Strategic thinking is based on a two-part process that involves understanding a key idea and developing a strategy for action based on that idea.
This chapter is devoted to egocentrism - the most significant barrier to development of critical thinking. Chapter 15 covered the first three key ideas, so we begin with key idea #4.
To understand the human mind, we must recognize its essential duality. On the one hand, the human mind has an instinctive tendency toward irrationality. On the other hand, it has a native capacity for rationality. To effectively take command of our mind, we must develop the ability to (1) monitor the mind's tendency toward egocentric or irrational thinking, and (2) attack it with corrective rational thought.
Our irrational mind is not concerned with the rights or needs of others. It has no ethical dimension to it. Our rational mind, properly developed, is both intellectual and ethical. It has intellectual command of itself and ethical sensitivity as well. Intellectual skill and fair-mindedness are joined into one integrated mode of thinking. When our rational mind is underdeveloped or not engaged, however, our native egocentrism functions as a default mechanism. If we don't control it, it controls us!
It is possible for us to use our knowledge of egocentric thought to combat it. The more we know about human egocentrism, the more we can recognize it in ourselves, and thus the more we can attack or overrule it. One of the ways to achieve this end is to develop the habit of analyzing the logic of our own thinking. We model the inner voice of the critical thinker using this strategy and the following questions:
Now let's walk through an example that suggests how a person might use reasonable thinking to detect irrational thought. What follows is a snapshot of the thinking of a hypothetical person as he examines a recent situation in his life. The numbered items 1 through 8 correspond to the list above.
The situation is as follows: I was in the video store on Friday night with my wife, and we were choosing a movie to watch that evening. She wanted to watch a romance movie, and I wanted to watch an action movie. I gave her all the reasons I could think of why the movie I wanted to watch was better. But now I realize that I was simply trying to manipulate her into going along with me. As I was giving her all of these good reasons for going along with my movie, all the while I was subconsciously thinking, I should get to watch what I want to. I don't like romantic movies, so I shouldn't have to watch them. In addition, since I'm paying for the movie, I should get to choose it:
Test the Idea
Because human beings are, by nature, egocentric and few are aware of how to exercise control over their egocentric thinking, it is important that we develop the ability to recognize egocentrism in the thinking of those around us. We must recognize, though, that even highly egocentric people sometimes act rationally, so we must be careful not to stereotype. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to expect that everyone will behave irrationally sometimes, so we must learn to evaluate behavior in an open-minded, yet realistic, way. When we understand the logic of egocentrism, when we become adept at identifying its self-serving patterns, we can begin to master it.
We draw a distinction between attacking our own irrationality and attacking that of others. Often with others we must bite our tongue, as it were, and distance ourselves from people who are fundamentally irrational. Or, at least, we must learn to deal with their egocentrism indirectly. Few people will thank us for pointing out egocentrism in their thinking. The more egocentric people are, the more resistant they are to owning it. The more power egocentric people have, the more dangerous they are. As rational persons, then, we learn to better deal with the irrationality of others rather than be controlled or manipulated by it.
When thinking irrationally, people find it difficult to think within the perspective of another. We unconsciously refuse to consider information that contradicts our ego-centered views. We unconsciously pursue purposes and goals that are not justifiable. We use assumptions in our thinking that are based in our own prejudices and biases. Unknowingly, we are systematically engaging in self-deception to avoid recognizing our egocentrism in operation.
Another problem relevant to dealing with the egocentric reactions of others is our own egocentric tendency. When we interact with others who are relating to us egocentrically, our own irrational nature is easily stimulated into action or, to put it more bluntly, "our buttons are easily pushed." When others relate to us in an ego-centered way, violating our rights and or ignoring our legitimate needs, our own native egocentrism will likely assert itself. Ego will meet ego in a struggle for power. When this happens, everyone loses. We therefore must anticipate our own egocentric reactions and come up with the appropriate rational thinking to deal with it.
Once we are aware that humans are naturally egocentric, and that most people are unaware of their native egocentrism, we can conclude that, in any given situation, we may well be interacting with the egocentric rather than the rational dimensions of those persons' minds. We therefore can question whether they are presenting rational ideas and pursuing rational purposes, or whether they are operating with irrational motives of which they are unaware. We will not take for granted that others are relating to us in good faith. Rather, we will observe their behavior carefully to determine what their behavior actually implies.
Moreover, because we know that our irrational nature is easily activated by irrationality in others, we can carefully observe and assess our own thinking to ensure that we do not become irrational in dealing with others who are egocentric. We will be on the lookout for our own ego-centered thinking, and when we recognize it, we will take steps to "wrestle it down" and refuse to be drawn into irrational games - whether initiated by others or by our own egocentric tendencies. When we realize we are dealing with an irrational person, we will not let that person's irrationality summon our irrational nature. We will refuse to be controlled by the unreasonable behavior of others.
Strategically, the best thing to do is to avoid contact with highly egocentric people whenever possible. When we find ourselves deeply involved with that sort of person, we should seek a way to disengage ourselves when possible. When disengagement is not possible, we should minimize contact or act in such a way as to minimize stimulating their ego.
We can minimize the stimulation to a person's ego by recognizing the conditions under which most highly egocentric reactions take place - namely, when people feel threatened, humiliated, or shamed, or when their vested interest or self-image is significantly involved. By getting into the habit of reconstructing in our own minds the point of view of others, and therefore of frequently thinking within the perspective of others, it is possible to anticipate many of the egocentric reactions of those around us. We then can choose a course of action that sidesteps many of the land mines of human egocentrism.
Test the Idea
One of the important truths that Jean Piaget, the noted child psychologist, discovered about children is that they overgeneralize their immediate feelings. If something good happens to them, the whole world looks good to them. If something bad happens to them, the whole world looks bad to them. He called this phenomenon egocentric immediacy. What Piaget did not emphasize, however, is that the same reaction patterns are found in much adult thinking. It is fair to say that everyone has some difficulty putting the ups and downs of daily life into a long-range perspective. It is not easy to keep things in proper perspective, given the strength of our immediate (emotional) reactions.
Once we begin to interpret situations or events in our life as negative, we also tend to generalize that negativity and even, on occasion, to allow it to cast a gloom over our whole life. A broad-based pessimism or a foolish optimism can come to permeate our thinking when negative or positive events happen to us. We move rapidly from thinking of one or two events in our lives as negative (or positive) to thinking of everything in our lives as negative (or positive). Egocentric negative thinking easily leads to indulgent self-pity. And egocentric positive thinking easily leads to an unrealistic state of complacent comfort.
Even a whole nation can be stampeded into an unrealistic state of complacent comfort by the reporting of one positive event. Hence, in England in 1938, after Neville Chamberlain returned to England from Munich holding an agreement with Hitler in his hand, he declared, "Peace in our times!" Most of the people in England rejoiced triumphantly over the success of having obtained Hitler's agreement, without factoring into their thinking Hitler's consistent record of broken promises. The entire nation was transformed into a state of national euphoria brought on by egocentric immediacy.
Rational voices like that of Winston Churchill, expressing skepticism that Hitler would be satisfied with this concession, were thrust aside as alarmist and without foundation. But Churchill had looked at the events at hand using a long-term, realistic perspective.
Consider an everyday problem for many people who tend to see the world in largely negative terms. They wake up in the morning and have to deal with a few unexpected minor problems. As the day progresses, and as they deal with more "problems," everything in their lives appears negative. The snowball of bad things happening gets bigger and bigger as the day passes. By the end of the day, they are unable to see any positive things in their lives. Their thinking (usually tacit of course) is something like this:
Everything looks bad. Life isn't fair. Nothing good ever happens to me. I always have to deal with problems. Why does everything bad happen to me?
Controlled by these thoughts, they lack the ability to counteract unbridled negativity with rational thoughts. They can't see the many good things in their lives. Their egocentric mind is shielding them from the full range of facts that would change their way of thinking so they could see things in a more realistic and, in this case, a more positive light.
If we intervene with rational thoughts at the point at which egocentric negativity begins, before it completely pervades the mind's functioning, we have a better chance of reducing or overthrowing it. The first step requires that we become intimately familiar with the phenomenon of egocentric immediacy. Then we should begin to identify instances of it in our own life as well as the lives of those around us.
The second step requires that we develop a rich and comprehensive list of the facts of our lives. It is important that we develop this list not when we are in the throes of an egocentric "fit" but, instead, when we are viewing the world from a rational perspective.
We also want to develop a long-range perspective to call upon when necessary to give the proper weight to individual events, whether positive or negative. We must establish in our mind what our most important values are. We must frame in our mind a long-range historical perspective. We must bring those values and this perspective strongly before our mind when lesser values and the distortions of egocentric immediacy begin to dominate our thoughts and feelings. When we have a well-established "big picture" in our mind, what are in effect small events will remain small, not blown out of proportion.
When we perceive that our thinking is tending toward egocentric immediacy, we can actively undermine it through comprehensive rational thinking. This involves reasoning with ourselves, pointing out flaws in our thinking, identifying and presenting relevant information we are ignoring, pointing out information we are distorting, checking our assumptions, and tracking the implications of our thinking. In short, by developing a deep and comprehensive "big picture" in our mind, by keeping this comprehensive view as much as possible in the foreground of our thinking in daily life, we can minimize our own tendency toward egocentric immediacy. We can become skilled in recognizing what truly is small and large in our life. We can chart our course more effectively, navigating through passing storms and deceptively quiet seas alike.
Test the Idea
One of the primary reasons human beings have difficulty recognizing egocentric thinking is that it appears to the mind as perfectly reasonable. No person says to himself or herself, "I shall think irrationally for a while." When we are most under the sway of irrational states (for example, in a state of irrational rage), we typically feel quite indignant and unfairly put-upon. Egocentric thinking blinds us in a variety of ways. We deceive ourselves.
When we are irrational, we feel rational. Our perceptions seem perfectly justified. And, not recognizing any flaws in our thinking, we see no reason to question those thoughts. We see no reason to behave differently. The result is that there is little or no chance of overriding the dysfunctional behavior that is dominating us. This is especially true when our egocentric thinking is working to get us what we want.
Once we recognize that egocentric thinking appears in the human mind as rational thinking, and can exemplify this truth with specific examples from our own life, we are potentially in a position to do something. We can learn to anticipate egocentric self-deception. For one thing, we can educate ourselves about the signs of it. We look for signs of shutting down - not really listening to those who disagree with us, stereotyping those who disagree with us, ignoring relevant evidence, reacting in an emotional manner, and rationalizing our irrational behavior (thinking of justifications for our behavior that have little to do with our actual motivation).
Consider the following examples:
You are driving to work. You fail to notice that the off-ramp of your exit is near. You recognize it at the last moment. You cut off someone to get to the off-ramp. He blows his horn at you and shouts. You shout back. You then are cut off by yet another car in a few minutes, and you blow your horn and shout at him.
During these events you feel an inner sense of "rightness." After all, you had to get to work on time. You didn't mean to cut anyone off, but the other guy clearly had no right to cut you off. We often use this kind of simplistic thinking when we deceive ourselves. We ignore evidence against our view. We highlight evidence for our view. We experience negative emotions accordingly. And we easily feel an acute sense of righteousness about how we think, feel, and act.
You come home after a bad day at work. Your teenage son is playing music loudly and singing in the kitchen. You say, "Could we please have some peace and quiet around here for once!" Your son says, "What's bugging you?" You stomp out of the room, go to your room and slam the door. You stay there for an hour, feeling depressed and angry. You come out and your children and spouse are chatting in the kitchen. They ignore you. You say, "Well, I can see that no one needs me around here!" You walk out, slamming the door.
Sometimes in cases like this we recover from our egocentric immediacy after we cool off. But during the actual events that set us off, we feel righteous in our anger and justified in our depression. We have no trouble thinking of reasons to feed our righteousness or intensify our anger. We can dig up grievances from the past. We can go over them in our mind, blowing them up as much as we care to. We do this with no sense of our own self-deception.
In principle we are capable of learning to catch ourselves in the process of engaging in deception or distortion. We can develop the habit of doing the following:
Test the Idea
Egocentric thinking, unlike rational thought, operates in a highly automatic, unconscious, and impulsive manner. Based in primitive, often "childish," thought patterns, it reacts to situations in programmed and mechanistic ways. We must recognize, therefore, that it often will spring into action before we have a chance to sidestep or prevent it. It fights. It flees. It denies. It represses. It rationalizes. It distorts. It negates. It scapegoats. And it does all of these in the blink of an eye with no conscious awareness of its deceptive tricks.
Because we know that the irrational mind operates in predictable, preprogrammed, automated ways, we become interested observers of the egocentric mechanisms of our own mind. We begin to observe the mechanistic moves our mind makes. Rather than allowing thoughts to operate strictly at the unconscious level, we can actively strive to raise them to conscious realization, as Piaget put it. We can work to bring them into full consciousness. This typically will be after the fact - especially in the beginning of our development as critical thinkers. After a time, when we become keenly aware of how our personal ego functions, we can often forestall egocentric reactions by the prior activity of rational thought.
For instance, as presented in key idea #7, we can begin to recognize when our mind rationalizes in patterned ways. We also can become familiar with the kinds of rationalization our mind tends to use. For example, "I don't have time to do this!" may be a favorite rationalization. We could limit its use by remembering the insight, "People always have time for the things most important to them." We then are forced to face the truth about what we are doing: "I don't want to make room in my priorities for this," or "Since I continually say this is important to me, I'm only deceiving myself by saying, 'but I don't have time for it.'"
Over time and with practice, we can begin to notice when we are denying some important truth about ourselves. We can begin to see when we are refusing to face some reality rather than dealing with it openly and directly. We can begin to recognize when we are automatically thinking in a dishonest way, in attempting to avoid working on a solution to a problem.
In principle, then, we can study the tricks and stratagems of our mind to determine its automated patterns. Furthermore, and most important, we can learn to intervene to disengage irrational thought processes - if necessary after they have begun to operate. In short, we can refuse to be controlled by primitive desires and modes of thinking. We can actively work to replace automatic egocentric thinking with reflective rational thinking.
Test the Idea
When thinking irrationally or egocentrically, the human mind often seeks to achieve its goals by either dominating or submissive behavior. Put another way, when under the sway of egocentrism, we try to get our way either by dominating others or by gaining their support through outward submission to them. Bullying (dominating) and groveling (submitting) are often subtle in nature, but they are nonetheless common in human life.
Power is not bad in itself. We all need some power to rationally fulfill our needs. But in human life it is common for power to be sought as an end in itself, or used for unethical purposes. One of the most common ways for egocentric people and socio-centric groups to gain power is by dominating weaker persons or groups. Another way is by playing a subservient role toward a more powerful other to get what they want. Much of human history could be told in terms of the use of these two egocentric functions of individuals and groups. Much individual behavior can be understood by seeing the presence of these two patterns in the behavior of individuals.
Though everyone tends to use one of these behavior patterns more than the other, everyone uses both of them to some extent. Some children, for example, play a role of subservience toward their parents while abusively bullying other children. Of course, when a bigger and tougher bully comes along, the weaker bully often becomes subservient to the stronger one.
When we are egocentrically dominating or submitting, we do not readily recognize we are doing so. For example, people presumably attend rock concerts to enjoy the music. But members of the audience often act in a highly submissive (adoring, idolizing) way toward the musicians. Many people literally throw themselves at the feet of celebrities or take their own definition of significance from distantly attaching themselves to a celebrity, if only in their imagination. In like manner, sports fans often idolize and idealize their heroes, who appear bigger than life to them. If their team or their hero is successful, they vicariously feel successful and more powerful. "We really whipped them!" translates as, "I am important and successful just as my hero is."
Rational people may admire other people, but do not idolize or idealize them. Rational people may form alliances, but not ones in which they are dominated by others. They expect no one to submit to them blindly. They blindly submit to no one. Although none of us fully embodies this rational ideal, critical thinkers continually work toward it in all their relationships.
By the way, traditional male and female sex-role conditioning entails the man dominating the woman and the woman playing a submissive role toward her man. Women were to gain power by attaching themselves to powerful men. Men displayed power in achieving domination over women. These traditional roles are far from dead in present male/female relationships. For example, in many ways the media still portray men and women in traditional gender roles. Because of these and other societal influences, men tend to be more dominating than submissive. Conversely, women tend to be more submissive, especially in intimate relationships.
If we realize the prominent role that egocentric domination and submission play in human life, we can begin to observe our own behavior to determine when we are irrationally dominating or submitting to others. When we understand that the mind naturally uses numerous methods for hiding its egocentrism, we recognize that we must scrutinize our own mental functioning carefully to locate dominating and submissive patterns. With practice, we can begin to identify our own patterns of domination and submission. At the same time, we can observe others' behavior, looking for similar patterns. We can look closely at the behavior of our supervisors, our friends, our spouses, our children, our parents, noticing when they tend to irrationally dominate and/or submit to the will of others.
In short, the more we study patterns of domination and submission in human life, the more we are able to detect them in our own life and behavior. And only when we become adept at detecting them can we take steps toward changing them.
Test the Idea
Not only are humans naturally egocentric but we are also easily drawn into sociocentric thinking and behavior. Groups offer us security to the extent that we internalize and unthinkingly conform to their rules, imperatives, and taboos. Growing up, we learn to conform to many groups. Peer groups especially tend to dominate our life. Our unconscious acceptance of the values of the group leads to the unconscious standard: "It's true if we believe it." There seems to be no belief so absurd but that some group of humans irrationally accepts it as rational.
Not only do we accept the belief systems of the groups to which we belong, but also most important, we act on those belief systems. For example, many groups are anti-intellectual in nature. Groups may expect its members to adhere to any number of dysfunctional behaviors. For example, some youth groups expect members to abuse outsiders verbally and physically (as proof of power or courage). And some groups who share lunch together during the workweek engage in malicious gossip about others in the same work place.
In addition to face-to-face groups we are in, we are influenced indirectly by large-scale social forces that reflect our membership in society at large. For example, in capitalist societies, the dominant thinking is that people should strive to make as much money as possible, though this form of thinking, it might be argued, encourages people to accept a large gap between the haves and have-nots as right and normal.
Or consider this: Within mass societies the nature and solution to most public issues and problems are presented in sensationalized sound-bytes by the news media. As a result, people often come to think about complex problems in terms of simplistic media-fostered solutions. Many people are led to believe that expressions such as "Get tough with criminals!" and "Three strikes and you're out!" represent plausible ways to deal with complex social problems.
What is more, the portrayal of life in Hollywood movies exerts a significant influence on how we conceptualize our problems, our lives, and ourselves. Sociocentric influences are at work at every level of social life in both subtle and blatant ways. There are many socio-centric forces in society.
Humans are naturally sociocentric. We must take possession of the idea that, because we are all members of social groups, our behavior reflects the imperatives and taboos of the groups to which we belong. We all, to a greater or lesser degree, uncritically conform to the rules and expectations of the groups of which we are members. When we recognize this, we can begin to analyze and assess that to which we conform. We can actively analyze the rules and taboos of our peer groups and those we are aligned with. We can rationally think through the groups' expectations to determine the extent to which they are reasonable.
When we identify irrational expectations, we can refuse to adhere to those requirements. We can shift our group memberships from those that are flagrantly irrational to those that are more rational. Indeed, we can actively create new groups, groups that emphasize the importance of integrity and fair-mindedness, groups that encourage their members to develop independence of thought and work together in that pursuit.
Test the Idea
Or we can minimize the groups we belong to - except for the social groups we cannot escape. With respect to the large-scale socio-centric influences to which we are subjected by the mass media, we can develop an ongoing critical sensitivity that minimizes our falling prey to group influences. In short, by understanding our personal relationship to socio-centric thinking, we can begin to take charge of the influence that groups have over us. We can significantly reduce that influence
Significant development of one's rational capacities takes many years. The "gotta have it now" attitude prevalent in our culture creates a significant barrier to the development of higher-order human capacity. If we want to reap the benefits of a developed mind, there are no easy shortcuts. If we want to become better at reasoning through the complex issues we inevitably will face, we must be committed to that end. Just as baseball players must practice the moves of baseball again and again to be highly skilled at the game, so must committed thinkers.
Because we understand that daily practice is crucial to the development of our rational capacity, we can develop the habit of asking ourselves what we are doing today to further our intellectual growth. We realize that we must make it a habit to identify our selfish interests - and correct for their influence over our thinking. When we discover that our selfish nature is often driving the decisions we are making, we can intervene through good-faith empathy with alternative points of view.
We can develop the habit of assessing the extent to which we use the intellectual standards of clarity, accuracy, logical, significance, breadth, depth, and justifiability to assess and improve our thinking. For example, to develop the habit of checking our thoughts for clarity, we can regularly elaborate, and give examples and illustrations when we are presenting our views to others. We also can regularly ask others to elaborate, illustrate, and exemplify their ideas when they are expressing them to us. We can aim to develop similar habits with respect to using the other standards, and periodically assess ourselves to determine whether and to what extent those habits are developing. We can, and should, practice developing an inner voice that leads to routine questioning of others and ourselves.
Test the Idea
To develop a disciplined mind - a mind that takes responsibility for the quality of its inner workings and continually seeks to upgrade its abilities - presupposes two overlapping yet distinct principles. First, we must develop a deep understanding of how our mind functions. Concepts, principles, and theories serving this end are the focus of this resource. It is not enough to read about these concepts, principles, and theories, though. We must internalize them to the point that we can use them routinely to develop unique strategies for targeting and improving the quality of our thinking. When we haven't internalized them well enough to effectively improve our thinking, they are of little or no use to us.
Authentic strategic thinking is thinking that takes a principle or an idea from the theoretical plane and, following its implications on the practical plane, develops a course of action designed to improve what we think, feel, and act. As you think through your behavior, and the patterns of thought that now rule your life, the important question is: How are you going to take important ideas and work them into your thinking so your behavior and emotional life changes for the better? How will you move from abstract understanding to concrete improvements? Only when you are doing strategic thinking regularly - the strategic thinking outlined in this chapter - can you begin to significantly improve as a thinker.