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McCaffrey Featured in the United Kingdom’s Guardian

The work of Anthony McCaffrey, postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for e-Design in the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department, was the subject of an article in The Guardian, one of the world’s most respected publications.The Guardian article is about how rethinking labels can boost creativity. McCaffrey says that thinking about common items in terms of their component parts and decoupling their names from their uses opens up new ways of thinking and solving problems. The article continued the international coverage for the method developed by McCaffrey to enhance anyone’s problem-solving skills, especially engineers, inventors, and other innovators. Media coverage includes articles in The Atlantic, Psych Central, Red Orbit, Science Daily, Science Codex, and a column in the San Francisco Chronicle.

McCaffrey is a cognitive psychology researcher who has studied common roadblocks to problem-solving. McCaffrey believes his Obscure Features Hypothesis (OFH) has led to the first systematic, step-by-step approach to devising innovation-enhancing techniques for overcome a wide range of cognitive obstacles to invention. He recently won a two-year, $170,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to turn his technique into software with a user-friendly graphical interface. Initial users will likely be engineers.

The Guardian article follows:

This column will change your life: creative thinking

'If startling insights could be systematically arrived at, they wouldn't be startling'

By Oliver Burkeman

The Guardian, Friday 11 January 2013 17.58 EST

What made Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein such creative geniuses? It wasn't reading books or watching YouTube talks about How To Be More Creative, that's for sure. There's a deluge of such advice, but much of it is hopelessly faulty because the thing it purports to teach is surely unteachable: if startling insights could be systematically arrived at, they wouldn't be startling. The best you can do is to create a conducive environment: put in the hours; take time to daydream; avoid mind-corroding substances such as crystal meth, and parody books based on Fifty Shades Of Grey. But what if you could program a computer to have insights? A project led by Anthony McCaffrey, a University of Massachusetts psychologist, has been focused on doing exactly that, and it's significantly less preposterous than it sounds.

McCaffrey, last featured here addressing the related matter of "functional fixedness" – the mental block that stops us seeing alternative uses for everyday objects – begins with an observation: most creative breakthroughs arise through analogy. Alexander Graham Bell modelled the telephone on the human ear. A hitch with the Hubble space telescope was fixed when a Nasa engineer taking a shower in a German hotel saw how he might borrow the design of the shower head. Enter the problem you're trying to solve, and McCaffrey's "analogy finder" software, already released in initial form, will hunt patent databases, research libraries, et cetera, for analogous solutions. He cites the example of a ski company, beset by a major problem: at high speeds, their skis vibrated, lost contact with the snow and sent skiers out of control.

The key to a solution lies in how you state the problem. You need to strip it of context and colour; more technically, McCaffrey argues, you need to reduce it to a specific form: "verb, noun-phrase, prepositional-phrases." What the ski firm really needed to do was to "reduce vibrations over 1,800 hertz." From there, it's an easier leap from one domain to another: similar vibrations, it turns out, play havoc with violins, causing sound distortion. Violin designers address this by using a metal grid; the ski designers, finding the analogy, adapted it: problem solved.

It's tempting to wonder if the first part of this approach – stating the problem with dry precision – might be helpful in realms beyond product design. Take personal dilemmas: do you really want to "save a marriage," for example, or to "maximise the chances of happiness for members of this family?" The second part – thinking in analogies – seems less broadly applicable. But it might help us avoid the flawed analogies that bedevil our efforts at problem-solving. One obvious example is thinking about the national economy as if it were a household budget. Another is the common self-help adviceto "think like an entrepreneur" in domains outside business. The truth is that the problem you're trying to solve – in your love life, say, or personal finances – probably isn't analogous to those faced by entrepreneurs, so copying them won't help you on life's journey. Which, by the way, isn't really a "journey."(January 2013)