computation. 

This seems dumb, but it’s true.  Just getting an answer isn’t the end of your search—it’s just the middle.  Unless you know otherwise, assume that the answer you see is just one possible answer.  The search engines work hard to bring you accurate, up-to-date information, but despite appearances, they really can’t read your mind.

So people begin search out of curiosity, but end when they’ve found something they believe is the answer… or when they’ve tried hard and long enough. 

As I said, I’m a curious person, so I have a high tolerance for failure while searching. Most people don’t: they’d like the answer as quickly as possible.  So they tend to stop searching when the desire to know is exceeded by the pain and time of continuing to look. 

But I know that you can often find what you seek, if only you know how and where to look.  As luck would have it, most of the searches people do can be satisfied by the results on the first page or two of results.   

If what you seek is a bit more obscure, you’ve got to make the call—when do you give up?  When do you shift strategies?  And this is where expertise shows up.  If you’ve already searched for the distance between the planets, you’re likely to believe that you can look up the distance from the Earth to the moon.  But while the distance from Kashmir to Pakistan is easily measurable, the political intrigues between the two aren’t so simple. 

Ultimately, practice with framing searches gives you the sense of what will work and what won’t.  Facts, dates, showtimes, chemical composition, weights and measures—you know that’ll work.  

But political analysis?  It’s tricky and will need you to synthesize information over multiple sources.   You can find a single document that will explain it all to you, and if you’ve done this before, you’ll know it’s guaranteed to be written from a limited perspective.  You’ll have to keep looking—it’s the way this kind of search needs to be done. 

Like all politics, to be an effective searcher, you’ve got to know when to stop. 

And I believe that point is now.  More on switching strategies later.  


  1. Dan, you must think I'm some kind of a nut. A few weeks ago I decided to go back and find the first time I overcame my shyness and actually commented on your blog. After doing that I thought I would go back and try the challenges that I had missed. That explains the answer on the 3 year old post. :-)

    Looking for the next challenge that I had missed I came across this post. It's exactly what had been floating around in my head around the time of the TC summit.

  2. Fred thanks for bringing this article forward. It is well worth reading.

    The question for others that I have is "If you had to go look up information at a library or newspapers microfiche archives would you do it.?" How much of an impact has online searching made? Now within our own comforts we can find a lot of information. If this information is so available will that make our search results better?

    Since I am in an inquistive mood I would like to bring up somethind Dr. Russell told us awhile back. It keeps 'floating around in my head " to quote Fred (Dave (:-) You mentioned that you don't use bookmarks so I've been trying to figure out how I would do my searching without them. I've come up with a couple possibilities 1) Google Instant will provide historical links as you type in the search boxx 2) Your history provides a map of your previous pages. But history can contain a lot of "junk" and you can't categorize or organize it other than 'oldest to newest'. So for example let's say you are searching out a California flower like a recent one, without saving bookmarks which I would have, would you start your searching with a Google Search Query. I normally would see what bookmarks I saved on California flowers (I edit bookmarks & organize based on subject)?

    Now I'm thinking that this process that I'm doing might be dated. Perhaps a librarian will tell us how they would use known resources to make searching effective.

    Ramón, Remjii and Fred- quite an interesting conversation you three had going. I just sat on the sidelines to see what came up next. (Ramón, disfruté siguiente a lo largo aun si siempre no hiciera entienden) Hope you guys have a perspective on my question above.

  3. Fred -- Yes, thanks for reminding me of this. To tell the truth, I'd forgotten about this mini-essay. I guess I should actually re-read my writings once in a while so I'll know what I know!

    Rosemary - I don't use bookmarks (or, to be more accurate, only very rarely). As you point out, autocomplete usually gets 90% of what I'm looking for, and I usually remember enough that I *can* search my google.com/history to find my previous relevant searches.

    But when the research gets tough and complicated, I always go to notetaking, and I put my "bookmarks" there. That way, the links are always organized topically, and I can search my "notes" to find the topic and then recover any links I need from there.

    I keep meaning to write a post about this, but things keep cropping up! One day, I'll get to it.

    BTW -- I DO have a few bookmarks. They're for things (tools, mostly) that make my work easier, but I don't use them enough to remember what they're called. A good example is CopyPasteCharacter. It's exactly what I need everytime I need an "å" character, but can't remember the keyboard shortcut. Luckily, I remember how to spell _Ramón_!

  4. For organizing my searches I typically use open in new tab and then keep a running set of tabs in the my search browser session. If I'm running the search on chrome then I use the Too Many Tabs extension to help manage the tabs. I only end up book-marking new and interesting data sources and rely upon search and browsing history to remember specific pages.

  5. Rosemary - regarding going to brick building library, it would depend on a lot of different factors; how badly I needed the information, how much time I had and what the information was I'm looking for ( I ♥ my library but it is not very extensive.) Don't get me started about the challenge where the answer was to go to the library and look it up on Ancestry.com. ;-)

    For most of the challenges, I'm trying to keep track of my search path as well as find the answer. I have Google Search settings set to open links on the SERP in a new tab. Links on other web sites I use Command-Click to open in a new tab. I use an extension called TabsPlus in the Chrome Web Store that pushes every new tab to open in the background in the last position. I'm also working on multiple machines between work and home so using to Chrome to sync tabs between browsers helps. It doesn't help with searches about organizing data but I'm learning something new every time we get a challenge that involves a spreadsheet.

    Dan - on a Mac can't you hold down the "A" key then hit 7 to get the å?

  6. When to stop: That's the million dollar question Dan?
    Apparently, there's a whole field dedicated to this called "optimal stopping"
    . The answer is after you exploit 37% of your options

    I don't know how you would apply this on a practical level but thought it might spark some thought:

    Here I discuss it more in regards to the personal question of choosing a career

    Hashem ElAssad

  7. In regards to the psychology bit, there's also another construct that's very relevant, which is the cognitive need for closure... so some people when they encounter information early on, they have a need to "freeze on a judgement" ... while others, this process comes later on... I think I'm very very late on the spectrum, that's why I'm drawn to searching. https://www2.psych.ubc.ca/~schaller/Psyc590Readings/Kruglanski1996.pdf