STEP TWO: Recognize the cognitive factors that affect your coping with problems and managing your emotions. Discover your self-help Achilles' heel.
It is obvious that some mental errors are self-inflating, others are self-defending, some are "leftovers" from emotional experiences, and some may be due to the quirkiness of our cognitive processes. What are the more common obstacles to living wisely and effectively? Seymour Epstein (1993) tried to answer that by asking his students to record their most pleasant and most unpleasant emotion each day for a month. They also recorded their automatic thoughts associated with these emotions. From this data and further research, he identified six characteristics of "constructive thinking ," i.e. the most successful players in the game of life. He found two constructive ways of thinking and four destructive ways. Here are sample items:
Constructive thinking: (the more of this, the better you cope)
- Emotional coping: I don't worry about little things or the past; I don't demand perfection; I accentuate the positive most of the time; I avoid the "blame game;" I realize "you can't win them all," etc.
- Behavioral coping: I do something when I'm unhappy; I see problems as challenges; I accept that unpleasant jobs have to be done; I cheer myself on rather than criticize myself; I carefully think through how to handle most problems; I handle things pretty well most of the time, etc.
Destructive thinking: (the less of this, the better you cope)
- Categorical thinking: I feel people are either for you or against you; if someone does something wrong, they should be punished; I am quick to judge people; I usually believe I know the right way to do something; people are either good or bad.
- Superstitious thinking: Wishing for something or talking about it keeps it from happening; it seems like a string of good luck is followed by bad luck; there are good and bad omens; some people just have bad luck; I don't walk on cracks or under ladders or across a black cat's path.
- Mystical thinking: I think there are ghosts and spirits; I believe in my good luck charm; some people can predict the future and some can read minds; my astrology sign is pretty accurate; occultism scares me; the future is more determined more by spiritual forces than by humans.
- Unwarranted optimism: If you have enough willpower, you can do anything; everyone should love their parents; after a success, I feel I can do anything; religious people can be depended on; I think good things will happen to me if I am good; my family calls me a lucky person, so I will do well in life.
You can estimate how you would do on Epstein's tests designed to predict success in living. The subtests may reveal weaknesses you need to change. Obviously, some of the constructive thinking comes from the rational mind and some from the experience-based mind; this includes relaxing, planning, being positive and active. The destructive thinking comes mostly from the intuitive (experiential) mind; this includes over-simplifying, inflexibility, being judgmental, believing in fate, luck, and superstitions, believing in mystical forces and psychic powers, and a vague belief that things will turn out wonderful. Wonder why beliefs in luck, superstitions, and spiritual-mystical-psychic powers are associated with poor coping? Perhaps because these people depend on outside forces to solve their problems, rather than depending on their own constructive thinking.
STEP THREE: Use good reasoning to make your own good decisions or arguments.
What is a good thinker? Look up The Mind's Best Work by D. N. Perkins (1981) for outstanding examples, but for ordinary, everyday thinkers Ruggiero (1975) says:
- He/she has good ability--a vivid imagination and accurate intuition.
- He/she tries to understand the issue, including noting and questioning his/her own reaction to the issue before accepting his/her first impressions.
- He/she carefully decides what evidence is needed to solve the problem and gathers the data accurately.
- He/she draws a tentative conclusion based on the facts, avoiding "pat" and emotionally appealing answers.
In the simplest sense, one might say that the best way to win an argument is to be right (see chapter 13). Being "on the side of truth" gives you enormous advantage. But we can never know the truth for sure. That is why scientists speak a special language, such as "the data suggests...," "the difference is significant at the .05 level" and so on. A scientist is never certain; only true believers (basing their opinions on faith) are certain.
If a man's actions are not guided by thoughtful conclusions, then they are guided by inconsiderate impulse, unbalanced appetite, caprice, or the circumstances of the moment.
In contrast to the poor arguments discussed in step 1, Missimer (1986) says Good Arguments have these characteristics:
- Define your terms and the issue clearly, then state your claim--what you believe to be true or should be done--and give your reasons. This is the essence of an argument, it consists of an issue, conclusions, and reasons.
- A critical thinker, listening to an argument, will look for alternative arguments and try to improve the reasoning. Try arguing for the opposite conclusion. Try opposing the reasons given by the other person. Try acknowledging the validity of the opponent's reasons, but argue that your reasons for a different conclusion are stronger than his/her reasons. If that isn't possible, look for exceptions, places where his/her reasoning doesn't hold up, e.g. you say school/work is boring, but Jane/John loves school/work. Look for big factors that have been overlooked or for the strongest-case kind of argument. Finally, maybe it is clear that more evidence is needed before a conclusion can be reached, in which case suggest some fact-finding experimentation.
- Ask, "How good is the evidence?" Evidence may be based on scientific experimentation, after-the-fact correlations (smoking and cancer), case studies (the effects of divorce on children), or an appeal to the most convincing situation (torture is justified to save hundreds of lives). Doubt any claim that something has been "proven;" scientists say, "the evidence to date suggests...." Search for and collect evidence for a different conclusion. Evaluate the data, the supporting facts, and the reasoning; ask yourself repeatedly how strongly the conclusion is supported by the evidence.
When reasoning deductively, you start with a statement about "all," "every" or "only," and the conclusion logically follows: (1) Everyone in my group of friends likes rock music. (2) Bill is in my group. (3) Therefore, Bill likes rock. The real question is if (1), the generalization, is accurate.
When using another form of reasoning called inductive, you start with some specific observations and draw generalizations: (1) I noticed that many students in my school like rock music. (2) Therefore, "most" students like rock music. The question here is: Have you made enough accurate observations to warrant making the "inductive leap" to most students in your school? to students in the state? to students everywhere in the world? Statisticians use careful sampling techniques and statistics to make accurate predictions, such as what people will buy or how they will vote.
- Look for the assumptions being made. If someone says, "Abortion is murder," one has to question the term murder. The dictionary says murder is the killing of one human being by another. When is a fetus a human being? When its heart beats (15 days)? When it has brain waves (4th month)? When it has a 50-50 chance of surviving on its own without massive medical assistance? When he/she is born at full-term? These are unprovable personal opinions, individual beliefs, but they are critical to the idea of murder. Unfortunately, emotional issues, like "Abortion is murder," get infused with dogmatic religious beliefs which the believers would like to force on others.
If someone says, "Students are either serious or party animals," the assumption is being made that students can not be both serious and party-lovers and that students can not be disinterested in both studies and parties.
In most arguments, there are many assumptions about both values and facts. Many are subtle, e.g. that hiring the "best person" is better than affirmative action, that personal gain is of more value than serving others, that expressing anger reduces future anger, and so on. Uncover the assumptions being made and decide if you agree with them.
- Rather than being a hostile debater and trying to win, try to think constructively, i.e. by thinking together perhaps you and the other person can come closer to the truth.
STEP FOUR: Develop other skills and methods that enhance your critical, clear thinking.
We all have learned about scientific methods in many classes throughout school. These methods help us think straight and, hopefully, realize there are many possible causes for any event. By experimentally varying one variable while holding other variables constant we can find "laws," what causes (contributes to) what. In everyday life, there may be too many factors and too little control to draw conclusions, but the idea is still valid: carefully observe the connections between specific causes and their effects. Ruchlis (1992) teaches us how to evaluate evidence and how to detect common deceptions.
For fifty years educators, psychologists and management consultants have tried to teach creativity, problem solving, and productive thinking (see section f below). There is evidence that such skills can be taught; however, thus far the skills taught seem to be used largely in the subject matter areas in which they were learned (Mayer, 1984). For example, if you teach students strategies for solving math or engineering problems, the students do not automatically learn to use better strategies to solve social or personal problems. That isn't surprising. Probably very different strategies are needed in different problem areas, such as math and self-control.
As mentioned in the introduction, recent findings indicate that good problem solvers need (1) lots of specific knowledge (e.g. 10 years of practical experience and lots of research-based information) and (2) specific instruction and practice on how to use that knowledge in understanding the problem, setting goals, discovering and organizing a plan of attack, carrying out the treatment plan, and evaluating the outcome. In short, there are still no easy ways to become an expert in any area, including self-management.
Problem-solving techniques (for self-help) are given in chapter 2. Decision-making, persuasion, and other thinking skills are taught in chapter 13. Methods for correcting irrational thoughts that produce unwanted emotions are given in this chapter. Chapters 5 to 8 help control emotions that may influence our thinking and attitudes. Self-understanding methods are given in all the chapters but especially 9, 14, and 15. Self-awareness is surely critical because some of the major obstacles to clear thinking are within ourselves, i.e. our defenses, our emotions, our blind spots.
Also, according to Alice Isen and others, happy, relaxed people in general think more clearly and creatively than unhappy people (Hostetler, 1988). However, happy people, in some situations, tend to over-simplify the problem, use impulsive hunches and guess at the solution and, thus, are wrong more often (but they may not care!). The notion that relaxation enables us to learn more or better is an old idea from the 1960's or earlier. But there is also evidence that concentration while reading is improved if the body is moderately tense. Clearly, much more research is needed.
Benson's (1987) latest book, with the hokey title of The Maximum Mind suggests (1) learning to relax, as in his first book (see chapter 12), (2) deciding how you want to change and that you can change--with the help of a "maximum mind guide," meaning a counselor, and (3) using "focused thinking" about the desired changes 10-15 minutes a day, like being happier or more creative--which supposedly helps "rewire" your mind. It appears that Benson in his first book re-discovered meditation and now has re-invented self-hypnosis as well.
Finally, you must keep in mind that straight thinking requires more than mental rumination by yourself. Ideas must be tested in reality. Talk to others with different views (not just supportive friends). Try out your ideas, see if they work, see if others agree, see if your ideas can be improved.
STEP FIVE: Ways to improve your intuition or your experience-based mind, which is needed along with the knowledge, skills, and logic of the rational mind.
Epstein and Brodsky (1993) believe you can't change your automatic thinking (intuition, irrational ideas, biases, etc.) by willpower nor by reading and getting some intellectual understanding. He says the experience-based mind only changes with experience. So, the main priority is to identify the automatic thoughts that cause your problems, that arouse unwanted emotions or create misconceptions (this is much like detecting the irrational ideas in method #3). You need to find the experience-based feelings, thoughts, memories, opinions, judgments, attitudes, etc. which could explain why you had the emotions or the faulty thinking you had. Often it is your view of the situation that determines how you respond emotionally, such as berating yourself, attacking someone, or withdrawing. Examples: Losing one's boy/girlfriend or doing poorly in one class is seen as ruining your entire life. A decision by a supervisor to re-do part of your work is seen as an insult or as leading up to being fired. The question is: Is your view or interpretation of the situation or other peoples' behavior rational? If not, why did you misunderstand the situation? A review of step 1 may help you recognize your thinking errors. A review of similar prior traumatic experiences may help you recognize the source of your emotional reactions.
Your experience-based mind must have the experience over and over of being corrected and taught to think and feel differently (more rationally) about the situations. Every day take time to analyze a distressing event in this way: (1) explain to the intuitive mind how it misunderstood the situation or person; (2) note the mental rumination or fantasies that resulted from your faulty interpretation of the situation; (3) note how you responded internally and overtly in the situation. Then, go back over the event, pointing out to the experience-based mind why it went wrong, where the emotions came from, and so on. Recognize how your train of thought, following the mental error or misinterpretation, went awry, making the situation worse. Lastly, review how you could have responded in a better way, if you had seen the situation accurately. This process of substituting constructive thinking (a new rational view) for destructive thinking is critical; otherwise, your intuitive mind will continue to misread future situations.
This process is very similar to disputing irrational ideas in method #3 and to reframing in chapter 15. Perhaps the best way to change your experience-based mind is to have new experiences. If you fear your boss, get to know him/her better and talk to others about him/her. If you are uncomfortable with very old people, get to know several. If you feel you couldn't be a leader, find a cause and try your hand at leadership roles.
In chapter 15 several methods (getting in touch with your feelings, focusing, guided fantasy, and meditation) are described which will enable you to learn more from your experience-based mind. This, in turn, will help you understand the feelings that underlie many of the emotions and misinterpretations which cause you problems. Emery (1994) wrote a workbook to increase your intuition, especially in the workplace and in leadership positions. Ruchlis (1992) teaches you ways to evaluate the in-coming evidence and be a little more reasonable in daily life.
It may take you only 30 minutes to read the steps above and ask, "What are the facts supporting a particular belief I have?" On the other hand, to understand the cognition underlying a troublesome reaction you have in a specific situation may take a few hours. Correcting the intuitive mind by experiencing constructing thinking will take 15 minutes every day for a month or so. If you want to clean up your cognition generally and become an expert thinker and problem-solver in some complex general area, like self-help, it may take years.
The first obvious problem is failing to recognize our well entrenched erroneous thinking or reasoning. Simply reading the examples in step 1 will almost certainly not correct our thinking. We may need to be confronted by ourselves (our rational mind?) or by others many times to acquire critical thinking skills. Actually, many different skills and much knowledge are needed to be a straight, creative thinker. We need to acquire much knowledge and know how to accurately recall that information, how to analyze arguments, how to test hypotheses, how to make decisions, and how to problem-solve. There are several somewhat applied courses addressing these issues offered around the country; the best-selling textbook about critical thinking skills is by Diane Halpern (1995). This kind of training should come before a lifetime of careful thinking.
Effectiveness, advantages and dangers
Hopefully, within the context of our emphasis on critical thinking in schools, we will soon have many studies of the effectiveness of this classroom training in terms of practical decision-making at work, in interpersonal relationships, in guiding one's own life. And, fortunately, Venezuela has already done a large-scale evaluation of teaching thinking skills in schools (Herrnstein, Nickerson, de Sanchez and Swets, 1986). The question was: Can good thinking--observation, reasoning, decision-making, inventiveness, problem-solving, and persuasive communication--be taught? To answer the question, several teachers developed a year-long, 56-lesson course and taught it to 400 seventh graders. This remarkable study convinced the experimenters that cognitive, general intellectual skills can be taught. Note that the course took an entire year and altered how the teachers and students interacted (students became more active and logical, asking more questions and acting more independently). As yet, we do not know which parts of the course experience were helpful, how much is a placebo effect, nor how long the effects will last. Much more research is needed. The content of that course has been translated into English (Adams, 1986).