Thinking Hard Is Harder Than You Think

About a decade ago I heard of a little book called Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Lower Expectations. Written by the brothers of the senior pastor at my church, it was discussed widely in my Christian circles at the time and generally given favorable reviews. But I dismissed it without reading a single word.

“Do hard things?” I thought. “Everyone knows that.” I had just graduated college and felt I was doing hard things. I was working long hours and getting recognized for my accomplishments. I was attending graduate school. Teaching ESL. You know, everything short of curing cancer. And so I not only decided that the book was not for me, I concluded that it was not worth writing in the first place, and I said as much to a few of my peers.

Now this was a very stupid thing for me to do. For one thing, the book was expressly written for teenagers, not gainfully-employed adults in their twenties who happened to be anxious overachievers in high school. And anyways, why was I so quick to discount its argument without reading past the title? Why not concede that a “do hard things” sort of message might be worth affirming regardless of one’s age or sense of self-regard?

This is one of many examples of shallow thinking on my part. We all have stories like it, and with constant access to TV and the Internet, we all know people who, in our refined opinion, think and say idiotic things with astonishing regularity. That this is the case seems all the more incredible given that reliable knowledge is fairly easy to find with a quick Google search or a trip to the library. “Think harder!” we yell at our debate opponents, even as they yell the same thing at us.

So why does there appear to be such a lack of cogent thinking in a time when we have access to more knowledge and education than ever before? That is one of the central questions that Alan Jacobs sets out to answer in his book, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. I’ve read it twice since getting it for Christmas (it’s a short book, about 150 pages), and I have benefited from its insights and practical advice every step of the way. Below I comment on a few of its salient points, though of course I would recommend buying it—the author says it all far better than I can, and he covers a lot more ground.


Barriers to Thinking

Jacobs, a professor of English at Baylor University, starts by summarizing some rather depressing research about thinking. Psychologists like Jonathan Haidt (author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided Over Politics and Religion) and Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking, Fast and Slow) both highlight the extreme difficulty of recognizing and overcoming our biases. Kahneman in particular argues that awareness of bias is not enough. If that were the case, the solution would simple: just overcome it! But the problem is so deep that even the most self-aware individuals—including Kahneman and Haidt—are just as prone to fallacious reasoning as they were before studying the subject in depth.

It is at this point that Jacobs offers a different, more “humanistic” perspective. While he acknowledges the important contributions of science (he references Haidt and Kahneman frequently in his book), he writes:

[…] I’m going to argue that we go astray when we think of our task primarily as “overcoming bias.” For me, the fundamental problem we have may best be described as an orientation of the will: we suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking. Relatively few people want to think. Thinking troubles us; thinking tires us. Thinking can force us out of 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. Who needs thinking? (p. 17)

Perhaps this puts you in what Jacobs calls “Refutation Mode”: you’re already thinking of objections because you’re confident you know enough about thinking. A coworker of mine said it this way: “I already know how to think. Alan Jacobs can kiss my ass.”

Which is eerily similar to how I approached Do Hard Things, isn’t it?

In that case it’s a good idea (says Jacobs) to “give it five minutes“: to listen a bit longer before forming a conclusion and closing yourself off to more information. That’s sage counsel in a digital age that encourages instinctive responses.

If you’re interested in a more scientific illustration, though, consider this: Jonathan Haidt reports a Harvard experiment in which some students were forced to wait a few minutes before making a moral judgment on an issue, while others were allowed to state their views immediately. Guess who did a better job of identifying flawed arguments?

Patience pays off.

Can’t We Just Be More Rational?

Drawing from essays by T.S. Eliot and Marilynne Robinson, Jacobs shows that when we are beleaguered with information, we tend to learn a little about a lot of things without gaining deep knowledge about anything in particular. When that happens, and we encounter a claim or argument that disgusts us, we become powerfully inclined, in T.S. Eliot’s words, to “substitute emotions for thoughts” (20). This in turn leads us to lob zingers and win social points with our tribe—what Robinson calls acting for “the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved” (21).

Needless to say, social media rewards this kind of behavior more than it impedes it. The thrill of acquiring digital followers on your moral crusade is hard to resist, and the more you invest in uttering witty, emotionally-charged opinions, the more humiliating it looks if you backpedal. You actually have a compelling incentive to not learn more about a subject, or at least to downplay conflicting evidence, because doing otherwise might force you to admit you were wrong.

Maybe you think you’re immune to this temptation. “Give me enough evidence, and of course I’ll change my mind—no matter what the social cost!” But Jacobs, in the same vein as Kahneman and Haidt, says that anyone who thinks this is “almost certainly self-deceived”:

Human beings are not built to be indifferent to the waves and pulses of their social world. For most of us the question is whether have even the slightest reluctance to drift along with the flow. The person who genuinely wants to think will have to develop strategies for recognizing the subtlest of social pressures, confronting the pull of the ingroup and disgust for the outgroup. The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear. (23)

Can We Really Think for Ourselves?

When you think about things, you don’t take a bunch of data points, head off into an isolated zone of meditation, and crunch numbers in a vacuum. All of our thoughts and decision-making processes emerge from social interactions. Thus, Jacobs contends, there is no such thing as “thinking for yourself”; there is only thinking with different people.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you are locked into whatever orthodoxies prevail in your social circles. It is possible to change your mind on vital questions of life, though that may be exceptionally hard depending on the pressures and values of your community. All this means is that when you change your mind, you’re not acting as a free, heroic spirit in defiance against the odds. You’re simply changing who you think with.

To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. And when people commend someone for “thinking for herself” they usually mean “ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of” (37).

The question, then, is not whether you will think for yourself, but what communities will you join? What social influences will you cultivate? These are important questions, because those influences will profoundly affect your thought processes as well as the way you view others who disagree with you.

The Inner Ring

Here Jacobs warns us of the pervasive and insidious yearning for the Inner Ring, that invisible force of peer pressure that C.S. Lewis described in a lecture of the same name. The Inner Ring is whatever circle of peers you long to join, because that’s where the cool kids are. Such groups are of course unavoidable and not necessarily bad in themselves. The danger, which hovers over all of us in every stage of life, lies in what we will say or think in order to get into the Inner Ring and stay there—or, as the case may, what we might choose not to say, or not to think, because any violation of the group’s implicit doctrine would jeopardize our inclusion.

“The pressures imposed on us by Inner Rings make genuine thinking almost impossible by making belonging contingent on conformity,” Jacobs writes. “The only real remedy for the dangers of false belonging is the true belonging to, true membership in, a fellowship of people who are not so much like-minded as like-hearted” (62). He goes on to say that the healthiest social circles are generally those in which the act of thinking and questioning is considered laudable, where there is a mutual bond of goodwill, and where the outgroup is respected rather than caricatured and condemned.

Finding such a group is not easy, however. When is the last time you engaged in a debate where you were forced to restate an opposing view to your peer’s satisfaction? Where you were respected not only for changing other peoples’ minds, but for having your own mind changed? Where you were told, in short, to love your enemies? Community of this kind requires not just a commitment to humility, patience, generosity, and prudence. It requires knowledge of, even skepticism towards, your own motives.

It also requires vigilance concerning your circle’s attitude towards the outgroup, or what Jacobs terms the “Repugnant Cultural Other.” It would be a bad sign, for instance, if my Christian peers shamed me for reading Bertrand Russell’s arguments about the falsity of religion. Likewise you should be alarmed if you’re a liberal progressive whose friends scoff and sneer when you read Breitbart in an effort to better understand your conservative neighbors. These are the times we should start evaluating whether we’re part of a healthy community or an Inner Ring.

Questioning the dynamic of your group can be costly, though, and Jacobs maintains no illusions about the potential consequences. He cites Ursula Le Guin’s short story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, to carry the point. As the story goes, there are citizens who question the morals of the city of Omelas, and who ultimately decide to leave. But where do they end up? A happier place? An even worse place? As told in the last line of the story, no one knows.

“To think,” says Jacobs, “to dig into the foundations of our beliefs, is a risk, and perhaps a tragic risk. There are no guarantees that it will make us happy or even give us satisfaction” (36).

The Role of Emotion

Borrowing heavily from John Stuart Mill, Jacobs is at pains to show how emotions are indispensable to thinking. We are whole persons, and if we reduce our thoughts to cold rationality, we will harden ourselves to cruelty and injustice, because reason alone fails to equip us with the strength and willpower we need to take meaningful action in the world. Emotion, when joined with reason, is what enables us to respond to the seriousness of a situation “in the way it deserves” (44).

The rhetorician in me appreciated this point because in America we often privilege reason over emotion to an unhealthy degree, and regard any expression of rhetoric as mere manipulation. But there are many cases in which appealing to both our hearts and our minds is a moral imperative. When we need to awaken ourselves or our neighbors to the goodness or badness of a thing, talking about it only in terms of hard facts does little to stir us to action.

This is a complex point that deserves more commentary. I hope to write about it in more detail some day on this blog.

Keywords and Metaphors

Intersectionality. White privilege. Tree hugger.

If you think about it long enough, you can probably identify a range of keywords that you employ in your conversations with friends and peers to mark your position on an issue. As Jonathan Haidt has argued, keywords can be useful because they “bind” us to others and facilitate solidarity. But they are also dangerous to the extent that the “blind” us to other crucial aspects of whatever we’re discussing.

Jacobs runs with this idea and connects it with the concept of “terministic screens,” which was developed by rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke. Simply put, a terministic screen is a word, phrase, or linguistic frame that directs our attention towards one thing and away from another. All of us do this; it is impossible speak otherwise, and it means we need to ask ourselves some hard questions: when we think and argue, what are we directing attention to, and what are we directing attention away from? What dimensions of an issue do our keywords cause us to minimize or overlook? “And—perhaps most important of all: who benefits from my attention being directed this way rather than that?” (91).

Jacobs then turns to a discussion of unacknowledged metaphors, which have an even more powerful impact on our thinking than keywords. And what, pray, is the dominant metaphor in thinking and argument? War and all its attendant lingo: opponent, enemy, attack, side, victory, losing, winning. We are proud and competitive by nature, and even in our most levelheaded moments, we almost always feel we have something legitimate to lose in a debate. In one of my favorite passages of the book, Jacobs articulates why we should resist passive participation in this metaphor.

We lose something of our humanity by militarizing discussion and debate; and we lose something of our humanity by demonizing our interlocutors. 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. And that is a great price to pay for supposed ‘victory’ in debate. (98)

The solution? In a nutshell, learn to talk and think in the keywords, metaphors, and myths of the Repugnant Cultural Other. This is far from easy, and it is no wonder that one of the analogies Jacobs uses for it is method acting, a type of holistic immersion in another person’s thoughts and feelings. But only in this way can you begin to loosen the hold of your own keywords and metaphors, which are likely blinding you to truths you would not see otherwise. And one of those truths is just how much in common you have with your disagreeable neighbor next door.

The Golden Mean

In one of his last chapters, Jacobs takes a cue from Aristotle to argue for striking a “golden mean” between “flaccidity” and “rigidity” of mind. On the one hand, reaching conclusions on difficult questions is essential: we need to have “rigid,” “settled” convictions so we can take a stand on pressing issues of the day and face uncertainty. On the other hand, life is complex. The facts of a matter may change, or we may encounter contradictory evidence which complicates our decisions. So there’s a need for flaccidity as well: being open to new ideas and questions, and considering alternative views.

Again, for the reasons mentioned above, this is a tough line to walk. If you’ve already invested deeply in one social circle, and if changing your mind or budging on your position would endanger your reputation or membership status, then the drive to keep yourself open to differing opinions is weak. “You have to be a certain kind of person to make this book work for you,” writes Jacobs, “the kind of person who, at least some of the time, cares more about working toward the truth than about one’s current social position. And working toward the truth is one of life’s greatest adventures” (150).

If that is the sort of adventure you want, then How to Think is for you.

Here’s what you won’t find, though. You won’t find extensive and concrete advice on how to persuade others to act on some principle or issue you find urgent. For example, if you’re wondering, “All this is cool, but how can I apply these principles to the task of persuasion itself? And in such a way that I avoid the ‘persuasion-as-war’ metaphor?” That, I think, is work one must do after finishing the book. Nevertheless, Jacobs’ proposals about how to be skeptical of your own motives and to distinguish between good and bad communities of thought, along with his insights into building character qualities of bravery and empathy, are critical starting points.

There is one more insight from Jacobs that I will highlight, which is that true thinking never ends. Your quest is lifelong and will probably experience some seismic shifts along the way. None of that should be taken as an indication that you have “arrived.” Jacobs articulates this too well for me to omit:

Thinking does not have a destination, a stopping point, a ‘Well, we’re finally here.’ To cease thinking, as Thomas Aquinas explained, is an act either of despair—‘I can’t go any further’—or of presumption—‘I need not go any further.’ What is needed for the life of thinking is hope: hope of knowing more, understanding more, being more than we currently are. (151)

There is much more excellent material in the book. How, for example, can we avoid falling into reductionistic “lumping” of people into crude categories? If bias is unavoidable and even necessary for mental processing, how do we distinguish between good and bad biases? How do we strive for solidarity on matters of social justice without vilifying those who stand in our way? Jacobs addresses these and other crucial questions in a thoughtful, witty, and engaging manner, distilling ideas from valuable resources that I would never have found on my own. Thinking is still hard, but with his help, it’s a little less so.

4 thoughts on “Thinking Hard Is Harder Than You Think

  1. Hey Richard! Been a little while huh? First, I’m really glad to see you’re still the intelligent, articulate, well spoken (written?) guy I knew. Please forgive any grammatical errors in this reply. It was never my strong suit! Thinking is something I’m pretty interested in and passionate about. Especially when it seems like so many of us seem to choose the path of least resistance when it comes to forming opinions about important matters. Not delving into the facts, let alone assimilating them into our internal landscape to form well reasoned stances of our own.

    After reading the first excerpt from Alan Jacob’s book I definitely went into Refutation Mode. Which was humorous when he immediately assumed that is how most would react. The idea of our thinking being tied to a social circle isn’t new to me. The old adage “we are the company we keep” rings true. But I think it sounds like the author does a better job of describing the how and why our thinking is influenced. Eager to read more. I also really liked how you stated that emotion was indispensable to thinking. My inclination would have been to say something like inextricably linked…but that doesn’t really carry the same depth of meaning. The passage regarding “losing something of our humanity by militarizing our debate” reminds me exactly why I disagree with our adversarial system of justice. Where instead of seeking the truth we seek to defeat our opponent.

    I apologize for my somewhat disjointed observations and thoughts! I hope you’re doing well man. It certainly seems to be the case.

    Wishing you and yours all my best,


    1. Steve, great to hear from you. The adage you mentioned (“we are the company we keep”) resonates: we are more influenced by our peers and communities than we realize, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — provided the communities we’re a part of aren’t averse to grappling with hard questions. I hope you get to finish the book! Jacobs delves into this point at length and gives some good ideas and examples of how to look for and foster communities where thinking is seen as attractive and good.

      Thanks for commenting and hope you’re well! It’s been far too long.


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