The Streetlight Effect


It’s well past midnight and a man is on his hands and knees, underneath the lone light on an otherwise dark street.  Driving by on routine patrol, a police officer stops her car and steps out to ask the man what he is doing.

“I’m looking for my keys,” the man wearily replies.

“You lost them near here?” the officer asks.

With the frustration growing in his voice, the man gestures down the street grunting, “No. I dropped them somewhere over there.”

The officer is confused. “If you dropped them over there, why are you looking for them here?”

The man, baffled at the officer’s question, snaps, “Well that’s obvious! The light is better here!”

“The light is better here” is a great metaphor for the way we often look for the answers to our problems: in the place where looking is easiest or most convenient.

And, while sometimes the easiest place is also the most logical one, this is not always the case.

One of the most common “missing key” problems we see is when a gymnast is stuck in a rut, perhaps due to a fear.

Depending upon to whom you speak, you will find everyone looking under a different street lamp.

The coach’s lamp is where the athlete  (“He never pays attention to me.”) and parent (“He doesn’t like my child.”) tend to look.

The athlete’s lamp is where the coach is likely to shine a light (“She is lazy or afraid of everything.”), though occasionally the parent light is also a place to look (“Maybe if dad didn’t watch every minute of practice the kid wouldn’t be so stressed.”).

The truth is, we often need to look for the keys in the hard places, within ourselves where the light is dimmer. Each of us needs to see what our own role is and how we can best support each other. After all, in the last analysis all we can do is control our own behavior.

It’s easier to blame others than to look to ourselves.