Clear Thinking

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One of our basic beliefs is that, in a healthy state, people think clearly. This page explains what we mean by thinking clearly or clear thinking.

What constitutes clear thinking can be subjective, and can be hard to agree on. This subjectivity is one of the main reasons why we have chosen to make the rules of communication part of our core beliefs and practices, rather than the principles discussed on this page. However, the rules of communication can be seen as an analogue or counterpart to clear thinking, in the sense that communications within our rules tend to reflect or express what we consider to be clear thinking.

Contents

What is clear thinking?

Our idea of clear thinking includes the following things:

  • Reasoning logically, without excessive logical fallacies.
  • Identifying feelings and intuitions as such, rather than viewing feelings or intuitions as direct or exact indicators of truth.
  • Seeing shades of gray and seeing people, groups, events, and circumstances as wholes, combining both good and bad attributes, rather than seeing them as strictly good or strictly bad. (Avoid all-or-none thinking.) This includes:
  • Being aware of the degree of certainty of various beliefs, including awareness of when someone does not know something.
  • Acknowledging the complexities of cause and effect rather than getting fixated on a single cause for some event.
  • Acknowledging multiple factors in a situation if they are relevant, rather than thinking on a one-dimensional scale about something more complex.
  • Focusing on empowering lines of reasoning rather than ones that lead to inaction or frustration.

Clear thinking and the rules of communication

Our rules of communication are designed to promote or facilitate clear thinking. Some degree of clear thinking is necessary in order to follow the rules; our notion of clear thinking can be seen as an "internal counterpart" to the rules of communication. But because people's thoughts are hidden to others (and sometimes even to the people themselves, as is the case with subconscious thoughts, or hidden assumptions), we do not have any rules or beliefs about thoughts themselves, only the very general belief that people think clearly when in a healthy state.

Also, one of our rules of communication is to not make any statements about another person's thoughts, intentions, or motivations. This rule highlights our belief that, while clear thinking is important, it is not productive to analyze or discuss people's thoughts when in a conversation or discussion about some other issue. Communication, being outward, is more objective, and is thus the subject of our rules. We want to influence thought indirectly, through how we communicate, so that we can shape thought in healthy ways without getting stuck in unproductive (and sometimes uncomfortably personal) debates about how to think, what people are thinking, or what their motivations or intentions are.

Examples of clear thinking vs. clouded thinking

Dealing with people who don't give us what we want

A common situation in which clouded thinking arises is when dealing with people who are not giving us what we want. An example might be approaching an authority figure or administrator in an organization, asking for their approval or support for something, such as making an exception to a rule, or signing off on some request of ours. When a person does not give us what we want, a typical clouded line of reasoning might be:

This person did not give me what I want, therefore:
  • This person doesn't care about me
  • This person does not support my cause or goal

In some cases, one might draw other further conclusions:

  • I'm not going to be able to accomplish this goal
  • It was a waste of time for me to talk to this person
  • Because my cause or goal is a valid one, of key importance to the mission or values of this organization, the fact that this person is not supporting me means that they are a hypocrite, or not a competent leader.
  • Because this person didn't help me, and I need their support or approval to proceed, I might as well give up.'

These sorts of thoughts and these lines of reasoning are what we would consider to be clouded thinking. There are logical fallacies in the explanations given. For example, it is possible that a person might care about someone, but disagree with them about what is best. They may disagree with the cause or goal, but still care about the person. Or the person may actually want to support the cause or goal, but feel constrained by rules governing their position of authority. They may feel uncertain or conflicted about what is being asked of them, and they may give a negative answer at first because they do not want to jump into anything.

The conclusions that the person is not going to accomplish their goal are also a logical fallacy. People change their minds, and it is common for people, especially those in positions of authority in larger organizations, to initially be skeptical of unusual requests. They may have wisdom and experience that we do not have, and they may have good reasons to be cautious of giving us what we want. Even if they do not, they may come around to our request with time. People may change their minds of their own accord, and they may change their minds in response to persistence, especially if a person provides compelling and sound reasoning behind what they want.

Clouded thinking can directly hinder the ability of a person to achieve their goals in situations like the ones described here. If a person assumes that their goal is hopeless or impossible to achieve, they may give up even if they are actually close to achieving it. And if they do not give up, but they falsely assume that the person they are dealing with does not care about them or about their cause, they will be less likely to connect with that person on a personal level, and that personal connection might have the potential to help the asker to get what they want. Also, if a person starts perceiving a person as a hypocrite, or someone unfit for their position of authority, this can lead them to act or speak in disrespectful ways, which can close down dialogue and make it unlikely that they will ever convince the authority figure that their request is worthwhile.

Clear thinking often involves refraining from jumping to conclusions about a person's intentions. It makes note of what the person says to us, but it does not accept a "no" answer as immutable truth or indication of all future interactions, it simply notes that it was the answer given to us this one time. When an authority figure refuses to give us what we want, they nearly always give reasons for their decision, and if they do not, they can often be pressed to give reasoning or explanations if we ask them. By listening and reflecting on their reasons, we often reach a deeper understanding of how to proceed towards our goal. Clear thinking will engage with whatever reasons are given, and consider ways of addressing potential concerns, and will also consider the possibility that it might be more fruitful in some cases for us to abandon or modify our goals.

Dealing with failure to achieve goals

Clouded thinking often occurs in response to failure to achieve goals. As an example, when a student takes an exam, and fails the exam, they may think:

  • This test was so unfair..

or they may think:

  • I'm so terrible at this subject.

or

  • I should have studied more.

They may then go on to think:

  • This teacher is so incompetent

or

  • I'm so stupid.

or

  • I'm such a failure.

These sorts of lines of reasoning are all what we would consider to be clouded thinking. In reality, multiple influences always influence the outcome of something like an exam, and in most cases, when a student initially gets the exam back, they may not have enough information to know how to balance one factor against another as an explanation. For example, the teacher may have made the exam harder than intended, or the teacher may be making the first or second exam unusually hard, with the intention of scaring the students into working harder. Or it could be that the student really is in over their head, perhaps taking a class that requires skills that they are not good at, or perhaps, a class that was at a tougher difficulty level than they were ready for. And it could also be that the teacher is just a very harsh grader, and believes that it is good for them to assign low grades to many students.

Even if the student is not particularly good at whatever skills are needed to score well on the exams, this does not mean that they are universally stupid or a failure. And even if the teacher is a very harsh grader (perhaps so harsh that it clashes with the student's value system), it does not mean that the teacher is universally incompetent.

Clear thinking will consider the possible alternatives, and gather whatever information is necessary (perhaps by talking to the teacher, or talking to other students) to sort out which explanations are more likely. Clear thinking recognizes that, even if the teacher is acting in a way that the student views is unfair, that the teacher may still have the best intentions of the student in mind, and just has a different idea of what is good for the student.

Paralyzing thinking

Clouded thinking can involve not only logical fallacies, but also getting stuck on certain thoughts, or in circles of thought, unable to escape from them. For example, someone may be facing a problem and asks someone else for a favor that will help them out. The person declines to do it. A clouded line of thinking in response might be:

  • But I need it.
  • But they're not going to do it for me.
  • But I need it.

A person may get stuck dwelling on these thoughts, unable to proceed because they don't lead anywhere, and they might cause a great deal of frustration.

A clear thinking response might involve accepting the person's answer and going on to look for other possible solutions. Maybe looking to someone else for help on the problem, or being more resourceful with what they have.