The centipede dilemma: what it is and what it tells us about human thought

Is concentration an ally for doing things right, an indisputable truth or perhaps not? Are there times when paying attention to what we are doing can be a problem? Can more focus mean worse exercise?

Well it turns out it can be. In more automated tasks, it happens that if we stop to think about the actions we are taking or every little action we are taking, we may lose our rhythm, do something wrong that we did. hundreds and hundreds of times.

This idea is what we find in the centipede dilemma, a curious and counter-intuitive situation before which, if we go deeper into it, we find all its meaning. If you want to know why it is given, we invite you to continue reading.

    What is the centipede dilemma?

    The centipede dilemma, also known as Humphrey’s law or task hyperreflexion, is a curious principle that proves that, sometimes conscious attention is not always positive. The author of this law was the psychologist George Humphrey (1889-1966) in 1923, expounding it in his book “The Story of Man’s Mind”. This dilemma raises that conscious attention to a task that is usually performed automatically can make it difficult to perform.

    Humphrey’s Law states that if a person has acquired enough skill to do something automatically, the mere act of stopping to think about it, the steps to be taken, or the specific actions and movements involved in the task, ends up being detrimental to the task. execution.

    The reason this idea is also known as the Millipede Dilemma is directly related to the way these myriapods walk. To formulate his law, Humphrey was inspired by a very popular poem at the beginning of the 20th century, who was talking about a centipede:

    A centipede walked happily

    Until a mocking toad

    He said, “Tell me, in what order do you move your legs?

    It filled him with doubts to the point

    That he fell exhausted on the way

    Not knowing how to run.

    By learning this poem, the authorship of which is discussed and attributed to Katherine Craster (1841-1874), Humphrey raised the issue that no person skilled in their profession needs constant or complete attention in routine tasks.. If you are careful, your job will surely be ruined.

    This same thinking has been echoed by various psychologists and philosophers contemporary with George Humphrey. Among the most interesting intellectuals is the psychoanalyst Theo L. Dorpat who went further and said that for a centipede the following question could become fatal: what happens to your thirty-four left foot ?

    Also noteworthy is the reflection of philosopher Karl Popper, who cited the centipede dilemma in his book “The Body and the Spirit: Unpublished Writings on Knowledge and the Body-Spirit Problem”. He commented that, when we have learned certain movements to the point that they are unconscious, trying to do them consciously interferes so seriously that we end up stopping.

    Popper gave as an example of this curious phenomenon a real case that happened to violinist Adolf Busch, who, when his colleague Bronisław Huberman asked him how to play a passage from Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Huberman replied that it was quite simple. . However, trying to prove it, he found that he suddenly wasn’t able to perform it with the same precision, speed, and grace as when he did it without thinking about it.

      Humphrey’s Law and Conscious Thinking

      The idea of ​​the centipede dilemma sounds a bit shocking and contradictory. How can paying more attention to what we do make the job more difficult? We have come to understand that paying more attention to something increases the number of mental resources devoted to it, so shouldn’t we be doing the job better? How do you explain that more concentration leads to poorer performance?

      In this life, not everything is white or black and it also shows in the functioning of our executive skills and other cognitive functions. Our brain is a very complex organ, about which we still have a lot to know. While its premise may seem counterintuitive, the truth is that Humphrey’s Law has given us a better understanding of the human mind.

      It’s true that paying more attention to how we perform a task usually means better performance. However, skills reach maximum sophistication and perfection when they reach the point where they are done unconsciously, without realizing it, something that can be seen in tasks as complex but at the same time as automated as driving or writing.

      On this basis, the existence of a skills pyramid has been proposed which would follow the following order:

      1. Unconscious incompetence

      Unconscious incompetence is the point at which you don’t know how to do a certain task nor do you know that you don’t know.

        2. Conscious incompetence

        Conscious incompetence occurs when one finds out that one does not know how to do a task, i.e. there is ignorance of how to do something but we are aware of it. This is when the start of the learning process would take place.

          3. Conscious competence

          Conscious competition takes place when he is learning to do something and is aware that he has learned.

          4. Unconscious competition

          Finally, we come to the unconscious competition phase. It is the highest point of the pyramid, although it may be called mastery or mastery of a certain skill. East the ability to do something well done but without thinking too much about what is being done.

            The interruption in Humphrey’s law

            The Millipede Dilemma or Humphrey’s Law would apply when you have reached the level of unconscious competence, that is, when the person is able to do something without thinking too much about it. The moment they interrupt her and ask her to think it over and tell us every step she takes in performing a certain task or skill, that’s when she becomes more pathetic, she has a harder time doing it.

            We can see it in a person who can type quickly with a computer keyboard. He’s reached the level of typing fluency when he doesn’t have to look at the keyboard all the time to make sure which key he’s pressing, he has them all memorized well and located in space. However, if we interrupt you and ask you to type exactly a “w” for an example, your response time is likely to skyrocket or even go awry.

            And not just in computers, but also in very simple, everyday tasks like tying cords, unlocking the cell phone, tying a tie or cooking. If we are performing a task that we are proficient in that involves going through several steps, in case we are asked which ones to follow, it is very likely that we are left a little empty, not knowing how to continue or even having to go. to start over.

            It goes without saying interruption is not necessarily a negative thing and should not always hurt performance. We can understand this in cases where something has been learned badly, situations where it is necessary to break the automation and generate the error to restart the whole process and relearn, this time in the right way.

            Bibliographical references

            • Canéda, MC (2005). Ants and men: managing complexity and organizational chaos. ESIC editorial.
            • Humphrey, George (1923). The history of the human spirit. Boston: Small, Maynard and company. p. 109.
            • Dorpat, Théo L. (1996). Gas lighting, double shot, interrogation and other methods of conversion control in psychotherapy and analysis. Northvale, New Jersey: Aronson. p. 12. ISBN 978-1-568-21828-1.
            • Popper, Karl R. (1994). Notturno, MA (ed.). Knowledge and the body-mind problem: in defense of interaction (1st ed. Publ.). London: Routledge. p. 116. ISBN 978-0-415-11504-9

            Leave a Comment