Six Hats for Genealogy

Six coloured hats on a black background
The Six Hats of genealogical thinking. Schematic (C) Sophie Kay, 2022.

Get your thinking cap on.

Throw your hat into the ring.

Wearing many hats.

The hat can be a powerful analogy for how we think and act. Changing our hat can transform our attitude: wearing a fedora might turn you into Indiana Jones, ready for perilous adventures involving snakes and priceless historical artefacts. A baseball cap might leave you feeling relaxed and casual, whilst a top hat might render you either awkwardly formal, or smart and powerful. As we’re going to see today, changing our mindset – or hat – can make a huge difference to the quality of our decision-making.

So allow me to introduce you to some genealogical hats – six of them, to be precise. We’ll see how these hats can provide a useful perspective on family history problems, and the confidence and structure either to break down your brick wall right away, or at least to know where to go next.

How would you feel when wearing each of these hats? Just as hats can change our mood, they can also represent a change of thinking style. Image credits: Fedora by Craig Whitehead; Baseball cap by MediaModifier via Unsplash; Top hat from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, via Wikimedia Commons.

Just as physical hats have the ability to change our mood and perspective, so can our thinking styles give us a renewed vision of a challenging problem – just like donning or discarding a particular hat. This is why in 1985, when psychologist Edward De Bono came up with a method for structured analysis of complex problems, he dubbed it the Six Hats technique, summarised in his book, Six Thinking Hats [1]. The method I’m about to present to you is my own version of De Bono’s original technique, adapted for use in family history research.

Let’s imagine that you’re struggling with the particularly challenging problem of where your 5th-great-grandfather George was born. You’ve found a lot of evidence from different sources, but you’re not sure whether all these records are your George, or perhaps another person or people with the same name. Sounds familiar? It sounds like you may have hit a brick wall. You’re not without material to look at, but organising your thoughts is going to be key to battling through to a resolution. This is the kind of genealogy research situation the Six Hats method can help with.

Six Thinking Hats: An Introduction

The Six Hats technique involves six virtual hats, each of a different colour and each representing a distinct direction of thought. When you don one of the hats, you must direct your thinking solely towards that hat’s theme. Over the course of a Six Hats session, you cycle through all of the hats at least once, potentially revisiting some of them if necessary. And – this is an important point – you only wear one hat at a time.

Five hats coloured white, black, yellow, red and green are in a cycle. They feed into a blue hat which is making decisions
The Six Hats method: each hat addresses a different theme or thinking direction. You cycle through the hats in turn, sometimes visiting them more than once, until the blue hat guiding the process allows you to make a decision. Schematic (C) Sophie Kay, 2022.

By requiring you to think only in one direction at once, the Six Hats method encourages clarity of thought. Progressing through different hats of designated themes gives attention to all the major aspects of the problem in front of you*.

The Six Hats method was originally developed to improve the efficiency of corporate discussions and support clearer thinking in groups and typical boardroom settings. You can read more about De Bono’s original method online and in his book [1-3], but I’ve adapted it for evidence analysis in family history research. The range of hats and themes might seem like a lot to think about initially, but once you’re familiar with the hats, the process becomes very efficient.

A small amount of time invested in structuring your thoughts well is far better than making a snap decision based on partial evidence, and regretting it later!

The Genealogical Hats and What They Stand For

If you’ve attended one of my talks about research technique, then you’ve probably heard me say that we extend our family tree by stepping from the known into the unknown. Making that step involves the analysis of evidence, comparisions with what we already know, resolving conflicts and furthering our knowledge. That new piece of evidence then becomes part of the “known”: a firm foundation for further research.

The Six Hats Method. Six coloured hats are labelled with the types of thought they involve: white - facts, black - caution, yellow - optimism, green - creativity, red or magenta - emotions, blue - organisation
The six hats and the qualities or thought directions they represent. Schematic (C) Sophie Kay, 2022.

So what are the different angles we need to consider, and which hats address these?

  • The White hat identifies the Facts
  • The Yellow hat is about Optimism
  • The Black hat requires Critical Thinking
  • The Red hat asks you to explore your Emotions
  • The Green hat gets you to embrace Creative Thinking
  • The Blue hat is all about Organising Your Thoughts

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I’ve depicted the red hat in a magenta colour for most of this article, to help readers with red-green colour blindness.

Erm – but I already do a lot of these things…?

On reading this list of hats, your response might be: well I already do all of these things. I don’t need this Six Hats method! Yes, it’s true that you probably cover many of these aspects fairly frequently when analysing evidence in your family history research. But if this isn’t always a conscious process on your part, you might accidentally overlook some steps, particularly if you’re confronted with a large volume of evidence to analyse.

What are the advantages of the Six Hats method?

  • Cycling through an explicit sequence of hats makes it more likely that you cover all the main aspects you need to think about;
  • The red hat, dedicated to Emotions, provides space to confront our own wishes, attitudes, biases and opinions, which can provide valuable perspectives on where our decision making might be going wrong;
  • Partitioning your thinking into distinct “hats” creates active space for considered thought in each of these areas, paving the way for more in-depth analysis of your research problem;
  • Separate hats for these major criteria can offer clarity and reduce confusion at a point when “information overload” might be hindering your decision making.

And what’s more, the Six Hats method needn’t be burdensome. Analysis of the original method over many years suggests that having this extra structure actually speeds up decision making [1].

Getting to Grips: Six Hats in Practice

The best way to appreciate the benefits of the Six Hats technique is to try it for yourself. Let’s look at it now in the context of a genealogical problem.

A summary of our knowledge of George Robins, a butcher who lived in Shoreditch in the 1830s and 1840s
Every step where we advance our genealogy research requires us to compare a new record match (left) against our existing research (right) and see if we think there is enough evidence to decide whether the new record represents our ancestor. Schematic slide (C) Sophie Kay, 2022.

Take a look at the image above. Suppose that you’re researching your ancestor, George ROBINS, an Englishman born around 1811. He’s a tricky character to fathom, because…

  • His single appearance on the national census was in 1841 when, aged around 30, he was living in Shoreditch, Middlesex with his wife and daughter, but is listed as “not born in this county” (thanks a bunch, that *really* narrows it down);
  • He died young, in 1845. His wife predeceased him and his death was reported by a member of staff from the London Hospital, who recorded him as being “about 30” but possibly had limited knowledge of his life and age;
  • You know that he was a butcher, but have no major clues as to his place of birth or his life before he moved to Middlesex.

You also know that George’s wife was Mary Ann MACKLEY (married 1831, St. Leonard Shoreditch) and that they had two children together, Mary Ann Maria ROBINS (born 1832) and George Mackley ROBINS (born 1834).

In the course of your research into the elder George’s origins, you find a baptismal record for a George ROBINS, the son of William and Maria, born and baptised in Holcombe, Somerset in May 1810. Is this your ancestor or just a namesake?

Let’s see how you might approach this using Six Hats method. First up? The blue hat…

Blue Hat Thinking: Organising Your Thoughts

A blue sky with clouds and an organised person taking notes are either side of a blue hat representing organisation
Just as the blue sky floats above the Earth, so the blue hat spans all the other hats, organising them. Image credits: Blue sky by Ritam Baishya; Get Organised by Marten Bjork, both via Unsplash.

There would be little point in having lots of thoughts from the various Hats if all those insights remained siloed and separated under their respective Hat. The Blue Hat acts as a unifying force in your decision making. Rather like the One Ring of Tolkien’s imagining, the blue hat is effectively “one hat to rule them all”, but without the sinister connotations! When you’re in blue hat mode, you decide the order of use for the other five hats, and collate the information and thoughts that come from them. Typically the blue hat is the first and last one used in a Six Hats session, and handles the bigger picture.

So in our George ROBINS problem, we’d start with the blue hat. What processes might we go through while we’re in blue hat mode?

  • Consult our existing research for George (that list we compiled earlier!) to acknowledge what we already know;
  • If desired, draw some diagrams (e.g. a timeline) to visualise the bigger picture;
  • Make a decision that we want to start our thinking by looking at the facts: we’ll start with the white hat!

White Hat: Tell Me the Facts

A lined pad entitled Notes and a spotlit brain are linked to a white hat, representing logic
What are the facts? The white hat gets you thinking about precisely what’s in front of you. Image credits: Brain by Milad Fakurian; Notes by David Travis, both via Unsplash

The white hat is all about facts, and being as precise as possible about what we know or can infer. Before we can accept new evidence into the fold, we must first compare it against our existing research. And how can any of us do that without first understanding what’s in this new evidence?

This factual reconnaissance mission is the job of the white hat, so it’s vital that you put this hat on early on in the Six Hats process.

What can white-hat thinking tell us about George ROBINS? Remember – we’re only thinking about facts at the moment. We will state only the precise facts about this new record, not our feelings or a critique:

  • This new information is a transcription of an entry in a baptismal register;
  • The transcription was accessed on FindMyPast as part of the Somerset Baptism index;
  • The baptism is recorded as taking place at an Anglican church in Holcombe, Somerset, on 14 May 1810
  • This baby’s name is recorded as George ROBINS;
  • This baby’s date of birth is recorded as 1 May 1810
  • This baby’s parents are recorded as William and Maria ROBINS
  • The original record is held at Somerset Archives as part of their Parish Records collection, archive reference D/P/HOLC 2/1/3.

Our choice of language is particularly important under the white hat. The manner in which we’re accessing a record (e.g. transcription, translation, original, digital surrogate) can have a bearing on how much we trust its information later on. Being honest about this is all part of the factual analysis. Notice that I didn’t say this baby’s parents are William and Maria, I said they were recorded as William and Maria. That’s a subtle difference which acknowledges how these family members might appear in different ways in other records, and keeps our minds open to a multitude of possibilities in future searches!

So be careful in how you phrase your statements under the white hat. Yes, it’s true that this is a record containing a child named George Robins, but whether or not it is “our” George remains to be seen (and is a matter for another hat entirely). In white hat statements I prefer to write about the person the record is about as, “the subject of this record…” or – if there’s some indication of their age, as there is here– a label such as “this baby…”. This might make for some rather clinical-sounding notes, but it helps separate the George ROBINS on the Somerset record from the George ROBINS that’s your actual ancestor. You don’t want to risk conflating the two until you’re sure.

Yellow Hat: Be the Sunny Optimist

Bright yellow sunflowers and smiley faced yellow balloons are linked to a yellow baseball cap, representing optimism
Yellow is a happy colour: the yellow hat asks for optimism and appreciating the favourable matches in your evidence. Image credits: Sunny sunflowers by Todd Kent; Smiley balloons by Tim Mossholder, via Unsplash

Think sunshine. Think positivity. The yellow hat brings sunny optimism and positive thinking.

When you wear that yellow hat in your genealogy research, you compare your new evidence against your existing research, and list all the ways in which this new record is a favourable match for your ancestor. Don’t be critical at this stage. That necessary step will come later, but it’s not a job for the yellow hat.

So, what positives can our yellow hat thinking draw from this Somerset baptismal record from 1810?

  • The forename and surname are a match for our ancestor;
  • The date of birth of 1 May 1810 would make this George 31 years old on 6 June 1841, when the national census was taken. Adults’ ages were rounded down to the nearest five years on the 1841 census, so this date of birth is entirely consistent with “our” George being listed as aged 30 on the 1841 census;
  • Did you notice the middle names which our George gave to his daughter? She was called Mary Ann Maria ROBINS – and the mother of the baby in this baptismal record is called Maria. Could this be an inherited name?
  • The baptism took place in an Anglican church, consistent with the denomination of all church records we have for our George so far.

There’s enough material in this list that we can’t reject this record out of hand. But we can’t make any decision until we’ve considered the other side of the coin: why this record might NOT be our ancestor. It’s time to wear the black hat…

Black Hat: Time to be Critical

A man in a black hat looks pensive, to one side of a highly cracked surface. A black hat is nearby representing caution and critique
Healthy criticism is essential to challenge our evidence and push our research forward. This is the role of the black hat. Image credits: Cracks by Joshua Brown; Man in Black Hat by Valentin Salja, both via Unsplash

All genealogists need a healthy level of suspicion at all times.

Being critical might sound like a negative thing, but in reality the black hat is one of the most useful of all the hats. Where the yellow hat is all about pushing you onwards and encouraging you to acknowledge the good points, the black hat puts the brakes on and thinks of all the reasons to be cautious or to reject the new evidence.

What does the black hat tell us about this baptismal record?

  • How many other babies called George ROBINS were born in England in the early years of the 19th century? It’s not a rare name, so unless we understand the context of how many other likely candidates there may be, we can’t make a good judgment about the likelihood that this is a genuine match;
  • Holcombe, Somerset is a fair distance from Shoreditch, Middlesex – over 110 miles, in fact. We have no other evidence at present for how or when Somerset George might have travelled all the way to Middlesex;
  • Our George was recorded as being 30 years old, not 35, when he died in 1845 (although we know that this information may not be reliable). The birth date on the baptismal record would be five years out if we compare it with the death certificate. We should explore all possible explanations for this;
  • This new information is only a transcription; we have not seen the original record or an image of it. The original should be consulted, or a Bishop’s Transcript used in parallel, to understand the degree of accuracy.

You can see that black hat thinking critiques the new record and challenges the quality of the data we’re receiving.

Criticising under the black hat needn’t mean throwing out the record altogether – far from it! But it has identified several areas which need further work (researching 19th century migration, understanding the context of the record), or conflicts which need to be resolved, as part of the research process.

I like to visit the white, yellow and black hats first to establish my task list. You’re free to choose your own ordering – next you might want to don the red hat.

Red Hat: Let’s Talk About Feelings

A woman sits on a red sofa deep in thought, against a backdrop of an optical illusion, all linked to a red hat with the title Feelings
Red: a powerful colour for the feelings, biases and attitudes of the red hat, which have the potential to skew our perception just like an optical illusion. Image credits: Optical illusion by BP Miller; Woman on Sofa by Brock Wegner, both via Unsplash.

Ah, emotions. We’re usually trying to be as objective as possible when we examine historical documents. It’s important that we are guided by the evidence in front of us and not whether we like the outcome.

Yet we’d be lying to ourselves if we claimed not to bring emotions to our work. They’re part of what makes family history research gripping, offering potential for joy, drama, despair, pity, shock or even revulsion as we see particular stories unfold.

I like that the Six Hats method makes space for expressing emotions. Acknowledging these, I think, makes for more honest research: if we’re able to be candid with ourselves about our feelings and attitudes, perhaps we stand a better chance of making a more balanced decision. Those emotions aren’t going to vanish simply because we try to ignore them – they’ll just hang around, silently influencing our research while we remain unaware of how they’re skewing our decision making.

What feelings might we express under the red hat?

  • Excitement: I’m thrilled to find a record which seems to present several points of agreement with my ancestor. It’s got a bit of promise at least and I really hope this is a breakthrough;
  • Temptation: I’ve been working on this brick wall for so long now. If this turns out to be my ancestor, I’ll be able to move forwards at last;
  • Negative: I’ve never had any links to Somerset before so I can’t see why this would be the case now;
  • Bafflement: I have not got a clue whether this is my ancestor or not. I’m feeling confused.

All these are possible, and more. Be as honest as you can – it’s all part of understanding our intrinsic emotional links with our work. Perhaps you could follow the red hat with the black hat again, to assess how your emotions might influence your appraisal of the records. Once we appreciate the impact of our emotions upon our thinking, we can approach decision-making with extra caution if necessary.

Green Hat: Be Creative

Lush green grass is to one side of a journal with the heading A Little Space to be Creative, flanking a green hat representing creativity
The green hat is about growth, creativity and letting your imagination explore new avenues and directions for your thinking. Image credits: Green Grass by Ochir-Erdene Oyunmedeg; Creativity Journal by Toa Heftiba, both via Unsplash.

The green hat isn’t about facts or judging the evidence: it’s all about creativity and giving you the freedom to muse over your family history research problem, sometimes in unconventional approaches.

You could interpret the “creativity” label in many ways. Here are some suggestions:

Explore your imagination: Take the inconsistencies or unexplained elements which you identified under the black hat. Generate lots of little narratives to explain how a George Robins in Somerset might end up living and working in Middlesex. At this stage, it doesn’t matter how outlandish these short narratives are – you can return to these stories in black hat mode later, and cut them down to size. These stories might direct you to new record sets to explore – or help you realise when your explanatory scenarios are becoming a little too unlikely.

Air Your Artistic Side: Grab some paper, Blu-Tak, coloured pens…anything that helps you make your research visual. Make a bold and colourful evidence board showing all the evidence for your George Robins, or use maps to explore all the locations in your research and those of potential matches. These artistic outputs will stimulate questions and feed ideas into your thoughts under the other hats.

Brainstorm the Possibilities: How could we get creative in the archives to solve our research problem? Sit down with a pen and paper; set a timer for five minutes, and in that time come up with as many different types of record which you think a man in the early 19th century might appear in. As with the storytelling, don’t hold back: you can strike unsuitable or irrelevant items from the list later on with your white and black hats.

These are just a small number of suggestions for how creativity can benefit your decision process – why not share YOUR suggestions in the comments below?

Drawing Your Conclusions

In practice, you might cycle through all the hats several times in a Six Hats process, or visit some hats more than others. That’s fine. Remember that the process is there to support you, not the other way around.

The final stage in any Six Hats session sees you return to the blue hat to make a final decision. This could be to accept the new evidence as being your ancestor, reject it as not being them, or – and it’s important to have this as an option – to keep it on the back burner for now and say, “I need to do more research on this before I make up my mind.” There’s no shame in waiting to make a decision if that means you can make a more informed one further down the line.

George Robins: where to next?

So what might our final blue hat tell us about this new George Robins?

Well, based on the stages we’ve discussed so far, there isn’t enough evidence to draw a firm conclusion either way. Although the Somerset baptism might offer some naive matches for the basic personal information we have for our George, the insights from the black hat in particular suggest that we need more information to come to a proper decision. This isn’t the same as reaching a dead end.

On the contrary, combined insights from the black and green hats have given us avenues to explore: record sets for migration and occupations; developing our awareness of other George Robins baptisms who might be possible candidates; and, first of all, extending our knowledge of the Middlesex George ROBINS and his wider family network to see if any obvious geographical clues present themselves. Only with further research might we have enough information to confirm or rule out the Somerset baptism.

Many Hats Make Light Work

If this is your first encounter with the Six Hats approach, it might feel like a lot to take in initially. If you’ve worked through the George Robins example, why not pick an easy piece of research from your own family tree and try the method out there? All these attempts will build your familiarity with the method and you’ll soon become adept at putting the various hats on or off as and when you need to. Once you’re really used to the Six Hats, try using it to tackle one of your brick walls…I’d love to hear how you get on.

And if you don’t find this method useful at all: well, I’ll eat my hat…


*One important point: if you’re using the Six Hats approach in a group discussion, you need to draw on opinions from the room for all of the hats. Don’t make it one person’s job to “be the green hat” and another person’s job to “be the red hat”. The entire room should be invited to don each hat collectively at the appropriate moment.

Further Reading

[1] Edward De Bono. Six Thinking Hats. Penguin Books; revised edition (2000).

[2] MCRush website. Edward De Bono Six Thinking Hats Provide Strong Stimulus for Ideation.

[3] MindTools website. Six Thinking Hats: Looking at a decision in different ways.

3 thoughts on “Six Hats for Genealogy

  1. This is really interesting and a helpful technique. I’m in the process of doing an audit and going over my research on direct ancestors and have already uncovered a number of mistakes which the hat process will help to clarify – thanks!

    1. Thanks Alex, glad you enjoyed it and I hope it proves useful in your research! Decision making in our research is something I wish we all spoke about more, and having the hats to work through can be a useful framework for a lot of people. May the Hats bring you some good research finds 🙂

      (If anyone’s interested in attending a workshop on my Six Hats approach, I’m running a two-hour session on exactly this for the Society of Genealogists on 7 February 2024: The talk itself will include tasks and quiz questions throughout to get people thinking about the Six Hats process, and then we’ll open the session out beyond the talk into a more interactive format where everyone can discuss and get stuck in with the different hats)

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