What Affects the Quality of Your Thinking? (It’s Not Just Intelligence)

In day-to-day life, the quality of your thinking depends so much on character. The company you keep is also important.

It’s not that intelligence doesn’t play a role. It’s just insufficient by itself. People who are mentally quick don’t necessarily think with depth, either generally or in response to certain topics. There’s no guarantee they’ll ever investigate their own opinions or question their own assumptions with any seriousness.

They can use their mental agility to dodge or immediately deflect any ideas or substantive pieces of evidence that don’t fit with their view of “how things are.” (Sometimes, these kinds of deflections help people get through the day without getting bogged down; it’s impossible to spend every moment re-evaluating what you think. But there are situations where deflections and dodges are harmful, shutting down an important line of inquiry or preventing a discussion about a proposed law. The quality and timing of these deflections, and the reasons behind them, are affected by your character – what you value, for instance, and your integrity.)

They may be clever at crafting rationalizations or arguments that seem well-structured. They may feel no need to examine whether they’re behaving with integrity; it’s enough that other “right-minded” people are expressing the same thoughts. They may prioritize “owning” someone in an argument over learning anything. Or they use their intelligence mostly for snark and viciousness.

An intelligent mind can still be a lazy mind. It can still be a narrow mind or a mind given to exceptional dishonesty. (Context matters too. An individual can display in-depth thinking in one area of life while remaining superficial or dishonest in other areas – and either not recognizing the superficiality or not being troubled by it, because it doesn’t cost them social approval.)

Connections Between Character, Company, and Critical Thinking

In his book, How to Think, Alan Jacobs writes about how “learning to think with the best people, and not to think with the worst, is so important.” What does ‘best’ or ‘worst’ mean?

I thought about interactions I’ve had with different individuals and groups, and these questions came to mind:

  • Are you afraid of raising questions or expressing doubt around them? Maybe because there’s a strong chance they’ll insult or attack you, punish you with social ostracism, or immediately call for you to be fired or face another penalty?
  • Do they have a strong tendency to dehumanize people who disagree with them?
  • Are they rigid ideologues who see everything through the lens of one issue?
  • Do they regularly argue in bad faith? For example, making things up about you and what you supposedly think or feel. Or repeatedly sharing made-up statistics even after given evidence that the numbers are false or distorted.
  • How forgiving are they of human frailty or complexity? Nobody is going to be perfectly consistent. The contradictions (or seeming contradictions) in people’s thinking can be frustrating (and fascinating). But there are people who forgive their own contradictions or errors while demanding perfection from anyone they disagree with.
  • Do they regularly appeal to the crowd? For example, when you’re trying to evaluate the merits and drawbacks of a proposed law, do they keep focusing on how the “right sort of people” support it? Beyond that, can they provide any compelling evidence or arguments?

You can also ask yourself if you’re prone to these behaviors, either generally or when it comes to a particular topic. If you are, you might ask yourself why. (Or maybe you’ll have no motivation to examine the matter.)

A common piece of advice is to seek out people who don’t have the same beliefs, opinions, or knowledge base as you, because it’s important not to remain in an “echo chamber.” I think this advice works best if you can have a thoughtful discussion with them – examine an issue from different angles, ask questions, and take time to reflect. This approach doesn’t automatically lead to agreement or compromise, but in my experience, it can at the very least lead to a better understanding of why someone thinks the way they do about a particular issue.

At another point in the book, Jacobs distinguishes between “like-minded” and “like-hearted” people. Like-minded people share the same opinion as you. But that doesn’t automatically mean you can explore ideas with them. What if they’re prone to viciousness, dogmatism, or an unwillingness to hold a discussion? Even if you generally agree with them on a particular issue, you’ll be afraid show any disagreement or doubt. They’ll attribute terrible motives to you if you ask unsettling questions.

In contrast, a like-hearted person may hold a different opinion, but their disposition is similar to yours. If you enjoy thoughtful discussion, they can give you one. You don’t fear that they’ll jump to attack or mock you or immediately trying to convert you to their way of thinking. They’re disposed to hearing you out, even if they don’t agree, and they make a sincere effort to understand your point-of-view, even if they ultimately don’t see things the same way. They have a more generous mind and spirit. Through certain values, you find some common ground with them. (Which values are most important is something I might explore in other posts, along with what finding common ground means.)

It can feel amazing to talk to a like-hearted person. And yes, feelings do play a key role in thinking. They affect whether we care enough to think about something more deeply. They influence how we choose the company of certain people for a discussion while avoiding others. They also help us prioritize our thinking. Because we don’t have time to think about everything every day, what’s most important to us? What topics really deserve our attention?

And these feelings are connected to our characters. For instance, if you love outrage, if you revel in anger, welcome to social media. It’s easy to find people on Twitter or Facebook who treat any sort of disagreement as an outrageous act demanding swift, harsh repercussions.

Hopefully, if you’re looking for a richer, deeper conversation, you’ll find it somewhere and not infrequently. The best discussions I’ve had have been offline, face-to-face, though I’ve been lucky to meet people online who are decent and thoughtful. One way I can tell they’re good to be around – I feel more optimistic about the human race after talking to them. I feel more invigorated and motivated. A higher quality thinking fights apathy and knee-jerk antagonism. It has at its core a respect for humanity and our capabilities and potential.

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