The centipedes dilemma: what it is and what it tells us about human thinking.
The centipede's dilemma shows us how paying attention to what we do sometimes harms us.
Concentration is an ally to do things well, an indisputable truth, isn't it? Are there situations where paying attention to what we do can be a disadvantage? Can more concentration be synonymous with worse performance?
As it turns out, it can be. In the most automated tasks, if we stop to think about the steps we follow or each small action we do, it may happen that we lose the rhythm, that we do something wrong that we have done hundreds and hundreds of times.
This idea is what we find in the centipede's dilemma, a curious and counterintuitive situation situation in which, if we delve into it, we find all the sense. If you want to find out why it happens, we invite you to read on.
What is the centipede's dilemma?
The centipede's dilemma, also called Humphrey's law or task hyper-reflection, is a curious principle that demonstrates that, sometimes conscious attention is not always positive.. The author of this law was the psychologist George Humphrey (1889-1966) in 1923, exposing it in his work "The Story of Man's Mind" (The Story of Man's Mind). This dilemma states that conscious attention to a task that is usually performed automatically can hinder its execution.
Humphrey's law states that if a person has acquired enough skill to do something automatically, the simple fact of stopping to think about it, what steps to follow or what are the specific actions and movements involved in the task, ends up impairing the execution.
The reason why this idea is also known as the centipede's dilemma is directly related to the way these myriapods walk. To formulate his law, Humphrey was inspired by a poem that was very popular at the beginning of the 20th century.which spoke precisely of a centipede:
A centipede strolled along contentedly
Until a mocking toad
Said to him, "Tell me, in what order do you move your legs?"
It filled him with doubts to such an extent
That he fell exhausted on the road
Not knowing how to run.
Upon learning of this poem, the authorship of which is disputed and attributed to Katherine Craster (1841-1874), Humphrey reflected that no person skilled in his profession needs constant and undivided attention to routine tasks.. In case of paying attention, his work would surely be spoiled.
This same reflection was taken up by several psychologists and philosophers contemporary to George Humphrey. Among the most interesting intellectuals we find the psychoanalyst Theo L. Dorpat who went a step further and spoke that for a centipede the following question could be fatal: What happens to your thirty-fourth left foot?
Also noteworthy is the reflection of the philosopher Karl Popper, who cited the centipede's dilemma in his book "The Body and the Mind: Unpublished Writings on Knowledge and the Mind-Body Problem". In it he commented that, when we have learned certain movements to the point that they are unconscious, trying to do them consciously interferes with them so seriously that we end up stopping them. in such a serious way that we end up stopping.
Popper gave as an example of this curious phenomenon a real case that happened to the violinist Adolf Busch who, when his fellow violinist Bronisław Huberman asked him how to play a passage from Beethoven's Violin Concerto, Huberman replied that it was quite simple. However, when he tried to demonstrate it, he discovered that he was suddenly no longer able to execute it with the same precision, speed and grace as when he did it without thinking about it.
Humphrey's law and conscious thought.
It sounds somewhat shocking and contradictory the idea of the centipede's dilemma. How can it be that paying more attention to what we do makes it more difficult to work? We understand that paying more attention to something is to increase the number of mental resources directed towards it, so shouldn't we do the task better? How can we explain that more concentration leads to poorer performance?
In this life not everything is black and white, and this can also be observed in the functioning of our executive skills and other cognitive functions. Our brain is a very complex organ, about which we still have much to learn. Although its premise may seem counterintuitive, the truth is that Humphrey's law has given us a better understanding of the human mind.
It is true that paying more attention to how we do a task often means better performance. However, skills reach their highest sophistication, skills reach their maximum sophistication and refinement when they reach the point where they are done unconsciously, without realizing it, which is something we can do without realizing it.This can be seen in tasks as complex yet automated as driving or writing.
Based on this, it has been proposed the existence of a pyramid of skills that would follow the following order:
1. Unconscious incompetence
Unconscious incompetence is the point at which one does not know how to do a certain task, nor does one know that one does not know how to do a certain task..
Conscious incompetence is when you discover that you do not know how to do a task, that is, there is a lack of knowledge about how to do something but you are aware of it.. It is at this point that the learning process begins.
3. Conscious competence
Conscious competence occurs when you learn to do something and you are aware that you have learned it..
4. Unconscious competence
Finally, we reach the stage of unconscious competence. This is the highest point in the pyramid, which can be called either mastery or proficiency of a certain skill. It is the ability to do something well but without thinking too much about what is being done..
The interruption in Humphrey's law
The dilemma of the centipede or Humphrey's law would apply at the moment of having reached the level of unconscious competence, that is to say, when the person is able to do something without thinking too much about it.. The moment she is interrupted and asked to think and tell us about each step she follows while performing a certain task or skill, that is when she becomes more clumsy, it is more difficult for her to do that.
We can see this in a person who knows how to type quickly on a computer keyboard. He has reached the level of mastery in typing when he no longer has to look at the keyboard all the time to make sure which key he is pressing, he has them all well memorized and located in space. However, if we interrupt you and ask you to type exactly one "w", for example, your response time will probably skyrocket or you will even make a mistake.
And not only in computers, but also in simple, everyday tasks such as tying shoelaces, unlocking a cell phone, tying a tie or cooking. If we are doing any task that we have mastered and that involves following several steps, in case we are asked which are the ones to follow, it is quite likely that we get a bit blank, that we do not know how to continue or even have to start all over again.
It should be said that interruption is not necessarily a bad thing, nor does it always have to be detrimental to performance.. This can be understood in cases in which something has been learned incorrectly, situations in which it is necessary to break the automatism and generate the error to restart the whole process and relearn, this time in the correct way.