"The emotional tail wags the rational dog." ~Jon Haidt
Our brains process tens of thousands of separate thoughts per day, about 70,000, to be more precise. In the span of 1 minute, people generally have between 35 and 48 distinct thoughts.
Some of these thoughts will germinate into great ideas. Some will simply help us get through the day. Most will bounce off around our brains and fade into nothingness, never to be acted upon, or even remembered seconds later.
Most of these thoughts seem disparate and disjointed as we think them, and many of them are. It seems like we cannot control our thoughts most of the time, at least not unless we try pretty hard. But science has shown us that we can control them. Then why don’t many of us even try?
We think the way we do most often out of habit. But habits can be broken, and changed. It’s easy to fall into patterns of thought, and eventually to believe our thoughts are true, even when they may not be. Then, we surround ourselves with like-minded people, read only like-minded websites, watch like-minded TV, read like-minded books. We can change our thoughts, but most of us choose not to. It’s comfortable to be in that cocoon, thinking you are right about pretty much everything. People don’t like to have their beliefs questioned, and often get defensive when they are. Asking them to voluntarily change their thinking, to question what they’ve always known, usually gets one rebuffed--soundly.
But I want to challenge you to do just that. Because voluntarily changing how you think can change your world, and could possibly change the world. Being able to open your mind to the possibility that there could be more than one answer to some of the biggest questions of life will strain your brain, and make you smarter and more empathetic.
Critical Thinking: the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.
Here is the challenge I make to you. It’s very, very difficult to control the initial, immediate thought you have when you meet a new person, or hear of an emotional event, or experience something out of your comfort zone. That initial thought springs up unbidden, and generally mirrors past thoughts on like events or people. Those initial thoughts are very difficult to control.
But the thought that immediately follows that one? Oh, that one you can change. And you should.
Let me give you an example. You are perusing Facebook and see a story about a skinny dog that was tied outside of a shelter during the night, and was found the next morning cold and wet by the shelter staff, who took the dog in and are now caring for it.
You love animals. You are incensed by this wanton act of cruelty. Your first thought is, “How could anyone leave a dog tied up in the rain, tossed away like trash?”
If you don’t try to change your next thoughts, they will sound an awful lot like the first one. And what good does that do you? Or the dog?
Try stopping the cavalcade of negative thoughts about this situation and attempt to see it from another perspective. After you acknowledge your anger and frustration, have a different thought.
Here are some possibilities:
“At least they left him at a shelter, instead of dumping him along the side of the road.”
“Maybe they had been evicted and were at the end of their rope, and had nowhere else to turn.”
“Maybe he bit their child, and they were scared of him.”
“Maybe he is very sick, and they panicked.”
“Maybe they actually loved him very much.”
Wait, WHAT? Do you think that I think that tying a dog to a shelter fence in the rain is a good way of showing love?
I do not.
Why, then, would I ask you to even entertain that thought, ridiculous as it sounds?
Because it could actually be true. Yes. It could.
Regardless of whether it is actually true (because, let’s face it, you will likely never know much more about this situation that this story tells you), you believing it could be true does no one any harm.
That’s right. It could be true. Why not acknowledge that, instead of just jumping right to the negativity and anger at the Whole Human Race? Having some empathy for the dog’s previous owners empowers you to act differently. You can still feel sadness for the dog’s plight, and thankfulness for the shelter staff rescuing him. You can still be angry if you want to, but why not direct that anger in a positive way? Be angry that there are no low-cost veterinary clinics in your area, or that people have misconceptions about shelters and what kinds of dogs can be found there for adoption. Be angry that existing laws don’t do enough to keep animals safer. Then, do something positive with that anger.
Assuming the worst of people in every situation doesn’t improve anyone. And the media and social media serve up tons of stories designed to evoke anger, disgust, and negativity. Sure, there are some news outlets that try to counter this trend with feel-good journalism, and that’s a welcome sight. But the negative stories always outweigh the positive. Why? Because our brains are hardwired to pay more attention to the negative.
When you start to change your Second Thought, you begin to strengthen your empathy muscle. Anger can indeed drive us, but empathy can drive us to more positive change. Be angry at systems and bureaucracies and gridlock and partisanship. Heck, be angry at some individuals, if you must. But try to stretch your brain around the idea that most everyone is doing the best they can with what they have in that moment. You are free to disagree with their choices. You are free to place blame, even.
But what if you first acknowledge that you don’t have all the facts, and that, in and of itself, should stop you from continuing your initial train of thought.
I’m not telling you that you must always think the best of people. People often make crappy decisions; rotten ones, even. People act stupidly, and selfishly. I’m not telling you that positive thinking can erase all the bad in the world, because it can’t.
What I am saying is that you can hold opposing thoughts in your head about people and situations without your brain exploding. You can alter your initial perception of events and the people involved, and you should at least try. What will it hurt?
Instead of believing that bad things happen because people are evil, or stupid, or ignorant, why not blame the situation? The person who just cut you off in traffic could be a sociopath, but what is more likely is that he or she is dealing with a situation (about which you know zilch) that caused him to act that way, in that moment. Have you never driven recklessly? Does the fact that you have, even just once, make you stupid?
What if just 10% of the population tried this? What do you think would happen? Maybe the course of events might not change, but could the aftermath?
Start a trend. Change your Second Thought.
“The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.” ~William James