There are two phases to strategic thinking. The first involves the understanding of an important principle of mental functioning. The second involves using that understanding strategically to produce a mental change in ourselves. In this chapter and the next, we move back and forth between important understandings and strategies based on them. Strategic thinking is the regularization of this practice. From understanding to strategy - and from strategy to self-improvement - is the pattern we are looking for. Using critical thinking strategies systematically to improve our lives is characteristic of the "practicing" thinker.
If I understand that the mind has three functions - thinking, feeling, and wanting - and that these functions are interdependent - by implication, I realize that any change in one of them is going to produce a parallel shift in the other two. It follows, then, that if I change my thinking, there should be some shift at the level of feeling and desire. For example, if I think you are insulting me, I will feel some resentment and a desire to respond to that insult.
By the same token, if I feel some emotion (say, sadness), my thinking will be influenced. It follows, then, that if I experience an irrational negative emotion or an irrational desire, I should, in principle, be able to identify the irrational thinking that is creating that feeling and desire.
Once I discover irrational thinking, I should be able to modify that thinking by more reasonable thinking. Finding the thinking to be irrational, I should be able to construct a more reasonable substitute. I can then work to replace the irrational with the rational thinking. As the new, reasonable thinking takes root, I should experience some shift in my emotions and desires. More reasonable emotions and desires should emerge from more reasonable thinking.
Now to a specific case. Suppose you are in competition for a promotion with a colleague that you do not like. Suppose also that this colleague is given the promotion and he is now supervising you and criticizing your work. Your interpretation of him and the situation will naturally lead to feelings of resentment on your part and a desire to see your colleague fail. Given your thinking and resultant feelings, it will be very hard for you to be "objective" about events. Part of your negative thinking and feelings may be subconscious and, in any case, you will lack the motivation to be fair.
Much human thinking is subconsciously suppressed. Through active work, however, you can bring it to the surface of your conscious mind. You can do this by first recognizing that underlying every irrational feeling is based in an irrational thought process. By figuring out exactly what feeling you are experiencing, you can begin to trace the feeling to the thinking that is leading to it. Hence, as in the case above, you should be able to spell out the probable unconscious thoughts that are fueling your irrational jealousy of, and anger toward, your colleague.
You will usually find that suppressed thoughts are highly egocentric and infantile. These covert thoughts are what often cause negative emotions. If you can determine the irrational thinking that is driving your emotions and behavior, you have a better chance of changing the emotions and behavior by working on the unreasonable thinking that is causing them.
Whenever you feel your irrational jealousy emerging, you deliberately think through the egocentric logic of jealousy. You do it again and again until you find productive, rational feelings and desires emerging. Since many of the most powerful thoughts, feelings, and desires, though, are unconscious and primitive, we should not expect ourselves to be able to completely displace all irrationality. Yet, by making our irrational thoughts explicit, we can better attack them with reason and good sense. We can be better persons with healthier emotions and desires if we learn how to undermine, and thereby diminish, our irrational emotions and desires.
Now let's look at how we proceeded from understanding to strategy and from strategy to improvement in the example above:
The human mind has three interrelated functions: thinking, feeling, and desiring, or wanting. These functions are interrelated and interdependent.
Whenever you find yourself having what may be irrational emotions or desires, figure out the thinking that probably is generating those emotions and desires. Then develop rational thinking with which to replace the irrational thinking you are using in the situation. Finally, whenever you feel the irrational negative emotions, rehearse the rational thinking, using this format:
In this chapter and the next, we briefly review some key concepts, principles, and theories discussed thus far in the book, followed by examples of strategic thinking based on the examples. The aim is illustration, not comprehensiveness.
We hope you will develop ideas of your own for improvement. There are no formulas for a simple and painless life. Like you, we are working on the problem of targeting and removing our defective thinking. Like you, we are working to become more rational and fair-minded persons. We must recognize the challenge that this development represents.
As with all forms of personal development, development of thinking means transforming deeply ingrained habits. It can happen only when we take responsibility for our own growth as rational persons. Learning to think strategically must become a lifelong habit. It must replace the habit most of us have of thinking impulsively, of allowing our thinking to gravitate toward its own, typically unconscious, egocentric agenda.
Are you willing to make self-reflection a lifelong habit? Are you willing to become a strategic thinker? Are you willing to unearth the irrational thoughts, feelings, and desires that lurk in the dark corners of your mind? Are you willing to develop a compassionate mind? If so, you should find these two chapters on strategic thinking useful.
Before proceeding to examples of strategic thinking, please note that strategic thinking has two additional components. You will have these to add to your intellectual repertoire as you seek to implement any of the strategies outlined in this chapter:
In the intellectual action component, you must figure out four things:
Test the Idea
Let us now consider some basic concepts, principles, and theories of critical thinking, providing examples of strategic thought as implied by those principles. In each case, we will start with a key idea. We then will explore strategies for improving thinking based on that idea. We will begin with a more formal approach to the example given at the beginning of this chapter.
As noted already, it is important to recognize that the mind is composed of three functions: thinking, feeling, and desiring (or wanting). Wherever one of these functions is present, the other two are present as well. And these three functions are continually influencing and being influenced by one another. Our thinking influences our feelings and desires. Our feelings influence our thinking and desires. Our desires influence our thinking and feeling. We cannot immediately change our desires or feelings. It is only thinking that we have direct access to. It makes no sense for someone to order you to feel what you do not feel or to desire what you do not desire. We do not change feelings by substituting other feelings, or desires by substituting other desires. But someone can suggest that we consider a new way to think. We can role-play new thoughts, but not new emotions or desires. It is possible to reason within a point of view with which we do not agree. By rethinking our thinking, we may change our thinking. And when our thinking changes, our feelings and desires will shift in accordance with our thinking.
With a basic understanding of the interrelation among thoughts, feelings, and desires, we should be able to routinely notice and evaluate our feelings. If, for example, I experience a degree of anger that I sense may be unreasonable, I should be able to determine whether the anger is or is not rational. I should be able to evaluate the rationality of my anger by evaluating the thinking that gave rise to it. Has someone truly wronged me, or am I misreading the situation? Was this wrong intentional or unintentional? Are there ways to view the situation other than the way I am viewing it? Am I giving a fair hearing to these other ways? By pursuing these questions, I can come closer to a rational view of the situation.
Even if my way of viewing the situation is justified, and I do have good reason to feel some anger, it does not follow that I have acted reasonably, given the full facts of the situation. I may have good reason to feel angry, but not to act irrationally as a result of that anger.
This strategy might be roughly outlined as follows:
For example, suppose I read an article about a fatal disease and come to the conclusion, from reading the symptoms, that I probably have the disease. I then become depressed. Late at night I think about how I will soon be dead, and I feel more and more depressed as a result. Clearly, the irrational feeling is the depression I am feeling. It is irrational because, until a doctor examines me and confirms a diagnosis, I have no good reason for believing that I actually have the disease in question. My irrational thinking is something like this:
I have all the symptoms described in the article. So I must have this awful disease. I am going to die soon. My life is now meaningless. Why is this happening to me? Why me?
In the same situation, rational thinking would be something like this:
Yes, it is possible that I have this disease, given that I seem to have what appear to be symptoms of it, but very often the same symptoms are compatible with many different bodily states. Given this, it is not likely that I have this rare disease, and, in any case, it will do me no good to jump to conclusions. Still, as a matter of prudence and for peace of mind, I should go to the doctor as soon as possible to get a professional diagnosis. Until I get this diagnosis, I should focus my thinking on other, more useful things to think about than an unsubstantiated possibility.
Whenever I find myself feeling depressed about what the article said, I rerun the rational thinking through my mind and give myself a good talking-to as well:
Hey, don't go off the deep end. Remember, you will see the doctor on Monday. Don't put yourself through unnecessary pain. Remember, there are probably a lot of possibilities to account for your symptoms. Come back down to earth. Remember the Mother Goose rhyme, "For every problem under the sun, there is a solution or there is none. If there be one seek till you find it. If there be none, never mind it." Don't wallow in misery when it doesn't do any good and only diminishes the quality of your life today.
And now, how about scheduling some tennis for this afternoon, and a good movie for tonight?
Test the Idea
A similar approach can be taken to changing irrational behavior grounded in irrational desires or motivations:
We might use many examples here to illustrate our point. But let's choose one that deals with a large segment of irrational human behavior. Here we are thinking of the many times when people abandon a commitment to change a bad habit because they are unwilling to work through the pain or discomfort that accompanies changing habits. Here's how the irrational behavior arises:
The irrational feelings are not the sensations of pain or discomfort. These reactions are to be expected. The irrational feeling is discouragement that emerges from the discomfort and causes us to give up our resolution to change. This feeling is a result of irrational thinking (probably subconscious), which can be put into words roughly as:
I should be able to change my behavior without experiencing any pain or discomfort, even if I have had this habit for years. This pain is too much. I can't stand it. Furthermore, I really don't see how my changed behavior is helping much. I just don't see much progress given all of the sacrificing I am doing. Forget it. It's not worth it.
This thinking makes no sense. Why should we expect to experience no pain or discomfort when changing a habit? Indeed, the reverse is true. Discomfort or pain of some kind is an essential by-product of going through a process of withdrawal from almost any habit. The appropriate rational thinking is something like this:
Whenever I am trying to change a habit, I must expect to feel discomfort, and even pain. Habits are hard for anyone to break. And the only way I can expect to replace the habit with rational behavior is to endure the necessary suffering that comes with change. If I am not willing to endure the discomfort that goes hand-in-hand with breaking a bad habit, I'm not really committed to change. Rather than expecting no pain, I must welcome it as a sign of real change. Instead of thinking "Why should I have to endure this?" I rehearse this thinking: "Enduring this is the price I must pay for success." I must apply the motto: No pain, no gain.
Test the Idea
Sometimes we find ourselves struggling with emotions or passions that seem disconnected from thought. At least, we may not know what thinking to trace the emotion to. Whatever the exact thought is, it seems unconscious, primitive, and powerful. For example, suppose a man or woman feels powerful urges to have sex with persons other than their spouse and suppose further that these urges become very intense when alone with a particular person. The urge may be experienced as irresistible at the moment. How do we reconstruct the primitive thinking at the root of such urges? Very possibly the thinking may be different for women and men. The common denominator might be suggested by the primitive desire to prove our sexual attractiveness and therefore reinforce feelings of being "masculine" or "feminine." As Freud demonstrated, the thinking of the unconscious mind may be very hard to plumb. It may take years to uncover and bring to consciousness deeply primitive unconscious thoughts. And even then it may be hard to be sure we are correct in our analysis. In cases like these, we should experiment with a variety of strategies. If the urge results in consequences harmful to another person, then we should harness the thinking of our conscience, making the harm as explicit as we can to ourselves, and keeping that ethical logic before our minds, like a mantra, especially for those times when we actively experience the urge. If obeying the urge does not result in any obvious harmful consequences other than to violate a social convention, then the solution may be to act on the urge, but only in private. In many societies of the past, many dissenters violated social norms and conventions in private.
As a critical thinker, you approach every dimension of learning as requiring the construction of a system of meanings in your mind that makes sense and enables you to make logical inferences about the subject of your focus. We use the expression "the logic of..." to designate such a system. As a critical thinker, you recognize that there is a logic to academic subjects (a logic to chemistry, physics, mathematics, and sociology). There is also a logic to questions, problems, and issues (a logic to economic questions, social problems, controversial issues, and personal problems). There is a logic to situations. There is a logic to personal behavior. There are explicit and implicit logics, admitted and hidden logics. There is a logic to warfare and a logic to peace, a logic to offense and a logic to defense. There are political logics, social logics, institutional logics, and cultural logics.
There is a logic to the way the human mind works, a logic to power, a logic to domination, to mass persuasion, to propaganda, to manipulation. There is a logic to social conventions and a logic to ethical concepts and principles. There is theo-logic, bio-logic, and psycho-logic. There is even patho-logic (the logic of disease and malfunctioning). Each can be figured out by the disciplined, critical mind.
Using the elements of thought to figure out the basic logic of something is a practice to which we hope you are becoming accustomed. It is a powerful strategy for achieving perspective and gaining leverage or command. In this section, we confine ourselves largely to the logic of personal life.
In every human situation or context, multiple systems of meaning are usually present. As a critical thinker, you engage in a process of figuring out why your associates, friends, clients, children, spouses, and employers relate to you in the way they do. This is true because everyone makes sense of the situations of their own life in some way. To do this, they must, at least implicitly, make use of the eight elements of thought. If you can identify the elements of others' thinking, you can better understand where they are coming from.
You can assume all of the following:
Everyone you interact with has purposes or objectives they are trying to achieve.
Everyone has problems that relate to those purposes.
They are basing their reasoning on some information.
They come to conclusions based on that information, conclusions that may or may not be logical in the circumstance.
They take certain things for granted, or make certain assumptions.
They use certain key ideas or concepts in their thinking.
They think within a point of view, within a frame of reference that may keep them from seeing things objectively.
There are consequences that result from their thinking.
By assuming that there is always a logic to what happens not only in the world but also in the mind of those who operate in the world, you are empowered in your pursuit of understanding. You therefore are led to question superficial explanations and seek deeper ones. You are led to question:
the goals and purposes of those you interact with,
the way they define their questions and problems,
the assumptions they are making,
the information they are using to support their arguments,
the conclusions (inferences) they come to,
the concepts that guide their thinking,
the implications inherent in their thinking, and
the point of view from which they are looking at situations.
Just as you question the logic of the thinking of those around you, you also question the logic of your own thinking.
When you realize that there is a logic to everything, you can think through the logic of the situations in which you find yourself. You can apply this principle in a number of directions, depending on your precise goals and objectives. Consider the questioning "inner voice" of the activist thinker focused on understanding the logic of his or her own thinking or the logic of others' thinking:
Just as we can seek to understand our own logic, we can seek to understand the logic of others. Perhaps an example will be helpful here. Imagine a person whose everyday life is based on the following thinking:
The simple pleasures are the key to happiness: sleeping, gardening, walking, nature, telling jokes, listening to music, reading books. Do not seek more power or money than is necessary to get by. Do not seek to change the world in significant ways because no matter what you do, nothing much will change. The people at the top will always be corrupt and they will always have the power to hurt you. The large masses of people are lazy and irresponsible and always will be. Do not get involved in the affairs of others. Avoid gossip. Don't worry about what other people have. Don't worry about injustice; those who do unjust acts will naturally suffer negative consequences. Take things as they come. Don't take yourself too seriously. Be ready to laugh at yourself. Avoid conflict. When you do a job, do it well. Value your friends and support them. They will help you when you need them.
It would be of no use to attempt to persuade this person to become active in any social, political, or moral cause. If you understand the basic logic of her thinking, you recognize that her response will always be the same: "You can't fight city hall. Don't worry about it. Those people will get their just deserts. Stay out of the battle. You can't do any good. And you probably will do yourself some harm."
The logic of this thinking has many implications, some positive, and some negative. On the positive side, this thinking leads this person to enjoy life far beyond that enjoyed by most people, as she is continually seeing ordinary events - which most people treat as unimportant and insignificant - as objects of pleasure and delight. For example, the simple act of looking out the window at a bird on a tree limb engenders inner warmth. On the other hand, she assumes no ethical responsibility for any action that is not directly within her immediate control. The logic of her thinking makes her indifferent to the fate of others not immediately connected to her. Though she is a reader, she reads only fiction and that only for distraction and amusement.
Now let us put our commentary into the logic of this thinking in such a way as to pin down the elements of the logic inherent in it:
Test the Idea
Consistently high-quality thinking routinely assesses itself for flaws and then improves itself by replacing low-quality thinking with higher-quality thinking. As rational persons strongly motivated to improve our thinking, we not only think, but we think about our thinking from a critical vantage point. We routinely apply universal intellectual standards to our thought. That is, we continually strive to think in a clear, precise, accurate, relevant, logical, broad, deep, significant, and defensible ways. We learn how to check our thinking regularly using these criteria.
As disciplined thinkers, we routinely apply intellectual standards to our thinking so as to assess and improve its quality. Consider the voice of a thinker focused on applying intellectual standards:
Focusing on clarity in thinking. Am I clear about my thinking? Can I state it precisely? Can I elaborate on it in detail? Can I give an example from my experience? Can I illustrate it with an analogy or a metaphor? What about the thinking being expressed to me? Should I ask for the main point? Do I need an elaboration? Do I need an example? An illustration?
Focusing on precision in thinking. Am I providing enough details for the other person to fully comprehend my meaning? Do I need more detail and specifics on the thinking of so-and-so?
Focusing on accuracy in thinking. Am I certain that the information I am using is accurate? If not, how can I check to see whether it is? How can I check on the accuracy of the information in this resource?
Focusing on relevance in thinking. How does my point bear on the issue at hand? Or does it? How does my statement relate to what he just said? How is his question related to the question we are discussing?
Focusing on logicalness in thinking. Given the information I have gathered, what is the most logical conclusion I can come to in this situation? Or what is one of several logical conclusions? I'm not sure whether what he is saying is logical. What is another feasible conclusion? What is another conclusion that makes more sense? What are the logical consequences that might follow from this decision?
Focusing on breadth in thinking. I wonder whether I need to consider another viewpoint, or other relevant viewpoints, before coming to a conclusion? In thinking-through the issue at hand, what are the points of view that I am obligated to consider if I am reasoning in a disciplined manner?
Focusing on depth in thinking. What are the complexities inherent in this issue? Am I inadvertently dealing with a complex issue in a superficial way? How can I dig beneath the surface of the situation and deal with what is most problematic in it?
Focusing on justification in thinking. Is his purpose justified? Is my purpose justified, given the circumstances, or is it somehow unfair or self-contradictory or self-defeating, given the facts? How is he using these terms? Is he using them in keeping with established usage? Is he stretching the meaning of the key words beyond the limit of their meaningfulness?
Test the Idea