Psychological Dividends: On the Necessity of Critical Thinking

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Knowledge can produce any change in the universe that’s compatible with its laws. — David Deutsch

Logic is a virtue only when it’s maintained as a method for reasoning. In addition, reasoning is a process rather than an abstraction. In other words, the rigorous application of logic is not exclusive to philosophical idealism.

Knowing how to think is invariably more important than knowing what to think. Processes matter. Likewise, in today’s onslaught of information overload, knowing what to get rid of can be as essential as knowing what to keep  (e.g., a way of scrutinizing the landscape of our mind to eradicate what neuroscientist and psychologist Dean Buonomano described as “brain bugs”).

Formal logic consists of three basic rules of engagement that are operationally independent but mutually cohesive when analyzing propositions to develop a reliable framework of epistemology.

1. Inductive reasoning: Specific premise to a general conclusion.
2. Deductive reasoning: General premise to a specific conclusion.
3. Abductive reasoning: Most likely explanation given all available data.

However, regarding the seemingly infinite abyss of logical fallacies and their increasing regularity in daily conversation, there are five particular travesties of cognition that I encounter as a clinician more than I care to document during any given session. In addition, given today’s inauspicious trend of factual relativity and a blatant disregard for expertise, the need for intellectual vigilance has become something of a moral emergency among those still concerned with the concept of truth.

1. The fallacy of illicit transference is an informal fallacy that is committed when an argument assumes there is no difference between a term in the distributive (referring to every member of a class) and collective (referring to the class itself as a whole) sense. This fallacy occurs within two categorical errors: What is true of the part is true of the whole (composition), or what is true of the whole is true of the part (division).

Examples: {A} This politician in corrupt; therefore all politicians are corrupt (composition). {B} This agency is known for malfeasance; therefore any employee of this agency is untrustworthy (division). * Anomaly hunting is a common, supplemental approach to this fallacy in which an individual searches for confirmation of a belief while ignoring information that refutes their belief.

2. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc is a logical fallacy that infers the premise that if something occurs after an event, it must be caused by the event; used to indicate that a causal relationship has erroneously been assumed from a merely sequential one.

Example: The WTC 7 building in New York City (north of the Twin Towers) was known to contain private, financial banking records and collapsed shortly after the initial 9/11 attacks; therefore an attempted cover-up of fraudulent banking practices explains why 9/11 was an inside job orchestrated by the government via controlled demolition. Obviously, correlation does not prove causation. However, efforts to preoccupy oneself with erroneous associations often persist long after additional evidence has been produced to falsify such claims (e.g., the Backfire Effect).

3. Just-World Hypothesis (aka the Just-World Fallacy) is the assumption that a person’s actions are inherently inclined to bring morally fair and fitting consequences to that person, to the end of all noble actions being eventually rewarded and all evil actions eventually punished.

Example: People get what they deserve. This idea also derives from the presupposition that the world is an “equal playing field,” or that a person has unmitigated free will to “choose otherwise” (also known as a fundamental attribution error).

4. Argumentum ad populum is a logical fallacy that occurs when something is considered to be true or good solely because it is popular.

Example: Millions of people agree with my viewpoint; therefore, it must be right.

5. The Nirvana Fallacy is the informal fallacy of comparing actual things with unrealistic, idealized alternatives. It can also refer to the tendency to assume that there is a perfect solution to a particular problem (e.g., the perfect solution fallacy).

Examples: {A} Seat belts are a bad idea because people are still going to die in car crashes; therefore wearing a seat belt is an unecessary precaution. {B} Either there is a perfect solution to ending gun violence, or we shouldn’t do anything about it at all.

Alleviating the tyranny of confirmation bias prevents us from assuming the answers before investigating the questions. The facile satisfaction of asserting a comfortable narrative to explain complex or uncomfortable circumstances may be alluring, but it’s not a reliable way to understand the world and can result in the collateral damage of equal-opportunity credulity. In contrast, the psychological dividends available from exercising critical thinking skills allow us to remain honest while providing the most effective strategies for comprehending, accepting, and adapting to the nature of reality.

*Recommended reading: Crimes Against Logic by Jamie Whyte

Unreasonable Reasoning

Every individual acts and suffers in accordance with their particular teleology, which has all the inevitability of fate, as long as they do not understand it.Alfred Adler

The phrase “everything happens for a reason” is a perniciously irksome expression. It would be better to say that everything happens because of assorted causation, but I suppose that doesn’t have enough poetic appeal. For example, if a tornado descends on a family of five—sparing only the youngest child—we should comprehend this misfortune as being caused by a rotating column of air near the earth’s surface (a tornado will demolish a home or community center with as much indifference as it would a liquor store). There is no need to say that the tornado happened for the child to learn a valuable lesson about bereavement while creating an opportunity to connect with an estranged relative. Likewise, it’s not very nice to tell children born with neurofibromatosis or leukemia that it happened for a reason. Manufacturing meaning to explain tragedies is not why tragedies occur in the first place; rather, the “meaning” represents a psychological buffer that promotes self-satisfied solace (albeit temporarily) in the wake of destruction. However, this type of specious perspective is short-sighted, conspicuously simplistic, and can appear distastefully insensitive to those whose suffering cannot be ameliorated. When used as a teleological anodyne, creative interpretations of trauma are simultaneously dishonest and intellectually bankrupt.

False consolation and convenient narratives, however well-intended, prolong our misunderstanding of reality and compromise human resilience for enduring future catastrophes. Furthermore, to say that everything happens for a reason diminishes the horror and sociopolitical responsibility with such historical atrocities as the Holocaust, the plight of Native Americans, slavery, and the Spanish Inquisition. There is no cosmic blueprint hanging on a ledge in the outer reaches of space providing intrinsic meaning to all random and non-fortuitous events. This is not to say, however, that wisdom cannot be gained from traumatic experiences. More importantly, we must learn to adapt to experiences that are not imbued with grandiose meaning via radical acceptance.

In conclusion, if your observational propositions do not align with reality, you may want to adjust your interpretive lens (altering reality is not an option). Cultivating compassion and solidarity starts with not lying to ourselves, or anyone else, about the nature of circumstance.

Teleology Gone Wild

A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and our language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably. Ludwig Wittgenstein

A recurring deluge of exasperation happens whenever I hear eyebrow-raising claims made by woo-prone clinicians coupled with the astonishing credulity of uncritical clients. In an earlier post entitled Seductive Obfuscation, I described the misappropriation and misapplication of scientific language to support specious propositions in a therapeutic setting. Unscrupulous offerings of hope are available in surplus for those who solicit therapy for a sense of meaning or purpose. Likewise, the predisposition of some clinicians to lobby for logical fallacies is only outmatched by the client’s subconscious fear of accepting what David Hume referred to as the “is.” Subsequently, the temptation to manufacture meaning out of the meaningless demonstrates the human desire to anthropomorphize life events through a fog-infused lens of promiscuous teleology. As the playwright Arthur Miller pointed out, the tendency to project ourselves onto the universe is deeply ingrained in the human psyche. The curiously human inclination to retrospectively connect the dots—even when the dots are randomly indifferent—is a remnant from the associative learning of our infancy. Pareidolia (an image or sound that is perceived as significant) is the illusory-inundated cousin of apophenia (attributing connections to patterns of meaningless data), and false positives are the ancestral side-effects of hyperactive agency detection (i.e., type 1 errors in cognition).

More troubling is the level of self-deception among therapists who tacitly or openly endorse fictitious cognitive buffers to attenuate existential anxiety. A recent examination of the willingness to apply equal-opportunity meaning to coincidence, objects, patterns, or circumstance is deconstructed in Australian philosopher Tamas Pataki’s Wish-fulfillment in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis: The Tyranny of Desire.¹ Pataki (unrelated to George Pataki), refers to the radical extension of human agency as “intentionalism.” In relation to theory of mind in psychology, the intentional idiom provides greater levels of interpersonal awareness. However, intentionality can quickly lead to fantasy and wishful delusions when extended beyond its social value. In other words, assuming the intentions of others does not imply that all things have intention. The result of unbridled intentionalism is a kind of “animism on steroids” that only serves to reassure a gullible and anxious mindset.

Purpose doesn’t have to be etched in the cosmos to give consciousness intrinsic value; the emergence of consciousness is its own reward. As the historian Peter Watson reiterates, it’s essential to recognize and accept the significance of our insignificance. Furthermore, if our insignificance is interpreted as a source of despair (aptly described by Ann Druyan as “Post-Copernicus Stress Syndrome”), perhaps we should reassess the foundational integrity of our reality-based coping mechanisms. Humility is the concession that we are a complex manifestation of the elements rather than being central to the elements. Only then can we know what it means to be “connected” to the world around us.

1. Pataki, Tamas; Wish-fulfillment in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis: The Tyranny of Desire. 2014. London: Routledge. 212. ISBN: 978-0-415-82292-3.

Related: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4244589/

Specious Optimism

Kitsch is the denial of shit. Milan Kundera

There has always been a socially mediated effort to pigeonhole most forms of critical thinking, analysis, and dialectical assessment as a manifestation of negativity, bitterness, and animosity. Even more disconcerting and trendy is the knee-jerk admonishment of constructive criticism as symptomatic of being a “hater” (this odious neologism must swiftly be placed in the same coffin with subprime mortgages and asbestos). However, unless one wants to be known as the proverbial gadfly while spending their weekends alone, congenial accommodation inevitably becomes the kissing cousin of complicity with manufactured mirth. While it’s true that “being in a good mood” can have many positive health benefits, being levelheaded does not mean you are dyspeptic by default. Furthermore, the best way to maintain an auspicious mood is through developing a realistic outlook that will reduce the likelihood of unexpected emotional devastation. Needless to say, I’m not interested in being an apologist, pimp, or court advocate for online trolls who know nothing about being constructive or appropriately critical. Thoughtful commentary and rational discussion are the panaceas for vituperation.

As the political theorist Hannah Arendt reminds us, sometimes the worst dictatorships are benign. Implied conformity with an uncritically optimistic status quo is maintained by the momentum of tradition and reinforced by a silent contract of consensus (i.e., your bad energy is the reason for your shortcomings). For the sake of efficiency and interpersonal effectiveness, the desire to tow the line can be enticing and oftentimes necessary. But as anyone who has lived long enough knows, reality is not always cooperative with forced euphoria, and one cannot pretend to depoliticize what has already been politically deployed. In addition, not admitting disparities in circumstance is naive at best and pathologically dismissive when taken to its unsympathetic conclusion.

The author Barbara Ehrenreich intrepidly examines our cultural obsession with unmitigated cheeriness in her tour de force entitled Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Unapologetic in humor and substance, Ehrenreich systematically unpacks the layers of denial that underpin the mechanics of quixotic felicity and proposes a more realistic and refreshingly reliable approach for psychologically navigating the vagaries of existence. Ehrenreich reminds us, before her intellectual skirmish commences, that there’s nothing wrong with measured anticipation and maintaining a pleasant demeanor. However, consistently lying to ourselves about the nature of reality is generally not a sustainable tactic for enduring long-term adversity. While the potential benefits of Positive Psychology are obvious and should require little more than common sense, the tendency to self-righteously blame others for tribulation due to their lack of “positive vibes” is devastatingly unfortunateespecially if what’s being considered “negative” is simply inquiry and informed contemplation. Recurring life problems require hard-won coping skills, and adapting to misfortune demands rational acceptance before strategies for restoration can be constructed. It’s worth emphasizing that unsentimental realism is necessary for the development of resilience, and being observationally astute or honest is not an endorsement of nihilism. After all, it should not be controversial that natural disasters, unfathomable accidents, and unforeseen circumstances are best understood by impartial investigation rather than employing privileged renunciation, suspiciously cheerful assurance, or denial.

Hope doesn’t have to be the most hopeless thing of all, but hope without sensibility is senseless. More importantly, specious optimism is infinitely less practical than evidence-based confidence, and typecasting those who are willing to confront false promises is demonstrably less than positive. 

The Allure of Affectations

I know what all the marketing people are thinking right now. Oh you know what Bill is doing? He’s going for that anti-marketing dollar. That’s a good market. — Bill Hicks

From the redundant refulgence of television commercials to the annoyingly tiresome click bait on the internet, today’s sales and marketing campaigns are designed to appeal to life as it could be … if only we purchased the advertised products. The message is implicit and often explicit: You are inadequate without what we have to offer. Fulfillment is only a credit card transaction away, and your self-esteem will be noticeably improved. Consumer behavior research has demonstrated that people experience a welcome hit of dopamine whenever an object of desire is purchased, and the frequency of purchasing usually increases whenever a person feels a compromised sense of agency. Appealing to our personalities, our sense of style, our interests, and our ideal self involves applied psychology as much as it involves the art of misplaced innovation. It seems we are becoming more and more of what we own as it slowly begins to own us.

The experimental psychologist Bruce Hood, among others, has brought attention to the unique value people place on objects in a research article entitled Individualism and the Extended-Self: Cross-Cultural Differences in the Valuation of Authentic Objects. The peer-reviewed work explores the hypothesis that individualistic cultures (such as the U.S.) place a greater value on objects associated with unique persons.¹ A curious aspect of consumer culture is the disproportionate interest it places on items if it’s believed they are associated with important, unique, or famous people. Likewise, mere association represents a powerful illusion that we are sharing in the experience of being socially unique. As Carl Jung described with his archetypal concept of the mana personality, anyone that seems to transcend the banality of daily experience might as well be seen as “a little more than human.” Based on what modern psychology has revealed regarding attachment theories and object relations, it’s clear that people living in individualistic cultures value feeling significant. Likewise, material objects have symbolic value that promises acknowledgment and social inclusion while provoking feelings of special status.

I happen to be a stubborn curmudgeon when it comes to being soft on consumer materialism—reminding myself of Chuck Palahniuk’s famous line made popular by the character Tyler Durden: “You are not your khakis.” However, for the sake of further levity, I will say that consumer materialism is for blinkered vulgarians, but it never hurts to own at least one good suit. While it’s true that ownership of an object can bring great meaning to our lives, and many objects are considered practical necessities, ownership is not always a means to an end as much as the end itself. The anticipation of possession often overrides the goal of what was to be accomplished upon acquisition of the object (e.g., I will do something or be someone spectacular when I get this or that). The carrot and stick motif plays out endlessly as interests and desires shift throughout our lifetime. Subsequently, to “covet thy neighbor” is a consequential side-effect of living in an industrialized society when inequality of possession is universally conspicuous.

There is, however, another way to manufacture desire that is more subtle and pernicious than encouraging the possession of non-essential consumer goods. This is what I call the allure of affectations. Marketing can indulge narcissistic tendencies in the salesperson under the auspices of presenting an “exceptional” product or exclusive ideology. Furthermore, if someone has established themselves as socially important, the attractiveness of that person usually includes multiple accoutrements for creating and sustaining their mystique. Confidence quickly becomes implied superiority achieved through acting a certain way or obtaining a superficial demeanor that signifies eminence. Certain aspects of dress, posture, and language differentiate the luminary from mere mortals. You must respect the great guru, become enamored with the celebrity, and defer to the master. Gawking credulity, demanded in some circumstances, practically ensures that respect will most certainly be a one-way street; meanwhile, asymmetrical abuses of power are only one submissive gesture of acquiescence away. Whatever happens, remain predisposed. Says who? Says the incomparable person, and a handful of minions eager to reaffirm that person’s professed prestige. Equal-opportunity deference usually involves a suspension of critical faculties coupled with a propensity toward self-abnegation.

Arrogance is not competence, and arrogance under the guise of competence is never a virtue. A demonstration of proficiency should be all the marketing needed if a person’s claims are genuine, and evidence of content is ultimately what justifies a product.

1. Individualism and the Extended-Self: Cross-Cultural Differences in the Valuation of Authentic Objects (Nathalia L. Gjersoe; George E. Newman; Vladimir Chituc; Bruce Hood) PLOS One, published: March 21, 2014. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0090787.

Denying Cognition

There appears to be a colloquial trend in modern therapeutic language that creates a false dichotomy between the intellectual and emotional components involved in psychotherapy. For the sake of poetic and metaphorical imagery, it is often emphasized that a client must “feel with the heart” rather than “staying in the head” as a means of eliciting cathartic breakthroughs and achieving insights into behavioral patterns. Certainly one cannot dispute the way the body responds to anxiety, fear, and the multifarious symptoms of internalized trauma. The core of experiential therapy relies heavily on re-experiencing emotionally provocative stimuli and assimilating it as a means of adaptive processing. This is not to be discounted. However, it is my contention that critical thinking should be valued as much as critical feeling (making your feelings count) during therapeutic encounters. After all, without sufficient contemplation and conceptual visualization, Cognitive Behavior Therapy or Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy would simply become Behavior Therapy. Processing emotional content necessarily involves discursive reasoning skills, or at least the capacity to be guided towards congruent and auspicious modes of perception.

I want to be clear about the difference between the words rational and rationalization. The former, for purposes of client-centered interactions, embodies a process or method of gathering, considering, and analyzing contextual information, while the latter refers to a conscious manipulation of information in an attempt to justify maladaptive behavior. Furthermore, I am not writing to argue that thinking should necessarily precede emotion. What I am proposing is that critical thinking should not be dismissed or pathologized as a form of resistance when it is properly applied to fostering or eliciting emotional release. Catharsis depends on a synergistic cooperation involving the brain’s pre-frontal cortex and limbic system. Likewise, when one hears such phrases as “language of the heart,” it is important to remember that the heuristics of emotional dilemmas are not actually being worked out in a metabolic muscle the size of a fist. Nonetheless, the symbolic heart can be a useful metaphor to signify honesty when communicating visceral experiences. In the final analysis, don’t let your feelings do all of your thinking and don’t let your thinking inhibit all of your feelings.