Thinking for Yourself is an exclusive issue of my free weekly newsletter featuring 3 Ideas in 2 Minutes on critical thinking, practical philosophy, decision-making, mental models & more.
Thinking for Yourself · Motivated Reasoning · Overthinking
I. Thinking for Yourself
As much as we may value it, thinking for ourselves can mean going against the group, or at least having to rise above it. This makes independent thought a social risk. Here’s author, contrarian and inventor of the Hitchslap Christopher Hitchens reminding us of the benefits of cognitive risk-taking:
Take the risk of thinking for yourself, much more happiness, truth, beauty and wisdom will come to you that way.—Christopher Hitchens
I’ve also written about the contrarian mindset in the form of the Tenth Man Rule.
II. Motivated Reasoning
Unfortunately, even if we are motivated to think things through for ourselves, that doesn’t mean our conclusions are correct. In fact, our very motivation can be the problem. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains how we really tend to reason:
Reasoning is very heavily motivated. We’re not very good at objective careful balanced reasoning. When we evaluate a proposition, anything: That that is good for you, that Obama was born in Hawaii or Indonesia, wherever. Any proposition you evaluate, we don’t say: ‘What’s the evidence on one side, what’s the evidence on the other? Which one wins?’ We don’t do that. Our brains are not set up to do that.
We start with a feeling, we want to believe X or we want to doubt X. We ask: ‘Can I believe it? I want to believe it’. And then we send our reasoning off on a search to find evidence. If we find one piece of evidence we can stop.
If someone holds us accountable and says, ‘Why do you think that?’ you pull out the piece of evidence and say: ‘Here, this is why.’—Jonathan Haidt, Two incompatible sacred values in American universities
All that being said, how can we possibly be aware of all the ways our minds outsmart themselves? Is thinking for ourselves all worth the effort and risk? British writer and philosopher Alan Watts had some great insights into overthinking as a reason to meditate:
Most of us think compulsively all the time. That is to say we talk to ourselves. And I remember when I was a boy we had a common saying: ‘Talking to yourself is the first sign of madness.’
Now obviously, if I talk all the time I don’t hear what anyone else has to say. And so in exactly the same way, if I think all the time, that is to say I talk to myself all the time, I don’t have anything to think about except thoughts.
And therefore I’m living entirely in the world of symbols and I’m never in relationship with reality.—Alan Watts
I’ve reflected more deeply on Alan Watts’ wisdom here. 🐘
Have a great week,