Research like Sherlock

“Never mind,” said Holmes, laughing, “it is my business to know things. Perhaps I have trained myself to see what others overlook. If not, why should you come to consult me?”

I’ve harboured a long-standing hunch that all kinds of researchers – medical, marketing, media – could learn a thing or two from our most famous fictional sleuth. On first pass that might seem a bit populist, even predictable, but nevertheless I thought it might be fun to set out what I reckon we can learn from the archetypal detective:

Be observant as to the details

The first attribute of Sherlock Holmes that springs to mind is an assiduous, highly-trained, attention to detail that seems never to permit a moments laziness!

“You see but you do not observe. The distinction is clear”

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance observes”

Proceed logically

Holmes places the highest value on logic and scientific method when investigating a case. The first stage of which is to first preserve and then gather evidence.

‘”Data! data! data!” he cried impatiently. “I can’t make bricks without clay.”

Holmes has the most exacting standards regarding data. Above all, he knows the right questions to ask, and when to ask them. After consideration he adopts a methodology that best suits those questions and their subjects: sometimes immersing himself for days and weeks in an another’s world in order to observe their nature, circumstances, and motivations; at other times challenging face-to-face in the most direct way, intentionally provoking a rash of verbal and non-verbal cues. On yet other occasions he will prefer experimentation, testing the mettle of one possibility against the other.

Don’t guess!

Holmes’ ensures that he always has at least one, and usually several, competing hypotheses to test and is not deterred in the slightest by the prospect of having to revise these as an investigation progresses, or even to formulate entirely new hypotheses in the light of new information. Sherlock reserves judgment. Only once all the evidence is aligned, does he proceed to a conclusion:

“I never guess. It is a shocking habit – destructive to the logical faculty”

“It is a capital mistake to theorise before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment”

Exercise imagination (think laterally)

Holmes is never blinkered by logic, and is ready to respond to moments of inspiration and intuition, knowing they can deliver crucial insight into some as yet obscured or unarticulated truth.

“What is out of the common is usually a guide rather than a hindrance”

“How often is imagination the mother of truth?”

Practise critical thinking

Sherlock understands how easy it is to fall into cognitive traps. For example we see in Holmes a remarkable ability to avoid the “recency” effect – he recognises that people have a tendency to prioritise and/or overvalue recently acquired information. Recency and relevance are of course not inherently linked. He is also often to be found extolling the virtues of critical thinking in order to sort the wheat from the chaff:

“It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognise out of a number of facts which are incidental and which are vital”

It is easy to let our minds wander, to waffle, to prefer attractive distractions. Whereas Holmes is thoroughly persistent, precise, and concise.

Value a reliable partner

For all his mighty intelligence, Holmes recognises that that one mind alone can not offer the perspective and support needed to solve the toughest cases.

Know that your reputation precedes you

Holmes is notoriously dogged in his pursuit of the correct conclusion, and hates to disappoint.

All of which makes me realise that I’ve some way to go to meet the high standards set by Conan Doyle’s hero. Before I remember that he is, of course, fictional. Which makes me feel better. Hopefully you picked up on references to some approaches already well employed by researchers, because I don’t want to suggest that we don’t already do this stuff – I know we do! What attracted me to the Holmes metaphor was a remarkable similarity between the cocktail of abilities that he has been given, and what I’d personally regard as the optimal “researcher” skill-set!


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