Some Thoughts on Thinking
Identifying the absolutism in your thoughts (or how you express
them), and then correcting it, is the first idea presented below.
It will change how you think. The rest of these thoughts on thinking,
if applied, might also help expand the range and creativity of
your mental processes. If nothing else they will give your brain
a good workout as you ponder them.
It is tempting to keep things simple in order to make our
thinking easier and more consistent. This can be seen in our
predilection for words like "all," "always,"
"never," and the phrase "the same as." To
think more clearly and honestly, we should almost always replace
these words with less absolutistic ones, such as, "many,"
"usually," "seldom," and "similar."
Most of the time (note that this sentence is not started with
the word "always") this will make for a more accurate
statement, and leave the mind open to other possibilities.
This kind of absolutism can be very subtle. For example, it's
common to say something like, "The solution to the
problem is to..." The word "the" in a statement
that starts in this way is a form of absolutist thinking, and
it creates a very inaccurate and closed-minded approach. After
all, how often is it true that any problem has only one solution,
as the word "the" implies here? A more open-minded
and accurate statement would begin with something like, "One
solution to the problem..." or "A solution..."
Opportunistic Versus Strategic Thinking
The kind of thoughts we have affect our decisions, and this
is clear when we look at the difference between opportunistic
thinking and that which is more strategic. A common example is
the man or woman who jumps on every "opportunity" to
get rich, but fails to make much money because of a lack of a
good strategy. On the other hand, opportunistic thinking is useful
as long as it is subjugated to the strategic plan and/or ultimate
Invisible Assumptions and Premises
We mentally walk right past most of the assumptions and premises
in the things we hear and think about, as though they are invisible.
For deeper thinking we need to stop, look closer at the premises,
and challenge them. For an example let's ask a question:
If a man smokes all of his life despite doctor's warning
that it will kill him, and then he does finally get lung cancer,
should we feel sorry for him or should we feel that he deserved
Most of the time people will immediately express an opinion
about a question like this, or at least ponder it without reflecting
on all of the assumptions and premises it contains. Let's look
at some of them.
First, the assumption is made that the smoking caused the
cancer. That may or may not be true, and if it is not, some other
interesting questions arise, like "Should we feel that he
deserves what he got because of the risk he took, even if the
cancer is unrelated to that risky behavior?"
Perhaps the more important hidden premise here is that we
should feel something about the matter or have an opinion
about it. We could feel this or that depending on how
we approach the issue, but is there actually a "should,"
which suggests an an obligation? Is there some duty to have an
opinion just because someone asks for one? That's a subtle and
common premise that few people notice.
There is even another assumption here that's not readily apparent,
which is that your opinion or feeling is limited to one or the
other of the choices presented. You might feel sorry for the
man and feel that he deserved what he got, or you might
have feelings and opinions about the matter that entirely outside
of the choices presented.
Look for all the hidden premises and assumptions in the statements
and questions you run into every day, and you'll find that your
thoughts have been influenced by them without you conscious awareness.
If you want your thinking to be more powerful you might want
to do something about that.
Selecting Our Examples
If you want your thinking to be more accurate, active and
open minded, take a lesson from the scientific method. Scientific
generalizations are based on unselected examples, because
no amount of selected examples make for a sound conclusion.
Consider this question: Does a full moon contribute to higher
murder rates? To gather only examples of murders that occurred
on nights with a full moon would not be sound science. Only statistics
based on unselected examples (not selected to prove the hypothesis)
would make the case. In addition, to make valid the generalization
that the moon contributes to higher murder rates there would
have to be enough examples to be statistically significant.
How often do we really think like that? We have opinions and
thoughts about whether illegal aliens take jobs away from legal
residents, and ideas about whether lax gun laws contribute to
rates of violence, and on and on. But we rarely do more than
select examples which confirm our generalizations. As a practical
matter we can't do proper science before forming each opinion
or making a generalization, but we can at least recognize the
limited nature of our thinking. We also can choose to look for
non-confirming examples, just to see if there are perhaps more
than we realize.