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 has more gender categories than the Olympics

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.

About davidbdale

Inventor of and sole practitioner of 299-word Very Short Novels.
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28 Responses to Counterintuitivity

  1. nyaj32 says:

    The dog eyes are counterintuitive to show that they are awake.

  2. pomegranate4800 says:

    – From my understanding, counterintuitivity is when you have a statement can in fact be argued.
    >”Some things we think will be here forever, we call that God.”
    – I can confidently say that this is not true to me. I can easily argue making to make it clear that I do not believe this statement, but others can in fact agree.
    > “Every piece of writing is an argument.”
    – A piece of writing could simply just be a statement. I can’t say I agree that everything is an argument.
    > “Diarists Lie”
    – For example, Anne Frank made edits to her diary.
    > “We can call things are usually when they don’t have a function.”
    – There are some things that have function and deprive them of their function and then call it “art.”
    >”Bariatric Surgery”
    – I am not against this, and in my opinion most people shouldn’t be. People really cannot control their weight and it’s unfair to them when other people are perfectly capable of doing this.
    – I agree we should be able to make our own “end of life” decisions.
    – We measure our age from birth, not death.
    > “Sleeping Dog”
    – The dots on the eye will maybe protect the dog from prey and will keep things that are afraid away.

    -Some of these examples were confusing and hard to really understand how they relate to counterintuitivity.

    • davidbdale says:

      You’re good so far, Pomegranate, and you certainly don’t have to agree with me about anything, but let’s chat here about what you think counterintuitive means, and why you think documents aren’t arguments.
      I say a STOP sign is an argument. I presume you would say it makes a statement, or lays down a command.

  3. daphneblake25 says:

    The best example that helped me understand what counterintuitive means is the example of the painter who paints real people and objects and tries to make them appear fake instead of the original way of painting that has people start on a blank canvas and make their drawings appear real. This is counterintuitive because common sense would tell you that the way to paint is how you’ve been taught all your life. Paint to please, not to perceive.

  4. biggarz7 says:

    Counterintuitive: The Facebook example, things are sometimes not as true as they seem. Also the shopping list example.
    As each example progressed it got easier and easier to tell what counterintuitive thinking is
    Every written document is an argument- even diaries and autobiographies are things that are shaped to make yourself or others make you seem better
    Artists are the biggest counterintuitive thinkers
    Making things seem real and not real
    Through all the examples it seemed easier and easier to define what counterintuitive actually means

  5. wazoo1234 says:

    Counterintuitive Thinking:
    Facebook now has more gender classification than the government and the olympics.
    Is Every single document an argument?
    yes- fire evacuation example.
    Even if credible source says something, it could still be wrong.
    Auto Biography is an argument, because no one will tell the whole truth about themselves.
    Diary is an argument because they are made to shape the future you. Diaries are edited all the time. Even Anne Frank’s Diary is an argument .
    After observing the pictures I realize that some artist try to make you think it is a painting but really it is something else and our minds are tricked.
    We Measure our age from birth and not from death.
    ” Find dogs that are not asleep and show audience in your writings, how they aren’t asleep.”

    The best examples were of the paintings and the dog

  6. chavanillo says:

    Counterintuitive is a intuition something might be truth but is really never really truth. you might believe something that is really not fully explain and people could take it as a true story or a unreal one. Just using your gut feeling. Every written document is a argument because its a suggesting. Shopping list is an argument because you don’t know how the price could be. Depending the price hats how much you going to buy. Sometimes you try to buy things that you don’t really need. A journal or diary is not and argument because you written what you really re feeling. Frank diary is even a argument.

    Marcel Duchamp is a tool but can also be a art sculpture. It could be a kitchen tool but also a art perspective. Is something that could be truth to someone but is not really truth.

    God’a example is a really good example when it comes to counterintuitive because no one knows the truth. People could make the regent that he doesn’t list while other do think he does. making it a argument on what they think is true or what is true. Is just a personal decision and gut. People could refer to god in different ways making them think differently.

    Depending you I closer to death no matter the age you are the oldest.

    Have a image that people won’t realize the real truth thinking I the truth.

    • davidbdale says:

      I can’t always make sense of your Notes, Chavanillo. Most of these are pretty confusing. But they bear evidence of thoughtful reasoning. I hope they’re useful to you.

  7. jets1313 says:

    things can always be argued, and counterintuitive arguments are ones that open a up a new way of thinking and can lead to a new profound understanding of a certain subjects

  8. nina525 says:

    The example of the dog sleeping showed the clearest view of what counterintuitive mean. To prove a surprising idea or hypothesis with facts and evidence. The section with the dog and weather it was sleeping or not nut to a rabid the crown spots above the eyes would look as though the dog was awake. This perspective shows that we must take into consideration the opposing or different viewpoints of others who may disagree or have a different way of viewing you topic.

  9. mysterylimbo says:

    It seems counterintuitive, that the biggest sporting event in the world doesn’t have gender acceptance. The largest social networking website recognizes gender better than our government and lawmakers. The Olympics decides to continue with old rules rather than accept a small amount of the human population. This article gave me a clear understanding of what counterintuitive is. The failure of our representatives is a conflict of interest.

  10. july02222 says:

    To me, counterintuitive thinking is going on beyond your common sense. For example, to us it is obvious that a dog is sleeping, even if it has lighter spots above their eyes. As for the prey, they would see the dog as staring right at them due to the discolor in the fur. Another main point I got fro this lecture is that not everything Is as it seems, and your gut feeling is not always right. Also every written document is an argument because they’re mostly just recommendations, or choices that were made without taking everything into consideration.

  11. rowanstudent2 says:

    The examples that help me understand what counterintuitivity means are Duchamp’s Readymades and how you perceive age. Art is only called art when it has no purpose other than to be observed or experienced. It seems that art can be anything you say is art, but if it has a function, then it would be called whatever that thing does according to its function.
    It seems reasonable to measure age from the day you were born. But if you know you are a year from death, while someone else has 20 years left to live, then you are technically older than the other person because there is less of life to live until it’s over.

  12. g903254 says:

    Is God real? Was God made in man’s image rather the opposite? What we cannot explain is God. A comfortable ignorance. Facebook has more gender categories then the Olympics. Controversy around whether Russian gymnasts are male or female. Facebook keeps track and overrules birthday choice when it comes to logging in to a different website.

    Is every written document an argument? Signs could be wrong under certain conditions. Is a shopping list an argument? If Hagendaas is on sale should you follow your shopping list? If someone shops for you is the list even more an argument? An autobiography is an argument due to leaving out some details. A diary is an argument due to the shaping of the story for the future you to read.

    Is it art if it serves a function? Duchamp took something with a function and turned it into a piece of art. Duchamp took things with function, removed the function, and called it art. A guy took Vermeer’s “Music Lesson” painting and recreated it using mirrors and then slowly mixing paints until he got the correct shade to paint. Vermeer wouldn’t have to be an amazing painter if he just used mirrors and had a pair of models to stand there for the painstaking process that that method would take. Is she making an argument by painting a real person to not look like a real person?

    Bariatric Surgery for Kids? Euthanasia for Terminally Ill Children? Does the Rabbit know that the dog is asleep?

    The euthanasia example provided me with the clearest example of counterintuitive thinking because rather than thinking how far someone from birth is to decide something like euthanasia we should look to how close to death. If someone is twenty and is fifty years from death they are quite young, but if a six year old is six months from death they are old, however counterintuitive it might seem.

  13. doorknob9 says:

    The example that defined counter intuitive the best for me was the example about the dog sleeping because once I saw, I will never unsee it. The dots above the dogs eyes are there so when they’re sleeping predators will think they’re awake.

  14. hazelnutlatte123 says:

    The word counterintuitive means that something is opposite of what we think or what our instinct tells us. For example, when seeing the dog with it’s eyes shut,our instinct tells us that the dog is sleeping, but contrary to this knowledge, when a predator sees the dog, it sees the eyes on the top of its head thinking that the dog is awake.

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