Saturday, August 9, 2008

Levels of Thinking

The high gas price is due to the war in Iraq, he said. No, no, says another, it is due to the OPEC countries gaming the system. That is false, says a third, it is due to faerie's dust making disappear the oil reserves in the world...
This is only a sample (although slightly ironic) of multiple discussions that we carry with other human being every day. We seem unable to reach an uniform conclusion about multiple topics, and it doesn't make sense, as we are living a similar reality, so we should be able to agree...or shouldn't we?
There are a lot of different explanations on why this happens. Some explanations are sociological, that depend on our separate cultural backgrounds, where we process the same evidence with different mechanisms and priorities. Some linguistic, due to our inability to transmit our concepts in an appropriate fashion to another human, or if we are able to do so, then that human may be unable to input that information into his thought patterns in an appropriate fashion(yes, it is YOUR fault), and therefore he/she is not able to understand their interlocutor. Even emotional factors could affect this understanding, as those who have kids that have done something dumb/illegal/costly for you can attest!
But this is a blog about the thinking process in general. So in which aspect I consider our thinking patterns and processes affect our argumentation and foment the discordance between individuals and their capacity to analyze reality?
One concept that I was playing in my mind earlier with was the concept of levels of thinking. The best way I could define it is the depth of analysis that you have applied to a particular thought pathway. For example, if there is no toilet paper in your toilet, a first level thinking would be ...mmm, the last person that used the toilet finished it and didn't replenish it. If we tried to use a higher level of thought then we would consider other options, like there is no toilet paper at home, your young kids took it as a prank, the toilet paper actually is misplaced and it is behind you, etc. That is to say, you take a multi step approach to a thinking issue.
One of the ways that I thought to expose the problem with first level thinking is to establish its characteristics, and from them obtain the possible consequences from each of them.
First of all, first level thinking is common. It's the most frequent way that we appreciate reality. It may have to do with the way our brain is wired, as we are not able to maintain more than 5 or 6 different concepts at a time without losing track of them. So when we try to process our thoughts, we are unable to use more than 2 or 3 factors in the thought pathway (in a spontaneous form of thinking, as some forms of structured thinking will use other techniques or outside help to overcome this limitation). By itself, this factor makes us to use the first level of thinking with a preference that is structural in nature.
Second, the first level thinking is practical. Yes, it is very nice that you can think of multiple causes of the lack of toilet paper, but at the time of resolution of the problem, looking for another one in your house's reserve batch will solve this problem, most of the time. This characteristic of our main way of thinking could be due to a couple of factors that have to do with evolution. First of all, if exposed to a dangerous situation, you may not have the time to develop second level thinking about an issue (the typical "the tiger is going to eat you, run away, you dummy" example). Also it could be due to resources constraints, as we may have to decide between using our time for obtaining a second level thinking to obtain a better outcome, factor that is not for sure until you actually apply your second level of thinking, as you could be wrong, no matter the level of thinking that you reach, versus just obtaining a mediocre outcome with first level thinking and having more time (and resources!) to go to another problem.
A third characteristic would be linearity. The first level thinking tends to depend in a direct or inverse fashion to a X or Y characteristic. This characteristic is obviously not intrinsic to a first level thinking, as you can have reality based phenomena that are linear, so it wouldn't matter what level of thinking you are using, you are not going to obtain a different result if the nature of the experience you went through . What I meant for linearity as a characteristic is that first level thinking can't deviate from this pattern, by its intrinsic value of non complexity. It has trouble seeing how a reality based phenomena could be non linear, multi factorial or simply correlated but not causal to our "explanation".
The fourth characteristic is that first level thinking is usual. This is not the same as saying that it's common. The commonality has to do with factual happening, while the usual characteristic has to do with the tendency that we have for using it. That is, because it's common and practical, we "like" (even though it has nothing to do with preferences most of the time) to use that mode of thinking and we need to make an extra effort to stray away from it, even voluntarily. Again, this could be due to our internal "wiring", but that is only hypothetical, and not relevant to our discussion. Also another factor to take into account in the "usual"ness of the first level of thinking is that we tend to thread on previous thinking patterns that we have learned from somebody else, or patterns that we have gone through for a similar thought process, kind of recycling your thought pathways. This is obviously seen when you watch/read the news from different sources and you realize that the editorial content is very repetitive. This is going to happen for issues that are very straightforward, obviously, but a lot of complex issues are treated this way too. Interestingly the "best" editorialists usually distinguish themselves by actually going into a deeper level of thought.
The fifth characteristic is inflexibility. Due to its own nature of straightforwardness, thinking of the first level is not able to accept or be modified by other points of view. You are "right", so why should you change your thought process. The problem is not in the correctness, because the goal of refining your thought processes is to reach the truth(or as much as approximate to it we as human can do), but in the lack of adaptability. Some first level thinkers even coat this inflexibility with a cover of "righteousness", saying that if you modify your thought process by taking another pathway you are actually admitting that it was wrong, so by definition your conclusion has to be corrupted by this. This is one of the main "political" arguments that you can see used in our current day and age. If a candidate changes his position with respect to any issue, he or she is a flip-flopper...instead of being a mature adult that may have received better input and decided to change his/her opinion in respect of that issue. This has nothing to do with the political opportunists that change their opinion only due to polling results...that is one of the worst types of parasitism that you can find in a human, sadly.
So we have that the first level of thinking is common, practical, linear, usual, and inflexible. These characteristics do not sound that bad, right? Again, I want to make sure that I communicate clearly. First level thinking is not by definition wrong(or right by that matter). It is the correct level to analyze most of the situations that occur around us. But we should go through the list of characteristics above each time we move through a thought pathway, and realize that if one of those characteristics are limiting the scope of possible conclusions we may achieve, then we should be flexible enough to take those factors into account, and broaden our pathway.
Well, this post is already long enough, so it's time to think another thought.

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