Welcome to part 3 of a 10 part series:
How to get smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies
In this article I want to look at five incredibly common thinking errors that you maybe guilty of – even if you consider yourself a critical thinker:
- Criticizing and dismissing things you don’t understand
- Assuming you’re smarter than the stranger you’re speaking with
- Confusing your perspective for objective reality
- Confusing feelings with facts
- Believing every thought that passes through your head
Don’t dismiss things you don’t understand
“Condemnation without investigation is the height of ignorance” – Albert Einstein
I’m often amazed at how incredibly closed-minded and dismissive most people are about things they don’t understand.
Without knowing anything at all about the subject matter, when most people read or hear something they don’t understand, they either:
- Dismiss/ignore/reject it – as irrelevant or unimportant
- Mentally tune out – or try to change the topic to something more ‘interesting’
- Have a very strong opinion about it – even though they don’t know what it is, or anything about it
This behavior is extremely common. It happens all the time.
For example: Sometimes I’ll recommend an incredible life changing book to someone, only to have them immediately shoot it down or try to one-up it with another book that I’ve also read, to which I’ll reply: “I’ve read (insert book) and it’s definitely a good one, but I honestly think (insert recommendation) is the greatest book ever written on the subject. Check out the reviews on Amazon if you don’t believe me.”
To which they’ll reply: “nah, (insert book) is better”.
I’ll then ask: “Do you know the book I’m referring to? Have you read it?”
To which they always reply: “No”, before looking away uncomfortably. And for some reason that ends the conversation. They’re not interested in finding out more, or asking any further questions to discover why I think or feel the way I do, or how I came to that conclusion.
They don’t dig deeper. They don’t look behind the surface. They don’t ask questions or display any intellectual curiosity. They’re too caught up with my initial claim which they’ve instantaneously judged as correct/incorrect, right/wrong, true/false, without knowing any of the facts or reasons I’ve used to support it.
It’s not just books either. It’s everything.
Too many people have opinions about:
- Books they’ve never read
- Movies they’ve never seen
- Places they’ve never been
- People they’ve never met
- Things they’ve never experienced
Instead of being intellectually honest enough to say “I don’t know”, or “I’m not sure”, too many people are happy to talk out of their asses about things they know nothing about, even though they have no prior knowledge or experience with the topic, and it’s completely obvious that they don’t have the slightest clue what the fuck they’re talking about – or even worse, they state their ill-informed opinions as if they were irrefutable facts, and then they expect you to agree with them.
This behavior is not only intellectually dishonest, it’s intellectually lazy and stupid, and unfortunately it is far too common.
Do yourself and everyone else a favor: The next time you hear someone talk about something you’re unfamiliar with or don’t understand e.g. cognitive biases or cognitive dissonance, instead of being closed-minded and dismissing it as irrelevant or unimportant when you don’t even know what it is, or even worse, acting as if you were an authority or an expert on the subject, why not take the time to ask questions, get educated, and learn something new?
Maybe it’s important. Maybe it’s not. But don’t just dismiss it or criticize it until you know what it is. You never know: It might be something incredible and life changing.
“The highest form of ignorance is when you reject something you know nothing about.” – Sadhguru
Things that seem insignificant when you’re ignorant, might not be.
Don’t assume you’re smarter than the stranger you’re speaking with
“The stupid person thinks that he is as smart or smarter than, a smart person. And therein lies his stupidity.” – Chris Langan “The smartest man in America”, IQ 210
One of the dumbest things I see smart (and stupid) people do, is arrogantly assuming they’re smarter than the stranger they’re speaking with.
This is incredibly arrogant – and it is stupid.
When you first meet someone, you don’t know anything about them, and you certainly don’t know what they know, so don’t be too quick to assume intellectual superiority, or that you know more, or that you know best, because the exact opposite might be true.
I think this is good advice for whenever you meet someone new:
“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” – Stephen Covey
In other words: ask questions first to find out who they are, and what they know, before saying what you know, or assuming that you know best.
Even if you happen to be an expert on the subject, and someone is asking you lots of questions and is listening intently to your answers, that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily clueless or ignorant on the subject matter.
Sometimes smart people like to ask questions to test you, to see if you really know what you’re talking about, or to see if you’re full of crap.
Or maybe they just want to get an understanding of your perspective and the way you think about things.
A lot of highly intelligent people are also introverted and prefer to listen more than they talk, because they know that they learn a lot more by listening than they do by speaking.
“Listen more than you talk. Nobody learned anything by hearing themselves speak.” – Richard Branson
This also applies to communication over the net. If you don’t know anything about the stranger you’re speaking with face to face, you know even less about the stranger you’re interacting with over email, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc.
I’m constantly amazed at how aggressive and condescending people are on Twitter, Reddit, YouTube etc. to people they’ve never met and know nothing about, and how quick they are to assume intellectual superiority, just because the other person has a belief/opinion/perspective (political especially) they disagree with.
Instead of asking questions and seeking to understand what evidence/logic/reasoning the other person has for their beliefs, they’re quick to attack and label them, or they act like it must be their job to ‘educate’ and ‘enlighten’ them, as if they were more automatically more intelligent and knowledgeable on the subject matter, and knew something the other person didn’t.
The thought never seems to have crossed their mind that maybe the person they’re speaking to is even more educated and enlightened on the subject matter than they are, and knows a lot more about the topic than they do.
And let’s say you are smarter than the person you’re speaking with…
EVERYONE YOU MEET KNOWS SOMETHING YOU DON’T
Even if you know more about the subject in question, why not ask questions to find out what they know that you don’t?
Instead of asking yourself:
- How can I educate this person?
- How I can prove my point?
- What can I be right about?
Ask yourself: What can I learn?
Listen to this great advice from the CEO of Microsoft:
“Don’t be a know-it-all, be a learn-it-all.” – Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft
Only an idiot thinks they have nothing to learn from a child, or from someone younger, less educated, experienced, or intelligent.
“A wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer.” – Bruce Lee
One final thought: it’s common for young people to assume they’re smarter than older people, and for children to assume they’re smarter than their parents. So often as children we assume our parents know nothing.
Whilst I’ll be the first to admit that children definitely are smarter than their parents and other adults in many ways, it often isn’t until we get older that we realize that our parents weren’t as dumb and clueless as we once thought they were.
This hilarious quote sums it up brilliantly:
“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” – Mark Twain
Don’t confuse your perspective with objective reality
“Is,” “is,” “is”—the idiocy of the word haunts me. If it were abolished, human thought might begin to make sense. I don’t know what anything “is”, I only know how it seems to me at this moment.” – Robert Anton Wilson
Too many people are under the following two illusions:
- They perceive objective reality as it is
- The way they perceive reality is the only “right” way to perceive it
Perception vs reality
“Naïve realism is the human tendency to believe that we see reality as it really is – objectively and without bias; that the facts are plain for all to see; that rational people will agree with us; and that those who don’t are either uninformed, lazy, irrational, or biased.” – Wikipedia
If you want to get smarter you need to realize the following:
You don’t perceive objective reality or anything like it
“Everyone takes the limits of their vision for the limits of the world.” – Arthur Schopenhauer
Instead of perceiving reality as it is, we each experience and perceive a heavily edited version of reality.
In fact, we’re pretty much deaf, dumb, blind, and ignorant to 99.99% to everything, and our minds delete/distort/generalize almost everything we experience.
We have to. There are simply too many different things going on at any one time for us to consciously take in so we filter almost everything out.
Instead of perceiving objective reality, we mostly perceive the thoughts in our head.
Everyone experiences and perceives reality differently
An ant perceives reality differently than a mosquito.
An eagle perceives reality differently than an octopus.
A man perceives reality differently than a woman.
Which perspective is the ‘right’ one? None of course. They’re all equally valid. But the way most people talk and act, it’s as if their perspective is the only ‘correct’, ‘right’, or ‘true’ one, and all other perspectives are simply ‘wrong’!
However, there are an infinite number of ways to perceive anything, each one no more ‘correct’, ‘right’, or ‘true’, than any other, and not only does everyone experience and perceive reality differently, but everyone experiences and perceives the exact same events/people/places differently.
For example: Let’s say we both go to New York.
We will have completely different perspectives on New York depending on:
- Who we are
- When we go
- Where we stay
- What we do
- What we eat
- What we wear
- The weather
- Who we travel with
- The people we meet
- How people treat us
- A million other things
Even if we both take the same flight to New York on the same day, and stay in identical rooms in the same hotel, and visit all of the same attractions just 5 minutes apart, our experiences and perspectives that day will be completely different depending on:
- Who we are
- Who we travel with
- Where we stand
- What we see
- What we focus on
- What we wear
- What we eat
- Who we meet
- Our thoughts/emotions
- A million other things
In fact, even if thousands of people all experience the exact same thing at the exact same time in the exact same place e.g. a concert, a protest, a sporting event, September 11 2001 etc. there will be as many different experiences and perspectives of the event as there are people who experience it.
That’s not the only reason you shouldn’t confuse your perspective with objective reality however…
Reality is independent of our thoughts/feelings/perceptions about it
Although everyone experiences and perceives reality differently, that doesn’t mean that there are different realities, or that there is such a thing as “my reality” or “your reality”.
There is only one reality and our perceptions often have nothing to do with it.
For example: In our dreams we perceive people/places/events that don’t exist and never happened, and right now you don’t perceive other cities/countries/planets etc. and they do exist.
Your perspective is constantly changing and evolving
We also know that our perceptions don’t equal reality because they’re constantly changing and evolving along with our experience and knowledge. e.g. Do you perceive the world differently now than you did in childhood?
Of course you do.
Your perspective can easily be altered/changed/distorted
Not only do our perspectives on reality constantly change and evolve over time with new experiences and information, the way you see the world and other people can easily be affected and distorted by:
- Your beliefs/biases/prejudices
- Your childhood experiences and the way you were raised and taught to think
- Your emotions/intuition/mood
- The media/social media
- How you interpret an event/the meaning you assign to an event
- The weather
Your perspective isn’t the correct one or the right one – or the only one
“The truth was a mirror in the hands of God. It fell and broke into pieces. Everyone took a piece of it, and they looked at it and thought they had the truth.” – Rumi
- You don’t perceive objective reality – or anything like it
- Your perspective isn’t the only ‘right’ way to perceive reality
Don’t be too sure of yourself, and don’t be too quick to dismiss other people’s perspectives as ‘wrong’ (unless you’re talking about something with a definite answer like mathematics), because if you do it’s a sure sign that you’ve fallen into the trap of confusing your perspective for objective reality, or thinking that your perspective is the only ‘correct’, ‘right’, or ‘true’ way to see things.
You should always keep an open mind to other people’s perspectives, and never be too sure of your own, because other people know things you don’t, and have experienced things you haven’t, and those experiences have given them knowledge and a unique perspective that you don’t have.
Remember: Seek first to understand (the other person’s perspective), before being understood.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” – Harper Lee
“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.” – Henry Ford
Don’t confuse feelings with facts
“Facts don’t care about your feelings.” – Ben Shapiro
One of the biggest mistakes I often see people making – especially women – is confusing feelings with facts.
This is known as emotional reasoning, and it’s when you assume that just because you feel a certain way about someone or something, that your feelings must indicate the truth of that person/situation/thing.
I’ll be the first one to tell you to listen to your gut feelings and intuition, I do it all the time, but it’s important to realize that your emotions and feelings aren’t the ultimate guide to reality, nor do they necessarily reflect the reality of the person/situation/thing you have feelings about.
Let’s look at this logically:
When you have a nightmare you experience feelings of fear and terror, when in reality you’re in no danger whatsoever. Your emotions and feelings don’t reflect reality, they’re simply physical reactions to the mental movies your mind is producing in that moment.
Another example: People have all kinds of irrational fears and phobias that have nothing to do with reality e.g. bathing, clowns, falling asleep etc.
Another example: You might believe a false rumor about someone that leads you to believe that they’re a rapist or a serial killer – when in reality they might be completely harmless.
However, if you were to believe the rumor, you would probably feel fearful – if not terrified – if they were to approach you, even though there is really nothing to fear.
Finally, we know that feelings don’t equal facts because everyone feels differently about the exact same things.
For example: If we were to expose 1, 000 different people to the exact same music/movie/TV show they will have a 1, 000 different emotions about it. Some people will love it. Some people will hate it. Some people won’t feel anything about it one way or another.
But if feelings equaled facts than everyone would feel the exact same way about everything – which obviously isn’t the case.
So if your emotions/feelings don’t necessarily reflect reality – what do they reflect?
Your emotions are simply a reflection of your thinking
If you think angry thoughts – you will feel angry.
If you think happy thoughts – you will feel happy.
If you think differently – you will feel differently.
Again: Your emotions and feelings don’t necessarily reflect the reality of the person/situation/thing you have feelings about – only your thoughts about them.
Realizing that feelings don’t equal facts, it’s important to avoid emotional reasoning, and not to allow your feelings to dictate your decisions, actions, and habits.
Make your decisions based on facts – not feelings, logically – not emotionally.
Don’t allow yourself to be controlled or ruled by your emotions, and don’t allow anyone to manipulate you emotionally (parents, family, friends, boyfriend/girlfriend, husband/wife, advertisers, the media etc.) or let them trigger you into saying or doing something stupid.
Learn to feel your feelings without being overwhelmed or controlled by them. Become an interested observer, and remember: “Just because I feel this way – that doesn’t mean that it IS that way”.
TBH: This is a lot harder than it sounds. In fact, it’s incredibly difficult. Most people are completely ruled by their emotions and are not only under the illusion that feelings equal facts, but even worse, that their feelings are even more important than the facts.
Don’t believe every thought that passes through your head
“Pay no attention to your thoughts. Don’t fight them. Just do nothing about them, let them be, whatever they are. Your very fighting them gives them life.” – Nisargadatta Maharaj
Let’s quickly recap the last 2 points:
You don’t perceive reality objectively as it is, nor is your perspective the only ‘right’ way to perceive reality (Appearances can be deceiving – just because something seems a certain way – that doesn’t mean that it IS that way)
Your emotions/feelings don’t necessarily reflect the reality of the person/situation/thing you have feelings about – only your thoughts about them (Just because you feel a certain way about someone or something – that doesn’t mean that it IS that way)
Now I’m going to take it one step further:
Not only is your perspective and your emotions not the ultimate guide to reality – neither are your thoughts.
Most people are so incredibly identified with their minds however, that they believe and act as if every thought that passes through their heads were an irrefutable fact.
But thoughts aren’t facts. They’re just thoughts. Quickly come and quickly gone.
In fact, you don’t even think them, nor do you have any say at all as to what you will think. Thoughts just appear randomly and spontaneously in your mind without your permission.
“Don’t believe everything you think. Thoughts are just that – thoughts.” – Allan Lokos
Even if right now you have the thought: “I disagree”, or “I can think whatever I want to think”, or “this guy is full of shit” – where did that thought come from? Didn’t it just appear in your mind spontaneously without warning from out of nowhere? Yes it did. Then you identified with it and said “I think”.
If you haven’t spent a lot of time meditating and watching your mind, you’re probably don’t believe me.
You’re probably still under the illusion that you’re in control of your mind, that you’re the one who is consciously choosing to think each thought, and that you can think whatever you want to think (i.e. you can just choose to “think positively” instead of negatively)
But if that’s true and you’re really in control of the thinking process:
- Why don’t you only think about what you want to think about?
- Why don’t you only think happy and positive thoughts – instead of evil and negative thoughts?
- Why is it the less you want to think about something the more often you do?
- Why do you often remember painful memories so much more than pleasant ones?
- Why do most of your best ideas often come to you when you’re thinking about something else?
- Why do you often have random thoughts from something that happened 15+ years ago, instead of something useful and relevant to the current topic of conversation?
- Why does your mind often wander instead of staying focused on the task at hand?
- Why did you just have that thought instead of another thought?
- What will your next thought will be?
- Can you choose to turn your mind off for a day and have no thoughts at all?
You can’t answer any of these questions because the truth is:
- You’re not in charge of the thinking process
- You cannot control what you think about any more than you can control what you dream about, or what kinds of people you’re attracted to
- You cannot control your mind – nor can you stop it – thoughts just appear randomly and spontaneously in your mind without your permission
In fact, you don’t know anything about the mind. You don’t know what the mind is, what thought is (no one does), where your thoughts come from, what your next thought will be, why you get one thought instead of another, or anything else.
Sadhguru the Indian enlightened mystic gives a good talk on this. Watch this:
Sadhguru is right: The content of your mind is not your choice.
99.99% of what you think is simply what you’ve been conditioned to think by advertisers, authors, bloggers/podcasts/vloggers, celebrities, Hollywood, the media, politicians, religion, school, your family, friends, workmates, and the rest of society.
So what do you think? Who cares what you think. They’re not even ‘your’ thoughts.
If they were ‘your’ thoughts, they would be original to you, but they’re not.
Most people have never had an original thought in their entire lives.
“We seldom realize that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society.” – Alan Watts
If you have any doubt at all that what I’m saying is true, you can test it and see for yourself by watching your thoughts come and go in meditation.
Finally, because thoughts aren’t facts (they’re just thoughts), stop taking them so damn seriously, and stop believing every thought that passes through your head as if it were a divine revelation from God.
Remember: Most of what you think isn’t true (whether you choose to believe it or not), and most of what you imagine and worry about doesn’t happen.
But if your thoughts were always true, and your mind was always right, then you would always be right about everything, which obviously isn’t the case.
Finally consider this:
The average person has 50, 000+ thoughts per day.
Do you think you have 50, 000+ true thoughts per day?
Of course not.
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle
This is part 3 of a 10 part series:
How to get smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies
Let’s do a quick recap of this weeks points:
- Don’t dismiss things you don’t understand
- Don’t assume you’re smarter than the stranger you’re speaking with
- Don’t confuse your perspective for objective reality
- Don’t confuse feelings with facts
- Don’t believe every thought that passes through your head
Footnote Crowd protest image credit: rob zs / Shutterstock.com