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Launched Aug 26 1996.



Posted 7/31/97

Original posted at * Science Ethics Home Page * Virginia Tech Chemistry Department Home Page

Brian Tissue maintains this hypermedia page in the Chemistry Department at Virginia Tech. Version: 1.1, last updated: 12/18/1996


How to Increase Your Powers of Observation
By Ronald L. Mendell, CLI
Review Mr. Mendell's Book

Sherlock Holmes admonished Dr. Watson with the classic quote: "You have seen but not observed." He recognized observation as a primary investigative skill. Prior to the age of computers, most investigators thoroughly cultivated this skill. Nowadays, the emphasis is on research using computer databases. All of us, however, can benefit by developing our observational abilities; a computer terminal may not always be readily available. Computers do not have all the answers. When we observe, we get back to something primal. The hunter awakens in us. We taste little clues that can break cases.

Our modern complex technological society works against developing effective methods of observation. Primitive peoples intimately knew their environment: every tree, pond, and stream. Their survival was at stake. even in the late Nineteenth Century, most American farmers knew every contour of their land. The rapid change present in our world makes such intimacy difficult. Yet, the investigator must foster tools for seeing through the thicket of complexity. The potential rewards are great: (1) Seeing the realtor's sign at the vacant home may help locate a witness. (2) Finding the worn safety lock on the nail gun may explain its failure. (3) Recognizing unusual marks on a medical record may reveal a coverup by a doctor.

What are the basic steps in the process of observation? Investigators must ask themselves the following questions as they approach an observational problem:

* 1. What is the issue?
* 2. Is the document, person, place or thing?
* 3. If the subject is something familiar to me, how can I look at it in a new way?
* 4. If the subject is something new, can I find something familiar in it?
* 5. Will broadening my search aid in the solution?

Careful observation of something that does not resolve the problem at hand is a waste of time. Before you can start focusing, have a clear view of what you are trying to accomplish. Don't assume that other people's observations, if they form a basis for your work, are correct. Irwin Blye in his book, Secrets of a Private Eye(Berkeley 1990), relates a story where he conducted a surveillance on the wrong man because the client misidentified him as her husband. Double-checking what a source tells you can improve your efforts at getting a clear picture.

Everything in the world is unique in some way. Even in our mass-produced consumer culture, where uniformity dulls our senses, each individual product has unique characteristics. We just need to look for them. to break familiarity's curse, go into a supermarket and carefully look at different boxes of the same brand of detergent; the subtle differences will jump out at you. Observe a crease in the top lid or a cut in the box's side. Looking for what qualities separate similar or familiar things is a sophisticated skill worth developing; it can make you a great investigator. When reading a "familiar scene," you'll spot the little details that will break a case: the discarded matchbook, the crumpled gas receipt, and so on.

When confronted with something totally new, try to associate it with existing knowledge. For example, a crime scene in a park in a different community can be compared with a park that you know. Parks have certain common traits. There should be the public restrooms, the emergency call telephones, the recreational facilities, the ranger's station, and so on. The layout varies, but the overall concept remains constant. remember that the people who design things, whether they be architects, engineers, or zoo planner, receive common training in their respective professions. They often provide similar solutions to everyday problems; understanding this factor make a complex world more comprehensible. Study your street, your neighborhood, your office building; you will find the keys to many other streets, neighborhoods, and office buildings there.


Examining documents usually tries our perceptive abilities to the limit. When confronting a large stack of records, the urge is to scan for significant bits and pieces. From a quick scan, however, glossing over important facts often is the end result. A scan should serve merely to get the lay of the land. Careful study yields truth's gems. The study method, however, needs an approach, a philosophy, behind it to be effective. Information Anxiety(Doubleday 1989) by Richard Saul Wurman offers a powerful approach. He argues that organizing information takes five forms: by Time, by Continuum, by Alphabet, by Locations, and by Topic. Each form provides a different perspective on a document or a set of records. In other words, you can learn something new by looking at the same material from a different angle. A patient's medical record service as a prime example.

In examining the record, the investigator can create chronologies from the various documents. One chronology could be for when the various procedures occurred, another for when symptoms became present, and one for when the hospital staff administered drugs. Organizing the evidence by time enables the investigator to observe relationships that may not be apparent with a simple reading of the records. For example, the patient's blood pressure always elevated after administering a certain drug X.

A continuum is simply a magnitude scale: from the smallest to the largest or from the dullest to the brightest. In a medical record, the investigator can list in order the shortest medical procedure performed on the patient to the longest. Another list can be the smallest dose of a drug administered to the largest. Cross-referencing this data against a chronology could reveal the patient received the largest dose of drug X just before his stroke.

Alphabetizing all the nurses', doctors' and medications' names will provide a good cross-reference list to check against the previously generated chronologies and continuum lines. Evaluating by location, listing where in the hospital where each procedure occurred, provides an excellent cross-reference list to check against the previously generated chronologies and continuum lines. Evaluating by location, listing where in the hospital where each procedure occurred, provides an excellent cross-check against the other analyzed data. If, for example, a potentially life-threatening procedure occurs far from a "crash cart," the delay in reviving a patient is easy to understand.

Topically listing all the medical procedures used on the patient will further enhance recognizing incidents like the "crash cart" case. Under each procedure, an investigator can research the risks involved. Under each doctor's name, the investigator can state their medical specialty. Listing the risks for each medication is also invaluable. With the proper research and the organization of data, an investigator can demonstrate that the patient, in a critical phase of his or her care (due to improper medicating), was in the wrong section of the hospital undergoing a risky procedure conducted by a minimally qualified doctor.

Such an example is, of course, a worse case scenario; however, it demonstrates how Wurman's five information tools can powerfully integrate the data in a case. The same principles apply to any documentary evidence; they can turn the mere reading of documents into a thoughtful observing process.


The general principles for observing the real world rest upon creativity. "Make the familiar strange and the strange familiar" counsels Synectics (Collier 1973) by William J.J. Gordon. We can all improve our creative faculties argues Gordon. We just need to look at things with new perspectives. Asking ourselves seemingly unusual questions will generate new insights. What is it like to be the person under surveillance? Can I think like that person does? If so, what will I do today? Where will I go? Who will I see? In analyzing a product failure, as strange as it sounds, try to imagine yourself as the product. If I am going to fail, in what ways can it happen? If playing the role of a nail gun bothers you, imagine yourself as a mechanical engineer. Look at the nail gun through an engineer's eyes. Do a 360 degree exam of the gun. How would you design it differently? The key to comprehending today's complex world is to have "universal eyes." Marilyn Vos Savant in Brain Building (Bantam 1991) draws the comparison with a hunter from a primitive, tribal culture who finds himself suddenly in the midst of a modern city. Even though the environment would be radically different, he would find ways to survive by locating food and water under new conditions. Adaptation would be the key to his survival. If we are to survive intellectually, we too need to adapt by perceiving the world through many eyes: Those of the lawyer, the doctor, the dock worker, the security guard and so on. When you put on someone else's thinking cap, you will broaden your search capabilities. Tunnel vision becomes a thing of the past. You will acquire a knack for finding things where "they're not 'pose to be."

We all have the hesitancy to stay out of disciplines where we lack expertise. Remember, however, Shakespeare wrote compelling plays about Italy without ever visiting Venice or Verona. True, he was a genius, but you can also tap the genius within. In the motion picture, "Lawrence of Arabia," Lawrence is at a well with a nomadic herdsman. far off in the distant sands, the herdsman can see an enemy approaching. Lawrence sees nothing. His nearsightedness was not due to some visual defect, but that he was still seeing with his British soldier's eyes. Later in the picture after he comes to understand the desert, Lawrence acquires the nomad's observation appropriate to the environment.

If you want to develop your genius and become a better observer, try doing or attending some activity you are not familiar with. In unfamiliar territory, you'll find yourself adapting quickly just to stay afloat. The activity does not have to be anything earthshaking. In you next visit to a shopping mall, count the different number of tattoos you see on people. Do you see differences in technique from tattoo to tattoo? Do the different types of tattoos reflect the demeanor of the persons wearing them? Are certain types of tattoos common? If so, what are they and who wears them? The Questions have no limit; the more you ask yourself, the more you will observe in the future.

The same approach can be done with bird watching, playing golf for the first time, attending a football game, or watching people in a restaurant. Even mundane, boring events can be food for your observational appetite. While waiting in an airport, count the number of people with scuffed shoes walking by. See what correlations with personality you can develop with that characteristic. Most important though, be systematic in how you look at things. Learn to can, at least at first, in some sort of consistent way. Start from left to right or top to bottom or whatever suits you. Just be consistent. You will avoid missing details this way.

When observing people, always do mental inventory first. Does the person appear nervous, agitated, or under some kind of stress? Or, are they relatively calm? Do they exhibit obsessive behavior such as always checking all their car doors twice before leaving the vehicle unattended? Are they aggressive or passive with other people? Get a fix on their personality; it can save a lot of effort on a surveillance by telling you what they may do in the future.

A person's dress, tattoos, hairstyle, jewelry, and makeup will tell you a great deal about their attitudes concerning themselves and others. If you look carefully, a person's physical appearance often goes hand in hand with their behavior. Avoid stereotypes, but do not be afraid to categorize after thorough observation. Clothing or jewelry outside the norm generally means an unconventional lifestyle, especially when a person attend normally formal events (visiting a professional's office, going to court, or attending a funeral) dressed that way. Also, be on the lookout for the incongruous. Recently, at a steak house restaurant, I had a conversation with one of the managers. He wore shined black shoes, pressed black slacks, a starched white dress shirt, and a tasteful red tie. he was cleanly shaved with his hair properly groomed. Strangely, he tried to keep his hands out of sight. eventually, I spotted the reason why. He had "prison tattoos" over the back part of his right hand.l Evidently, he had been in prison, had a lifestyle change , and now had legitimate job. Yet, for me to know, he didn't have to say a word about his past.

When observing a place, determine the underlying motivation behind what you see. If a person's yard and home appears chaotic, there could be many reasons. The person may be mentally ill, unable to care for himself. The place could be abandoned by the actual owner, and a squatter has taken over. Drug dealers may be using the premises to manufacture and to distribute drugs. Family turmoil may have created the conditions. Or, it may be a product of ignorance, poverty, or both. In any event, look for the little signs of what is going on: the spent needles and drug paraphernalia in a corner of the property, legal notices posted on the door, and containers of chemicals laying around out back. Keep your eyes peeled and find out "what's happening" before you knock on the door. Literally, your life might depend upon it.

When observing things, try to understand the thinking behind the creation of the object. Such thinking would take into account the purpose of the thing is also useful. What remains most important is breaking out of from preconceived notions. Looking at a pencil as just a writing instrument represents banal thinking. By the thoughtful use of your imagination, a pencil becomes a murder weapon, a hairpin, a hole punch, a stake, and much more. If you find yourself devoid of ideas about an object, get a book on the subject written by an expert. Or, write down quickly all the words that come to mind regarding an object; see if they lead to new perspectives. A paper clip could generate the ideas: projectile, lock pick, cotter pin, needle and so on.

Observation is the imagination's servant. It can carry you far into uncharted territory. Careful observing, though, requires hard work and practice. It is not for the intellectually lazy; but, it can be a rewarding, if not plain fun, way of filling in the gaps. Learning to observe will not make you a Sherlock Holmes. It will tap your creative powers though, perhaps, making you a rival of The Master. The game is afoot!

Ronald Mendell will be speaking at the 1996 NAIS PI Convention. .