Last updated 4th July 2016.
As rudimentary as it sounds, a lot of us have no fricking clue how to think smarter.
Sure, education and School of Life lend a hand. But really we all got to work at this if we want to be intelligent, discerning and open-minded homo sapiens.
Yes, it is an effort to be more intelligent. Everything worth having is.
This article talks about two key elements you need to think smarter: critical thinking and open-mindedness.
I wrote it after a very smug study was published showing that we fall for randomly generated, profound sounding bullshit quotes. Apparently, man continues to search for meaning in all the wrong places.
Why is it especially important to think smarter with our health?
Because before ‘we are what we eat’ or ‘we are what we digest’ come into play, primarily we are what we think. How we think affects our resistance to stress and anxiety, our ability to find solutions for health challenges, and our levels of resilience through inevitable life changes.
Admittedly, we don’t quite want to be open season to giving credence to all manner of crazy theories. But neither do we want to be so blind to our own dogma and reverence for the status quo that we are closing off to less conventional, but more effective modes of healing and living.
We also don’t want to wait before a body of evidence has been marshaled to demonstrate a paradigm to be true. ‘Cause frankly, it might be too late.
So how do we think better by using open-mindedness balanced with critical inquiry, so that we can embrace what is potentially beneficial for us but keep the useless at safe distance?
Let us examine.
To think smarter, we need to be open-minded
“True open-mindedness is a process of being intensely worried about being wrong and asking questions instead of defending a position. It demands that you get over your ego-driven desire to have whatever answer you happen to have in your head be right. Instead, you need to actively question all of your opinions and seek out the reasoning behind alternative points of view.” – Ray Dalio, American businessman.
Rather than being the enemy of science, open-mindedness is what drives scientific inquiry.
It can be defined as a childlike attitude of wonder and interest in new ideas, coupled with a determination to have your beliefs properly grounded.
True open-mindedness prevents habit and desire from making us unable or unwilling to entertain the idea that earlier beliefs may have to be revised or abandoned. Being open-minded means challenging the fanaticism that comes from a conviction that our views are absolutely certain.
Being open-minded does not imply that we are indecisive or incapable of thinking logically. After considering various alternatives, an open-minded person can take a firm stand on a position and act accordingly.
Threats to open-mindedness: Myside biases and fundamentalism
Probably the largest threats to openness comes from what are called our myside (or confirmation) biases – the pervasive tendency to search for and evaluate evidence in a way that favors our initial beliefs.
Some myside biases include:
- Selective exposure – we maintain our beliefs by selectively exposing ourselves to information that we already know is likely to support those beliefs.
- Primacy effects – the evidence that comes first matters more than evidence presented later. Trial lawyers are very aware of this phenomenon. Once jurors form a belief, that belief becomes resistant to counter-evidence.
- Polarization – We tend to be less critical of evidence that supports our beliefs than evidence that runs counter to our beliefs.
- The ‘I’m an expert’ problem – When you perceive yourself as an expert, you close down learning.
Fundamentalism is an intellectual allegiance to a system of ideas that are unsubstantiated by personal experience. It creeps in when we start identifying with and defending the superiority of ideas though we have no personal experience with them.
What a nightmare for self development. Or as Einstein put it: “A foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth”.
Only when it is not balanced with critical thinking, which is what keeps us safe and allows us pragmatically to make better decisions, can we ‘harm ourselves’ with open-mindedness.
Unexamined openness is what causes us to embrace alternative healing mechanisms that lack efficacy.
This is one of the major frustrations of physicians that have considered alternative medicine forms such as Reiki as ‘bullshit medicine’.
7 practical ways to cultivate open-mindedness
- Become aware of your myside biases. Otherwise known as ‘confirmation bias’, aka only seeking out evidence that validates our existing beliefs. This will definitely not enable you to think smarter.
- Mind your language. This is a really practical way to learn about your levels of openness. Open minded people say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I hadn’t thought of it that way’ or ‘I am willing to see that differently’. Close minded people tend to deal in absolutes. Not only does the language you use give yourself away, but it actually helps to generate the close or open-mindedness.
- Dare to be authentic. Being willing to change your perspective on anything takes courage: it is emotionally scary not feeling like anything is certain. That is why open-mindedness takes courage and a commitment to truth finding, above a sense of security. In other words, we need to man and woman up to think smarter.
- Know your blind spots. Additional biases that are not to do with myside. For example, when we consider ourselves to be expert on something, we close down on learning.
- Travel. Travelers tend to be more open-minded. It is difficult to travel and stay attached to your set world view and way of doing things. If you don’t travel, then making the effort to spend time with people from other cultures and generations has a similar effect.
- Actively look for evidence against your favored belief. A great exercise that gives you empathy and allows you to either hone and strengthen your belief about something, or else change your mind about it.
- Catch yourself judging close mindedness. Intolerance to close-mindedness is a form of close-mindedness of itself!
To think smarter, we also need critical thinking
“By all means let’s be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains pop out.” – Richard Dawkins, writer.
Critical thinking is essential if we are to get to the root of our problems and develop reasonable solutions.
Critical thinking is not at odds with open-mindedness; they are complementary. You can’t think critically about something until you are open to truth finding.
Critical thinking has also been defined as the act of letting go of ego when processing information about the world around us. In this way, it could be described as the intellectual component of humility. We tend to filter information in such a way as to maximize our self-esteem and sense of power – critical thinking is the willful resistance of that powerful mechanism.
There are certain enablers of critical thinking, which include de-coupling of emotion from decision making, getting other perspectives, and challenging conventional wisdom. However, know that these are jettisoned the moment we have a stake in the outcome – so basically, anytime when it matters.
Honing your critical thinking skills requires a lot of discipline and the ability to take an honest look at yourself, even in the face of some uncomfortable facts.
There are said to be stages required for development as a critical thinker:
- the unreflective thinker (we are unaware of significant problems in our thinking)
- the challenged thinker (we become aware of problems in our thinking).
- the beginning thinker (we try to improve but without regular practice).
- the practicing thinker (we recognize the necessity of regular practice).
- the advanced thinker (we advance in accordance with our practice).
- the master thinker (skilled and insightful thinking become second nature to us).
Pitfalls associated with critical thinking
It’s not a pitfall as such, but critical thinking doesn’t serve us when we are evaluating how decisions will effect us emotionally. For example, you’d be hard pushed to select a relationship or career purely on the basis of critical thinking.
Curation – a modern threat to critical thinking?
The information age is presenting us with an additional challenge to critical thinking skills – the ability to curate large amounts of information. This role of curation is explained artfully by Shots of Awe filmmaker Jason Silva.
Unfortunately, the internet age is also making us lazier and less willing to formulate robust views about things.
9 steps to develop your critical thinking
You can get better at critical thinking. Below are nine suggestions for doing so (reproduced from the Critical Thinking Community).
- Evaluate your time wasting. Asking yourself where your attention is going is one of my favorite powerful questions to ask daily (more in the video). If you have spent some time unproductively or without pleasure, ask yourself some questions about it. For example, if I had to repeat today what would I do differently? Why? Did I do anything today to further my long-term goals? Did I act in accordance with my own expressed values?
- A problem a day. At the beginning of each day, choose a problem to work on when you have free moments. Systematically think through the questions: What exactly is the problem? How does it relate to my goals, purposes, and needs? Figure out what information you need; analyze it; figure out your options; analyse those; decide on a course of action; monitor the performance; and be willing to revise your course.
- Internalize intellectual standards. Each week, develop a heightened awareness of one of the universal intellectual standards (clarity, precision, accuracy, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, significance). For example, if you are focusing on clarity for the week, try to notice when you are being unclear in communicating with others. Notice when others are unclear in what they are saying.
- Keep a journal. Describe a situation that is, or was, emotionally significant to you (that is, that you deeply care about). Focus on one situation at a time. Describe what you did in response to that situation. Be specific and exact. Then analyze, in the light of what you have written, what precisely was going on in the situation. Dig beneath the surface. Assess the implications of your analysis. What did you learn about yourself? What would you do differently if you could re-live the situation?
- Edit your character. Choose one intellectual trait-intellectual perseverance, autonomy, empathy, courage, humility, etc. – to strive for each month, focusing on how you can develop that trait in yourself. For example, concentrating on intellectual humility, begin to notice when you admit you are wrong.
- Deal with your egocentrism. On a daily basis, you can begin to observe your egocentric thinking in action by contemplating questions like these: Under what circumstances do I think with a bias in favor of myself? Did I ever become irritable over small things? Did I do or say anything ‘irrational’ to get my way?
- Redefine your perspective. Virtually every situation can be defined in more than one way. Use daily events, especially negative ones, as opportunities to redefine your perspective. Be imaginative about what you can find right with any given seemingly crappy scenario.
- Get in touch, emotionally. Whenever you feel some negative emotion, systematically ask yourself: What other ways could I think about this situation?
- Question whose standards you are living by. Become aware of behavior that is encouraged, and discouraged, in the groups to which you belong. Work out whose standards you are living by (they might not be any that you’ve formulated) and decide whether or not you want to continue to do that.
Summary – 16 habits to think smarter
- Become aware of your myside biases.
- Mind your language (avoid absolutes).
- Be willing to change your perspective.
- Know your blind spots.
- Travel and/or spend time with people from other cultures and generations.
- Actively look for evidence against your favored belief.
- Catch yourself judging close mindedness.
- Evaluate your time wasting.
- Take on a problem a day.
- Develop a heightened awareness of the universal intellectual standards (clarity, precision, accuracy, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, significance).
- Keep a journal for recording analytical thinking.
- Edit your character so that you integrate more intellectual traits.
- Deal with your egocentrism.
- Redefine your perspective.
- Get in touch with your emotions.
- Question whose standards you are living by.