Analyzing and Synthesizing Thinking Styles
Lately, I’ve been thinking about two thinking styles, which we could call analyzing and synthesizing. Analyzers think “cleverly” and make interpretive leaps without additional context, excelling at “pure” problem solving, while synthesizers absorb large amounts of information and combine it in novel ways.
Analyzing and synthesizing map to fluid and crystallized intelligence. However, fluid and crystallized intelligence are generally defined as measurable quantities that make up an individual’s general intelligence, while I’m using analyzing and synthesizing to describe inclinations.
Most people are somewhere in the middle of the gradient between the two types. I, however, am very strongly synthesizing. Although I’m certainly capable of analytic thought, I tend to avoid operating in that mode and, when I do, I’m usually outclassed by pure analyzers; analytic thought is not my comparative advantage. On the other hand, more than one person has asked me how I “know so much random stuff.” Of course, I’ve also known folks on the other end of the gradient, who are capable of genius feats of problem solving, but couldn’t care less about learning new techniques and concepts.
Both thinking styles often talk past each other. Analyzers will run rings around synthesizers when debating or problem solving, leaving the poor synthesizer feeling far behind in the conversation. On the other hand, synthesizers live in a world rich with allusion and will generally be confused that analyzers don’t immediately connect every thought with half a dozen other thoughts.
Are these real, as in, psychologically valid? I’m not sure, but I’ve found them useful concepts.
- Puzzles strike me as a typically analytic activity. Studying a class of puzzles can help you develop strategies, but for any given puzzle, you eventually have to make some kind of clever jump to a solution. (Indeed, the fact that I frankly can’t stand most puzzles was what first led me to consider this distinction!)
- Word games might be the exception. Codenames, particularly for the codemaster, feels more synthetic, since it involves embedding clues into a richly allusive context.
- On the other hand, trivia is the ur-synthetic activity, requiring a massive amount of background knowledge to the almost complete exclusion of inventive thought.
- The field of mathematics is heavily dominated by analytic thought. Having a wide variety of proof techniques in your toolbelt is useful, but fundamentally, you have to be able to prove novel results!
- Interestingly, programming feels much more welcoming to synthetic thought. Clearly, programming has a high degree of “pure” problem solving, and analyzers are the source of many clever hacks. However, particularly in established codebases, programming requires absorbing a large amount of context, which synthesizers excel at.
- Security is the one part of programming that feels much more analytic, since it requires an ability to think creatively like an adversary.
- Synthesizers tend towards intellectually omnivorousness; synthetic thought only works if you have a wide variety of information to synthesize. Some (though not all!) analyzers prefer to stick to their favorite fields and problems.
- Synthesizers tend not to care for originality as much as analyzers. “There is nothing new under the sun,” after all. That may be because synthesizers are less capable of originality, or it may be because they can find preexisting examples or connections for any idea they do come up with.
- On a related note, my fiction writing style feels heavily synthetic — most of my story ideas are basically the result of jamming together a wide variety of ideas, big and small, that happened to catch my attention.
- I never studied in university (to my fiancee’s lasting indignation). But, as a synthesizer, I didn’t have to! By the time I got to the end of a course, I had already thoroughly absorbed all the class content and more besides. Reviewing the course content wouldn’t help with my main problem, which was analytically solving novel problems.
- McKinley Valentine1 recently pointed out that some folks (herself included) don’t get value from graph-based note taking as popularized by Obsidian and prefer very structured note-taking instead. That seems very synthesizing — synthesizers already naturally connect everything they read and don’t need Obsidian to do it for them.
You should read The Whippet if you are not already! ↩