How to think less like an engineer? I need advice.
January 30, 2020 8:56 AM   Subscribe

So first off, I'm an engineer, yeah big surprise there. As a result I tend to think about almost everything as an engineer. Trying to frame everything as an engineering problem is a source of anxiety for me, mainly because when I try to do this, and then real life doesn't turn out to follow my "engineering approach" then I get upset that I don't understand what's going on.

I'll start with socializing, I don't really have a huge problem with it, other than my social skills started to develop later in life. I started working on this about two years ago when I started going to therapy. Still, I never had a problem making friends, getting along with others or reading social cues. However, I have had a problem with understanding how human interactions work, how to start conversations, and understanding the randomness of human behaviors. I have tried to quantify these things, and look for a logical explanation

A lot of it has to do with "thinking too much" and framing everything as an engineering problem. For instance, I have fallen into the trap of thinking that if I do X thing, Y Person will respond in Z way, if not, then they will respond in W way. That doesn't work for human interactions, for starters people are not that robotic, they are also not that rational or predictable. Even so, I don't want people to be that way, it would just make them boring.

Nonetheless, I frequently fall into these lines of thought. I really don't know how to stop myself from doing it, however. I was wondering if anyone had any advice to sort of "shut down" my analytical side when I'm outside of anything that doesn't have to do with engineering, mathematics or programming.
posted by Tarsonis10 to Human Relations (24 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Instead of "shutting down" a part of yourself (one that is clearly so intrinsically you), why not try to "wake up" other parts of yourself that are less logical? Do you know the term lateral thinking?

Practice being creative. Do things that have no right or wrong answer and focus on the journey you take, not the destination. Things like temporary visual art intended to decompose (chalk drawings on the driveway, sand and snow sculptures, splatter paintings on newsprint, etc), social dancing, assembling composed salads without a recipe after a trip to the farmer's market... anything that doesn't have a set solution. As you go on, do more things that involve other people - like having conversations without end purposes. You might enjoy the game Dixit. (You might despise it now and like it later.)

I would hesitate to think of any part of yourself that isn't actively harmful as something you need to shut down or cut out. That's a great way to give yourself anxiety. Instead by encouraging your mind to think in a more open-ended way, when you catch yourself falling into harmful patterns you can more easily switch trains of thought and look for other possibilities.
posted by Mizu at 9:28 AM on January 30, 2020 [18 favorites]

I am sometimes prone to doing this. It's helpful for me to sometimes just put a "black box" around some human interactions which is to say that I can observe inputs and outputs but I'm never going to really know what is inside or exactly why I'm getting the outputs I am getting.

As a result, it's become more useful for me to shift towards a "Well, what kind of interaction do I want to be having. How much control do I have over my parts of the interaction?" and concentrate on my own values and what I want to put IN to an interaction and less what I want to get OUT of one.

This is also really helpful in cases where you're interacting with someone who has something else going on, something that has nothing to do with you.In the past, I had a tendency to ask myself "What about ME is causing this person to act this way?" (an anxiety-provoking path) and it's become easier to shift to a "Hey it's likely not at all about you, but maybe you can help?" viewpoint.

In short, I can't help having an analytical mind that just tries to apply itself to everything, but I can choose to de=emphasize it and try to focus on other things (personal values things, ethics things, empathy/compassion things) and act more out of alignment with those parts of myself.
posted by jessamyn at 9:38 AM on January 30, 2020 [9 favorites]

Do you get upset in an engineering context if you follow a process and don't get the expected results? There's a lot of modern work around incident management (in engineering, but also health care and other safety critical fields like transport) that gives a really thoughtful take on how to respond when things don't go to plan, and particularly, how to remove the "blame culture" that associates strong negative emotions with things that don't go to plan.

Lots of work in the Lean field (manufacturing but also software and marketing) talks about continuous hypothesis based improvement, so a mindset where "failure" becomes "successfully invalidated hypothesis".

Solutions to your problem can be found without leaving the engineering domain!
posted by quacks like a duck at 9:47 AM on January 30, 2020 [4 favorites]

Social analysis is a tremendously useful tool for understanding human reactions and so is game theory. However perhaps the reason this isn't working for you is because you are taking the tools of theoretical physics to solving a engineering problem. When you want to build a bridge you consider issues like gravity, thickness of materials, weight, friction, temperature, traffic patterns and so on, you can't just look at the theoretical issue of shortest distance from point A to point B using a line which has no width. This is kinda what you seem to be describing.

Solving people problems is so incredibly complex that it's hard to figure out what to measure and how to measure it. It's hard to even state the problem, let alone figure out how to solve it. If it seems easy it's because you have over simplified it; "Well, she's a woman so she'll probably do X..." is like assuming that there will be one vehicle every thirty seconds and each vehicle will way six tons, and there will never be any increase or decrease in speed or interruption in the stream of vehicles.

By all means go on analyzing using the tools you have and the good brain you have, but just keep reminding yourself that you are only ever considering a top few highly visible factors that might not even be relevant. So just keep asking your analytic side how many more factors can you include in the problem, and consider the problems theoretical, and that you are simply looking for data. Say you want George to show up at three and asking him to show up at three works two times but not the third time - that's data, and you can then start to parse out if his showing up at three actually had anything at all to do with you asking him and what other factors were involved in his arrival time. George may even be glad to tell you, and then you know that he will always arrive at three when you ask him, unless his daughter needs to be taken to day care, or if his wife has the car, and you can remember to ask him if he will have either the car or the daughter when you are going to ask him to show up for three.

Getting upset that you don't understand what is going on is either an issue of control, or anxiety. But not knowing what is going on is the default state, and working to get comfortable with that is the way to deal with not having control and not knowing. It's not how you are trying to solve the social problems, it's how you feel when you don't get an easy result with little effort on your own part.
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:49 AM on January 30, 2020 [5 favorites]

Don't use "I'm an engineer" as crutch that lets you believe you always know what's going to happen in advance; I don't think you'd be a very good engineer if you really thought that was true.

Engineers make the mistake of thinking everyone they meet thinks just like they do, and if someone is doing something they didn't predict they must be "irrational". That's an error.

Human beings can very often be rational and predictable if you try to gain some insight into what's going on in there. Try to think about things from their point of view knowing what you know about them and it all makes a lot more sense.
posted by bleep at 9:53 AM on January 30, 2020 [13 favorites]

Learning more about human psychology, statistics, and complex systems theory may be helpful. For me, getting comfortable with the complexity of human behavior didn't happen by turning my analytical nature off - it came from interdisciplinary learning, and broadening my analysis way beyond engineering metaphors. There are rich frameworks out there for understanding human behavior from an analytical perspective, but that also avoid the trap of assuming determinism etc.
posted by introcosm at 9:56 AM on January 30, 2020 [13 favorites]

I dunno. I think maybe your engineering mindset doesn't have to be seen as a problem. Following on what Bleep says: Maybe you need to be a better engineer.

You write " I have fallen into the trap of thinking that if I do X thing, Y Person will respond in Z way, if not, then they will respond in W way. That doesn't work for human interactions." A good engineer, when faced with unexpected unpredictablility in a system, wouldn't say "I give up on engineering". They'd say "Oh! This is a more complex and less predictable system than I'd initially understood! I should adjust my model."

A good engineer might want to learn more about the systems they are studying. There are lots of great books out there about stuff like how to have enjoyable social conversations, that really break it down in a systematic way (without imagining that people are predictable robots). Maybe the engineer in you would enjoy those books?

(I say all this based on my own experience as someone who teaches communication skills and teaches them to engineers. I think a lot of engineers come to my classes thinking "I'm no good t this stuff, because I think like an engineer." But they leave thinking "Hurray! Finally I have some good algorithms for dealing with people).
posted by ManInSuit at 10:03 AM on January 30, 2020 [3 favorites]

Thinking like an engineer often means you abstract things in a way that doesn't respect the other's values. What you really need to do is engage the other around shared values.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:04 AM on January 30, 2020 [4 favorites]

Humans do get input and there are observable patterns to the output, but they are not as binary or concrete as engineering outcomes. It may just be that you need to expand your view of what is happening inside the black box as mentioned above. You don't know what happens inside it but you can spot patterns and make guesses about the process based on the inputs and outputs. Getting to know someone includes noticing their likes and dislikes, behavioral patterns, and habits.

Learning about the theories of why people behave certain ways is interesting and can expand your ideas of how people work. For example, I read one about people who stay in relationships that are not stable (cheating, multiple breakups, etc.) and one common thread is that they often had chaotic childhoods. Stability could mean they did not get attention from adults, which most kids really need, and so they learned to use chaos as a way to get attention. People who did get enough attention as kids can judge others as being a bad person for seeking drama, when it is not a moral failure but comes from a pattern in their childhood.
Other kids in chaotic situations become super responsible instead of seeking chaos, so even things that are seen as positives may have come from a harmful situation. So, the results of the same input can vary when applied to different people.
posted by soelo at 10:18 AM on January 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

Prioritize framing your reactions in the light of kindness and care instead of "fixing" when someone is talking to you about a problem.
posted by matildaben at 10:23 AM on January 30, 2020 [4 favorites]

I was wondering if anyone had any advice to sort of "shut down" my analytical side when I'm outside of anything that doesn't have to do with engineering, mathematics or programming.

I think the way you've framed this question in the first place is indicative of the "engineering mindframe" you're trying to avoid. I've found in interacting with certain men who see themselves as very "logical" or "analytical" (often engineering types) that they think that this means looking at what is in front of them that they can see, thinking back on their experience and making conclusions based just on an evaluation of those factors they will come to the true conclusion about what is going on. However, as others have pointed out this is flawed logic because your experience and analysis especially of human behavior is never going to be free of the filter of your own limited experience. And I think you'd do a disservice to yourself if you think that just because you make what seems to you to be a logical analysis that this analysis is not colored and biased by your own emotions and experiences.

I can't say specifically obviously whether my evaluation from above is directly applicable to you but this seems to be part of the question that you are asking. In response, I think a number of the suggestions people have made here are relevant. Take some time to read up on psychology or systems thinking. Keep an open mind in your interactions with others and realize that actions that might seem illogical to you might actually be perfectly rational if you factor in how emotions function as well as the fact that not everyone has had the same life experiences or the same perspective as you.
posted by knownfossils at 12:05 PM on January 30, 2020 [5 favorites]

Toyota Kata talks about looking at managing people from a lenses of continuous improvement and may be of interest.
posted by typecloud at 12:21 PM on January 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

Excellent advice above, I think. I'd also suggest reading more fiction (like, a lot of fiction). Particularly by writers you wouldn't normally pick up, or in genres that you don't gravitate toward. Maybe think of it like getting an inside look into how another person's mind works?
posted by owls at 12:24 PM on January 30, 2020 [4 favorites]

*Just to come back once more as I thought I'd put this in my response but see that I didn't state it directly: Upshot of what I'm saying is that you can absolutely be analytical about human behavior, maybe you just have to take into account factors that you can't immediately see or intuitively understand.*
posted by knownfossils at 12:28 PM on January 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

I think there is a misunderstanding with some answers. I'm not trying to get rid of my engineering mindset, I'm just trying to think in another fashion. I don't think explaining away people through mathematics is particularly easy, and doing so at every time I'm talking to someone or doing whatever is just tiresome. I know that being an engineer and seeing things that way is intrinsic to my personality, but I want to broaden my horizons, and I want to go into things without any preconceived notions that may come from "analyzing" others.

Honestly, I'd rather just keep the math, the engineering and the logic where it is at and my hobbies and social activities as strictly social and not studies of how X and Y might do this or that. I'm already a fan of economics, so even then, I already get to do some of that there. Moreover, when I'm just talking to someone, or just engaging in social activities, I really don't want to get into doing this.

I like being analytical, solving problems and making plans, yes, but I feel like it's hampering my progress in forming new relationships and meeting people in general. It causes me to think too much about the outcomes and to consider the safe path, the what ifs, etc. Social interactions just don't work that way, I don't think it's a good idea to think about the "probabilities, the decision paths, the x or y possible responses". I think that just leads to unnecessary over-complications to a process that should just flow naturally, at least when the social situation warrants it.
posted by Tarsonis10 at 1:21 PM on January 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've felt similar about situations and I'd suggest "training" by engaging in art and performing arts to build empathy. Increasing empathy muscles can allow you to resist the desire to put yourself outside the loop of close social interaction.

If I can summarize your question:
1. You are interacting with a person while also multitasking to:
2. Monitor and analyzing the conversation (your X thing, Y, and W way)
3. Solving a problem of how you can create or maintain agency - the ability to control or change the outcome
4. Somehow this feels out of balance, you are working on #2 and #3 to the exclusion of being present and doing a good job at #1.

Experiencing live performing arts, especially complex forms with high levels of abstraction (symphonic music, modern/contemporary dance, musical theatre) allows for a lot of training in humanity and encourages experience of empathy in a moderated environment.

1. The form and technical details of the performance or artworks provides a lot for a logical mind to engage with and puzzle over.
2. The aspect of monitoring and analyzing the event - while creepy in conversation - is encouraged in a theatre or museum. The role of audience sets this up for you.
3. The ability to take agency is limited or structured away and the more you open your senses to the shared humanity exhibited in the work - the better the experience.
4. At the core - the experience is all about expressing humanity and evoking feelings that transcend or deny logic. Bonus: It makes for cool things to talk about with people.
5. You are given a safe space to experience empathy or awe for the performers/artworks.
6. By doing this with others in a crowd (and not at home watching TV, or attending a movie showing where the screen is not alive) you get unconscious support from your fellow audience members.

This article about theatre and empathy may help.
posted by sol at 1:29 PM on January 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

There are three things I can suggest for this and one of them that I don't actually recommend. The one I don't recommend being that your spouse leaves you unexpectedly and without warning and then you realize that you never really knew that person even though you had a big idea of them in your head the entire time. Don't recommend this for obvious reasons but it really helped me understand that my analysis of someone is never going to actually get into their head and I should stop trying so hard to do that and just listen. (I'm fine now and I think my relationship with my current spouse is the better for having had this horrible experience.)

The second thing is to try to catch yourself when you start analyzing someone/some social situation. This can be hard to do and it takes practice. If I suddenly find myself wanting to interrupt the other person to get clarification or I suddenly get excited about a perfectly normal conversation, I recognize that might be the engineering brain popping up and wanting to fix all the things. So then I try to shut up and really listen to them for a good few minutes before making at maximum one suggestion (or none if I don't actually know them that well).

I guess my third piece of advice might be to stop arguing in general if the issue at hand isn't that important. Arguing wakes up the engineer brain. The next time someone has a dumb opinion, don't try to fight them. Let them have the dumb opinion as long as it doesn't hurt somebody. Think in your head about how dumb they are, and then if it's something that won't matter in a year or a month (be as generous as you can) let it go. People like someone who goes with the flow in a social situation and I am now famous for being chill in my friend group instead of overwrought and pushy.

A lot of the above advice about enjoying the arts is great. I'd recommend something quite structured to start with. I still don't really like art or music as abstract concepts to be honest. But plays and musicals are cool because they have structure. Sporting events, etc. Good luck!
posted by possibilityleft at 2:30 PM on January 30, 2020

Improv comedy and some kinds of improvisational dance or music would be forums to try to pull yourself out of the engineering mindset. I say this as someone else who is very left-brained: come in preparing to feel very unskilled in them.
posted by slidell at 2:48 PM on January 30, 2020

The book "The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt is a book about the psychology of morality, and it offers a useful framework in which to describe the morality-based actions and reactions people have. By Morality-based, I refer to the instinctive or reflexive actions/reactions people have which are based in their values, sometimes values they didn't even know they had. Haidt gives 6 axes of moral values that together can be predictive for a lot of people. The book's ultimate goal is to understand the real, cognitive differences between the left and right wings of American (and other) political views and the people who carry them, and where values come from in the brain.

The other books that helped me understand people I didn't understand (still can't predict much, but at least people don't surprise me so much) is reading about cognitive biases and behavioral economics. "You are Not So Smart" by David McRaney, and "Predictably Unpredictable" by Dan Ariely are good places to start with those respective topics.

Part of understanding other people in their apparent flaws is understanding your own; the human brain is a mass of contradiction and self-delusion, burdened with cognitive biases based on very old survival instincts which may or may not be needed any longer; the human brain is also the very best tool each of us have to find understanding in this world. We're all challenged by the thing you're challenged by, but so far the problem has defined the engineering approach because it doesn't really have the same rules for everyone, least of all ourselves.

It can be a little demoralizing at first to realize how qualitatively defective our brains can be when working normally, but look where our brains got us, and we're not stopping here.
posted by Sunburnt at 3:33 PM on January 30, 2020

A lot of it has to do with "thinking too much" and framing everything as an engineering problem. For instance, I have fallen into the trap of thinking that if I do X thing, Y Person will respond in Z way, if not, then they will respond in W way. That doesn't work for human interactions, for starters people are not that robotic, they are also not that rational or predictable. Even so, I don't want people to be that way, it would just make them boring.

Lots of great advice in this thread, but I want to respond to this with two things:

1. If you're concerned about this, you're honestly on the right track and worried about the right things. I know a bunch of engineery type folks, and the folks who think this kind of thing is immaterial or dumb are the ones who end up in a bad spot. Being a particular kind of personality isn't a bad thing, but having bad priorities can definitely make a person into a menace.

2. Talk about this kind of stuff live and in person with people! This is emotional work, and that kind of work is done much more effectively verbally or in the flesh than it is over text. If that's uncomfortable, that's okay - anything unfamiliar will be uncomfortable, and doing it more makes it more comfortable. (Usually! If it doesn't, that's a different kind of problem.)
posted by billjings at 4:06 PM on January 30, 2020

I don't know if this will resonate with you... But I find that often when I slip into an analytical state during a conversation/interaction, it's because there is something about it that is making me uncomfortable.

Maybe it is a controversial topic and I calculate what I say so that I look good to the group. Maybe it is a date but I don't really know how I feel about the person, so instead of trying to figure that out for myself (and acting out of my desires) I instead try to analyze and react in ways that are calculated to make them like me (now acting out of what I assume their desires are). Maybe it is a debate and I really want to win points and look smart rather than risk the possibility that some of my deeply held beliefs might not be 100% correct.

Some things that helped me: practicing active listening, being curious, asking more (open-ended) questions, and being ok with the uncomfortable feelings!

The other big piece for me is the idea that human interactions has a set of rules and if I became an expert on all the rules and I could make everything fit and be consistent, then I would never: look foolish, put my foot in my mouth, do/say something completely embarrassing or ignorant. In short, nobody would see my imperfections and flaws as a human.

Obviously that didn't work out for me either, and again I just had to be ok with the (at first) uncomfortable idea that my flaws would be on display, and I wouldn't always be this super smooth person! I'm doing some hard work on letting go of my perfectionist tendencies, and it's really helping.
posted by tinydancer at 6:05 PM on January 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

I just saw the dance suggestion above and wanted to amplify that. Improv is also great I'm sure, for similar reasons.

Also I found studying quantum mechanics very helpful for giving up my expectation of being able to understand or build a model for everything. Bit of a niche path though.
posted by Lady Li at 12:08 AM on January 31, 2020

tinydancer: I find that often when I slip into an analytical state during a conversation/interaction, it's because there is something about it that is making me uncomfortable.

I think this is a really great insight. I've seen certain analytical men in my life noticably "switch" from emotion to dispassionate logic any time things get emotionally heated. I have always suspected that it's a self-protective urge; it's their way of keeping themselves from getting overwhelmed by their own emotional response.

If that's how you feel, then the remedy lies along a much murkier path, possibly involving therapy. It involves idenfiying your own emotions, realizing the circumstances under which they arise, and how to cope with them when they feel like they are overwhelming. And facing the shame when you've acted in a way you later regret. Facing your emotions head-on is really scary if you've never done it before. But it gets easier with practise. And it's a wonderful investment into your personal relationships that absolutely WILL pay off.
posted by cranberrymonger at 11:50 AM on January 31, 2020

One habit that I fall into with over-use of my engineering skills is when I've found "the best way to do something" and I have an urge to get other people to do their thing in that best way. I know it's none of my business, but one of my friends said something that stuck with me, it's not that his way is better or worse than my way but that's he's "optimizing for a different variable". So one thing that helps me approach social situations semi-analytically but still be flexible and let people be people, is to remind myself that I don't know what variable they're trying to optimize.
posted by aimedwander at 11:33 AM on February 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

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