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Troubleshooting in IT: Is That Your Final Answer? Yes. I Mean No.

Psychology meets IT

Next time you post a troubleshooting question on a forum, congratulate yourself on your good sense in seeking advice from numerous people: Studies show that, contrary to what you might think, a crowd of people usually gives more accurate responses to questions compared to one individual. It appears that after you average responses and toss out the ones that are obviously off-base, you have an increased chance of getting the right answer.

But what if you’re alone on a job and out of reach, for whatever reason, of any other IT pro, and you need an answer? Two psychologists have come up with a method you can use when you’re on your own, called “dialectical bootstrapping.”

Dialectical bootstrapping is where you average your own conflicting opinions. You do it this way: You identify a cause of a particular problem, picking an answer that’s the best you can come up with. Then, you consider as many reasons as you can as to why the answer might be wrong and come up with an alternative answer. Then you average the two.

Psychologists Stefan M. Herzog and Ralph Hertwig at the University of Basel tested their method on individuals, making them work on an admittedly simple question: coming up with the date of a historic event. The results, reported in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, reveal that the average of the participants' first answer with the second answer was much closer to the correct answer, compared to the original answers on their own. The key, I guess, is not just making a second guess, but thinking about why your first answer might be wrong.

Although the researchers concede that going between two answers might be frustrating, they say their research shows that dialectical bootstrapping can help us come up with better answers to many types of problems. I can see how it might help in figuring out the date of William the Conqueror’s death, but would it necessarily help when Active Directory won’t start? Don’t scoff—I think Herzog and Hertwig are on to something. I’m just not sure what.

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