No one has ever seen a thought, not even a neurosurgeon. However, today we know more about the way we think than what we were able to visualise, yet still less than we would like to know.
After psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman introduced the theory of prospecting as part of his research on consumer behaviour1, it took the Nobel Prize committee several decades to understand its impact and distinguish its contribution to the development of science.2 What Kahneman had managed to prove was not flattering to anyone.
We are predictably irrational
Although most psychologists had previously believed that people buy products for rational reasons, such as the criterion of subjective utility (the benefits they think they will get from the purchase), in essence, Kahneman showed that, in reality, the purchase decision is most often due to irrational influences. “Predictably irrational” is the expression that would be used years later by another behavioural economist, Dan Ariely.3
Through numerous references to experiments and scientific discoveries, but also through a multitude of examples that are easy to spot in our daily lives, Ariely has shown just how systematic some thinking errors are, errors that we make again and again. However, Ariely did not propose his theory simply to mock humanity, as a bully dressed in scientific garb. Precisely the opposite: at every opportunity he emphasised that the vulnerabilities revealed by our predisposition to the irrational are a permanent invitation to growth.
Ariely is not the only one seeing the advantages of emotion-embedded logic, distorted perceptions or wrong habits. Nancy Cavender and Howard Kahane said that some errors of thought, such as self-deception, wishful thinking, and denial, can prove useful to the functioning of our lives.4
An extreme example that they offered and that effectively demonstrates this mechanism (although, personally, I do not agree with its essential value judgment), is the scenario of the young soldier on the front lines who is shocked when a bomb falls on him. He had thought that it it could only happen to other soldiers. But it is unreasonable to assume this; after all, a war means that there will be the dead and wounded. However, what could be more effective in motivating someone to volunteer than the thought that nothing bad will happen to him? Cavender and Kahane conclude that the young soldier’s ability to consciously distort his knowledge of death in a war and to adopt the belief that he will be spared this fate is what prompts him to fight for the welfare of his country.
Another example based on the same mechanism is the so-called Pygmalion effect. Psychologists Rosenthal and Jacobson describe how this effect is felt when someone such as a teacher has certain expectations of the progress of their student, and how this manifests as a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, when, despite the evidence, you treat a man who is unpromising as if he is capable of self-actualisation, you are helping him to truly overcome his initial condition and achieve success. (Some psychologists later challenged the validity of this effect, at least in the school environment.)
Less controversial is the already established placebo effect, which has emerged, after countless experiments, as a phenomenon by which a mental belief manages to influence, to some extent, the biological response of the body. An experiment conducted by Cavender and Kahane compared the responses of two groups of people subjected to electric shocks.5 They had all received an “empty” pill, but some were told that their pill had cost 10 cents, and others that their pill had cost 2.5 dollars. Although both groups received the same neutral medicine, the group that received the more “expensive” pill reported less pain from the electric shock.
Wishful thinking therefore has the ability to reduce stress. It is already well known that the way we perceive stress has a significant influence on its effect. A person who perceives stress as more of an inconvenience or a challenge will not feel the same negative health effects as someone who perceives their stress as a suffocating weight preventing them from moving in the direction they want to move in. It also explains why stress can motivate some while killing others. Subjective perception makes all the difference.
A person who perceives stress as more of an inconvenience or a challenge will not feel the same negative health effects as someone who perceives their stress as a suffocating weight preventing them from moving in the direction they want to move in. It also explains why stress can motivate some while killing others.
However, this is where the credit we can give to subjective perception stops because, in our life experience, we have already seen that our cognitive limitations can have extremely serious consequences. Wishful thinking can help us somehow in managing a disease, but it cannot cure it, despite the claims made over time by supporters of the New Thought movement, which advocates healing strictly by the power of the mind. But what is the use of a strong mind in a dead body? Countless women die in homes where they and their children are abused, thinking that if they show enough love for their abusive husbands they will be reborn from the ashes of their wifely expectations. Cancelled Pygmalions. Multitudes of idealistic young people are manipulated to deny the evidence and fight to the death in the wars of megalomanic dictators—wars from which not even the abhorrent leaders have anything to gain. Dead in vain.
Obstacles to correct thinking
In order to allow our growth to be driven by the perspective of our own limitations, as Ariely said, we must not manifest any wishful thinking about our wishful thinking. Instead, we should take it exactly as it is and understand how it manifests. What psychological obstacles can get in the way of correct thinking and how can we overcome them as effectively as possible?
Provincialism, herd mentality and even something as noble as loyalty can distort our thinking. Provincialism means that we tend to identify with the ideas and concerns of those in the group we belong to, ignoring those who are different. For example, Westerners tend to be disinterested in what happens to people living in other parts of the world. In the Christian environment, provincialism can cause us to show interest only in the specifics of the life of faith of our denomination as it is outlined in the area where we live and to ignore the global diversity of the denomination and its challenges or opportunities. When it comes to loyalty to one’s own religious group, it is important to understand that loyalty to the truth is what must prevail.
Prejudices and stereotypes can be very comfortable types of thinking. But in the comfort of the mind, the worst imaginable consequences are born. It consumes us to listen to others and to start to know their particularities, especially when we have the impression that in two or three strokes we can already outline the category which our interlocutors belong to. But this way of communicating involves very high risks. The problem with prejudices and stereotypes is that they generate a superficial, if not false, communication in which we fail to connect with the other in depth and to benefit from the satisfaction that God has associated with real relationships between people.
Partisanship and the search for a scapegoat were easily noticed during the most recent refugee crisis. The inhospitable attitude of many Christians towards refugees from Muslim countries reached a climax when refugees were unjustly accused of a programmatic islamization of Europe, suddenly turning from war-torn simple people into a pest risking to impoverish the European social services system.
Maintaining superstitious beliefs can make us believe things by generalizing small, insufficient, or perhaps even biased evidence and knowingly eliminating or ignoring evidence against those things. Truly tragic examples are those of people who have assumed that the only remedy needed to cure a fatal disease is an unwavering trust in God, ignoring that the premise of trusting in God does not result in us not trusting doctors and ignoring that the healing via medical action is also a result of divine intervention working through people.
Wishful thinking ignores evidence or reality for the sake of an imagined scenario. Wishful thinking does not always have harmful consequences, but it always carries risks. Like when a student enrolls in a college without real prospects for employment in the labor market, hoping that, because he is passionate about the field, he will still have a successful career.
One can work with wishful thinking more than with other logical fallacies. The disciples of Christ were idealists, but in the wrong direction. They all dreamed of a respectable position in the kingdom that they hoped Christ would establish in Israel. They were shocked that their King received a crown of thorns instead of a gold one, but the love that Christ had cultivated in them, even as they composed political scenarios, helped them to radically change their perspective and be able to conceive a kingdom without boundaries of space and time.
If we look carefully at the logical mistakes described above, we see that each is a short-term remedy for something we wish would not bother us in the long run.
Like the disciples, in the first part of their experience with Christ, we deceive ourselves when we accept easy but unlikely interpretations, just so as not to go through the inconvenience of an in-depth study that would require time, effort, documentation, and even an increased attention. Sometimes we even postpone the search for answers to questions that cause us anxiety, as a way to protect ourselves from that unpleasant feeling.
If we look carefully at the logical mistakes described above, we see that each is a short-term remedy for something we wish would not bother us in the long run. They are, in essence, shortcuts against anxiety (which, when maintained, is very harmful to health) or against intellectual effort, which is not natural to any of us. If we recognize this, we have already taken a step forward: where we recognize that our fear needs other kinds of remedies and that the mistakes of others may come from the same place where ours come from. And that’s a good thing though. Because we can meet there.
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network and Semnele timpului.