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Key Idea #4: Our Native Egocentrism Is a Default Mechanism

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!

Strategic Idea

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:

  1. We can analyze our goals and purposes. What am I really after in this situation? Are my goals reasonable? Am I acting in good faith? Do I have any hidden agenda?

  2. We can question the way we define problems and issues. Is this a reasonable way to put the question at issue? Am I biasing or loading the question by the way I am putting it? Am I framing the question in a self-serving way? Am I asking a question simply to pursue my selfish interests?

  3. We can assess the information base of our thinking. What information am I basing my thinking on? Is that a legitimate source of information? Is there another source of information I need to consider? Am I considering all the relevant information, or only the relevant information that supports my view? Am I distorting the weight of the information in a self-serving way, blowing some of the information out of proportion while diminishing the value of other relevant information? Am I egocentrically refusing to check on the accuracy of some information because, if I find out it is not accurate, I will be forced to change my view?

  4. We can rethink our conclusion or interpretation. Am I coming to an illogical conclusion because it is in my interest to do so? Am I refusing to look at this situation more logically because I simply don't want to, because if I do, I will have to behave differently?

  5. We can analyze the ideas or concepts we are using in our thinking. How am I using the ideas most basic to my thinking? Am I using words in keeping with educated usage, or am I slanting or misusing some words to serve my vested interest?

  6. We can identify and check our assumptions. What am I assuming or taking for granted? Are those assumptions reasonable? Are they in any way self-serving or one-sided? Am I making egocentric assumptions in my thinking (such as, "Everyone always dumps on me," or "Life should be without problems," or "There's nothing I can do; I'm trapped")? Are my expectations of others reasonable or am I assuming a double standard?

  7. We can analyze our point of view. Am I refusing to consider another relevant point of view so I can maintain my own self-serving view? Am I fully taking into account the viewpoint of others, or am I just going through the motions of "hearing" without actually listening to what others are saying? Put another way, am I honestly trying to understand the situation from another perspective, or am I merely trying to win an argument, to score points?

  8. We can follow through on the implications of our thinking. Am I genuinely thinking through the implications, or possible consequences, of my thoughts and behavior, or would I rather not consider them? Am I avoiding thinking through implications because I don't want to know what they are (because then I will be forced to change my thinking, to think more rationally about the situation)?

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:

  1. In this situation, my purpose was to convince my wife that my reasoning for choosing the movie I wanted was better than her reasoning. I realize my purpose was egocentric because, now that I think of it, my reasoning wasn't any better than hers. My true purpose was to get what I wanted, even if I had to manipulate my wife to get it.

  2. The key question I was posing was, "What do I need to say to convince (or really manipulate) her into going along with my choice of movies?" I now realize this question was egocentric because it is unethical to act in bad faith toward anyone, especially toward someone you say you love. My question was completely selfish and shows that I really didn't care at all what my wife wanted.

  3. The main information I used in my reasoning was the fact that I was paying for the movie, as well as information about how best to manipulate my wife. This would mainly be what I have learned about her through my experience. For example, she usually goes along with me if I push hard enough, because she likes to please me. Also, I have learned that if I tell her that she always ends up liking the movies I choose, that usually convinces her to go along with me. Now that I think about it, I don't know if she really likes those movies or just says she does to please me. I know that I used this information in an egocentric way because I wasn't trying to look at information that would support our choosing her movie, just information to support my position. I wasn't noticing how I was leaving out relevant information that would support her position.

  4. The main conclusions I came to were that we should choose the movie I wanted to watch, and that she probably would like it, too. I realize these conclusions were irrational because they were based completely on selfish thinking and just enabled me to feel good about choosing the movie I wanted.

  5. The key concepts I was using in my thinking were manipulation, because my main purpose was to manipulate her into going along with me, and the principle, "Whoever is paying for the movie should get to choose what we will watch." I realize I wasn't justified in using these concepts in my thinking, because they were completely self-serving and caused me to act in an unethical way.

  6. The main assumptions I was using in my thinking were: "If I can effectively manipulate my wife, I can get what I want. If my wife acts like she likes the movies I choose, she does like them. Whoever pays for the movie should get to choose it." I realize these assumptions were egocentrically formulated because they are not based in sound reasoning. And they were enabling me to justify my unethical behavior.

  7. The point of view from which I was reasoning was in seeing my wife as someone to be easily manipulated, and seeing myself as justified in choosing the movie because I was paying for it. I realize these points of view were egocentric because I never can be justified in acting in bad faith toward someone I love.

  8. The implications that followed from my thinking were that I was able to manipulate her, but she probably resented having to go along with my movie choice. Also, she was not able to enjoy the movie she wanted because I insisted on having my way. I realize these implications would not have occurred if I had been thinking and behaving rationally. If I had been rational, I would have thought and behaved in a way that demonstrated that I respected the desires of my wife. She would have enjoyed the time we spent together more by getting to watch what she wanted, and knowing that I was willing to do something for her rather than always expecting her to sacrifice for me.

Test the Idea
Focusing on the Logic of Your Egocentric Thinking

Identify a situation you were recently in that, in looking back on the situation, you realize you were probably irrational. Go through each of the elements of your reasoning as described in the strategy above, analyzing the justifiability of your thinking and behavior. Try to be as honest as you possibly can, remembering that our egocentrism is always ready to deceive us into thinking we are honest when we are not. Complete the following statements:

  1. The situation was as follows…

  2. In this situation, my purpose was…

  3. I realize my purpose was egocentric because…

  4. The key question I was posing was…

  5. I realize this question was egocentric because…

  6. The main information I used in my reasoning was…

  7. I know that I used this information in an egocentric way because…

  8. The main conclusions I came to were…

  9. I realize these conclusions were irrational because…

  10. The key concepts I was using in my thinking were…

  11. I realize I was not justified in using these concepts in this way, and that I was irrationally distorting them, because…

  12. The main assumptions I was using in my thinking were…

  13. I realize these assumptions were egocentrically formulated because…

  14. The point of view from which I was reasoning was…

  15. I realize this point of view was egocentric because…

  16. The implications that followed from my thinking were…

  17. I realize these implications would not have occurred if I had been thinking and behaving rationally. If I had been rational, I would have thought and behaved in the following way…

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