How to Think by Alan Jacobs

I know what you are thinking (pun intended): a 150 page book on “How to Think” ought to be pretty straightforward.  Do this, don’t do that, avoid this, do more of that, etc.  Just like a million other self-help books.  A few anecdotes, a nice dash of pop-science and evolutionary biology and Boom! best seller and TED talks galore.

Alas, How to Think by Alan Jacobs offers a different approach. First off, Jacobs starts with something of a buzz kill: most of us don’t really want to think and for good reasons. Thinking is hard, it can be stressful, uncomfortable and result in conflict with friends and relatives.

What our brains really crave is socially approved consensus.  We like to pick a group and stay comfortably within their perspective.  Every time we toe the line we get a jolt of pleasure. Every time we stray we get angry feedback.

Not sure about what to say or think?  Don’t know or don’t know enough? Stick with the group!

Ah, I can hear you saying.  The trick is to be independent.  “Think for yourself.” Have an open mind.

No so fast, again Jacobs punctures these cliches by outlining how thinking is inescapably social and that there is not a clear connection between ‘independence” and being correct.  Having an open mind only gets you so far if it doesn’t eventually close around something.

So this is all a set-up for a three step process to proper thinking, right?  This is where Jacobs reveals his heretofore undiscovered key (which happens to be available as an online course for a low, low price for readers).

Nope. In fact, Jacobs says that you can’t get to good thinking through a set of invariable rules.  Thinking is an art not a science.  Some self-help guru!

Instead, what Jacobs (who, to be fair, is a cultural critic and teacher) does is poke and prod and circle and ruminate on things like virtue, character, and prudence; and the experiences of thinkers and writers, and yes, sometimes even scholars.  People like C.S. Lewis, John Stuart Mill and Henry James (plus, a contrarian discussion of Wilt Chamberlain).

But here’s the thing.  If you are a literate and humane person, you soon begin to enjoy Jacobs’ admittedly oblique, discursive and conversational approach.  You give up the need for a overly simplified 12-step program with handy lists and catchy acronyms. You appreciate the style of an engaging conversation with a smart friend at a comfortable coffee shop instead of the lecture slash informercial.

And what Jacobs tells you is that there are traps and hurdles in the way to better thinking.  Group thinking is a real temptation.  It is easy to act as if everyone not comfortably in your group is the Repugnant Cultural Other (RCO).  On the flip side, it is easy to pretend that science is the solution (or that better thinking is nearly impossible) and that getting rid of your emotion, your bias and your stereotypes will set you free.

But, contra some, Jacobs thinks real progress is possible.  To do so, one must first seek to develop a certain kind of character; to be a certain kind of person.  Logic and analysis, yes, but also emotion and social commitments.  A whole, healthy person thinks best.

Self-awareness plays a role as well.  Recognize when you are placing someone in the role of an RCO. Recognize when you are in a group that brooks no dissent, that punishes free debate and opinion from people of goodwill.  Seek membership in a community  of like-hearted people not necessarily those that think alike.

And there are tactics and processes that can help.  Look for the best of those you disagree with; the best arguments, the most attractive messengers, the most sensible perspectives, etc.  Look to accurately and fairly describe their arguments before offering your own.  Try out their language and perspective as a way to get inside their skin and see the world through their eyes. Like a method actor, understand how if you were in their shoes you might see the world the same way.  Plus, if you get rilled up and want to launch into refutation mode before the person has even finished speaking, wait five minutes. Don’t comment angry.

Recognize that the world we build out of keywords, metaphors and myths are necessary in many ways.  A world without these building blocks, shortcuts or mental furniture is a exhausting and maddening one.

But they can be dangerous, so develop a healthy skepticism and sense of humility about your worldview and opinions.  Don’t allow the narratives and mythology of your community to so fade into the background as to be invisible and never questioned.  Think about the blindspots of your patterns and habits.

And this brings us full circle. Thinking is hard.  Finding the balance between “intractably stubborn” and “pusillanimous and vacillating” takes time and effort.  You can’t be paralyzed by indecision or constantly be reinventing your mindset, but you also don’t wan’t to be so rigid that you can’t learn, change or adapt.  It is again, more art than science.

What in many ways lies at the bottom of How to Think is risk.  Are you willing to risk being wrong?  Are you willing to risk the ostracization of your group?  Are you willing to risk learning that the heretofore labeled RCO is closer to you than you would like to admit?

The penultimate chapter ends with what strikes me as a fundamental step in this journey/process: cultivating a healthy skepticism about our own motives and generosity towards the motives of others.

Oh, and for those of you that just have to have one. In the Afterword, Jacobs offers The Thinking Person’s Checklist with … yep, 12 steps.

But he didn’t say they were easy.


Kidding Ourselves: The Hidden Power of Self-Deception by Joseph T. Hallinan

I enjoyed listening to Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph Hallinan last fall so when his latest book, Kidding Ourselves came out I was interested to see what he had to say on self-deception:

Hallinan-Joseph-KIDDING-OURSELVESTo one degree or another, we all misjudge reality. Our perception—of ourselves and the world around us—is much more malleable than we realize. This self-deception influences every major aspect of our personal and social life, including relationships, sex, politics, careers, and health.

In Kidding Ourselves, Joseph Hallinan offers a nuts-and-bolts look at how this penchant shapes our everyday lives, from the medicines we take to the decisions we make. It shows, for instance, just how much the power of many modern medicines, particularly anti-depressants and painkillers, is largely in our heads. Placebos in modern-day life extend beyond hospitals, to fake thermostats and “elevator close” buttons that don’t really work…but give the perception that they do.

Kidding Ourselves brings together a variety of subjects, linking seemingly unrelated ideas in fascinating and unexpected ways. And ultimately, it shows that deceiving ourselves is not always negative or foolish. As increasing numbers of researchers are discovering, it can be incredibly useful, providing us with the resilience we need to persevere, in the boardroom, bedroom, and beyond.

Provocative, accessible, and easily applicable to multiple facets of everyday life, Kidding Ourselves is an extraordinary new exploration of our mind’s flexibility.

And thanks to the magic of NetGalley I was able to read it.  I found it be an interesting look at the role self-deception plays in our lives. Hallinan explores the various ways we unconsciously alter our perception of reality, past and present, so that it conforms to our preferred perspective. We tell ourselves lies and alter our memories in ways large and small. Most often we do it to retain a semblance of control, at least in our minds, in a chaotic world.

Interestingly, this can be a good and a bad thing. Persistent optimism, even if based on a less than accurate understanding of what actually happened or based on subtle bias on our part, plays a large role in success and achievement. Largely because it keeps us from giving up.

Heightened pessimism, even if it seems more like realism, is destructive for our health and success in many ways. Too much success and power, however, seems to lead us to a blind spot where we can’t seem to empathize with others or see the world from their perspective. We become so sure of ourselves that we ignore clear warning signs of danger and ignore the rules.

If I have a complaint about the book, it is that the fascinating data and research has a tendency to run on and on without much of a structure or story line. The book has the feel of an extended essay or series of essays rather than a book with a clear beginning, middle and end.

I am not alone in this. Publishers Weekly:

While the studies he presents will entertain any reader, such as why some people really do die of a broken heart or why your boss really is just a jerk, few really astonish. Hallinan’s attempts to legitimize his anecdotes through research and experiment fall flat and often amount to obvious explanations. Nevertheless, it’s accessible pop science that provides a good laugh and some great dinner conversation.

Kirkus has a more positive description:

Hallinan’s survey ranges all over the map, rarely stopping anywhere for more than a couple of paragraphs or pages, as he fits nearly everything under a big umbrella, from a variety of urban myths (and mass delusions) to the effectiveness of placebos to the refusal of some conservatives to admit that Barack Obama is not a foreign-born Muslim.A genial, occasionally glib guide to both the positive and negative effects of self-delusion.

I lean towards the Kirkus side but get what PW is saying.  YMMV, as the kids say.

A tad to anecdotal? Sure. Can it seem rather thin for a hardback book? Perhaps. But it is an easy read and full of any number of interesting hooks and tidbits.  So if you like pop science in bite -sized anecdotes this is the book for you.