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How To Think Like A Detective

Posted by Jerry De Luca on Sunday, April 25, 2021


Life can get complicated, and attempting to deal with the many problems life throws at you can be challenging and daunting. Thinking on one’s feet, clearly, rationally, creatively, critically goes a long way in dealing with issues successfully. Detectives are taught a certain type of thinking in order to solve seemingly baffling cases. Learning to think like a detective can be of critical help in navigating life’s besetting obstacles. Just a few of these obstacles and challenges are:

-Career and marital choices  

-Major purchases

-Parenting issues

- Personal conflicts

-Detecting consumer fraud

- Suspicious medical claims (quack medicine)

-Media literacy

-Vaccine hesitancy

-Political discourse

Thirty-year police detective and teacher Ivar Fahsingis offers a basic guide in applying detective thinking to everyday life. His co-authored books include Organized Crime (2010) and The Routledge International Handbook of Legal and Investigative Psychology (2019).

Taking the mental easy road often leads to harmful overconfidence:

“Regardless of our social class or our so-called intelligence, we are all by nature ‘cognitive misers’ – that is, we have a tendency to solve problems in superficial and effortless ways rather than via more sophisticated and effortful ways. If not addressed deliberately, this overconfidence, and the gap between one’s initial ideas and reality can lead even the most trusted experts astray…..

“Keep in mind that your brain will invariably try to convince you that your first impression is right. So, to activate your inner detective, you will have to make a conscious effort to dig deeper into all the available information, and try to do a more systematic and thorough analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of various conclusions before making your decision.”

Step 1: Assume nothing and find out what you really know

“To think like an expert detective, you have to embrace a so-called ‘investigative mindset’. The terms ‘possibly’ and ‘could’ should be your watchwords as they are in every real investigation and at every crime scene. In detective handbooks, this is called the ABC principle:

--Assume nothing

--Believe nothing

--Challenge and check everything

“Nothing should be taken for granted or accepted at face value. Expert detectives will always take a sceptical approach to any information or evidence. All stories are possible, until they are not. Always ask yourself ‘What do I know?’ and ‘What do I not know?’ Doing this is sometimes very hard, but even just attempting to slow down your otherwise conclusion-jumping brain will prove helpful. Keep reminding yourself: correlation does not imply causation.”

Step 2: Identify all the possible explanations

“A familiar and typical application of abductive reasoning is when a doctor makes a medical diagnosis: given a set of symptoms, what is the diagnosis that would best explain most of them? As a general rule – and due to our conclusion-loving brain – there will always be more alternative explanations than you first realised. A wise doctor won’t leap to make the first diagnosis that springs to mind, but will consider many alternatives to see which best matches the presentation before them…..

“Similarly, criminal investigations are abductive and not deductive. In most cases, the police don’t find a crystal-clear and indisputable CCTV picture of the suspect while he commits a crime. We’ll typically have a greyish, blurred image of a person leaving or entering a dark alley just before, or just after, a crime was committed. Our initial interpretation of the picture might tell us that this potential offender is a relatively tall man in his 40s wearing a short dark jacket and black or blue jeans. The description can, in essence, fit half the city’s population. Hence, to identify a suspect, you have to come up with all the possible interpretations, then cross-check your blurred picture with a number of other sources of information such as witness statements, motives, fingerprints or mobile-phone activity, to find a suspect and rule out other potential candidates.

“Similarly, you should always create a short outline of all the possible alternative explanations you can think of for the situation you’re trying to solve. Based on your alternatives, your next important step is to make a plan for the information you need to test your different explanations, including how you’ll get hold of the required information. This will be your investigation plan.”

Step 3: Test the alternative explanations and narrow your investigation

“Now’s the time to start the real investigation. This is when the Sherlock Holmes mantra about eliminating the impossible kicks in. Try to eliminate as many explanations or lines of inquiry as you can. Just like in science, theories can be truly tested only through falsification. To be able to keep track of all your alternative explanations and information needs, you’ll need to take a methodical approach. Without it, there’s a huge risk you’ll become a slave to your first and best idea.

“First of all – what do you know? Collect the available information and check the facts. Are they relevant, accurate and reliable? Connect the dots. Do different sources say the same? Find out what you don’t know. Next, construct all possible solutions and hypotheses. What does the available information allow for? What do we need to check, and what can be cross-checked? What can be ruled out? What remains possible? Now, consider what information you need the most in order to test your remaining hypotheses?”

Use a mind map

“As you can see, there are more alternative options than you perhaps thought of in the beginning. To assist our fragile minds, we need practical methods and information-handling tools to keep track of our investigations. This will help your brain be more accurate, and reduces the risk of it jumping to premature conclusions. So you should keep track of your investigation using a matrix or a ‘mind map’ that lists the upcoming sources of further information against all the alternative explanations for the crime scene. This will also create transparency, allowing for a second opinion on your ideas and judgments, and you’ll gradually see if information from different sources narrows your investigation.

“As each new nugget of information is obtained, you mark on the matrix what it means for each of the different possible explanations or hypotheses. The judgment symbols in the matrix have three different codes: the green plus-sign means that the explanation is supported; a red minus-sign means that an incoming fact opposes the hypothesis, whereas N/A means that the information doesn’t inform or have any bearing upon the hypothesis. The hypotheses that attract the most opposition or minus symbols can gradually be dismissed, while you move forward with the ones that receive more support. Your investigation should document all relevant hypotheses identified in the case, and the inquiry should seek to disprove each one.”

Recruit a contrarian or amiable sceptic:

“As a rule, in any investigation there will always be something you’ve forgotten or don’t know everything about. That is why an open-minded and critical friend, like Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, is so indispensable …… Dr. Watson’s role is not to solve the case, but to be sceptical and point to things that Holmes might have overlooked or misunderstood…..

“Remember that evidence, new perspectives or insights can be found where you least expect them. That’s why all expert detectives should demonstrate empathy, be humble, ask questions, and develop their listening skills. Investigative interviewing is done by gently holding back your own opinion, asking open-ended questions, and using silence and active listening techniques such as nodding and humming ……. Receptivity to alternative views is a crucial skill not only for detectives, but for any decision-maker in the modern era. In a world where complexity increases constantly, there’s no room for lone wolves.”


----We aren’t born detectives or good decision-makers. Your ‘cave-man’ or ‘cave-woman’ brain will constantly try to fool you into quick-and-dirty decisions.

----There’s one cognitive bias in particular that makes it difficult to think like a detective: ‘What you see is all there is.’ The antidote is to resist jumping to conclusions and to seek out more information.

----Step back and establish what you currently know. Try to defer forming any conclusions. Instead, use what you already know as the starting point for a systematic investigation. What don’t you know, and how can you find it out?

----Identify all the possible explanations and write them down.

----Think again – there’s always something you will have forgotten.

----Use a mind map to keep track of incoming information, and whether it supports or contradicts the various possible explanations. Look for patterns without jumping to conclusions. Ensure your investigation has sufficient breadth (number of lines of inquiry) and depth (incoming evidence).

----Appoint a competent devil’s advocate to look at the case from a critical perspective and raise objections before or during implementation.

----Be curious, patient and a good listener.

----Practise: your brain needs training like any other muscle. Embrace doubt, start digging, stay humble, and continue educating yourself.


How to think like a detective                                         https://psyche.co/guides/how-to-solve-problems-by-thinking-like-a-detective

Further Reading:

The Making of an Expert Detective Thinking and Deciding in Criminal Investigations   https://gupea.ub.gu.se/bitstream/2077/47515/1/gupea_2077_47515_1.pdf

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Photo: https://www.facebook.com/peter.falk.columbo/photos/a.964538030255308/964537263588718/   

Jerry De Luca is a Christian freelance writer who loves perusing dozens of interesting and informative publications. When he finds any useful info he summarizes it, taking the main points, and creates a (hopefully) helpful blog post.


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