For most of the last 2000 years or more, we humans were considered the only "rational animal." Then, about 100 years ago, Freud challenged our rationality with the idea of powerful unconscious motives. Since then psychology has found many, many ways in addition to unconscious drives that we humans make mental errors. Humans are still remarkably clever but we have our blind spots and our false beliefs. For instance, 93% of college students believe they can feel someone behind them staring at them, which is untrue (we remember when our intuition is correct). This chapter reviews a host of faulty ideas and denial mechanisms. You can't avoid all thinking errors, but you can learn to detect and purge some of them.
In our culture, we tend to think of people as falling along a continuum from very smart to very dumb. Smartness, in most cases, is usually related to how well you do in school, your book-learnin', your mental capacity for taking tests. The skills used in schools are mostly verbal or mathematical. But several years ago, Gardner (1983, 1993) questioned the notion of a single intelligence, suggesting instead that we all have seven different intelligences: linguistic and mathematical (the school smarts), body kinesthetic (physical coordination and athletic ability), spacial (art and sensing the physical relationships among objects), musical (an auditory sense and musical ability), interpersonal (understanding other people and relationships), and intrapersonal (understanding ourselves and having self-control). We see intelligence differently when we realize that there are many important ways to be smart, talented, and effective. Our view of intelligence influences how and what we teach kids.
Goleman (1995) says academic intelligence alone does not give us common sense, emotional control, or the skills needed to understand and relate to others. In short, book-smarts (high IQ's) alone may only enable us to be nerds. He says success at work, with friends, and in marriage requires "emotional intelligence" or people skills. This is the abilities to (1) know what you and others are feeling, (2) handle our emotions and impulses, and (3) have self-discipline, social skills, optimism, and empathy for others. Basically, Goleman's emotional intelligence is Gardner's intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligences. Whatever it is called, self-knowledge and social intelligence are surely as important as academic ability.
Our quick, intense emotional reactions sometimes overwhelm our rational brain, forcing us to over-react or misperceive the situation. But it is our emotional intelligence, according to Goleman, located in the prefrontal cortex, which enables us to understand and manage our intense emotions. So, to be a good leader or a caring spouse or an effective parent we need knowledge about emotions, control of our feelings, and interpersonal skills. Of course, articulate speech and technical knowledge are usually necessary to make accurate predictions and accomplish goals too. But, high academic intelligence (as measured by school achievement or intelligence tests) does not give you much assurance that your judgment in many areas will be accurate. Persons who do well in school, just like the "slow students," make the kind of thinking errors dealt with in this section.
Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former.
About 300 years ago, John Locke (1632-1704), who influenced Thomas Jefferson's drafting of the Constitution, said there were three kinds of people who have mistaken opinions:
- Those who accept hand-me-down beliefs from parents, friends, ministers and others, and don't do much thinking for themselves.
- Those who let their emotions and needs dominate their thinking and reasoning.
- Those who try to be logical and reasonable but lack good sense and/or expose themselves to only one viewpoint.
Locke was making a distinction between the inexperienced, poorly educated, emotionally swayed mind and the highly intellectual, objective, systematic, thorough, and logical mind. He was also making the point that straight thinking and reasoning skills aren't just inherited; accurate thinking is the result of inherited ability and a lot of experience and wisdom. Recent research, according to Herbert Simon at Carnegie Mellon University, has shown that a true "expert" needs enormous stored knowledge (10+ years of intense study and practice), a mind capable of systematically searching that memory for useful information, and the skill to detect defective, distorted thinking. Being smart isn't just a matter of being born that way.
How do we, even the more intelligent and expert among us, come to misunderstand the situation and/or draw erroneous conclusions? This is important for us to understand. The usual conception is that we have a logical, reasonable mind which is somehow occasionally deceived or over-powered by our emotional biases. This certainly seems to happen, e.g. after hearing the same evidence, there were two very different opinions: three fourths of all whites thought OJ Simpson was definitely guilty and three fourths of Blacks thought he was framed. Sometimes we are well aware of our emotional needs, sometimes we aren't. In any case, as you read many of the examples of erroneous thinking given in Step 1 below, you will see that humans often view things the way they want to see them, e.g. one viewpoint has a psychological pay off (less stress), it is convenient (simple and easy), or it is wishful thinking.
In other situations, also illustrated in Step 1, the human mind simply seems programmed to see things wrongly, e.g. we have a style or habit of thinking that is wrong or we have perceptual/cultural/moral blocks to seeing reality. Piattelli-Palmarini (1994) gives many more examples of "cognitive illusions" that inhibit our ability to reason. Examples: we make unwarranted assumptions about people and, thus, marry the wrong person; we may hesitate when action is needed. There are a lot of ways to be wrong.
Instead of just thinking of a rational mind occasionally disrupted by irrational emotions, it may be fruitful to think in terms of having two, three or more minds functioning at the same time. Perhaps most of us just use or attend to certain of our minds more often than others or only under certain circumstances. Recent writings suggest the possibility that we have at least three minds: (1) a thinking, reasoning, knowledge-based mind, (2) an intuitive, common sensical, experience-based mind, and (3) an unconscious mind filled with repressed drives and feelings, a la Freud. The first two are discussed together next; unconscious processes are discussed at length in the next chapter.
Epstein and Brodsky (1993; Sappington, 1988) have convincingly argued for humans having two kinds of intelligence. One commonly known as the typical IQ or school smarts; this rational intelligence is based on deliberate, controlled, logical reasoning and on information from school, books, educational programs, etc. It is the intelligence we use to design a rocket, predict the weather, research the effectiveness of some treatment method, etc. Their second intelligence, similar to Goleman's "emotional intelligence," is based on everyday life, especially emotional experiences, which, as we accumulate more wisdom, yields quick, automatic, intuitive reactions which guide us in many situations. With experience, we automatically like some people and dislike others; we sense or "know" when we are being manipulated or when someone is feeling upset. This kind of intelligence isn't based on logic; it involves subtle sensitivity and communicates its wisdom to us via emotions and good or bad feelings about something; it is based on our interpersonal experience, not on book-learning.
Both intelligences, "knowledge-based" and "experience-based," influence our lives constantly, but the "life experience-based" intelligence guides most of our ordinary, unthinking, every day actions and reactions. We effortlessly draw on this "common sense" intelligence to help us cope with practical problems, other people, and our emotions. This experience-based intelligence is automatic; it enables us to quickly make decisions, such as "Should I trust this stranger?" or "How should I answer that question?" This intuitive mind helped our species survive in the wild for the seven or so million years before our current cerebral cortex developed 35,000 to 100,000 years ago. It doesn't have to think of and weigh the pro and cons for every alternative; it has the remarkable capacity to add all our past experiences together and to quickly interpret the current situation in light of our history, especially our traumatic past. We needed that for survival.
Both our rational and experience-based minds make mistakes. According to Epstein, when emotions run high, the experience-based mind is likely to take over because it responds quickly and has had experience with emergency and emotional situations. And, once the experience-based mind is in control, it is hard for the rational mind to intercede. Thus, the danger is that the experience-based, more emotional mind will misinterpret a situation or choose an inappropriate reaction, e.g. you might be excessively fearful of your male boss because your father was harshly critical and aloof when you had made a mistake. This dual-mind theory helps explains why intellectually smart people do not solve everyday problems better than average people; bright people can't handle their emotions any better than the rest of us, so they don't have better marriages nor better kids nor better mental or physical health. The knowledge-based mind can't deal with hundreds of problems every day. But, this rational mind needs to monitor your actions, your experience-based mind, and your emotions for irrationality, asking "Why are you assuming the boss will get mad like father?" or "Won't your fears get in the way of doing a good job?" We need the rational mind to keep us reasonable. But we need the experience-based, intuitive mind to handle most situations, to sensitize us to danger in situations, to guide us in handling the danger, to detect the needs and emotions underlying our actions, and to arouse our emotional ire when something is unjust.
As you can see, as Epstein conceptualizes these two minds, both contribute vital information to our constructive thinking, i.e. to our coping with personal and interpersonal problems. Yet, we spend years in schools trying to train the rational mind but that doesn't help us much with solving ordinary problems, such as finding love, controlling our irritation, managing diets or money, dealing with difficult people and so on. On the other hand, the intuitive mind, which automatically guides us through these complex situations, gets very little attention in school and almost no training (additional experience, i.e. besides interacting in the halls).
A well-read person will also recognize the similarity between Epstein's two intelligences and men's vs. Women's Ways of Knowing in the seminal book by Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule (1986). Men's "separate knowing" involves a doubting mind, i.e. critical thinking, argumentation, and scientific method, and reflects rational intelligence. Women's "connected knowing" involves a believing mind, i.e. listening to others' stories, empathizing with their feelings, experiencing their pain and joy, and reflects experience-based intelligence. Both male and female ways of knowing (and intelligences) are critical to learn and use.
We all remain vaguely aware of our two or more minds because we know they disagree sometimes, e.g. one of our minds wants the cute, little sports car (with a miserable repair record) and another mind wants the practical car recommended by Consumers Report. One mind worries about things that are very unlikely to happen, repeatedly compares ourselves unfavorably to others, jumps to the conclusion that something awful is going to happen, sees doom and gloom everywhere, etc., while the other mind knows these ideas are probably wrong (Freeman and DeWolf, 1992).
One current theory is that many specialized parts have developed within our brain, each evolved as a reasoning-coping mechanism during millions of years as hunter-gatherers (Barkow, Cosmides & Tooby, 1992). Thus, we may have inherited specialized clusters of nerves that originally aided in foraging for food, that operated when we were threatened, that directed us in selecting a mate, that guided us in seeking justice and cooperation, etc. We may even inherit tendencies to think certain ways and to have certain feelings, drives or motives, which shape the cultures we develop. Like birds, bees, and all foraging animals, we humans have remarkable abilities to make sound probability judgments under certain conditions. However, humans in today's world may occasionally be misguided by our own mental mechanisms based on our evolutionary past rather than on current reality.
Teaching critical thinking skills is emphasized in some classes these days. The general idea is to learn to do what Socrates asked his students to do, namely, give reasons for their opinions. It is said that today's students can, if they want to, memorize and recall but can't interpret, infer, judge, reason or persuade (Benderson, 1984). What skills are needed for these activities? Many thinking skills methods have already been described in this book: problem-solving and decision-making (see chapters 2 and 13), challenging irrational ideas (see method #3 in this chapter), methods for coping with disruptive emotions (see chapters 5, 6, 7, 8 & 12), persuasion and negotiation skills (chapter 13), and a willingness to seriously consider the purposes of one's life (chapter 3). There are many ways to straighten out our thinking.
One of the best sources of thinking skills is an audiocassette program, Masterthinker, by Edward de Bono from Prentice Hall (or one of his books, de Bono, 1992 or 1994). As an introduction, he makes the point that highly intelligent people often think they don't need to learn thinking skills, their brain is all they think they need. They have confused intelligence with thinking; one can have a very powerful computer but not use it accurately or effectively. High intelligence poses other traps: since he/she can defend almost any opinion, such as person may not carefully explore the issue before making a pronouncement (and, thus, be a poor thinker). Also, very intelligent people find they get recognition by quickly and cleverly criticizing another person. If they stop there, little constructive thinking is accomplished. An intelligent person, who wants to maintain a reputation, hates to be wrong. Therefore, they resist admitting being wrong and changing their minds, which is not good thinking. In the same way, a fear of being wrong may inhibit them from considering and advancing new, tentative ideas. When an intelligent person reads this method, I suspect he/she will conclude that his/her thinking has several flaws (no matter how big his/her computer is). Brains aren't enough. de Bono says, "good thinkers aren't born, they're made."
It ain't so much the things we didn't know that get us into trouble. It's the things we know that just ain't so.
The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.
The first focus of this method is on common ways we get our facts wrong or think illogically. Many of my examples come from a 40-year-old book by Stuart Chase (1956) and more recent books by McMullin (1986, pp. 256-266) and Nezu and Nezu (1989). Several types of false reasoning will be described briefly in hopes you will recognize your own illogical thinking. (This is just wishful thinking unless you take the time to seriously question and analyze your specific thoughts and conclusions.) The first four methods in this chapter have already covered many harmful ideas and beliefs.
The second brief focus within this method is on reducing the disruptive emotions that derail our rational thinking. Several other chapters cover emotions well. Gilovich (1991) deals in depth with "How We Know What Isn't So." For instance, Gilovich asks if self-handicapping ("I was partying and didn't study for this exam") is to deceive others or ourselves. Actually, other people don't tend to believe that you didn't study. Your real purpose seems to be to avoid learning how able or unable you really are.
The third focus of this section is on increasing the effectiveness of our intuitive, experience-based mind. Reading and logic will not help much here; you will need new experiences.
- To become more able to detect fallacious reasoning by others.
- To become more accurate in our own thinking and communication.