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December 13th, 2011 by Art Markman

You Can Be as Smart as Dr. Phil

Dr. Art Markman is a guest blogger and the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. He is one of the premier cognitive scientists in the field and has written more than 125 papers. He is a member of the Dr. Phil Advisory Board. He blogs frequently for Psychology Today, Huffington Post and Harvard Business Review

Dr. Art MarkmanFor the past 5 years, I have been a member of the scientific advisory board for the Dr. Phil show, and on January 3, 2012, I had the privilege of being a guest on the show to discuss my new book Smart Thinking from Perigee Books. Before my turn came, Dr. Phil worked with a couple who was engaged in a difficult custody battle, in which their own needs took precedence to the needs of their kids. I watched as he expertly cut through the layers of animosity between the couple, and ultimately helped them see a road in which they served as co-parents to their children rather than using their kids as pawns in their own ongoing argument.

Smart work.

What made Dr. Phil so successful? Does he just have more raw intelligence than the rest of us? Or is it something else?

Based on the research I describe in Smart Thinking, I argue that no matter how well you score on an IQ test compared to Dr. Phil, you’re not going to solve problems of the type he solves unless you engage the three core principles of Smart Thinking.

Smart Thinking requires (1) developing Smart Habits to (2) acquire High Quality Knowledge, and (3) to Apply that Knowledge when you need it. Let me walk through each of these elements.

Smart Habits Most of our habits are good for us. When you drive your car, you want to be able to press the gas and the brake pedals without thinking about it. You want to follow your route to and from work or the store without having to think carefully about how to get there. You want to be able to change lanes or make a turn without thinking carefully about the steps involved in doing that successfully.

Your habit learning system is the one that allows you to develop smart habits. You learn to do something without thinking whenever there is consistency between the world and an action and you repeat that action several times. You can create a habit to press the gas and brake pedals, because the gas is always on the right and the brake is always on the left. If the pedals switched their locations every time you got in your car, you would never be able to create a habit. You can also create habits for actions that promote Smart Thinking.

High Quality Knowledge The second component to Smart Thinking is acquiring High Quality Knowledge. The most important thing to learn is information about how the world works. Psychologists call this kind of knowledge causal knowledge. Dr. Phil has dedicated years of his life to understanding human behavior and motivation. When guests come on the show, that knowledge helps him to determine how people’s actions are affecting the people around them. That was the kind of knowledge that allowed him to help the couple on the show I attended.

Without knowledge about the way things work, even people who score incredibly well on IQ tests will not solve problems effectively. I can’t speak for Dr. Phil, but I know that I have no understanding at all of how the engine in my car works. If I try to start my car in the morning and it makes a funny noise before wheezing to a stop, I can only stare at it in frustration. I have to take the car to a mechanic who really understands how my car works in order to get it fixed. My mechanic has knowledge about the world that I don’t, and so he is able to solve problems that I can’t.

Apply Your Knowledge The third aspect of Smart Thinking is Applying your Knowledge when you need it. Sometimes, you are in situations that are almost exactly like ones you have been in before. Each drive home from the grocery store is probably almost identical to past trips you have taken. In that situation, it isn’t hard to apply what you know.

Sometimes, though, it is harder to figure out whether you know anything that might help you solve a problem.

Take the case of James Dyson. In the 1970s, he noticed that as the bag of a vacuum cleaner fills up, the vacuum starts to lose suction. The dirt in the bag clogs the pores in the bag. Eventually, the vacuum won’t clean any more until the bag is emptied. Vacuum designers who wanted to improve the performance of vacuums typically tried to design more effective bags that wouldn’t clog as easily.

Dyson didn’t think about the problem as one of making a better bag. Instead, he thought broadly about the problem that a vacuum cleaner is trying to solve. He described the problem as the vacuum taking in a combination of dirt and air and having to separate the dirt from the air. Once he described the problem in this more general way, he was able to use his extensive mechanical experience.

He realized that sawmills have to solve the same problem. When logs are being milled into lumber, the large saws generate a lot of sawdust. Vacuums suck the sawdust out of the mill, where the sawdust is separated from the air using an industrial cyclone. This device uses a cone to create a spinning column of air that forces the sawdust to the sides of the cone where they slide into a receptacle. Dyson created a miniature industrial cyclone in a vacuum cleaner, and in the process developed a multi-million dollar business.

In this case, not only did Dyson know about the way sawmills work, he was able to re-describe his problem in a way that let him be reminded that his knowledge of sawmills could be used to make a more efficient vacuum.

In the end, you can become smarter — and maybe even as smart as Dr. Phil. The exercises in Smart Thinking can help put you on the path to being more effective in whatever you do.

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