Thursday, January 6, 2011

Perhaps None Of Us Are As Smart As We Think We Are

© Jonathan Gill

So, I'm taking a 'Critical Thinking' course right now. Yes, it's apparently a skill that needs to be taught. And yet, maybe it's not so apparent. Everyone wants to believe that they are critical thinkers. We all have strongly held opinions and we stand behind them, but it seems we need to be taught how to be critical about our own thinking. It's a great question to ask. Am I a critical thinker? If I have a strongly held belief, will I change it if I am presented with irrefutable evidence to the contrary? Few of us will. We are experts at justification and rationalization. We can create amazing arguements for our case, but are they credible? Do we have the bravery to change our views if necessary?

If we ever want to change the world, we will all have to become a lot braver.

This is the heart of the 'behavioural economics' conundrum. Our brains and our hearts don't see, erm, "eye-to-eye." Appeal to our brains, we might understand, but we're bored. Appeal to our hearts and we may not understand but we're too excited to care. Yet you can't have one without the other. Advertising that simply appeals to the heart can be maniuplative and sell lousy products - once. Advertising that appeals exclusively to the brain gets ignored. Goverment policy must speak to the hearts of the people, but if there is no thought behind it, it's a sure-fire way to change the balance of power at the next election.

How can we create environments where it's safe to be emotional and rewarding to be critical? How can we encourage ourselves to let our hearts slip the reigns on our decisions enough to allow the brains in? What can we do to prepare ourselves that we might be wrong about things we feel passionately about?

There are some excellent books about this subject. My current favourite is Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath. They talk about how to generate change in others, be it individuals, entrenched corporate systems or inflexible government bureaucracies. There's also some interesting concepts in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us - my current favourite book. But these all talk about changing others. What can we possibly do to be willing to change ourselves?

We like to think of ourselves as open-minded, intelligent people. But are we?



  1. I'm halfway through Drive. It is re-wiring my brain as I read. Brilliance.

    - Paul

  2. Not that I notice these things but, your "current favourite is Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath," and that appears to conflict with "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us - my current favourite book." In my opinion, one can never have too many favourite books, but in this context... perhaps. ;-)

    I agree that we can change deeply held beliefs. It can be done, of course, but requires bravery and conviction. One needs to be aware of oneself to know when one's beliefs might be wrong. Awareness of self is something that comes naturally to humans until we are conditioned and trained otherwise, by our parents and society at large. Self awareness becomes ego-based, and we are more concerned with external perceptions of us than our own intrinsic understanding of self. We become what we want people to think we are - and that is a related, but entirely different, conversation.

    Most people would be willing to change themselves if provided with incontrovertible evidence of *something* being something else (assumption). Most people will do so at some point in their lives (another assumption). It is a revelatory moment (personal experience). Let go the ego and almost all people are "open-minded, intelligent" and capable of such dramatic personal change.

    As regards your statement "Goverment policy must speak to the hearts of the people, but if there is no thought behind it, it's a sure-fire way to change the balance of power at the next election" - if only t'were so. Alberta has endured decades of thoughtless policy that speaks to the hearts of the people as the government believes it to be so, and yet there has been no change in the balance of power.

  3. There is a great paper by philosopher Charles S. Pierce titled "The Fixation of Belief". He opens it with the remark, "Few persons care to study logic, because everybody conceives himself to be proficient enough in the art of reasoning already."

    He goes on to state four methods by which people allow themselves to be confident their beliefs are true, whether or not they are indeed so.

    The first method used is the use of sheer will power; it's the idea of "sticking to your guns". A person, we'll call him Bob, avoids books, movies, people, and generally anything that threatens to challenge the way he see things. But even when he does encounter views contrary to his own, he ignores them as best he can; he "blocks them out".

    Bob's second method is to surround himself with a community of people who share his beliefs. This society of like-minded folk is comfortable place where Bob can socialize without the threat of being exposed to scary, conflicting ideas. And if anyone expresses an opposing idea, that person is shunned, punished, or ignored. This is very popular method of fixating belief.

    The third method is semi-intellectual rationalization. Bob and his community concoct reasons to justify believing what they do. "Our ideology is better for society. We help people. Our beliefs make the world a better place. Our followers are happier. Those people who believe differently are unhappy and destructive." In other words, Bob's ideology receives endless praise, while other belief systems are demonized. Bob and his cohorts may have very good reasons for making their claims, and they may in fact be not too far off the mark. They are, after all, thinking.

    But the problem here is that they're not setting out to find the truth; they're setting out to fortify their already held beliefs. The claims they make may therefore be illogical, and outright false.

    The final method used is meticulous logic. Bob recognizes one day that his values and beliefs may be dead wrong, completely devoid of any basis in reality. He considers it important to ensure that he find the truth, even if that means abandoning a long-held, much-loved ideology. He tests his beliefs for consistency. He looks for evidence for and against his ideology, as well as ideologies contrary to his own. He contemplates quietly. He takes time to ensure he's being honest with himself. And, in the end, he realizes what he believed all his life is inaccurate and not a true reflection of reality. So he changes his mind; he acquires new values and beliefs.

    This fourth method is very, very, very, very difficult for a lot of people for two reasons. One, it takes a lot of time and energy and skills not readily taught in school or at home. Most people are busy enough as it is, and think they don't have time to evaluate their ideology.

    Second, and more importantly, it is a method very few people value. That is, most people prefer to go on believing as they do regardless of the truth. It's a matter of priorities. To be confident in your beliefs is very emotionally comfortable. Doubt leaves one feeling uneasy. Most people prefer the tranquility of certainty.

    So I believe the first step towards changing our own beliefs is honestly valuing the truth over a set ideology. But that's a very, very, very difficult thing to do.

  4. Brilliant comments and lively discussion all! So what can we do collectively, to support the honest ability for rational belief change personally? How can we culturally embrace the search for truth without challenging the institutions of faith, which I postulate would be the biggest obstacle?

  5. I recently read "Stuff White People Like" by Christian Lander. In so reading, I discovered that I am a carbon copy of the kind of person Lander describes, and lampoons to a certain degree. What was particularly interesting to me in reading the book is that I had never before considered that my beliefs and attitudes were shaped by "white" culture. By the arts community, yes. By my education and upbringing, yes. But the fact that I identify as strongly with Lander's commentary (according to the quiz at the end of the book, I am "90% white," this fact mitigated only because I don't have a love affair with a certain kind of athletic shoe, nor do I wear sweatshirts and shorts in the spring)suggests that I have done just as Andrew T. suggests, and that is surround myself with a large group of like-minded folks (ie. other "white" society)and semi-rationalize my beliefs and behavior with logic, albeit flawed at times.
    While this book is not intended as a deep sociological study of our times, it is, nonetheless, an apt description of a large segment of the population.

    Therefore, getting back to the point at hand, I think, to a large degree, the question of critical thought and the ability to change has significant roots in culture. When a culture reinforces an attitude or behavior - be it buying organic free trade coffee at an independent co-op (as white people love to do, according to Lander) or going to church - it is much harder to change the behavior, regardless of personal belief.

    I think this is particularly relevant in regard to institutions of faith, since you brought them up. It used to be so culturally supported amongst much of society that people have a religion and go to a church, that the majority did so, regardless of their personal beliefs. As soon as culture allowed for people to stop going to church without fear of social repercussions, many people had crises of faith and left the church. I think this is as much a social construct as it is a personal decision.

    This is not to say that I think we are all zombies, blindly following some kind of mutually agreed-upon precept, but I do think our identification with a culture is a key aspect of what determines how, what and why we think and behave.

    And when it comes to changing perceptions and beliefs, there is a chicken-egg conundrum based on our culture as a whole. That's why cultures rely heavily on pioneers and mavericks (early adopters) in order to institute change. But that's also why the Martin Luther Kings and JFKs get shot. In order to support a change, the people within a society need to be prepared to re-examine their personal beliefs (a la Andrew T.).

    Frankly, I think it's amazing that anything can change, given these parameters. No wonder the gears of change grind slowly.