We need a survival guide for thinking because we're bad at it

Alan Jacobs takes a thoughtful approach to thinking in his book How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds.
(Tim Gouw/Unsplash)

A quick scroll through Twitter or Facebook will show you a slew of polarized opinions and bandwagon jumping, while flipping through TV channels will get you a fair bit of truthiness and grandstanding. It takes effort to tell the real from the rumour and to separate the necessary from the not so much.

So how do we, in the midst of all that noise and fog, hear our thoughts, let alone form our own?

Alan Jacobs, a professor at Baylor University, was wondering the same thing. He needed help navigating the day-to-day of thinking. Like how to deal with his obnoxious neighbour or a politically polar opposite relative, things that books about brain science typically don't cover.

"What I wanted to do was sketch out a more humane and humanistic model for thinking about thinking," he told Spark's Nora Young. 

"We're like bats. We're constantly pinging. 'Here I am! Here I am! Here is my social location.'"-- Alan Jacobs, author of How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds

His book, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, not only serves as a guide for constructive thinking, as the title suggests, but also details an interesting barrier to thinking. Jacobs posits that the human desire to belong is so strong that it actually hinders our ability to think freely and critically.

"If the thinking comes in the way of that belonging then we're not going to think," he argues - a phenomenon you can see that play out on social media.

Take Twitter hashtags, for example. According to Jacobs, they're a shorthand way of announcing your political and social position by affiliating yourself with one community, and more importantly, distancing yourself from another.

"We're like bats. We're constantly pinging. 'Here I am! Here I am! Here is my social location,'" he said.

Social media, the double-edged sword

The world is filled with lonely people cut off from other like-minded people, said Jacobs, and social media helps them find each other to build a community.

But trying to break away or question the community can be very difficult. "Social approval is like coke for us, it's like crack," Jacobs said. "It seems like nothing really ever exhausts our need for approval. There's never really enough."

Therefore, Jacobs warns, engaging in real thinking may leave people socially endangered.

"You're just not going to want to risk saying something that is going to cut you off from those people you want to belong to. And that's one of the things that thinking can do to you. It can take you down a path that will lead to you losing your friends."

If you find yourself prepared to maybe lose some friends here is some advice from Jacobs on thinking in the age of social media:

1. Just wait five minutes​

Facebook and Twitter are mediums that encourage instantaneous responses, which by definition cannot be thoughtful.
"All it can be is an assertion of what you believe to be the case," said Jacobs.

Bonus points for finding a kinder, more generous way to respond in this five minute stewing period.

2. Amplify constructive voices instead

While you're already waiting in those five minutes, why not also abandon the need to re-tweet and re-/post too.

"If we can just stop amplifying the worst voices in society, and instead, try to promote the more constructive voices, it really would make a difference," Jacobs suggested.

3. Let go of the idea that you need to think for yourself

Instead of trying to think on your own (you'll fail anyway because we're not wired to think in isolation, according to Jacobs), find people to think with. He suggests looking for people who are like-hearted, not necessarily like-minded - people who you don't always agree with but hold the same virtues like generosity, charity, and honesty.

For example, he cites Megan Phelps-Roper who grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church and believed in its hate-mongering homophobic ways until conversations on Twitter changed her mind.

4. Stop comparing conversation to warfare

For Jacobs, our use of phrases like "attacked" or "fought" or "won" when talking is doing a disservice to discourse. Conversation is not about winning and losing. It's about sharing and understanding ideas.

"[Having] a common purpose of trying to understand a phenomenon or a person, even if you don't come to an agreement about that, you're growing together," he said.

5. Be fair to opposing views

Jacobs suggests two exercises for building empathy with those we disagree with. One, try to remember the moments when we got it wrong. "Not just I did something bad, but I had a wrong view."

And two, talk to someone different from you and say "here's what I understand that you believe…" and see if they agree or not. You can only move on in the conversation after you've concisely and correctly summarised their position for them.

"Only once you understand what one another's positions really are can there even be a profitable debate," he said.