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Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and the case of the uncomfortable election

By Michel Poelman - posted Thursday, 4 July 2013

Sherlock Holmes is much more effective in discovering the reality behind first impressions than Watson, but in a democracy, their votes carry equal weight. That’s democracy’s weakness in a nutshell: There are many more Watsons than Holmes casting their vote.

In her book “Mastermind: how to think like Sherlock Holmes”, psychologist and author Maria Konnikova illustrates the System I and System II thinking model, developed by psychologist and Nobel prize winner for economics, Daniel Kahneman with his then colleague Amos Tversky. Konnikova attributes System I to Watson and System II to Holmes, but you and I have access to both systems in our minds.

Holmes is the deliberate observer, questioner of his environment and observer of his inner world: his emotions, his thoughts, his prejudices, convictions and feelings. Holmes uses System II, or scientific thinking, to discover the true facts hiding behind our veil of perceptions and interpretations.


Watson uses the default setting of the mind: the reactive, intuitive System I. He acts on impulse, intuition and emotion. He assumes his perceptions and interpretations are the true facts.

Holmes would quickly discern between feeling hungry because he hasn’t had lunch and feeling hungry because he smells the cooking scents of a nearby restaurant. In the latter case Holmes dismisses his appetite. When Watson feels hungry he orders a meal, regardless of the origin: an ad on tv, the scents from cooking in a nearby kitchen or from not having had lunch.

Our minds are somewhere along the scale of Watson on the one end and Holmes on the other, but closer to Watson than we like to admit (if this were not so then companies would not spend so much money on advertising). Watson is our default-setting, the cruise control, for the mind. It requires little energy, provides fast responses and is adequate for most common, simple settings. But Watson, unlike Holmes, does not deal well with complex situations and has a tendency to recast a complex situation as if it were simple.

Here’s a simple question: George looks at Anna who looks at Paul. George is married and Paul is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried one?

There are only three options: Yes, No and ‘not enough information’. How would Holmes and Watson answer this simple question?

The world is complex and we are players in a globally interconnected political and economic ever-changing system. When we vote, we vote for policies that have an effect on how well our nation plays in this complex multi-player game. We are fooling ourselves if we think that we can treat the issues involved in this game as if they were simple.


When dealing with complex situations, we must move Watson out of the driver’s seat and let Holmes steer the mind, which requires deliberate awareness and effort, something that our default setting avoids.

Our inner Watson pushes us into a simplified partisanship; Watson keeps us stuck with what we think we know, he stops us from learning. Our perceptions become black and white, left and right, Christian and Muslim, business-first or environment-first, good or evil. No room for the many intermediate positions. Take Edward Snowden, do you belong to the “He’s-a-traitor”-camp or the “He-is-a-hero”-camp?  It’s almost as if we are not allowed to have any other position. Who dares to be in the “this-is-a-bloody-complex–issue-which depends on-his-situation-and-a-whole-bunch-of-facts-and-I-reserve-judgment-until-I-have-more-information”-camp? Holmes dares.

Some argue that partisanship strengthens our democratic debate, but this is not the case. Partisanship is a form of tunnel vision where information provided by one side is highlighted, information from the other side is dismissed and objectivity falls by the sideways. More disconcerting, research shows that when like-minded people discuss amongst themselves (as those in political parties tend to do), they develop more extreme points of view.

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About the Author

Michel Poelman is the Principal of Thinking4Results, a boutique consultancy that provides workshops and consulting to help clients develop high-order thinking. You can email him at

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