The Persistent Use of Useless Tools: The losing end of history

An article released today in the New York Times on a controversy regarding Wikipedia and the Rorschach test, which made reference to another article in Scientific American Mind, What’s Wrong With This Picture, brought to mind several interesting (to me, anyway) questions. The Mind article discusses the use, abuse, and general un-supportibility of the famous Rorschach test as a diagnostic instrument. Because there is no single way to interpret the test, and because there is tremendous variability in the interpretations by various practitioners, the article claims, its usefulness as a test of anything is doubtful. The authors argue that the test, as well as other “projective” tests, should be abandoned until tests can be developed that are both standardized and predictable.

Yet, they go on to say, there has been substantial resistance from many practitioners to discontinuing its use. And this is the really interesting part to me. Why would you continue to use a tool, no matter what your line of work, that was shown to be of questionable value? This is not an isolated instance. If you look at the history of thought, science, business, and many others, you see people clinging to tools and ideas long after they have been shown to be either less useful than other tools, at best, or downright useless or damaging. A few examples:

  • It took nearly a hundred years after the Copernican heliocentric view of the universe was introduced for it to become widely accepted. This was in spite of the fact that it explained the solar system in a much more elegant way than the Ptolemaic view did.
  • Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon suggested in the early 18th century that the world was far older than the biblically-deduced 6000 years. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that this view gained currency.
  • In business, the failure of the diversified corporation strategy was apparent soon after its adoption, but many companies, particularly automobile companies, held to it until their recent demise.
  • Freudian analysis, in spite of a dearth of experimental evidence in its support (Webster, Tallis) and some evidence against it, remains to this day one of the primary modes of psychotherapy.

So, why this resistance to new tools and new ideas? After all, evolutionary biology tells us that it is not the fittest who survive in a rapidly changing environment but those quickest able to adapt to those changes in the environment. In any field, whether it is theoretical, like science, or practical, like business or psychotherapy, it seems like we would have every reason to embrace new ideas since they improve our chances of thriving (in whatever endeavor). I believe that this remains one of the major risks to countries, businesses, and individuals alike, and that those who have elastic, open minds, and who are willing to jettison non-working tools and ideas as soon as a better idea, will be the ones who survive and thrive as the rate of change in our world increases. Those who cling to outmoded ways of thinking and doing will become the dinosaurs of the twenty-first century. I think we need to better understand this phenomenon of resistance to new ideas so we can counter it in the business organizations, political entities, and people that we aim to help.

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