The Cooler that Crashed Columbia (and Why You Should Care)

Our brains crave shortcuts as much as they do sweets.

That’s why analogies can be such persuasive tools because they provide “shortcuts” when making difficult decisions.

Unfortunately, that makes analogies dangerous weapons, too, because they can also misguide rational people down irrational paths.

I was reminded of that last night when when watching an old PBS “NOVA” episode about the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster.

NASA engineers disregarded concerns about a small piece of foam that struck Columbia’s wing by comparing the likely impact to a styrofoam cooler glancing off of a car driving down the highway.

That vivid analogy—plus our natural instinct to think of foam as harmless—proved fatal for seven astronauts as it was later demonstrated (quite dramatically) that the force exerted by the foam could have easily blown a gaping hole in the Space Shuttle’s wing.

I see the same “It’s like…” reasoning misdirect business meetings and decisions all of the time.

Next time my eyebrow arches, I’m going to pull out this styrofoam cooler story. And may the better analogy win.