Never heard of Thinking Deficiency Syndrome (TDS)? That’s not surprising. I just invented the term and the acronym because a condition that is approaching epidemic proportions deserves an important-sounding name.
You may know TDS by an older, currently anathema name: stupidity. But whatever we call this affliction, it is increasingly on display among politicians, business leaders, educators, our families, our friends, and even (gasp!) ourselves. A glance at any newscast will provide innumerable examples of TDS.
The chief symptom of TDS is a propensity for making foolish decisions, drawing shallow or illogical conclusions, and/or violating common sense. The consequences run the gamut from inconvenience and embarrassment to personal and/or social disaster.
For a long time TDS was considered incurable: “Thinking well cannot be taught—people are either born with the ability or they are not.”
Time and again researchers have shown this claim to be false. I have detailed their findings a number of my writings, most recently Corrupted Culture: Restoring America’s Principles, Values and Common Sense. This essay, however, will focus on the root causes of poor thinking and what can be done about them.
In his work on problem solving, German psychologist Karl Duncker found that the main characteristic of poor thinking is “poverty of aspect”—that is, seeing problems from a narrow perspective and thus missing potential solutions that lie beyond that perspective.
The cure for that “poverty,” Duncker maintained, is to open our minds to lines of thought outside our usual perspective. That prescription is especially relevant today when the knowledge explosion has forced increasing specialization in every field. By concentrating on smaller and smaller areas of knowledge, today’s experts often lose touch with other areas of knowledge, even within their own fields. Unless they make a special effort to broaden their perspective, they can miss valuable insights. And non-experts are at an even greater disadvantage.
One important cause of poor thinking was discovered by Israeli psychologist Reuven Feuerstein in his work with individuals classified as hopelessly retarded, notably people who had been traumatized by their experiences in the Holocaust. Feuerstein found that a central feature of their mental deficiency, or TDS, was “episodic grasp of reality”—that is, the habit of seeing every object or event “in isolation without any attempt to relate or link it to previous or anticipated experiences.” This habit blocked not only their thinking but also their ability to learn.
Feuerstein was remarkably successful in treating these individuals. The system he created helped them develop more productive habits of mind. For example, he helped them realize that knowledge in one area can be useful in other areas. He also taught them not simply to receive knowledge passively, but to be active in seeking it out, reflecting on its implications, and applying it to life’s problems.
Duncker, Feuerstein, and many other scholars have demonstrated that poor thinking is seldom due to some inherent defect but instead to debilitating habits of mind, and these can be overcome. Here are some guidelines for doing so:
Admit that ideas are not true or solutions to problems effective merely because you wish them to be. You can’t create truth or reality—you can only discover it.
Broaden your areas of interest. Curiosity about subjects you are not especially interested in can produce unexpected insights. Archimedes and Galileo achieved scientific breakthroughs in that way, as did many Nobel Prize winners.
Before drawing conclusions or making decisions, investigate thoroughly. Identify all possible solutions to a problem and all points of view of an issue, especially the ones you are biased against and don’t want to consider. The wisest view is often one that combines elements from various views.
Before taking any action, consider all possible consequences, and not just the ones you hope for or intend. Then modify the action, as necessary, to avoid negative consequences.
Acknowledge that, like everyone else, you are capable of error. Even your most cherished opinions and convictions may be flawed, and the only way to find out is to be as critical of them as you are of other people’s. Never fool yourself into believing that familiar thoughts are always superior to unfamiliar ones.
Remember that there is no shame in changing your mind in light of new understanding or evidence. The only shame is ignoring evidence in order to save face.
If enough people followed these simple guidelines and encouraged others to do the same, Thinking Deficiency Syndrome could be significantly reduced, perhaps even overcome in time. And given the nuttiness everywhere in evidence today, that would be a blessing indeed.
Copyright © 2013 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved