Happy SMART Day Everyone!
I’ve always been fascinated by how people think. Particularly, I’ve always wondered why seemingly smart and intelligent people think, say and believe crazy things. For example, the evidence that humans are contributing to global warming is overwhelming and irrefutable by over 90% of scientists around the world. Yet, a huge number of people continue to deny it. Why? Simply put, it’s lazy thinking—or actually not thinking much at all! But before any of us start feeling superior—we all do this at least some of the time. In fact, a book by Daniel Kahneman entitled, “Thinking Fast and Slow” explains how human brains are hard-wired to process and function in ways that are easy and fast. The problem is—most of the time it’s not really thinking—although we all think it is!
What this means is that for efficiency purposes our brains process information in one of two ways. The first way is our automatic response to input. The second way is actually thinking. But let’s face it—thinking can be difficult, time consuming and not much fun. So, our brains typically use the fast automatic response mode much more frequently than the slow and ponderous method. It’s something we unconsciously do all the time. Consider driving a car. Once we know how to do it, we mostly just slip into autopilot. We don’t want to think about driving—we just do it. In this and thousands of other ways every single day, our fast brain processing serves us tremendously. This automatic easy response actually makes us feel good and at ease—that’s why it is called “cognitive ease.”
The problem is, we just about always forget that this isn’t really thinking or deliberating. Real thinking requires attention and effort. And yes, that can be tiring. It also requires self-control and discipline—qualities many of us don’t use unless we have to! And while this type of thinking or “cognitive effort” is supposed to monitor and control thoughts and actions of our automatic processing—the thinker part of our brain is often lazy. Some of the downsides of not really thinking or a lazy brain are:
1) People using a “lazy brain” are likely to make selfish choices, use sexist language, and make superficial judgments in social situations.
2) When people believe one conclusion is true, or really admire the person saying it, they are extremely likely to believe arguments that appear to support it, even when those arguments are false.
3) People with lazy thinking tend to accept plausible answers that readily come to mind.
4) Lazy thinkers are often impulsive, impatient and keen to receive immediate gratification.
Kahneman lists even more reasons in his book to explain the detrimental results of lazy thinking. Just about every one of them would make a great blog post by themselves, so chances I’ll be writing more about this topic in the future. The important thing to remember is that we are all prone to lazy thinking because much of the time it serves us well. I, just like everyone I know, like to feel happy and content—and that is a sure sign of cognitive ease. Unfortunately, if I need to kick into some serious thinking I need the awareness for what is necessary, and then the discipline to make that effort at will.
Fortunately, there are a couple of things we can all do today to help stay sharp mentally.
1) Develop your ability to concentrate. Here is another instance when learning to mediate can benefit you in ways you probably didn’t expect. Meditation is one of the best ways to learn to concentrate. In fact, according to Kahneman, “training attention not only improved executive control; scores on nonverbal tests of intelligence also improved.”
2) If you need to do some serious thinking—or make important decisions—be well rested and fed, and not distracted. Whenever you are tired, hungry or busy, you aren’t really thinking— you’re on automatic pilot. Automatic thinking leads to sloppy and lazy thoughts, choices and decisions. Unfortunately, we seldom realize just how sloppy our thinking is at these times and end up saying, doing and believing all sorts of untrue and nonsensical things. For example, if you had a hard day at work, came home and had a cocktail before turning on your favorite television “news” personality—you are almost sure to believe anything they tell you, no matter how untrue!
3) Strive to become “engaged” or experience “flow.” According to the book when we are engaged or practicing flow the mental effort and strain of real thinking disappears and your concentration becomes almost effortless. In the state of flow, time passes quickly and you don’t become depleted. Instead, you are thinking clearly and alertly. When fully engaged you are intellectually active and less satisfied with superficially attractive answers. You are also more likely to be skeptical about your “gut” or intuitive answers.
Obviously there is much more to the ways in which we all think—or don’t think, depending upon whether we are focused or automatic. Best of all is remembering that when we automatically jump to conclusions, that is seldom real thinking. Intelligence or even education often has little to do with the crazy choices, beliefs, or actions many of us demonstrate every day. Instead, the answer is usually just a lazy brain in search of cognitive ease.
“Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Few people think more than two or three times a year; I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.” ~George Bernard Shaw
“When men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.” ~Thomas Paine