False Truths: ‘When all you have is a hammer …’

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series False Truths

Sometimes a hammer is the right tool … maybe. These two Civilian Conservation Corps “boys” in the 1930s were charged with breaking big rocks into gravel.

You can complete the sentence, don’t you?

“When all you have is a hammer—everything looks like a nail.” That’s one of those axioms you hear pretty regularly. Most often it’s used to describe a person or process lacking refinement or subtlety.

This week, we’re looking at false truths, phrases often repeated as if they are true, but might actually not be.

While the expression certainly has its roots in folk wisdom, it became one of the touchstones of psychological literature when it was cited in Abraham Maslow’s The Psychology of Science, published in 1966.

According to the Wikipedia entry: “The concept known as the law of the instrument, Maslow’s hammer, gavel or a golden hammer is an over-reliance on a familiar tool.”

It’s a form of confirmation bias, and the narrow-minded approach it represents is generally a curse to problem solving.

But wait a second. Hammers can be pretty darned useful, and not just for driving nails. And they might in fact be the perfect tool for the task at hand.

In the real world, there are lots of different hammers, of course, for everything from driving in upholstery tacks to breaking big stones into little ones. I keep a rubber mallet in the kitchen to help drive a cleaver through acorn squash.

A recent blog on Forbes cited a few more non-practical uses of hammers, like making noise and breaking things.

So if everything looks like a nail to you? Maybe it’s not your hammer.

What other False Truths should we have listed this week?

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