Counterintuitive Thinking

In the Reply field below this post, tell me what specific example in the lecture provided you with the clearest understanding of what I mean by counterintuitive, and why.

Before we begin writing a semester-worthy Research Position Paper on a counterintuitive topic, you’ll be wanting to know what I mean by counterintuitive.

I haven’t always had an outlet for my particular slant on life. A some point in Catholic grade school I started to wonder if maybe God was made in man’s image instead of the other way around.


Maybe because we can’t comprehend eternity, we call eternity God. And because we can’t comprehend infinite space without bounds, we call the limitless universe God. We can’t accept the lack of justice on earth, so we imagine heaven where the scales are all balanced. If so, God doesn’t resolve the incomprehensibility of anything; deity is just a way to think about things we can’t understand.

What we believe to be the case is probably not. Call this a scientific way of thinking. Every conclusion, as soon as it’s proven, is subject to fresh dispute. That may sound like despair, or it can sound like progress. For those of us who describe our religious views on Facebook as: “Faith in unanswerable questions,” it’s nothing special.

Speaking of Facebook, you’ve probably noticed this interesting social development:

Facebook added more gender categories than the Olympics in 2014

Updated for 2021

Instead of forcing users to identify as merely male or female, Facebook has introduced a third massive category of “custom” gender options including “transgender,” “cisgender,” “gender fluid,” “intersex,” and “neither.” I’ve chosen “gender fluid” just to be playful, but for users uncomfortable with binary gender categories, this flexibility must be truly liberating.

[Just this morning I checked again, and Facebook has updated by removing all suggestions for alternative gender classifications, opting instead to permit users to describe gender as they wish. Male and Female are still options, but the Custom choice allowed me to describe my gender as “Who’s Asking?”]

I don’t know whether this will solve or further complicate a problem social media has always had of not knowing what to call us when they recommend us to others. You’ve probably noticed oddities such as, “David Hodges would like you to view their page.” Now that I’m allowed to select the pronoun I wish to be addressed by, Facebook can comfortably call me “he” and my pages “his pages.”

I heard this news while thinking about Olympic athletes from now and ages ago whose genders created questions or disputes. Chinese gymnasts of earlier games are thought to have been as young as 12 or 13 (girls, not women; not exactly a gender problem, but a category problem). Also loudly whispered was the question: were the 14- and 15-year-old competitors fed hormones to delay their advancing development from girlhood to womanhood?

On the other extreme, were Russian athletes in strength competitions actually genetic gentlemen competing against the ladies, or again steroid-fed women whose physiques were artificially masculine?

Now finally, there are some women competing in bobsled contests, but still the gender divide is fairly complete: Men’s Downhill, and Women’s Downhill. How long can these binary categories last when in the rest of our lives we’re invited to be more selective in which gender we “present” to the world?

My Shopping List is an Argument

I will certainly tell you many times this semester that every written document is an argument. I challenge students with this premise all the time because it sounds so implausible, but I’d like to present a shopping list as an example of what I believe to be a written argument, written for a particular audience, which becomes a battleground for dispute in the hands of any other reader.


As long as I (the intended audience) have this list with me, my reader is unlikely to argue with its premises. But even so, I may decide to substitute Haagen-Dasz for Breyers if the price is right. However, if my wife takes the list to the store on my behalf, she may present compelling counterarguments to my “editorial position” on the following grounds or others:

  1. Who needs premium ice cream?
  2. Will he even notice the difference between conventional kale and organic kale (Is there actually a difference?)?
  3. We already have plenty of drawstring bags.
  4. We don’t have room for 24 more seltzer bottles.
  5. Since when do we buy beef specifically for the dogs?
  6. Even if the per-pill price is significantly cheaper, I can’t believe we’ll use 1000 ibuprofen before their effectiveness expires.

Diarists Lie

On this topic, please remind me to argue that a diary is written for a very specific audience and therefore is as manipulative and artificial as any other piece of writing. (If you need a preview of this demonstration I will direct you to Francine Prose’s wonderful examination of Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, which, she argues convincingly, was extensively edited by Frank for the sake of future readers.)

Mitt’s Audience

On this topic also, I could share with you the video captured at Mitt Romney’s campaign fundraiser during the runup to the 2012 presidential election. If you can imagine him making the same speech to any other audience, then you haven’t started thinking seriously about how exactly we craft what we write to suit our intended readers.

Link to the speech.

Duchamp’s Readymades

Marcel Duchamp is a favorite of mine, and I’d recently been to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, so when I found myself handling paring knives and graters in the kitchen, I asked myself the simple question: is this item art?


It’s certainly beautifully designed and crafted, but my instinct tells me its functionality prevents it from being art. My working definition is that art is something created for no other purpose than to be observed or experienced. Still, I’m disputatious, so I didn’t let that first impression stop me. It certainly didn’t stop Duchamp from calling this art:


He didn’t create it, design it, weld it, or change it in any way except to sign it and remove it from the place where it would have had a function. Placing it into an art gallery, for Duchamp, and for the rest of the art world, effectively transformed a wire bottle rack into a piece of art. So maybe my definition still works. Maybe not. Do you have a better definition for art you could pursue as a counterintuitive topic?

Tim’s Vermeer

While I was puzzling over ready-mades and washing dishes, I was reminded that I hadn’t yet seen a documentary that had been on my list.

The Dutch painter Vermeer is well-known for his remarkably realistic interiors in which people and furniture are carefully arranged. He handled perspective perfectly, long before other painters had a clue how to realistically portray actual items in space.


Inventor Tim Jenison thought he might have an idea how Vermeer accomplished his remarkable achievement. He knew, as many did, that pinhole cameras had been used by artists for years to project images onto walls for reproduction.


LINK: “How to Turn a Room into a Camera Obscura”

Jenison is an inventor, not a painter, so he wondered more about how such a “machine” might help him accomplish a job than about whether the result would be art. This early question eventually led him to discover that he too could accomplish remarkably “artistic” results through mostly mechanical means. First, he built a room like the room in Vermeer’s “Music Lesson.”


Then, he dressed models in appropriate clothing.


Then, using mirrors to reflect images of the room just in front of his canvas, he mixed paints to match what he saw before him, and, without any artistic training, he produced facsimiles of the images he placed before the mirrors.

Link to the video

After years of practice, trial, error, and corrections, he has upset a lot of people by painting this:


One More About Art

Alexa Meade has a different way of representing three-dimensional objects as two-dimensional objects. She paints directly on the objects, turning them from objects into paintings.

This isn’t a painting of breakfast. It’s breakfast, painted.


And this is not a painting of a man on a bus. It’s a man on a bus, painted.

Man on Bus

Here’s how it looks when she’s working on it.


Here’s how it looks when other people look at it:

At the installation

Let’s apply a different way of thinking to some real-life social and ethical issues.

Bariatric Surgery

Do you have a strong feeling about bariatric surgery? I don’t. I’m sympathetic toward people who can’t seem to keep their weight under control despite their best efforts. I’ve conducted enough skirmishes with my own body to appreciate that our appetites are not merely desires we can control with “will power.”

I also don’t think “will power” is a commodity we all have access to in the same supply. So a person whose body conspires to withhold every calorie, who also lacks the psychological ability to deny himself, or the physiological signal that tells the rest of us we’re “full,” is just cursed and needs some help.

So, why does this story from the Wall Street Journal disturb me so much?

“As the World’s Kids Get Fatter, Doctors Turn to the Knife.”

Child Bariatric

Daifailluh al-Bugami, 3 years old, is awaiting bariatric surgery. Daifailluh is among a rapidly growing number of kids in Saudi Arabia undergoing radical surgery to control their weight. In the last seven years, Daifailluh’s doctor has performed bariatric surgery on nearly 100 children under the age of 14 from countries in the Gulf region.

Euthanasia for Kids

This one takes questions of age-appropriateness to an extreme. From the New York Times: “Belgian lawmakers gave final approval on Thursday to a measure that would allow euthanasia for incurably ill children enduring insufferable pain. King Philippe is expected to sign the measure into law and make Belgium the first country to lift all age restrictions on legal, medically-induced deaths.

“Under the measure, approved 86 to 44 by the lower house, euthanasia would be permissible for terminally ill children who are close to death, experiencing ‘constant and unbearable suffering’ and can show a ‘capacity of discernment,’ meaning they can demonstrate they understand the consequences of such a choice.”

As you can imagine, despite the majority in the legislature, the prospect of letting kids decide to die, and helping them do so, has some very vehement opponents.

Why do I consider this question counterintuitive?
There are more than two points of view here.

  • Some might object to assisted suicide period.
  • Others might insist we all have the right to end our lives if they’ve grown intolerable.
  • Those in the middle might think it’s acceptable for the very elderly to end their lives slightly prematurely but be appalled at the prospect of ending a child’s life.
  • All three points of view are counterintuitive.

What’s counterintuitive about them?

  • We can’t actively promote killing ourselves without feeling the natural resistance of our bodies to preserve themselves.
  • We can’t logically insist that our loved ones continue to suffer after they’ve concluded that their lives are worth more to us than to themselves and very little to either.
  • And if we want to claim that the elderly have a right that is somehow unavailable to youth, let me suggest this:
    • Distance from birth is one way to calculate age; distance from death is another.
    • By the second calculation, the child with the terminal illness is older than you and me.

If you want to change the world . . .

change the metaphors we use to describe it.

Here is a sleeping dog:

Sleeping Dog

But add just two little black dots, and here is what a predator sees when considering whether to attack the “sleeping dog.”

Dog Awake2

Now that you’ve seen the extra set of “eyes” above the dog’s eyes, you can never un-see them. Practice finding that in your arguments. Give your readers a perspective they can never un-read.

In the Reply field below, tell me what specific example in the lecture provided you with the clearest understanding of what I mean by counterintuitive, and why.

31 Responses to Counterintuitivity

  1. eagles21 says:

    Explaining the meaning of the importance of solving everyday problems . The importance of admiring the lovely things in life. And being there for other people.


  2. Lunaduna says:

    The example that provided me with the clearest understanding of counterintuitive was “Ethunaisia for Kids.”
    It even listed examples of what makes this passage counterintuitive.
    – I never looked at how you could measure the distance to death, rather than measure from birth.
    Youth should have the same right as the elderly do.

    (If you want to change the world, you must change the metaphor.)


  3. lokiofasgard24 says:

    Administering the polio vaccine to everyone in the world to eradicate polio but it evidently paralyzes 250+ children is counterintuitive because you get one big positive that will give off a good image but at the same instance you are sacrificing children in the process which looks horrible.


  4. Lily4Pres says:

    I think the euthanasia conversation gives me the clearest understanding of ‘counterintuitivity’. The change in perspective of what ‘age’ really is is something that has never crossed my mind prior. I always saw age similar to levels in a video game, the further you progress the higher your level/age goes. With this new information, looking at age backwards changes my perspective completely.


  5. nugget114 says:

    Realizing that simply putting two black dots above the dogs closed eyes gives you an entirely different view or thought of why they might be there has made me realize how important that is in writing. It says to give your readers a point of view that they can never unread which is valuable information because I can say that the way I retain information best, is reading or having something explained to me from an entirely new view that’s never been said or done before. It genuinely sticks in my head more and makes me think about it more.


  6. tyblicky2001 says:

    The picture of the sleeping dog because it gave me a perspective I could never unsee.


  7. comatosefox says:

    The bottle rake that no longer is a bottle rake, which doesn’t make any sense to make something useful useless.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. imaspookyghost says:

    The clearest example for me was, the example of the dog with the “fake” eyes to alert predators that it is awake while its asleep. This is counterintuitive because after seeing it in one way its hard to go back and look at it another way.


  9. frogs02 says:

    The best example of counterintuitive for me was the dog with the “eyes” over the eye lids. I view it as someone who might not be able to see everything as if it is happening to them, but they always have their eyes looking out for themselves even with their “eyes closed.” This dog reminds me of the saying, “you must have eyes at the back of your head.” Even though the eyes might be closed, you always have an idea of what is going on. The fake eyes are there to show that everyone has a perspective on something.


  10. strawberryfields4 says:

    The example that has provided me with the clearest example of the meaning of counterintuitive was the “Euthanasia for Kids” discussion. Many people would be appalled at the concept of assisting children in suicide, regardless of any intolerable suffering or health condition they may be experiencing. However, these same objectors may not think twice about administering euthanasia for a ninety year old with a similar condition. However, if you pose this same discussion by looking at age as the distance from death, rather than the distance from birth it requires some reexamination. That is an example of counterintuitive thinking. Examining various hypotheses, particularly ones that defy “common sense” or the popular belief are counterintuitive arguments.


  11. cfalover says:

    For me, the best example to give me a good understanding of the term counterintuitive was the euthanasia example. It makes you see the situation and “ages” from different angles. If it is okay for the elderly to want to go through with this, why wouldn’t it be okay for very sick terminally ill children who only will live for another painful 6 months? I never really thought that much into age with these types of situations. By looking at this type of example though, it shows that arguments that go against the common belief amongst others is actually considered a counterintuitive argument or hypothesis.


  12. ziggy026 says:

    The example that provided me with the clearest understanding was the euthanasia example. The idea that those who are the same distance from death are the same age, regardless of their distance from birth, made it clear what counterintuitive thinking is. It gives a new perspective to things and makes you think about these situations with a new lens.


  13. chickendinner says:

    The example I found most counterintuitive was child euthanasia, because it placed my moral discomfort with the thought of letting a child suffer and with the thought of ending a child’s life in opposition to each other, rather than in congruity as they would usually be.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. toastedflatbread22 says:

    The example from the lecture that provided me with the clearest understanding of what it means to be counterintuitive was the artist that paints on real things to make them look like paintings. It completely changed my perspective on visual art by mixing the artistic universe with the physical universe. This relates to the class because our goal as writers is to challenge our brains in the same way that example does. We need to wonder what would happen if we went against the norm and tried something daring and counterintuitive. This will encourage readers to look at things from new perspectives and question their own perceived reality. In a way, being counterintuitive means experimenting with an idea until it makes us look at life in a new way.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. RowanAnnouncer says:

    The example that i found was counterintuitive was the bottle rack that is no longer a bottle rack. The idea that you can transform any object that has function, take away that function and now it is a beautifully crafted work of art. I always thought that way about things I saw in antique stores. I admired how beautifully crafted everything was way back when. That definitely gives me a different perspective on some household items I have.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. venom2929 says:

    The example from this lecture that helped me have an understanding of counterintuitive was child euthanasia. The idea and belief that people who are two different ages can actually be the same age because they are the same distance from death. This one has given me a new perspective on how I look at things going forward in my life.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. levixvice says:

    what brings the idea of counterintuitive as an example would be Bariatric surgery because of the idea of someone’s will-power to overcome the desires of eating doesn’t work for them. As people have their own weaknesses that one would give up and succumb to their own devices. counterintuitive makes use of how to make our own hypotheses and creating experiments on perceived notions of questions that might have a different answer than usual.


  18. For me personally, the example that got through to me the most was the example about euthanasia. In class, we discussed how there is no difference between a 6 year old and a 95 or 100 year old getting euthanasia. This is because they are both equal distance to the end of life. This example really helped to clarify counterintuitive thinking because it made me see things from a different perspective.


  19. tarheel1999 says:

    The best example presented here was that of the coloring of the dog as it demonstrated the power of such an argument: that, if presented well, it can completely and unalterably change one’s perspective on the topic being discussed.


  20. kingofcamp says:

    I best understood the idea of being counterintuitive when reading the example “Euthanasia for Kids”. The idea that youth should have the choice to choose assisted suicide, after determining the severity of their illness and their level of understanding, wholeheartedly highlights the idea of being counterintuitive. The argument goes against the popular belief that children should not have the option of assisted suicide. Later in this section, when you stated, “if you want to change the world, change the metaphors we use to describe it” summed up everything you said perfectly.


  21. sunshinegirl457 says:

    The part of the message that I found the most counterintuitive was the Euthanasia in kids. Going into the talk I never would have considered it a reasonable option, but after I saw the facts it was clear I hadn’t been thinking in the opposite way and was very close-minded. I like discussing deeper, more traumatic issues of life (even if they are a little uncomfortable) because it’s not something we think about a lot. The phrase “your real age is how close you are to death, not how far you are from birth” really stuck with me. It made me understand that our lives are timelines and they are not all created equal. While it’s a more complex issue than some of the other topics, it definitely got me thinking counterintuitively.


  22. anonymousgirl116 says:

    The example used with Ethunaisia. At first I didn’t quite grasp the idea but when I did it mad sense


  23. zzbrd2822 says:

    The specific example in the lecture of the pen and gravity provided me with the clearest understanding of counterintuitive. When you see a pen drop on the floor, you assume it is because of gravity. We use science to describe what happens and it makes us feel better. We don’t ever actually know what happens. This is similar to religion being used to help us understand our world, while not actually knowing what really happens.


  24. calamariii says:

    The example of euthanasia stuck with me as an example of counterintuitivity because at first, it seemed like an idea that was very out there. As the context to the situation was given, it made more sense as a reasonable idea when you looked at the ages of both the 95 years old and the 6-year-old as only 6 months from death. This created a more understandable argument as more than the preconceived idea of age had to be taken into consideration for a decision like that of euthanasia


  25. oatmealvibes says:

    The example that gave me the most clear example of counter-intuitive is Euthanasia for Kids. One of the view points that I may of even thought at first is it’s okay to help assist elderly in suicide but not children. However, once we read and went over the counter-intuitive thought of how do we measure that it’s okay for the elderly to end their life but not children? If measuring distance from death instead of distance from birth, then some might conclude that terminally ill kids are closer to death and older than myself or others.


  26. sortableelms says:

    The diary being a lie gives me the best understanding of counterintuitive. It is strange to think about how something like Anne Frank’s diary isn’t 100% true.


  27. pinkheart84 says:

    The example that served counterintuitively was the euthanasia example. This example was very clear and an easy choice for me to pick. This idea was that those who are the same distance from death are the same age, and it does not matter their distance from birth. These words made it understandable to what counterintuitive thinking is. This example gives a new and greater perspective to things, and it allows you to think about these types of circumstances.


  28. sunflower0311 says:

    Diarist Lie was a good example of counter-intuitive for me. When I think of a diary, I originally thought that you write down everything that is going on in your life and you write down the truth that you would not say out loud. You would think that a diary is the most truthful thing you could read. However really, it’s all lies because you lie to yourself, and you are not being completely accurate. I thought this was interesting in the Diary of Anne Frank because the point was brought up that it’s more a truth-based novel then the actual truth.


  29. inspireangels says:

    The example that gave me a clear example of counterintuitive is when you explain Duchamp’s Readymades. The professor’s definition of art is something that is created to be aesthetically pleasing but has no other purpose than its beauty. According to my professor, If it has a function, then it no longer is art. People may have various definitions so some things may mean something completely different from what you think.


  30. chickennugget246 says:

    The example of the sleeping dog gave me a clear understanding of the meaning of counterintuitive because once you add the two little black dots on the spots above the dog’s eyes, the predators will think that those are the dog’s actual eyes and will not go after it. Now, those “eyes” will never be unseen. So, in our arguments, we all should give the readers something that they will never unread. I really like this connection because it gives me a clear understanding of what it means to be counterintuitive.


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