Looking at De Bono's Six Thinking Hats in the mirror

This article continues my efforts to build something in public that will benefit you and me.  In 1985, Edward de Bono first published a book called Six Thinking Hats.  Maybe you've heard of it.  It's arguably his best book, and he's written more than 60 books.  I'm not going to spend a lot of time explaining the basics of the method because there are plenty of web sites that explain the basics very well (it's a fairly simple concept to explain), and because I've published my book notes which give a detailed overview in outline form.

Here's what I plan to do in this article:  I'm going to apply the Six Hats method to itself.  This is very "meta", and it's probably going to get confusing at times.  The images are meant to help you, the reader, keep straight whether I'm using a thinking hat or talking about it.  Strap yourself in, and let's give this a spin.

Wearing the white hat and looking at the Six Hats method

A man wearing a white hat looking at six colored hats

Notice my persona, above, is wearing a white hat.Image credit  My only focus right now is on facts.  What do I know about the Six Hats method?

I know what the author has written on the subject.  I know that the concept is very popular, and I know that many people have written web articles and academic articles about it.  I don't know how effective the method is, but I do know that many studies and anecdotes claim that it has helped people in a variety of ways: in business, in educational settings, in medicine, and in other, sometimes surprising contexts.

One thing I can mention here is that there are levels of reliability when it comes to facts.  The white hat leaves no room for opinions or hunches, but it does allow the wearer to discuss the degree of confidence they have in the facts they are considering.  So while wearing this hat I can say that, while the supporting literature is plentiful, the research methods are not highly reliable.  Almost without exception they use small sample sizes and questionable methods.  Notice that last sentence was an opinion, which usually falls under the red hat, but since it is an opinion about the facts it belongs under the white hat.  I hope I haven't lost you yet.

Four of the six hats involve judgment and evaluation and the other two require suspending judgment.  Obviously the white hat requires making a judgment about the facts.  Not about whether they are right or wrong, but about how well supported the information is.  So far I've talked about how well external sources support the Six Hats method.  I'll also discuss how well supported it is by de Bono himself, but I'll do that while wearing the black hat.  For now, let's try on the red hat.  To do that, we'll have to turn off our inclination to judge and evaluate.

Now I'm putting the red hat on and expressing my feelings and opinions

A man wearing a red hat looking at six colored hats

My first impression when encountering the Six Hats concept was excitement.  I'm tempted to explain why I was excited but that's not allowed under the red hat.  I can only express how I feel.  I still feel excited about the possibilities, which is the main reason I'm writing this article.

There's another emotion I often feel, when I think about how much supporting evidence is missing: I feel frustrated.  I can also express my opinions while wearing the red hat, so I can tell you that I think this idea has a lot of potential.  That's also yellow hat thinking, so I'll wait for that hat to say more about it.

I'm also surprised.  Surprised that I've searched far and wide and I haven't found anyone else who has done what I'm doing right now.

So I'm excited, surprised, and frustrated.  I can't say much more with this hat on, so now I'll put on the yellow hat.

The yellow hat represents value

A man wearing a yellow hat looking at six colored hats

As I mentioned with the red hat on, I'm excited about the potential for this idea.  There are so many potential benefits for using this method of thinking:

  • It improves behavior, helping to modify it without making anyone feel attacked.
  • It helps manage conflict, bypassing ego and encouraging cooperation.
  • It is simple to learn, remember, and use, but it can be extended to very sophisticated applications.
  • It is very adaptable. It can be used by an individual or a group, by children or by people in positions of great responsibility.
  • It is empowering.  Teachers can use it to help students.  Leaders can use it to communicate and lead more effectively.
  • It is efficient. Time is saved because the thinking process moves more quickly. Meetings are shorter and more focused. Teamwork is facilitated.
  • It crosses barriers. It provides a common way of thinking that crosses cultural and national perspectives.  It appeals equally to people around the world.
  • It encourages better thinking. Learners become better able to think for themselves, and learn to ask better questions.
  • It often delivers immediate results.
  • It enhances creativity. It provides an effective framework for the creative process. It opens up new possibilities.
  • It resists fossilization.  Participants learn to question their beliefs and preferences.
  • It helps build other skills.  Problem solving, decision-making, leadership and independence are developed.  Taking risks is encouraged.
  • It helps build confidence and self-esteem.  Every member is motivated to participate, and gets positive reinforcement for doing so.
  • It achieves greater balance of participation. Each person's perspective contributes to build a clearer picture for all.
  • It has real world, practical benefit.  It provides an immediate practical means of applying what is learned. 

That is a lot of benefits.  While the degree to which each of the above is true is not yet established, it is likely that all are true to an extent.  And these are just the benefits that are widely known.  I have my own list of potential benefits:

Our default mode seems to be to think negatively when things don't go as planned or expected. We need to approach life with a different mindset. When things don't go well, we need an effective method for dealing with the situation, one that takes into consideration the actual situation as well as the way we feel.  A method that helps us see not only the negatives, which are easy to see, but the positives as well.  I believe the six hats method fits this description very well.

"Emotional intelligence" is a rare skillset these days.  I will be writing a lot about this subject in the future, because having a bright outlook means being able to understand and manage emotions effectively.  The first step, as many experts will agree, is recognizing our emotions and being able to identify them.  The red hat component does just that.  It is the foundation of emotional intelligence.  Emotions also are an important component of motivation.  That is, we need to be emotionally involved in order to move forward with an idea.  The Six Hats framework also can effectively put that into place.

The blue hat makes sure that the other hats are used appropriately and effectively.  It is thinking about thinking, also known as metacognition.  This is a common term these days because understanding thinking is essential to compete in today's world.  The Six Hats framework replaces this buzzword with something easier to understand.

These are just a few reasons why I see tremendous potential in the Six Hats thinking framework.Just today I found another, which I plan to explore further. The authors of this study tie the Six Hats concept with D. R. Garrison's conceptual model for developing critical thinking in adult learners: Schellens, T., Van Keer, H., De Wever, B., & Valcke, M. (2009). Tagging thinking types in asynchronous discussion groups: effects on critical thinking. Interactive Learning Environments, 17(1), 77–94. doi:10.1080/10494820701651757

Before I take off the yellow hat, I'm going to look at the yellow hat with it on.  See the image above if that last sentence is confusing.  Here are reasons why yellow hat optimism is good:

  • Better self-esteem
  • Lower stress levels
  • Better overall well-being
  • More likely to protect health
  • Motivated to pursue goals
  • Increased happiness in the short term
  • Willingness to take risks that may improve life

Optimism has its downsides, too, but we can't talk about them with the yellow hat on.  Let's switch hats.I won't dwell on the downsides of excessive optimism in this article, but you may wish to read Understanding the Optimism Bias at Verywell Mind.

The black hat signifies caution

A man wearing a black hat looking at six colored hats

This mode of thinking comes easily for most of us.  For some reason it's easy to see the downsides of something, especially if it's someone else's idea.  On the other hand, it easy to miss the negatives of something we're excited about.  So the yellow hat and the black hat are necessary complements to each other.In The Laws of Human Nature, Robert Greene writes, "Whenever you experience unusual gains or losses, that is precisely the time to step back and counterbalance them with some necessary pessimism or optimism."  What reasons for caution are there when thinking about Six Hats?

In the white hat section above, I pointed out the dearth of quality studies that confirm the effectiveness using reliable statistical methods.  One academic paper summarizes the situation thus:

The technique itself has been praised for being easy to learn yet there is limited empirical evidence supporting this claim, or other alleged benefits. The literature contains subjective reports of its effectiveness and anecdotal reports from those that have utilised the technique support its use in decision making. ... As such, beneficial claims made regarding the use of the six hats to improve creative thinking have yet to be clearly and empirically supported.I omitted some inline references. Also the omitted section marked with the ellipsis (...) included some positive statements: Schellens et al. (2009) found that students using the six hats to identify, or tag, their discussion contributions when using an asynchronous, on-line discussion forum showed greater evidence of critical thinking compared to those who did not. In particular those using the six hats showed greater evidence of ‘focus’ and ‘novelty’ in their discussion points. Thinking hats and good men: Structured techniques in a problem construction task December 2014 Thinking Skills and Creativity 14 DOI: 10.1016/j.tsc.2014.07.001

There's also the not insignificant fact that Edward de Bono never provides references in any of his books.  I think that point bears repeating.  He's published more than 60 books, more than one each year of his career, and not one of them (to my knowledge) has ever contained references to anyone else's work.  So there's no way to verify either the source of his ideas or the veracity of his claims.  I'm not going to pick on de Bono here, but there are plenty of reasons to question his professional integrity that I will probably write about later.  Suffice it to say that his ideas have to be judged on their own merit.  Regardless of what kind of person Edward de Bono is, or whether he originated the concepts that comprise the Six Hats method, I think the yellow hat section above gives us enough reason to move forward.  But there are clearly reasons to temper our optimism.

Another potential negative is the tendency for people to get confused about the meaning of the symbols.  This is more a matter of presentation rather than substance but it bears our consideration.  One thing de Bono himself makes clear is that many people associate the black hat with negativity to the point of considering it a "bad hat."  This is why I've emphasized that the black hat focuses on caution.  Yellow hat and black hat thinking can be synonymous with evaluating pros and cons, but that is not their only application.  Yellow hat thinking focuses on finding value and usefulness, while black hat thinking looks for pitfalls to avoid.  De Bono also points out that while many people have an easier time falling into black hat mode, while everyone in the group is using the other modes they often find it easy to switch thinking patterns themselves.

De Bono cautions his readers not to identify the hats with traits of individuals.  This still gets confusing.  A recent article on the subject makes frequent use of phrases such as "red hat thinkers" and "yellow hat thinkers", as if people predominantly favor one or the other.  It is true that some people tend to use certain modes more than others, but it seems logical that with training individuals can use all modes more effectively.  While the author of this article seems to understand that everyone should wear the same hat at once, the article sends a mixed message.  De Bono did not intend his hats to describe personalities, and I think we should avoid using them in this way too.  It creates confusion.

Some practitioners use rigidly prescribed sequences of hats.  De Bono's intention was that the leader, the blue hat wearer, should feel free to direct the thinking as the situation warrants.  He does have suggestions for which order is often best, and he recommends using each hat for around one minute per person present.  In other words, for a group of five, the red hat should be used for no more than five minutes to give each person one minute to express their feelings on the current state of the discussion.  I've lost the reference but I encountered one study that used each hat only once and scheduled the process to last 50 minutes.  That seems less effective to me.

The Schellens et al. study I referenced in the footnote above correlates five of the six hats with a five-phase model by another author.  While I'm excited about the possibilities for further reinforcement of the theoretical basis of the Six Hats, I think I found an error in their understanding of the Six Hats.  They connect five of the Six Hats to Garrison's conceptual model for developing critical thinking in this way:

The white hat Problem identification 
The blue hat Problem definition
The green hat Problem exploration
The black hat Problem applicability
The yellow hat Problem integration

I think the first two work pretty well, but the last three seem to be poorly matched.  Problem exploration can be either green hat or yellow hat thinking.  The study clarifies "problem applicability" as "looking at why this solution will or will not fail."  That sounds like a combination of yellow and black hat.  Finally, "problem integration" is a step which is intended to take the lessons learned and reapply them back into one's life.  Or as the authors worded it, "Validating the solutions within the group, giving feedback and grounding the outcomes back in the real world."  This one is most problematic in my view.  Yellow hat thinking looks for value but making application is a primary function of the blue hat.  In any case, despite the apparent confusion of the study authors I still think their ideas merit further consideration.

The green hat symbolizes possibilities
A man wearing a green hat looking at six colored hats

De Bono makes the claim that "Possibilities is the most important word behind Western progress in science and technology."  I don't know about that, but I won't argue about the value of creativity.  While he encourages his audience to always try to improve things regardless of the reason, the green hat is most at home as a counterpoint to the black hat, which is itself a counterpoint to the yellow hat.  All of the hats are used together to build enough information to make an effective decision.  

In this article I've examined the many potential benefits of the Six Hats concept, as well as some of the cautionary data.  I certainly need to give the green hat more thought but let's see what I can do with it here:

One thing I plan to do is to continue to look for real world evidence that either supports or undermines the Six Hats claims.  This may take some brainstorming and it might take more white hat information in the form of interdisciplinary studies.  

It's also worth repeating here some of the possibilities I considered under the yellow hat: Solving personal problems, building emotional intelligence (basically meaning learning to be better able to relate well to others), and building further on the topic of metacognition.  There are certainly other possibilities that I haven't considered yet.  In fact, leaving space for the unknown may be a role especially suited for the green hat.

This is also a good place for me to mention the relatively narrow application the Six Hats have been used for, despite having been in the public consciousness now for 35 years.  It seems like it was mostly used for corporate decision making and other organizations have started using it for education and training.  But my thinking is that all of us should be using the concepts to improve the way we think about life in general.This may not be very relevant but it reminds me of how social desirability in responding was a very narrow concept in the 1930s and 1940s, relating specifically to surveys intended to suss out personality types, but now recognition of its effect on surveys in general is steadily growing.

A man wearing a blue hat looking at six colored hatsLet's wrap this up with the blue hat

In reality we've had the blue hat on the whole time, because this entire article is devoted to thinking about a type of thinking.  I have one final thing to say in conclusion.

What is most interesting to me is where this idea has NOT been expanding.   First of all, it's been very difficult for me to find information that's written either as a derivative work, which is often done with promising intellectual modes of thought, or any earnest rebuttals.  In fact the conspicuous absence of both of these is almost jarring to me.  This is a method that grows in popularity because it works, thereby exposing it to a wider audience and the potential for either adaptation to novel applications or modification by comparison to similar or competing theoriesThe Schellens et al. study being a notable exception.  And here's the real kicker: This is a method that's all about thinking.  So shouldn't it, therefore, provoke its promoters and practitioners to think about how well it fits its role?  Especially since the blue hat is explicitly about thinking about thinking?  Is it such a perfect theory that after 35 years, it still brooks no modifications?

I hope this discussion has convinced you, dear reader, that it's worth your time to put each of the six hats on and look around to find how they can help you in an unexplored area of your life.  In the meantime, I'll continue to make as much application of these ideas as possible in my articles in the future.