Can Our Thinking Really Be Relied Upon?

Published Categorized as anxiety, distorted thinking

We are taught to believe that our thinking can be relied upon and that it’s logical, rational and fool proof. Surely therefore it’s the best tool for making decisions, and for viewing and assessing the world. We can think ourselves out of difficulties, we can think to be creative and solve problems and we can think to imagine. It certainly is an amazing tool.

Only here’s the thing. Our thinking is far from totally reliable. It’s not always completely logical and rational. It’s prone to denials, distortions and biases. By all means it’s a good tool for helping us decide whether a knife or fork is better for putting a potato in our mouths but when things become personal, emotional or nuanced, our logic can become less rigorous.

So why is this?

Negativity bias

We know our brains evolved to survive the more physically challenging conditions humans existed in thousands of years ago. That brain had to really notice danger to survive. So much so that when a human saw a poisonous snake, it imprinted upon that human with far more alarm and permanence than when they had a pleasant interaction with another, It needed to, so that the human was on high alert next time it wandered that way and there was a possibility of a snake. This is called negativity bias. We see this in action now when someone slips in one criticism amongst a ream of praise. What sticks in our mind afterwards – the copious praise or the lone piece of criticism?

It’s quite hard to stop this automatic bias every time but we can make ourselves aware of it so its impact hurts less. My daughter has given her name a brain and tells it off when she becomes aware that it’s catastrophising or ruminating on the negative. A dear friend of mine once started a sentence with, ‘But allowing my brain to think really negatively about this, because that’s what our brains do….’ That awareness can make the difference between feeling fully inside the negativity, and starting to detach enough to see it’s the brain up to its usual tricks!

Too much information

Dr. Joe Dispenza states that a healthy human brain can process 400 billion bits of information per second. Our brain cannot possibly process all that information consciously. It has to have a ‘significance’ filter. (For example, we don’t need to really ‘see’ the colour of our front door every time we walk through it.) But the thing about our significance filter is that it will be slightly or significantly different for different people, depending upon what they have experienced in their past. Their experience will have created a filter that decides if the information is worth receiving or rejecting at source, before true consideration. If we were scared once as a child because a door slammed on our finger, our filter might well decide considering doors is actually significant whereas another person would really not notice a door co’ nsciously at all.

This process gives us an inbuilt system of bias that we can often not see enough to challenge. Our filter kicks in super quickly and can mean we don’t even take a moment to consider if a particular piece of information might be true or not. We rarely ask ourselves, ‘Is this actually true?’, ‘could this be true? or ‘have I based this on an assumption I’m not aware of enough to challenge?’ Sadly, we don’t just apply this to factual information ‘out there’, we also apply it to ourselves.

Beliefs created in babyhood and childhood

The bias our filter can give us can mean we receive information that backs up what our previous experiences taught us and rejects that which doesn’t. And these biases can be developed in childhood before we have developed the capacity to retain memories, so our awareness of them can be non-existent. Our brain’s filter is ruled by our subconscious.

If, for example, a child experienced extremely inattentive parenting in early childhood and was left with a feeling that they are of no significance, this will affect the information they will receive. This is why those with low self-esteem generally deal with criticism badly. The criticism backs up their self-belief on a subconscious level and opens a very deep, unhealed wound. This child is also likely to have a lot of negative self-talk going on in their heads also, so criticism concurs with this and adds to its power.

On a slightly less deep level, if as a child you received praise and attention for being (for example) tidy. This will be a subconscious filter that child will probably grow up to use to beat themselves up with (if they’re messy) and judge others by, as their automatic filter says being tidy is really important. Another example of a subconscious filter can result in racism- if we were taught to be wary of anyone who didn’t share our ethnicity ….. and so on. Making ourselves aware of these filters can help us to challenge them and release us from the inflexible ‘shoulds’, ‘should nots’ and rigid thinking we hold ourselves unnecessarily ransom to.

Emotional reactions and confirmation bias

For some, arguing or debating can become an emotional and egotistical venture. When this is the case, our thinking can be affected such that it becomes more important to ‘win’ a debate than it does to engage in it properly. This can prevent people from considering the possible validity of opposing views and only ‘receive’ others’ views that align with their existing one. Even when emotion is not involved, we can still sometimes inadvertently only listen to views we already have.

I like something my brother said recently. He said, ‘I rarely trust my opinions.’ I think that shows a fair degree of detachment from being inside thinking: meta thinking, thinking about thinking! I sometimes wonder if opinions are really anything much – just a display of our values that we either share or don’t share with people we encounter and sharing them is only meaningful if we’re truly happy to have them challenged.

So what can we teach children relating to this?

I see anything that expands or challenges our thinking, keeps our thinking flexible and increases positive thinking as useful.

Depending upon a child’s age I think we can:

  • Explore values about behaviour. Which behaviours are helpful and which are not and why?
  • Explore different opinions: with very young children this can be simple things like: which lesson is best at school? Which weather is better? Which food makes the best snack?
  • Teach that holding different opinions is absolutely fine.
  • Teach that opinions can change when we learn more information about something.
  • Consider how we arrive at different opinions because of our different experiences. (e.g. X finds maths easier than Y so enjoys it more)
  • Help children question assumptions. E.g. all girls like dolls, boys shouldn’t cry.
  • Teach the fact our brain notices and receives negative things at a louder volume than positive things (and why).
  • Practice gratitude – list what you love as this increases positive thinking.
  • Practice appreciation of and how to connect with others as this increases positive thinking.
  • Explore our internal monologue by asking: What do we say to ourselves (inside out heads) when we make a mistake?
  • The difference between facts and opinions.
  • Use and agreement spectrum to explore views. (Make a statement and ask children to stand on a spectrum in a place that represents how they feel about that statement e.g. Being kind is the most important thing a person can do.) Explore the effect of what others think upon your opinion by looking how hard it is to stand on a position along the line far away from others!)
  • Consider that because there are many examples of opposing views existing on the internet, everything on the internet simply cannot be true.
  • With much older children, debate issues and explore conformation bias: only taking information that supports your argument. What stops us from hearing something that doesn’t support our argument?

In the meantime – I’ll leave you with an activity from an old book of mine PSHE 7-9. It makes me laugh a bit now but it explores the idea that as we learn more information about something, our opinion can (and probably should) change!

Changing opinions

An opinion is what you think about something based on what you know.

Opinions can change, facts cannot.

Read the following story and after each part, write what you think of King Jonas in the second column of the table and what fact it was that made you think this in the third column.

 What is you opinion of King Jonas now?What fact made you change your opinion – if you did.
King Jonas ruled the land of Gorgolio and most of his subjects thought he was a kind and fair king. He was a cheery man who liked to laugh and throw big parties for everyone.  
There was a small village called Harvelli in the far west of the country. King Jonas treated the people that lived here quite differently from everyone else in his kingdom. He would not let anyone leave the village of Harvelli and he would not let anyone visit the people that lived there. They were treated like prisoners.  
King Jonas made the decision to keep the people of Harvelli separate from the rest of the people in his kingdom because they were three times as big as anyone else in the kingdom. He told people that it would be far safer if the two different sized people were kept separated.  
The people of Harvelli were sure that King Jonas kept them trapped in their own village because he was scared that they would take over the whole island and stop him from being king. The people of Harvelli insisted that they have no intention of trying to rule the land of Gorgolio, they just wanted their freedom. Being trapped in their village made the Harvellians very sad.  
When King Jonas first became king, the people of Harvelli were allowed to roam all over the land of Gorgolio. When this happened, many of the smaller people were injured or killed. At one point a giant Harvellian woman was arrested for deliberately stamping on sheep. King Jonas did not want to keep the Harvellians as prisoners but all the Harvellians agreed that the woman had not done anything wrong at all and too much fuss had been made over a few dead sheep.          

Changing Opinions

Purpose of activity: to explore how opinions can change when you find out more facts about a topic.

Main discussion points:

  • When people discuss an issue, they can often change their opinion as they uncover more facts about it.
  • If King Jonas put his side of the story to you, you would probably think badly of the Harvellians. If the Harvellians told you their story they would probably make you think King Jonas was bad. This is because both King Jonas and the Harvellians would probably leave out the facts that might make you sympathetic to the other side of the argument.
  • The best way to consider your own opinion about any issue is to try and find out all the facts you can about any situation or issue, think about it carefully (possibly discuss it) and then form an opinion.

Extension activities

  • Pupils could write the Harvellians’ version of the story – how they would tell it and King Jonas’ version of the story – how he would tell it. Both ‘sides’ would leave out any facts that made you support the other side of the argument. They might also make persuasive comments or exaggerate things – for example King Jonas might exaggerate about the crime the Harvellian woman committed.
  • Pupils could work in pairs to develop their own story that could change people’s opinions as it unfolded.