Book Review: How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds
Despite its pretentious title, this book is a great resource for people seeking to root out blind spots and improve their thinking. The book builds on research by such thinkers as Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt, as well as the wisdom of many others. Jacobs is a professor at Baylor University and a frequent author.
The book starts out by introducing the topic of thinking. We all have biases, but our biggest issue is not overcoming biases – it is doing the hard work of thinking. It is easier to not think, to take shortcuts. “Thinking troubles us; thinking tires us. Thinking can force us out of the familiar, comforting habits. Thinking can complicate our lives. Thinking can set us at odds, or at least complicate our relationships with those we admire or love or follow. It is easier to agree with and pass along ideas that other people find agreeable than to do the work of thinking through whether they are correct, especially given the risk that the discovery of fallacy can put us at odds with others whose approval we intrinsically seek.” Jacobs goes on to tell about how we all belong to certain groups. Each group has those who are clearly not in the group. Jacobs labels these the “repulsive cultural other” or RCO, borrowing the term from an essay by Susan Harding. The point is that we avoid the RCO, which prevents us from hearing arguments from people whose viewpoints differ from our own. Jacobs argues that we can learn to think well by being aware of our own shortcomings so that we can seek to mitigate them.
One problem that inhibits good thinking is that we see our opinions as based on well-reasoned logic, while we see opinions with which we disagree as merely the result of someone being confused or misled. This prevents us from seeing the reasons other people believe what they do. We need to cultivate in ourselves a character that assumes people have a reason for what they think and do, and a curiosity to discover what that reason is. Jacobs also addresses the idea that we should think for ourselves. He contends that this is impossible – we are always influenced by others when we think. Rather than trying to ignore our influences, we should be aware of them, as well as the ideas of others who disagree.
Jacobs describes the Yale debate club in which people are encouraged to “be broken on the floor” – to change their mind in a debate. If one has never had a change of opinion, one is probably not truly open to the truth. Unfortunately, we tend to arrive at conclusions first and then justify them later. Part of this is due to belonging to groups. We have an innate desire to be a part of the “inner ring”, the true believers. Any doubt or wavering can keep us from this and leave us on the periphery of our group. The only antidote to this “false belonging”, or membership based on conformity, is true belonging – being part of a group that accepts differences of personality and opinion. Jacobs argues that our best thinking is not necessarily done with those who agree with us, but with those who accept us with our different opinions. This is hard to do in our polarized age, but if we can find others who can disagree with us but still accept us, we can cultivate better thinking. “There can be more genuine fellowship among those who share the same disposition than among those who share the same beliefs, especially if that disposition is toward kindness and generosity.”
We are naturally repulsed by people who disagree with our closely held beliefs. This is even greater if they are near us. To overcome this, we should seek to find admirable people in our “outgroup”, which will help us to humanize our opponents. “When people cease to be people because they are, to us, merely representatives or mouthpieces of positions we want to eradicate, then we, in our zeal to win, have sacrificed empathy: we have declined the opportunity to understand other people’s desires, principles, fears.”
Jacobs encourages us to be thoughtful about the language we use, as language is rarely neutral. We should also be thoughtful about what we read and not seek to merely justify our already-held beliefs. “By reading, a man already having some wisdom can gain far more; but it is equally true that reading can make a man already inclined to foolishness far, far more foolish.”
The topic of “open-mindedness” is addressed. We generally think of being open-minded as an admirable virtue. Being perpetually open-minded, however, means we never learn anything. “We cannot make progress intellectually or socially until some issues are no longer up for grabs.” Or as Chesterton quipped, “the object of opening the mind, like opening the mouth is to shut it again on something solid.” The problem is that we often are settled on things about which we should still keep an open mind, and sometimes are open-minded about things that should be settled. We become fanatic when we so identify ourselves with a point of view that there is nothing that could change our mind. Our opinion is not falsifiable. Whatever happens only strengthens our confidence.
We are naturally repulsed by people who hold opinions diametrically opposed to our own. If we can try to understand where they are coming from and see our own opinions through their eyes, we are on the way to more honest thought and more gracious response. We become open to learning. This won’t happen all at once, but we can work on slowly becoming more empathetic and less defensive.
If we will commit to good thinking, to overcoming our biases and listening to others, to being willing to change our mind, we will become better thinkers. We will see things in a new light. We may lose friends in the process. It will not be an easy journey. Nor will we ever “arrive.” But it can be exhilarating and powerful as we learn to think.