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Key Idea #7: Egocentric Thinking Appears to the Mind as Rational

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.

Strategic Idea

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:

Situation 1

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.

Situation 2

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:

  1. Looking at all events from the point of view of those we disagree with, as well as from our own. If we are in a conversation, we can check ourselves by repeating to the person our understanding of what he or she is saying, and why.

  2. Becoming suspicious of our accounts of things whenever we seem completely correct to ourselves while those we disagree with seem completely wrong.

  3. Suspending judgment of people and events when we are in the throes of intensive emotions. Reserving judgment for moments when we can quietly question ourselves and review facts with relative objectivity.

Test the Idea
Recognizing and Replacing Irrational Thinking

Think of a situation you were in recently when you thought at the time that you were perfectly rational, which you now realize consisted of self-deception. Complete these statements:

  1. The situation was as follows…

  2. I behaved in the situation by…

  3. At the time, I thought I was rational because…

  4. Now I think I may have been irrational because…

  5. I rationalized my behavior by telling myself…

  6. The real reason I behaved the way I did is…

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