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Chapter 10. Taking Charge of Your Irrational Tendencies

Humans often engage in irrational behavior. We fight. We start wars. We kill. We are self-destructive. We are petty and vindictive. We "act out" when we don't get our way. We abuse our spouses. We neglect our children. We rationalize, project, and stereotype. We contradict and deceive ourselves in countless ways. We act inconsistently, ignore relevant evidence, jump to conclusions, and say and believe things that don't make good sense. We are our own worst enemy.

The ultimate motivating force behind human irrationality is best understood, we believe, as human egocentrism, the natural human tendency "to view everything within the world in relationship to oneself, to be self-centered" (Webster's New World Dictionary, 1999).

Egocentric Thinking

Egocentric thinking, then, results from the fact that humans do not naturally consider the rights and needs of others, nor do we naturally appreciate the point of view of others or the limitations in our own point of view. Humans become explicitly aware of our egocentric thinking only if specially trained to do so. We do not naturally recognize our egocentric assumptions, the egocentric way we use information, the egocentric way we interpret data, the source of our egocentric concepts and ideas, and the implications of our egocentric thought. We do not naturally recognize our self-serving perspective.

Humans live with the unrealistic but confident sense that we have fundamentally figured out the way things actually are, and that we have done this objectively. We naturally believe in our intuitive perceptions - however inaccurate they may be. Instead of using intellectual standards in thinking, humans often use self-centered psychological standards to determine what to believe and what to reject. Here are the most commonly used psychological standards in human thinking:

Test the Idea
Identifying Some of Your Irrational Tendencies

Using the above categories of irrational beliefs as a guide, identify at least one belief you hold in each of the categories:

  1. It's true because I believe it.

  2. It's true because my group believes it.

  3. It's true because I want to believe it.

  4. It's true because I have always believed it.

  5. It's true because it is in my selfish interest to believe it.

On a scale of 110 (10 equating with "highly irrational" and 1 with "highly rational"), where would you place yourself? Why?

If humans are naturally prone to assess thinking in keeping with the above criteria, it is not surprising that we, as a species, have not developed a significant interest in establishing and fostering legitimate intellectual standards. There are too many domains of our thinking that we, collectively, do not want to have questioned. We have too many prejudices that we do not want to be challenged. We are committed to having our selfish interests served. We are not typically concerned with protecting the rights of others. We are not typically willing to sacrifice our desires to meet someone else's basic needs. We do not want to discover that beliefs we have taken to be obvious and sacred might not be either. We will ignore any number of basic principles if doing so enables us to maintain our power or to gain more power and advantage.

Fortunately, humans are not always guided by egocentric thinking. Within each person are, metaphorically speaking, two potential minds: One emerges from innate egocentric, self-serving tendencies, and the other emerges from cultivated rational, higher-order capacities (if cultivated).

We begin this chapter by focusing on the problem of egocentric tendencies in human life (Figure 10.1). We then contrast this defective mode of thinking with its opposite: rational or reasonable thinking. We explore what it means to use our minds to create rational beliefs, emotions, and values - in contrast to egocentric ones. We then focus on two distinct manifestations of egocentric thinking: dominating and submissive behavior.

Figure 10.1. The logic of egocentrism.

Logic of Egocentrism

Understanding Egocentric Thinking

Egocentric thinking emerges from our innate human tendency to see the world from a narrow self-serving perspective. We naturally think of the world in terms of how it can serve us. Our instinct is to continually operate within the world, to manipulate situations and people, in accordance with our selfish interests.

At the same time, we naturally assume that our thinking is rational. No matter how irrational or destructive our thinking is, when we are operating from an egocentric perspective, we see our thinking as reasonable. Our thinking seems to us to be right, true, good, and justifiable. Our egocentric nature, therefore, creates perhaps the most formidable barrier to critical thinking.

We inherit from our childhood the sense that we have basically figured out the truth about the world. We naturally believe in our sense of who and what we are. Therefore, if we behave or think irrationally, we are, in a sense, victims of the beliefs and thought processes we have developed through life (because egocentric thinking is commanding us).

As we age, our rational capacities develop to some extent. We come to think more reasonably in some areas of our lives. This can come from explicit instruction or experience. If we are in an environment that models reasonable behavior, we become more reasonable. Yet it is hard to imagine making significant inroads into egocentric thinking unless we become explicitly aware of it and learn how to undermine or short-circuit it in some way. The human mind can think irrationally in too many ways while masking itself within a facade of reasonability.

Test the Idea
Beginning to Understand Egocentric Thinking

Try to think of a disagreement you were in recently in which you now realize that you were not fair-mindedly listening to the views of someone else. Perhaps you were defensive during the conversation, or were trying to dominate the other person. You were not trying to see the situation from the perspective of the person with whom you were interacting. At the time, however, you believed that you were being reasonable. Now you realize that you were being close-minded. Complete these statements:

  1. The situation was as follows...

  2. My behavior/thinking in the situation was as follows...

  3. I now realize that I was close-minded because...

If you cannot think of an example, think of a situation that you were in recently in which someone else was being close-minded. Also, ask yourself why you cannot think of any examples of close-mindedness on your part.

The mere appearance of rationality, of course, is not equivalent to its genuine presence. And, unfortunately, much rational adult behavior is at root, egocentric or sociocentric. This stems, in part, from the fact that people generally do not have a clear understanding of how the human mind functions. Most important, they fail to realize that thinking, if left to itself, is inherently flawed with prejudices, half-truths, biases, vagueness, arrogance, and the like

Understanding Egocentrism as a Mind Within the Mind

Egocentric thinking functions subconsciously, like a mind within us that we deny we have. No one says, "I think I will think egocentrically for a while." Its ultimate goals are gratification and self-validation (Figure 10.2). It does not respect the rights and needs of others - though it may be protective of those with whom it ego-identifies. When we are thinking egocentrically, we see ourselves as right and just. We see those who disagree with us as wrong and unjustified.

Figure 10.2. This figure shows the two fundamental motives behind egocentric thinking.

Motives of Egocentric Thinking

Our family, our children, our country, our religion, our beliefs, our feelings, our values are all specially privileged in our egocentric mind. Our validation is crucial to us, and we seek it even if we have been unfair to others or irresponsibly harmed them in a flagrant way. We are interested only in facts we can twist to support us. We dislike or fear people who point out our inconsistencies. If we criticize ourselves, it is not the occasion for significantly changing our behavior but, rather, the means of avoiding such change. For example, if I say, "I know I have a short fuse, but I can't help it. I lose my temper just like my father did!" My criticism justifies my continuing to lose my temper.

One of the ways we use egocentric thinking, then, is to validate our current belief system. When we feel internally validated, we live comfortably with ourselves even if what we are doing is actually unethical. For example, if I am brought up to believe that people of a certain race are inferior, my egocentric thinking enables me to maintain all of the following beliefs: 1) I am not prejudiced (they simply are inferior); 2) I judge each person I meet on his or her own merits; 3) I am an open-minded person.

With these beliefs operating in my thinking, I do not see myself as jumping to conclusions about members of this race. I do not think of myself as wronging them in any way. I see myself as simply recognizing them for what they are. Though I ignore the evidence that demonstrates the falsity of what I believe, I do not see myself ignoring the evidence. I do not think of myself as a racist, for being a racist is bad, and I am not bad.

Only when we explicitly develop our ability to rationally analyze ourselves can we begin to see these tendencies in ourselves. When we do, it is almost never at the precise moments when our egocentric mind is in control. Once egocentric thinking begins to take control, it spontaneously rationalizes and deceives itself into believing that its position is the only justifiable position. It sees itself as experiencing the truth, no matter how inaccurate a picture of things it is painting. This skilled deceiving of self effectively blocks reasonable thoughts from correcting distorted ones. And the more highly self-deceived we are, the less likely we are to recognize our irrationality, the less likely we are to consider relevant information that our egocentricity is blocking from our view, and the less motivated we are to develop truly rational beliefs and views.

Test the Idea
Discovering Prejudices in Your Beliefs

As egocentric thinkers, we see ourselves as possessing the truth. At the same time, we form many beliefs without the evidence to justify them. We form many prejudices (judgments before the evidence). If this is true, we should be able to begin to unearth some of our prejudices, using our rational capacity. In an attempt to begin this process, complete the following statements:

  1. One of the prejudices I have is... (Think of generalizations you tend to make even though you don't have the evidence to justify them. They can be about anything you please: a religion, atheists, men, women, homosexuals, heterosexuals, and so on. Put your prejudice in this form: All x are y, as in all women are ??, or all men are ??.)

  2. A more rational belief with which I should replace this faulty belief is...

  3. If I use this new belief in my thinking, my behavior would change in the following ways...

"Successful" Egocentrism

Though egocentric thinking is irrational by nature, it can be functional within a dysfunctional logic. For example, it often enables us to selfishly get what we want without having to worry about the rights of the people we deny in getting what we want. This type of thinking - though defective from the points of evidence, sound reasoning, objectivity, and fair play - is often "successful" from the point of view of self-gratification. Hence, though egocentric thinking is inherently flawed, it can be successful in achieving what it is motivated to achieve.

We see this in many persons of power and status in the world - successful politicians, lawyers, businesspeople, and others. They are often skilled in getting what they want and are able to rationalize unethical behavior with great sophistication. The rationalization can be as simple as "This is a hard, cruel world. One has to be realistic. We have to realize we don't live in a perfect world. I wish we did. And, after all, we are doing things the way things have always been done." Conversely, rationalization can be as complex as that masked in a highly developed philosophy, ideology, or party platform.

Hence, though egocentric thinkers may use ethical terms in their rationalizations, they are not responsive to ethical considerations. They do not, in fact, respect ethical principles. They think of ethical principles only when those ethical principles seem to justify their getting what they want for other reasons.

Egocentric thinking, then, is inherently indifferent to ethical principles or genuine conscience. We cannot be exclusively focused at one, and the same time, on getting what we selfishly want and genuinely taking into account the rights and needs of others. The only time egocentric thinking takes others into account is when it is forced to take others into account to get what it wants. Hence, an egocentric politician may take into account the views of a public-interest group only when her re-election depends on their support. She is not focused on the justice of their cause but, rather, on the realization that if she fails to publicly validate those views, that group will refuse to support her re-election. She cares only about what is in her selfish interest. As long as the concern is selfish, by definition, the rights and needs of others are not perceived as relevant.

Corporate executives who ensure that the expected earnings of the company are significantly overstated (to enable them to sell out their stock at a high price) cause innocent people to lose money investing in a company that appears to be (but is not) on the upswing. Most CEOs who manipulate data in this way do not worry about the well being of potential investors. Their justification must be, "Let the buyer beware!" By using this type of justification, they don't have to face the unethical nature of their behavior.

Highly skilled egocentric thought can be generated in every type of human situation, from situations involving the rights and needs of thousands of people to simple, everyday interactions between two people. Imagine that a couple, Max and Maxine, routinely go to the video store to rent movies. Inevitably Max wants to rent an action-packed movie while Maxine wants to rent a love story. Though Maxine is often willing to set aside her choices to go along with Max's desires, Max is never willing to go along with Maxine's choices. Max rationalizes his position to Maxine, telling her that his movie choices are better because they are filled with thrilling action, because love stories are always slow-moving and boring, because his movies are always award-winners, because "no one likes to watch movies that make you cry," because, because, because... . Many reasons are generated. Yet all of them camouflage the real reasons: that Max simply wants to get the types of movies he likes, that he shouldn't have to watch movies that he does not want to watch. In his mind, he should get to do it because he wants to. Period.

Max's egocentrism hides the truth even from himself. He is unable to grasp Maxine's viewpoint. He cannot see how his self-centered thinking adversely affects Maxine. Insofar as his thinking works to achieve his desires, and he is therefore unable to detect any flaws in his reasoning, he is egocentrically successful.

Test the Idea
Recognizing Egocentric Thinking in Action

Think of a situation in which someone you know was trying to selfishly manipulate you into doing something incompatible with your interest. Complete the following statements:

  1. The situation was as follows...

  2. This person, x, was trying to manipulate me in the following way (by giving me these reasons for going along with him/her)...

  3. At the time, these reasons (did/did not) seem rational because...

  4. I now believe this person was trying to manipulate me because...

  5. I think the real (irrational) reason why he/she wanted me to go along with his/her reasoning is because...

"Unsuccessful" Egocentrism

When egocentric thought is unsuccessful, it creates problems not only for those influenced by the thinker but also for the thinker (Figure 10.3). Let's return to Max and Maxine and the movies for a moment. Imagine that for many months Max and Maxine go through this video-store routine in which, through self-serving argumentation, Max is able to manipulate Maxine into going along with his video choices. But one day Maxine decides that she simply isn't going along with Max's selfish behavior in choosing which movie to rent. She begins to feel resentment toward Max. She begins to think that perhaps Max isn't truly concerned about her. The more she thinks about it, the more she begins to see that Max is selfish in the relationship in a number of ways. Not only is he unwilling to go along with her movie choices, but he also tries to control where they go to lunch every day, when they eat lunch, when they visit with friends, and so on.

Figure 10.3. These are some of the many feelings that might accompany egocentric thinking. They often occur when egocentric thinking is "unsuccessful."

Unsuccessful Egocentric Thinking

Maxine begins to feel manipulated and used by Max, and out of her resentment emerges a defensive attitude toward Max. She rebels. She no longer simply goes along with Max's unilateral decisions. She begins to tell him when she doesn't agree with his choices.

At this point, the table is turned for Max. His egocentric thinking is no longer working for him. He feels anger when he doesn't get his way. Because he lacks insight into his dysfunctional thinking, though, he doesn't realize that he is actually treating Maxine unfairly.

Because Maxine's resentment is now leading to acts of retaliation on her part, Max's life is less successful than it was. Maxine may end up deciding that she is not going to happily agree to Max's movie choices in the future. Her resentment may lead her to seek subtle ways to punish Max for his unfair treatment of her. If she does go along with his movie choices, she might sulk the entire time they are watching the movie. They may both become unhappy as a result of Maxine's rebellion and interrelate in a perpetual state of war, as it were.

This is merely one pattern in a myriad of possible patterns of egocentric thinking leading to personal or social failure. Egocentric thinking and its social equivalent, sociocentric thinking, can lead to social prejudice, social conflict, warfare, genocide, and a variety of forms of dehumanization. Though on occasion some person or group might be "successful" as a result of the ability to wield superior power, quite often the consequences will be highly negative for themselves, as well as their victims. Consider a gang that randomly chooses a person to harass who is wearing the same color sweatshirt that is its group "color." The members begin with verbal assaults, which quickly lead to physical attacks, which in turn result in serious injury to the victim. Consequently, the gang members responsible for the attack are arrested on suspicion, then found guilty of a serious crime, which leads to their imprisonment.

Even if it does not cause direct harm to others, egocentric thinking may lead to chronic self-pity or depression. When problems emerge, it is easy to revert to this type of thinking:

I don't know why I should always get the short end of the stick. Just when I think things are going well for me, I have to face another problem. Is there no end? Life seems to be nothing but one problem after another. My boss doesn't think I'm doing a good enough job. My wife is always complaining about something I do. My kids are always getting into trouble at school. And now I've got to figure out how to deal with this car. Life is just a pain in the neck. I don't know why things don't ever go my way.

Egocentric, self-pitying persons fail to recognize the positives in life. They screen these out in favor of self-pity. They inflict unnecessary suffering on themselves. They say to themselves, "I have a right to feel all the self-pity I want, given the conditions of my life." In situations such as this, because the mind is unable to correct itself, it is its own victim. It chooses to focus on the negative and engage in self-punitive behavior (Figure 10.4).

Figure 10.4. Problems in thinking can be either egocentrically or nonegocentrically based.

Problems in Thinking

That is not all. Important moral implications follow from adult egocentrism and socio-centrism. Thinking that ignores the rights and needs of others will necessarily violate those rights and needs. Hence, for example, when humans are under the sway of highly sociocentric thinking, that thinking places the desires and aspirations of the group in a privileged position over other groups. One consequence resulting from such thinking is that the needs and desires of other groups are systematically ignored for the "in group" to justify getting its way. The double standards of the "in group" are camouflaged. To be sure, history is replete with examples of social groups imposing on other groups pain, suffering, and deprivation that they would object to if it were inflicted on them. The inconsistencies characteristic of hypocrisy easily avoid our notice when we are under the sway of socio-centrism.

Test the Idea
Unearthing Dysfunctional Egocentric Thinking

Try to think of a time when your desire to selfishly get what you wanted failed because of your egocentric behavior. Complete these statements:

  1. The situation was as follows...

  2. When I didn't get what I wanted, I thought ... and behaved...

  3. A more rational way to think would have been...

  4. A more rational way to act would have been...

Rational Thinking

Although irrationality plays a significant role in human life, human beings are in principle capable of thinking and behaving rationally. Humans can learn to respect evidence even though it does not support their views. We can learn to enter empathically into the viewpoint of others. We can learn to attend to the implications of our own reasoning and behavior. We can become compassionate. We can make sacrifices for others. We can work with others to solve important problems. We can discover our tendency to think egocentrically and begin to correct for that tendency.

Hence, though egocentrism causes us to suffer from illusions of perspective, we can transcend these illusions by practicing the thinking that takes us into the perspective of others. Just as we can assimilate what we hear into our own perspective, so can we learn to role-play the perspectives of others. Just as egocentrism can keep us unaware of the thinking process that guides our behavior, critical thinking can help us learn to explicitly recognize that thinking process. Just as we can take our own point of view to be absolute, we also can learn to recognize that our point of view is always incomplete and sometimes blatantly self-serving. Just as we can remain completely confident in our ideas even when they are illogical, we can learn to look for lapses of logic in our thinking and recognize those lapses as problematic (Figure 10.5).

Figure 10.5. The logic of the nonegocentric mind.

Logic of the Non-Egocentric Mind

We need not continually confuse the world with our own perspective of the world. We can learn to consider and understand others' points of view, to see situations from more than one point of view. We can learn to assess our thinking for soundness. We can strive to become conscious of it as we develop our "second nature."

Each of us has at least the potential for developing a rational mind and using that development to resist or correct for egocentric thought patterns (Table 10.1). This requires a certain level of command over the mind that few people have. It involves disciplined thinking. It means holding oneself accountable. It means developing an inner voice that guides thinking so as to improve it. It means thinking through the implications of thinking before acting. It involves identifying and scrutinizing our purposes and agendas, explicitly checking for egocentric tendencies. It involves identifying irrational thinking and transforming it into reasonable thinking.

Let us imagine the case of Todd and Teresa, who are dating. Todd finds himself feeling jealous when Teresa talks with another man. Then Todd recognizes the feeling of jealousy as irrational. Now he can intervene to prevent his egocentric nature from asserting itself. He can ask himself questions that enable him to begin to distance himself from his "ego." "Why shouldn't she talk to other men? Do I really have any good reason for distrusting her? If not, why is her behavior bothering me?"

Table 10.1
This table compares the tendencies of inherent egocentric thinking with those of cultivated nonegocentric thinking.

The Egocentric Mind

The Nonegocentric Mind

Pursues selfish interests at the expense of the rights, needs, and desires of others while stunting development of the rational mind

Seeks self-validation

Can be inflexible (unless it can achieve its selfish interests through flexibility

Is selfish

Makes global, sweeping positive or negative generalizations

Distorts information and ignores significant information

Reacts with negative, counterproductive emotions when it fails to have desires met

Respects the needs and desires of others while pursuing its own needs and desires and is motivated to develop itself, to learn, to grow intellectually

Is flexible, adaptable

Strives to be fair-minded

Strives to accurately interpret information

Strives to gather and consider all relevant information

Reacts rationally to situations by taking charge of emotions and using emotional energy productively

Through this sort of self-scrutinizing, reasonable persons seek to understand what lies behind their motivation. They come to terms with their own egocentrism. They establish relationships characterized by reasonability and mutual respect. Rational thinking, then, is flexible, disciplined, and fair-minded in its approach. It is able to chart its own course while adhering to ethical demands. It guides itself deliberately away from irrational tendencies in itself.

Thus, just as unconscious, self-deceptive thinking is the vehicle for accomplishing irrational ends, conscious self-perceptive thinking is the vehicle for achieving rational ends (Figure 10.6). An intrinsic dimension of rational thinking, therefore, is raising to the conscious level all instinctive irrational thought. We cannot improve by ignoring our bad habits, only by breaking them down. This requires admitting we have bad habits. And it requires an active self-analytic stance.

Figure 10.6. At any given moment, depending on the situation, the three functions of the mind are controlled by either egocentric or nonegocentric thinking.

Egocentric or Non-Egocentric Control

Following this line of reasoning, a rational act is one that is able to withstand reasonable criticism when brought entirely into the open. All thought that we cannot entirely own up to should be suspect to us. Like a contract with many pages of fine print that the contract writer hopes the reader will not explicitly understand, the egocentric mind operates to hide the truth about what it is actually doing. It hides the truth both from itself and from others, all the while representing itself as reasonable and fair.

Rational thinking, in contrast, is justified by the giving of good reasons. It is not self-deceptive. It is not a cover for a hidden agenda. It is not trapped within one point of view when other points of view are relevant. It strives to gather all relevant information and is committed to self-consistency and integrity. Reasonable people seek to see things as they are, to understand and experience the world richly and fully. Reasonable people are actively engaged in life, willing to admit when they are wrong, and to learn from their mistakes. Indeed, they want to see themselves as wrong when they are wrong.

To develop your rational capacities, then, you have to understand that at any given moment, your thoughts, feelings, and desires can be controlled either by egocentric or by rational thinking. For your rational mind to prevail over your egocentric tendencies, you will function in a way analogous to that of the orchestra leader. The leader controls the process of musical production, maintains discipline within the orchestra, assesses the quality of the sounds, listens for flaws in delivery and points out those flaws for correction, and, through routine scrutiny and continual practice, is finally able to elicit music of high quality.

For you to reach more of your rational potential, you must become a student of the interplay between rational and irrational thought and motivation in your life. You must come to see that, ultimately, your thinking is what is controlling who and what you are, determining the essential quality of your life.

Test the Idea
To What Extent Are You Rational?

Now that you have read an introduction to rationality and irrationality (egocentrism), think about the extent to which you think you are either rational or irrational. Answer these questions:

  1. If you were to divide yourself into two parts, one being egocentric and the other rational, to what extent would you say you are either? Would you say you are 100% rational, 50% rational and 50% egocentric, or how would you divide yourself?

  2. What reasoning would you give to support your answer to number 1 above? Give examples from your life.

  3. To the extent that you are egocentric, what problems does your egocentrism cause?

  4. Does your egocentric thinking tend to cause more problems for yourself or for others? Explain.

Two Egocentric Functions

We have introduced you to the distinction between rationality and irrationality. Now we will discuss two distinctively different patterns of egocentric thinking. Both represent general strategies the egocentric mind uses to get what it wants and ways of irrationally acquiring power.

First let's focus on the role that power plays in everyday life. All of us need to feel that we have some power. If we are powerless, we are unable to satisfy our needs. Without power, we are at the mercy of others. Virtually all that we do requires the exercise of some kind of power, whether small or large. Hence, the acquisition of power is essential for human life. But we can pursue power through either rational or irrational means, and we can use the power we get to serve rational or irrational ends.

Two irrational ways to gain and use power are given in two distinct forms of egocentric strategy:

  1. The art of dominating others (a direct means to getting what one wants);

  2. The art of submitting to others (as an indirect means to getting what one wants).

Insofar as we are thinking egocentrically, we seek to satisfy our egocentric desires either directly, by exercising overt power and control over others, or indirectly, by submitting to those who can act to serve our interest. To put it crudely, the ego either bullies or grovels. It either threatens those weaker or subordinates itself to those more powerful, or both.

Both of these methods for pursuing our interests are irrational, both fundamentally flawed, because both are grounded in unjustified thinking. Both result from the assumption that an egocentric persons' needs and rights are more important than those they exploit for their advantage. We will briefly explore these two patterns of irrational thinking, laying out the basic logic of each.

Before we discuss these patterns, one caveat is in order. As we have mentioned, many situations in life involve using power. However, using power need not imply an inappropriate use. For example, in a business setting, hierarchical protocol requires managers to make decisions with which their employees may not agree. The responsibility inherent in the manager's position calls for that manager to use his or her power to make decisions. Indeed, managers who are unable to use the authority vested in their positions are usually ineffective. They are responsible for ensuring that certain tasks are completed. Therefore, they must use their power to see those tasks to completion. Of course that does not justify their using power unjustifiably to serve selfish ends.

The use of power, then, is and must be part of human life. The fundamental point is that power can be used either rationally or irrationally, depending on the motivation and manner of the person wielding it. Thus, if power is used to serve rational ends, and pursues those ends in a reasonable manner, it is justified. In contrast, if power is used to control and manipulate others for irrational, self-serving ends, that is another matter entirely.

Let us now turn to the two predominant patterns of irrational thinking that all of us use to the extent that we are egocentric. The first we refer to as the dominating ego function: "I can get what I want by fighting my way to the top." The second we term the submissive ego function: "I can get what I want by pleasing others." The egocentric mind chooses one over the other either through habit or through an assessment of the situation (Figure 10.7). For example, it can either forcefully displace those at the top or please those on top and gain its desires thereby. Of course, we must remember that these choices and the thinking that accompanies them function subconsciously.

Figure 10.7. Whenever we think egocentrically to serve our interests, we attempt to either dominate or submit to others.

Egocentric Thinking Strategies

Dominating Egocentrism

Between the two functions of egocentric thinking, perhaps the one more easily understood is the dominating function - or the dominating ego, as we usually will refer to it for the purposes of this chapter. When we are operating within this mode of thinking, we are concerned, first and foremost, to get others to do precisely what we want by means of power over them. Thus, the dominating ego uses physical force, verbal intimidation, coercion, violence, aggression, "authority," and any other form of overt power to achieve its agenda. It is driven by the fundamental belief that to get what we want, we must control others in such a way that were they to resist us, we could force them to do what we want. At times, of course, domination may be quite subtle and indirect, with a quiet voice and what appears to be a mild manner.

For examples of the dominating ego at work, we need only to look to the many people who are verbally or physically abused by their spouses, or the many children similarly abused by their parents. The basic unspoken pattern is, "If others don't do what I want, I force them to do it." Or consider the man in a bar who gets into a fight to force another man away from his girlfriend. His purpose, on the surface, is to protect her. In reality, his purpose may be to ensure that she won't be tempted into a romantic relationship with someone else, or embarrass him in front of his peers.

Domination over others typically generates feelings of power and self-importance (Figure 10.8). Through self-deception, it also commonly entails a high sense of self-righteousness. The dominator is typically arrogant. To the dominator, control over others seems to be right and proper. The dominator uses force and control "for the good" of the person being dominated. The key is that there is self-confirmation and self-gain in using power and forcing others to submit. One key is that others must undergo undeserved inconvenience, pain, suffering, or deprivation as a result.

Figure 10.8. The logic of the dominating ego.

The Dominating Ego Logic

Given these mutually supporting mental structures, it is difficult for those who successfully dominate others to recognize any problems in their own behavior or reasoning. Why change when, in your mind, you are doing what ought to be done? Hence, as long as the dominating ego is "successful," it experiences positive emotions. To the extent that it is "unsuccessful" - unable to control, dominate, or manipulate others - it experiences negative emotions.

When control is the goal, negative emotions frequently generated from the frustrated failure to control include anger, rage, wrath, rancor, hostility, antagonism, depression, and sadness. Consider the abusive husband who, for many years, is successfully able to control his wife. When she decides to leave him, he may go into a fit of rage and kill her, and perhaps even himself. As long as he thinks he is in control of her, he feels satisfied. But when he no longer can dominate her, his irrational anger may well lead him to the extreme of physical violence.

Examples of the kinds of thinking that dominating persons use in justifying their irrational controlling behavior are:

Given these subconscious beliefs and thoughts, it follows that people who operate primarily from the dominating ego would be likely to have difficulties in interpersonal relationships, especially when they come up against another dominating ego or against a strong rational person.

Another benchmark of the dominating ego is its propensity to impose higher standards on others than it imposes on itself. For example, it may require something near perfection in others while ignoring blatant flaws in itself. For a simple, everyday example, we can turn to what often happens in traffic jams. People frequently drive as if their "rights" were sacred ("No one should ever cut me off.") while they frequently cut off others ("I have to get into this lane - too bad if others have to wait."). In short, the dominating ego expects others to adhere to rules and regulations it has the "right" to thrust aside at will.

From an ethical point of view, those who seek control over others frequently violate the rights, and ignore the needs, of others. Selfishness and cruelty are common in these people. It is, of course, difficult to gain any ground by reasoning with people who are under the sway of their dominating ego, for they will use any number of intellectual dodges to avoid taking moral responsibility for their behavior.

Test the Idea
To What Extent are You Egocentrically Dominating?

Think about your typical patterns of interaction with friends, family members, fellow workers, and others. Complete the following statements:

  1. I tend to be the most (egocentrically) dominating in the following types of situations...

  2. Some examples of my dominating behavior are...

  3. I usually am successful/unsuccessful in dominating others. My strategy is...

  4. My controlling behavior creates problems because...

In the next section, we lay out the logic of egocentric submissive thinking, thinking that seeks power and security through attachment to those who dominate and wield power. Again we are not assuming that everyone who has power has achieved it by dominating others. They may well have achieved it through rational means. With this caveat in mind, let us begin with a basic outline of the submissive ego.

Submissive Egocentrism

If the hallmark of the dominating ego is control over others, the hallmark of the submissive ego is strategic subservience (Figure 10.9). When in this mode of thinking, people gain power not through the direct struggle for power but, instead, through subservience to those who have power. They submit to the will of others to get those (powerful) others to act in their selfish interest. In this way, people with submissive egos gain indirect power. To be successful, they learn the arts of flattery and personal manipulation. They must become skilled actors and actresses, appearing to be genuinely interested in the well being and interests of the other while in reality pursuing their own interest through the other. At the same time, they must hide this mode of functioning from themselves, as they have to maintain some level of self-respect. If they had to consciously admit to themselves that they were submitting to others to have their own way, they would have trouble feeling justified.

Figure 10.9. The logic of the submissive ego.

The Submissive Ego Logic

There are countless examples of this mode of functioning in everyday life. The teenage female, for example, who pretends to enjoy fishing (while being inwardly bored by it) so her boyfriend will like her better is engaging in this type of thinking. She submits to his desires and his will only because she wants to gain specific ends (of having a prestigious boyfriend, gaining attention from him, feeling secure in the relationship, and so on). Though she readily agrees to go fishing with him, she probably will end up resenting having done so in the long run - especially once she secures his commitment to her. By virtue of the bad faith implicit in the strategies of the submissive ego, it is common for resentment eventually to develop in the person who functions consistently in this mindset.

If the pattern of thinking of the submissive ego takes root in the young woman we just imagined, she eventually might marry a financially secure man so she can be taken care of, will not have to work, and can enjoy the luxuries of a life without personal sacrifice. Consciously she may deceive herself into believing she loves the man. Yet, because she does not relate to him rationally, the relationship is likely to be dysfunctional.

A similar pattern often occurs in social groups. Within most groups there will be a structure of power, with some playing a dominant and others a submissive role.

Most people will play both roles, depending on the situation. Nazi Germany and the ideology of Fascism provide an excellent example of a system that simultaneously cultivated both dominating and submissive behavior. In this system, nearly everyone had to learn to function within both egocentric types, depending on the context. A hierarchy was established in which everyone was required to give absolute obedience to those above them and to have absolute authority over everyone below them. Only Hitler did not have to use the strategy of submission, as there was no one for him to submit to. Theoretically, no one in such a system has to rationally persuade anyone below him or her in the system. The expectation is clear: Anyone below submits; anyone above dominates.

In the ideology of most human cultures, a greater place is officially given to the use of reason in human life than it was in Fascist society. Much of the official ideology of any society, however, is more window dressing than reality. Suffice it to say that because all societies are stratified and all stratified societies have a hierarchical structure of power, all societies, to date, encourage the thinking of the dominating and submissive ego.

Part of that stratification is found in work-related contexts. In many work situations, men and women alike feel forced to operate in a submissive manner toward their supervisors, allowing themselves to be dominated and manipulated by their superiors so they can stay in favor, keep their jobs, or get promotions.

Thus, the submissive ego operates through artifice and skillful self-delusion to ensure its security, advantage, and gratification. It engages in behavior that is compliant, servile, cowering, acquiescent, to achieve its objectives - though all of these characteristics may be highly disguised. It continually capitulates, defers, caves in, succumbs, and yields to the will of others to gain advantage and maintain its artificial self-esteem.

To avoid the feeling of caving in to superiors, one of the most effective image-saving devices is to adopt the point of view of the superior. In this case, the submission appears as simple agreement: "He didn't pressure me; I agree with him."

As long as the submissive ego achieves "success," it experiences positive emotions - satisfaction, happiness, fulfillment, pleasure, and the like. To the extent that it is not achieving its goals and fails to gain its ends through submission, however, it feels any of a number of negative emotions including bitterness, resentment, animosity, ill will, spitefulness, vindictiveness, enmity, antipathy, and loathing. What is more, depending on the situation, a sense of having failed may lead to insecurity, fear, helplessness, depression, and anxiety.

When unsuccessful, the submissive ego tends to punish itself inwardly, much more than the dominating ego, which, when experiencing pain, tends to respond by inflicting pain on others. Egocentric feelings mirror egocentric thought. Hence, when inflicting pain on itself, the submissive ego sees itself as justified in feeling bad. It experiences a form of sick pleasure in reminding itself that it has every reason to feel negative emotions.

Consider, for example, the woman who believes that her husband should deal with all the unpleasant decisions that have to be made. If he asks her to handle some of those decisions, she goes along with him but is resentful as a result. She may think thoughts such as:

Why should I have to deal with these unpleasant decisions? They are his responsibility. I always have to do the things he doesn't want to do. He doesn't really care about me because if he did, he wouldn't ask me to do this.

She feels justified in thinking these negative thoughts, and in a way she enjoys the feelings of resentment that accompany such thoughts.

The submissive ego often has a "successful" relationship with a person who functions within the dominating-ego mindset. The paradigm case of this phenomenon can be found in marriages in which the male dominates and the female submits. She submits to his will. He may require that she do all the household chores. In return, either implicitly or explicitly, he agrees to take care of her (serve as the primary bread-winner). Although she may at times resent his domination, she understands and, at some level, accepts the bargain. Through rationalization she convinces herself that she probably couldn't do better with any other man, that this one provides the comforts she requires, that in essence she can put up with his domineering behavior because the pay-offs are worth it.

Thus, the submissive ego can experience a form of dysfunctional "success" as long as it feels that it is having its desires met. Take the employee who behaves in a subservient manner to a verbally abusive manager in order to get promotions. As long as the manager takes care of the employee - by looking after his interests, by giving him the promotions he is striving toward - the employee has more positive feelings. When the manager ceases doing this, however, and therefore no longer seems to be concerned with the employee's needs and desires, the employee may feel degraded and resentful of the manager and the subservient role he is forced to play. If given an opportunity, he may turn on his supervisor.

As the submissive ego relates to others, its feelings, behaviors, and thoughts are controlled by beliefs deriving from its own subconscious sense of inferiority. To justify its need to submit to the desires and will of another person, it must perceive itself as inferior to that person. Otherwise it would be unable to rationalize its subservience. It would be forced to recognize its dysfunctional thinking and behavior. Consider the following unconscious beliefs that drive the thinking of the submissive ego:

As is true for all manifestations of egocentric thinking, none of these beliefs exists in a fully conscious form. They require self-deception. Otherwise the mind would immediately recognize them as irrational, dysfunctional, and absurd. Consequently, what the mind consciously tells itself is very different from the beliefs operating in egocentric functioning. Consider the first belief, "I must go along with this decision even though I don't agree with it. Otherwise I won't be accepted." The conscious thought parallel to this unconscious one is something like: "I don't know enough about the situation to decide for myself. Even though I'm not sure this is the right decision, I'm sure the others are in a better position than I to decide." This is the thought the mind believes it is acting upon, when in reality it is basing its reasoning on the other, unconscious belief. Thinking within this logic, the person is "dishonestly" going along with the decision, in a sense pretending to agree, but all the while doing so only to forward an agenda of acceptance.

In addition to serving as a major barrier to the pursuit of rational relationships, the submissive ego stunts the development of the rational mind, limiting its capacity for insight into self. The submissive ego is enabled to do this through any number of self-protecting beliefs:

Thus, the submissive ego, like the dominating ego, creates significant barriers to development. It routinely turns to others for help when it is capable of performing without that help. The submissive ego experiences frustration, anxiety, and even depression when it fails, or when it anticipates failure, in learning situations. Whereas the dominating ego believes it already knows what it needs to know, the submissive ego often believes it is incapable of learning.

Test the Idea
To What Extent are You Egocentrically Submissive?

Think about your typical patterns of interaction with friends, family members, fellow workers, and others. Complete the following statements:

  1. I tend to be the most (egocentrically) submissive in the following types of situations...

  2. Some examples of my submissive egocentric behavior are...

  3. I am usually successful/unsuccessful when I try to manipulate others through submissiveness. My strategy is...

  4. My submissive behavior creates problems because...

To What Extent are You Egocentrically Dominating Versus Submissive?

Think about your typical patterns of interaction with friends, family members, fellow workers, and others. Do you tend to be more dominating or submissive in most situations in which you are egocentric? What about your friends, family members, co-workers? Do they tend to be more dominating or submissive? Given your experience, what problems emerge from people behaving in dominating or submissive ways?

Pathological Tendencies of the Human Mind

We now can put explicitly into words an array of interrelated natural dispositions of the human mind that follow as consequences of the pathology of the natural mind. To significantly develop our thinking, we must overtly identify these tendencies as they operate in our lives, and we must correct them through critical-thinking processes. As you read them, ask yourself whether you recognize these as processes that take place regularly in your own mind (if you conclude, "not me!" think again):

Challenging the Pathological Tendencies of the Mind

It is not enough to recognize abstractly that the human mind has a predictable pathology. As aspiring critical thinkers, we must take concrete steps to correct it. This requires us to create the habit of identifying these tendencies in action. This is a long-term project that is never complete. To some extent, it is analogous to stripping off onion skins. After we remove one, we find another beneath it. To some extent, we have to strip off the outer layer to be able to recognize the one underneath. Each of the following admonitions, therefore, should not be taken as simple suggestions that any person could immediately, and effectively, put into action, but rather as strategic formulations of long-range goals. We all can perform these corrections, but only over time and only with considerable practice:

Correcting Egocentric Memory

We can correct our natural tendency to "forget" evidence and information that do not support our thinking and to "remember" evidence and information that do, by overtly seeking evidence and information that do not support our thinking and directing explicit attention to them. If you try and cannot find such evidence, you should probably assume you have not conducted your search properly.

Correcting Egocentric Myopia

We can correct our natural tendency to think in an absolutistic way within an overly narrow point of view by routinely thinking within points of view that conflict with our own. For example, if we are liberal, we can take the time to read books by insightful conservatives. If we are conservative, we can take the time to read books by insightful liberals. If we are North Americans, we can study a contrasting South American point of view or a European or Far-Eastern or Middle-Eastern or African point of view. If you don't discover significant personal prejudices through this process, you should question whether you are acting in good faith in trying to identify your prejudices.

Correcting Egocentric Righteousness

We can correct our natural tendency to feel superior in light of our confidence that we possess the truth by regularly reminding ourselves how little we actually know. In this case, we can explicitly state the unanswered questions that surround whatever knowledge we may have. If you don't discover that there is much more that you do not know than you do know, you should question the manner in which you pursued the questions to which you do not have answers.

Correcting Egocentric Hypocrisy

We can correct our natural tendency to ignore flagrant inconsistencies between what we profess to believe and the actual beliefs our behavior implies, and inconsistencies between the standards to which we hold ourselves and those to which we expect others to adhere. We can do this by regularly comparing the criteria and standards by which we are judging others with those by which we are judging ourselves. If you don't find many flagrant inconsistencies in your own thinking and behavior, you should doubt whether you have dug deeply enough.

Correcting Egocentric Oversimplification

We can correct our natural tendency to ignore real and important complexities in the world by regularly focusing on those complexities, formulating them explicitly in words, and targeting them. If you don't discover over time that you have oversimplified many important issues, you should question whether you have really confronted the complexities inherent in the issues.

Correcting Egocentric Blindness

We can correct our natural tendency to ignore facts or evidence that contradicts our favored beliefs or values by explicitly seeking out those facts and evidence. If you don't find yourself experiencing significant discomfort as you pursue these facts, you should question whether you are taking them seriously. If you discover that your traditional beliefs were all correct from the beginning, you probably moved to a new and more sophisticated level of self-deception.

Correcting Egocentric Immediacy

We can correct our natural tendency to overgeneralize immediate feelings and experiences by getting into the habit of putting positive and negative events into a much larger perspective. You can temper the negative events by reminding yourself of how much you have that many others lack. You can temper the positive events by reminding yourself of how much is yet to be done, of how many problems remain. You know you are keeping an even keel if you find that you have the energy to act effectively in either negative or positive circumstances. You know that you are falling victim to your emotions if and when you are immobilized by them.

Correcting Egocentric Absurdity

We can correct our natural tendency to ignore thinking that has absurd consequences by making the consequences of our thinking explicit and assessing them for their realism. This requires that we frequently trace the implications of our beliefs and their consequences in our behavior. For example, we should frequently ask ourselves: "If I really believed this, how would I act? Do I really act that way?"

By the way, personal ethics is a fruitful area for disclosing egocentric absurdity. We frequently act in ways that are "absurd" - given what we insist we believe in. If, after what you consider to be a serious search, you find no egocentric absurdity in your life, think again. You are probably just developing your ability to deceive yourself.

The Challenge of Rationality

If the human mind has a natural tendency toward irrationality, in the form of dominating and submissive ego functions, it also has a capacity for rationality, in the form of capacity for self-knowledge. We all have a tendency toward hypocrisy and inconsistency, but we nevertheless can move toward greater and greater integrity and consistency. We can counteract our natural tendency toward intellectual arrogance by developing our capacity for intellectual humility. Put another way, we can learn to continually question what we "know" to ensure that we are not uncritically accepting beliefs that have no foundation in fact.

Moreover, we can counteract our tendency to be trapped in our own point of view by learning how to enter sympathetically into the points of view of others. We can counteract our tendency to jump to conclusions by learning how to test our conclusions for their validity and soundness. We can counteract our tendency to play roles of domination or submission by learning how to recognize when we are doing so. We can begin to see clearly why submission and domination are inherently problematic. We can learn to search out options for avoiding either of these modes of functioning. And we can practice the modes of self-analysis and critique that enable us to learn and grow in directions that render us less and less egocentric. We will focus more extensively on learning to control our egocentrism in Chapter 16, on strategic thinking.

Westside Toastmasters on Meetup

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