We’ve had a brief look at what independent thought is and looks like, as well as the different stages or levels of its development as we mature as autonomous thinkers. Let’s dig a little deeper now and consider one not-so-obvious way to immediately improve our intellectual faculties: remove the biggest obstacles that stand in their way.
In the chapters that follow, we’ll consider the major impediments to truly independent thinking and remove them one by one, almost as though we were gradually polishing a mirror, removing layer after layer of grime and dirt. Once the mirror (i.e., our powers for independent, rational thought) is spotless, we can see reality in crisp and perfect clarity.
The biggest threats to robust and clear thinking lie within us. As mentioned earlier, the biggest mistake we can make when improving our critical thinking skills is to falsely assume that we are thinking at all! An example will demonstrate this perfectly: a big firm hiring team spends countless person-hours and invests tons of money into candidate screening software and complicated interview processes, all in an earnest attempt to hunt out and hire the objectively best new employees. In the final interview round, the boss takes a look at a candidate and announces, “I know her final scores weren’t great, but I don’t know, I’ve got a good feeling about her. Let’s pick her.”
Or perhaps worse, because this candidate unconsciously reminds him of his daughter or because her accent or her shoes or the spelling of her name holds some unconscious positive associations for him, the boss announces that she is, in fact, the best candidate. He genuinely believes this is a rational, obvious choice, and he may convince everyone else that it is, too!
Humans tend to place significant value on instinct. Especially as the pace of modern life forces us at times to think quickly on our feet and make immediate decisions, we believe that having superior instinct helps us get along. That’s certainly true to an extent. Human beings are biological beings inhabiting bodies, and we have evolved like every other animal to make split-second decisions that promote our survival – decisions that need to be far quicker than our higher-order thinking could ever manage. If you’re in a strange new environment and your gut tells you it’s dangerous – there’s a strong case for following that instinct.
The problem is that sometimes we confuse instinct as a substitute for good judgment. It’s a different story when we allow our gut to tell us “this is dangerous” when our conscious mind knows it isn’t – for example, when fear makes you procrastinate going to the dentist! The error comes in assuming that instinct and gut feelings are always correct or that these hunches are sufficient for helping us make more complex life decisions.
Instinct and good judgment are entirely separate things. They are two separate ways of processing information – both have value, but they need to be used in the appropriate context. For this, you need to consciously be aware of how and when you are employing them respectively. Instinct may sometimes overlap with good judgment, but they are not interchangeable. Let’s look at the differences:
Good judgment comes through a process of experience over time, while instinct and hunches are incredibly quick—almost instant. Just as the Grand Canyon was created through an extremely long process, good judgment requires a similar amount of refinement and progress. But with a well-developed sense of judgment, you invariably improve your gut instincts, too. It is possible to have your conscious, rational mind and its powers of judgment working in tandem with your gut instincts, resulting in conscious perception and processing of life that is nuanced, dynamic, and intuitive. In the above example, the boss could become aware of his bias towards the candidate and the objective data and consciously and intelligently weigh these up, coming to a decision that factors in both.
Good judgment is invariably balanced and thorough. Neither of those words describes our base instincts.
Instincts are otherwise known as gut feelings or hunches, and, unless you are the literary detective known as Sherlock Holmes, are probably wrong the vast majority of the time. Instinct by definition is evaluating based on limited information. It turns out that when we make quick decisions based on instinct, we are usually jumping to conclusions and not seeing the whole picture. We already know that humans are predisposed to prefer speed and certainty over accuracy, which is why it’s so important to act against what your instincts want to tell you.
In addition to being Sherlock Holmes, unless you have the eye of an eagle, the ears of a rabbit, and the nose of a bloodhound, there’s just no way your instinct is going to be correct consistently.
Let’s take the field of cooking to illustrate the difference. An experienced chef will be able to use his judgment, based on years of experience, to design a menu that will be versatile and tasty. He will be able to do this time after time through various cuisines. Compare this to the instincts of a neophyte chef. On rare occasions, the neophyte chef’s menu might be preferable because there is an overlap between instinct and good judgment. But instinct will fail him in the long run without deeper knowledge.
We are biologically programmed to go with the first thought that pops into our head, a recipe for disaster. This chapter covers how to overcome the traps that come from relying on that initial flood of certainty in many ways, from our emotions, perspectives, perceptions, and even memories. This will involve creating psychological distance from yourself to stop acting against your interests.
Feelings Aren’t Facts
One common error that all of us have made at some point in our lives is interpreting our emotional responses as truth—that is, confusing our feelings for facts. We observe or experience a situation that causes certain feelings to stir, and we interpret them not as subjective interpretations but a tangible reality.
This is otherwise known as emotional reasoning, and it is the polar opposite of clear thought. In emotional reasoning, you agree with the following statement: “I feel this way; therefore, it must be true.” If you feel negatively about a certain person, they must be terrible people. If you feel optimistic about a test, it must be easy. If you feel doubtful about a promise, the person on the other side of the promise must be scheming something. Emotions, both mild and intense, create an altered reality.
It’s often a process that evades our conscious thought, making it tough to spot.
On the one hand, it shouldn’t be surprising that emotions can disrupt our thinking so powerfully. Emotions have overlapping purposes with instincts; they are both “act first, analyze later” types of thinking, a phenomenon that has kept us alive as a species. Both emotions and instinct were designed to short circuit our brains and push analytical thought out of the way in favor of action.
While engaging in this behavior, observed evidence is discarded in favor of the truth of your feelings about the event. Emotional reasoning is one of the most dangerous obstacles to clear thought because it can be so wildly different from reality and can change in the span of minutes. Is reality changing moment by moment? Of course not! Only your emotions are changing that quickly.
Just like you wouldn’t go grocery shopping when hungry, you shouldn’t evaluate anything when emotional. Always take time to return to a calm state before making decisions or committing yourself to a specific course of action.
Reality is neutral, and your emotions cause you to perceive it in any particular way. Viewing a situation with emotional reasoning is like watching a completely benign scene with horror music being repeatedly played. And then joyous music. And then the next minute, music fitting for a clown’s entrance. Now compound this with the act that everyone has a different soundtrack playing over the same scene. You won’t know what’s happening in front of your face because the music will influence you a certain way. The only hope you have is to turn off the music—by removing emotions from the equation as best as you can.
Phobias are a prime example of how we confuse facts and feelings. For example, an agoraphobic person fears outside or open places with no immediate escape route. There’s no established factual basis for this fear, especially since so many people aren’t agoraphobic. Sure, bad things can happen to someone when they’re outside the home, but the huge majority of the time, they don’t. But an agoraphobic’s fear has irrationally turned itself into a fact in their mind; therefore, they’re not leaving the house anytime soon.
Those who interpret feeling as facts have it completely backward. Our emotions are products of our thoughts. They are how we decide to interpret what we experience based on the observations and information we’ve received from the world around us.
I’m not suggesting you not have feelings—that’s impossible. But you can and should treat your feelings like every other bit of information you receive. It should be one factor in how you think and evaluate situations and people. There might be a reason you feel a certain emotion; it might also exist because of entirely unrelated matters. The simple truth is that when we are emotionally invested, we lack the proper perspective to think clearly. Think of it as standing too close to a brick wall such that you can’t see the entire building, only a singular brick. You’d need distance to see reality.
Focus on separating your emotional reaction from your actual response. Feel the first emotional reaction and label it as drastic and emotionally influenced. Let it pass or dissipate. Now, begin to dissect it. Only at this point can you think clearly and rationally. Of course, it must be mentioned that this isn’t a point on becoming a cold, calculating robot—although, for our purposes of clear thinking, there could be worse things.
This is a point to ensure you aren’t being controlled by emotion, which is not based on evidence or what’s in front of you—it’s based on past experiences, assumptions, or unfair associations. Feel your feelings—sometimes they signal something that you don’t consciously perceive, which is why they shouldn’t be discounted—but don’t become overwhelmed by them. Also, beware that people are triggers for strong emotions, which can distort reality even more than usual.