Hidden Insight and The Third Donkey

There is a viral video making the rounds of several donkeys at an animal sanctuary trying to work their way out of a pen. Most people, including a writer at the Huffington Post, focus on the superior problem solving skills of the third donkey, named Oreste, who took a novel approach to finding his way out. Unlike Pedro and Domenico who choose to jump, he finds a more creative solution.

But there are three common mistakes of thinking about problem solving made here. Yes, I know it’s a cute video and it’s daft to read much into them. However these traps are common in daily life and how we think about problems and solutions.

  1. Insight is defined as the capacity to discern the true nature of a situation. And we presume Oreste is the most insightful. But he benefited from the information gleaned by watching the first two donkeys (Pedro and Domenico). He was able to observe, and smell, the choices the other donkeys made. At first he tries to copy what they did, but then decides, for some reason, to do something different. But if he didn’t have the data he gleaned from the other donkeys he might have simply done what they did. Oreste appears to take the most time to study before he acts than any other donkey. This suggests more data + more time often leads to better solutions.  
  2. We ignore the behavior of the fourth and last donkey. He doesn’t even get mentioned in the sanctuary’s own report of the event. But he might be the wisest of all. By doing the least work, he enjoyed the best outcome of all three previous donkeys at no expense of effort or possible embarrassment. There is an evolutionary advantage in being cautious. Most of the time in life we are more like the fourth donkey than any of the others. We are evolutionarily motivated to wait and observe, conversing calories, until we’re forced to make choices or good choices become obvious.
  3. The first donkey to leave gets no credit either. Arguably it’s Pedro who is the leader here, making the choice to be the first to leave. He takes the greatest initiative in deciding on this goal and acting on it by himself. But we are easily distracted away from his brave act by the novelty of Oreste’s solution, even though the outcome for all of the donkeys (leaving the pen) is mostly the same.

Our minds are biased towards simple narratives. We instinctively focus on the moment when something interesting happens, ignoring the sequence of events that led to that moment, and often ignoring the more interesting observations of what happens after the obviously interesting moment occurs.

There is an endless debate of strategy about whether it’s best to be the first with an idea, or to follow behind as a “free rider” and take advantage of the costs the first mover had to spend. There is no simple answer to this question of strategy, just as there is no single simple lesson to learn from watching donkeys escape from a pen.

6 Responses to “Hidden Insight and The Third Donkey”

  1. flipsockgrrl

    My first thought was: tech lead, developer, UX consultant, end-user. Different yet equally valid approaches, depending on the individual’s role in the team/project.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Interesting – I was afraid I was reading too much into a goofy little video but you’ve gone further than I did! :) Not that it’s not an interesting comparison.

  2. GetzelR

    I heartily endorse your first lesson but it doesn’t seem to be found in the video. I actually saw it that way on first viewing and actually took it as a reason #3 was more than insightful, overcoming some inability. If you look closer, his close approach is actually an attempt to push the rail – you can see it give a bit – before discovering he actually needs to pull. We all know what that’s like.

    His first instinct is to examine the ends of the rail for a different approach, not emulate his peers’ success. His approach yields a less-strenuous method and opens a door for others.

    You’re conclusion holds, but I don’t see learning from others in the mix.

    I’d also note that his approach had a lower cost for implementation and residual value, but had a higher cost in research/planning. He was slower to his goal. Each can be said to be the better approach. An escape, for instance, might prioritize speed.

  3. Steve portigal

    Looks like the video has been pulled from YouTube, maybe you can find it elsewhere and update the post.

  4. Steve portigal

    For me, it wasn’t about creativity but about why we’re here, together. The third donkey finds a way to remove a barrier and it makes things easier…for the fourth donkey. That was the profound moment (and yeah I found it touching and read a lot into it) – when the donkey that comes after us (as the poster exhorted us to be) has an easier time of things. We can solve things for ourselves but the consequences is what that enables for others.

  5. Kristine

    Nice to point out the first donkey! My guess – they are siblings. :) At least I see in my childhoods and my current family very similar pattern under the siblings. Firstborn does all the job and gets almost no credit, because someone following does it funnier, easier, smarter… whatever.


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