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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.


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.


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.

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