Saturday, 26 December 2009

The Invisible Trigger Fingers: Part 1

People don't like to think. In general, that is.

I don't know many people for whom this doesn't apply, and even those who are thoughtful do not like to think about things which challenge certain beliefs they hold. I've even caught myself doing it, so I'm by no means claiming to be exempt of this, i.e. There is no ego trip here, just pure thinking out loud.

So, why does this happen? I'm sure most people have their own cliché ideas as to why, but I am not interested in such passé explanations: I am much more interested in practical substance than fantastical comforts. In fact, this serves as a rather good first example:

Take the fact that some people are content to say such as, "Well, people don't like to think because people are lazy." I would typically point out to these people that their justification is both lazy and unthought out - an amusing, and equally troubling, irony. They are commiting the very thing they are attempting to explain, what's worse is that they are effectively dismissing the issue and writing off the people who don't think as simply lazy. I think this example excellently shows how transparent our own inconsistencies can be to us - they must be for people to so absolutely critisise the very thing they are doing at that moment!

So, back to the initial question; why does this happen? In the given example several points have been highlighted:
  1. Transparency; we are often blissfully unaware of our own hypocracies and shortcomings, even when we are directly observing them in other people. We know from neuroscience that contradictory structures can be mutually inhibitory, i.e. neither are engaged simultaneously and as such the hypocracy is never observed by the individual.
  2. Dismissal; when we are satisfied with an answer, for whatever reason (be they valid or invalid), we tend to dismiss the root question as having been answered - or at least not worthy of further contemplation. We may even dismiss a question as unworthy of consideration by dismissing its premises.
  3. Comfort; it seems the most important factor in all this is comfort: Comfort in one's own knowledge, comfort that other people respect and acknowledge one's knowledge and understanding of things, and comfort in validating and justifying one's own life choices. I believe the latter is the most important here.
It would seem to be the case that one or more of the above points are why people use clichés without due thought as to what is being said.

Where am I going with this? Well, now I've elaborated how generally poor we are as critical thinkers I want to draw attention to a common format of presumption held by many people; and it comes in several forms, many of which are implicit and unspoken. Some examples include concepts such as "as one person I cannot make a difference", "I am responsible for myself and my immediate 'family' only", "things that do not threaten me directly are not my concern", etc. Now, I'm sure most people will exclaim that it is "a matter of opinion" and that I am entitled to mine and people who think such as above are entitled to theirs. I would strongly disagree.

The three statements above are in the format of closed factual statements; in that they are presented as absolute claims about the nature of reality. As such, unless they are indeed absolutely true any argument they may premise is rendered null.

I started this post thinking it wouldn't take long, but I was mistaken. I'm now running out of steam and have decided to call it a day for now. I will explain the heading in due time.

If you have been, I hope you enjoyed it and I thank you for reading.


  1. Just thinking out loud too... About the correlation among some of the factors you mentioned, whether the more comfort we need, the more unaware of our own hypocrisies, the more dismissive we are... About questioning our beliefs and the different degrees of willingness to change our views if we are proved wrong, of tolerance of uncertainty.
    A very stimulating reading indeed.

  2. Thank you Elida.

    I too think about the varying degrees of open/closed mindedness - particularly relative to context since this tends to be what veils our personal hypocracy's from view.

    I am tempted to add to what I've said above, but I will leave it for part 2. :)

  3. Interesting topic Simon. My initial response was to agree wholeheartedly. My next response was to question my initial response (which I'm sure you'd approve of).

    The first thing that struck me was that the question doesn't really match the responses people give, which I think is a great example of the whole issue - people do say that other people don't like to think, but in general that's not the case - we do think a lot, and for most people it is effortless and not something to either like or dislike. But this is just an observation, not a criticism - the rest of your post makes it clear that you're talking about thinking in relation to beliefs and opinions (mostly, if not exclusively).

    The second thing that struck me was the fact that the three points you listed are central to the concept of cognitive dissonance. You're familiar with the concept, right?

    So combining those two observations and my secondary response, I reformulated the question so that it fit the answer better in my mind: Why don't people like to think about ideas that challenge their existing beliefs/ideas/opinions? This question might be more specific than you intended, but to my mind it fits the rest of the post.

    As for the broader question - why don't people like to think, in general - to me it seems to beg the question. Do people truly not like to think, in general? I don't know of any evidence that that's the case. Some people don't seem to think much, but the plethora of writing that people inject into the Internet on a daily basis shows that a significant proportion of the population does like to think. A lot.

    (looking forward to part 2. You've combined a few interesting topics in the one post here, so I'm curious to see just where you're taking it)