Solving problems takes creativity

From the archives: The original post was posted on 24th May, 1995

A poster wrote:

“But perhaps this misses an important point. Does “what the child desires” control the adult’s actions? Well, I know of some families where that does happen, and they are not happy places to be. I suggest that a parent who “respects” a child’s autonomy by rejecting his/her own, might, by example, cast doubt on the structure of autonomy.”

This suggests a conflict-of-interest view, which seems to be very widely-held in parenting, as well as in other areas of life. The idea is that here are your choices – parents’ preferences or children’s. But in my view, in any disagreement, what we should be doing is finding solutions which each party agrees is better than his own initial idea – we should strive to find a solution that both parties like. There is no question of either side rejecting his own autonomy.

Those who are keen on this conflict-of-interest view make the mistake of thinking that the solution of problems is mechanical, rather than understanding that the solutions of problems require creativity. For instance, the model of the human condition in game theory – a conflict-of-interest analysis – is that one has a lot of options, with different values, to be weighed against each other, and there is a decision which is in some sense the optimum decision where one has weighed the good against the bad according to some criterion which one specifies. That omits the actual source of any of this value. It assumes that it is all given, and that the whole point of this interaction is just to optimise what people can do. For that reason, game theory is not a good model of life. It models precisely the uninteresting parts of the knowledge-acquiring process. It models those bits which do not involve creativity.

In economics, it measures how people optimise various resources under given constraints. For instance, given that a farmer has so many fields and so many alfalfa seeds and rape seeds, and that the alfalfa costs $X per annum and the rape costs $Y per annum (etc., etc.), it models the decision that the farmer then makes about how much alfalfa to grow and how much rape seed to grow.

But that does not capture the real role of the farmer in this process, which is to be creative, and to come up with the new idea, for instance, that what he really needs there is a multi-storey car park, or that he could turn the land over to environmentalists who want to pay to make it into a nature reserve, or that there is a heavy demand for a shooting range he could meet. What creativity does is to create new options, whereas game theory is all about what happens if you already know the options. There is nothing in game theory which allows for new options thought up by human minds.

Those who have a conflict of interest analysis in mind seem to think that I must mean something other than real solutions. They think I must mean that the parents should just “let the child rule”. They think that the choices are (a) the parent rules or (b) the child rules. For them, there are no other options. This is not the case, so let me reiterate. Unless one is locked into the false dichotomy I have mentioned, there is another way: both parents and children retain their own autonomy; and they work together to find consent, utilising their human creativity to find new ideas to solve problems, not picking from one of the initially-available options. This is what we mean by creating real solutionsnew knowledge.

A real solution is something not only that both parties prefer, but which neither of them knew before a given interaction began. This is the purpose of interacting. This is what makes human beings what they are. They do not have immutable preferences; they are creative and rational, and can learn. Learning involves changing preferences.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1995, ‘Solving problems takes creativity’,