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5 Rules for Better Thinking

Critical ignoring, the Janusian process, and more.

Andre Da Loba / Used with permission.
Andre Da Loba / Used with permission.

1. To Make Better Choices, Consider New Menus

By Karolina Lempert, Ph.D.

Which do you prefer, McDonald’s or Chick-fil-A?

Before answering, you probably evaluated each of these fast-food chains according to your own tastes and cravings, compared them, and then chose the one with a higher value for you. This is exactly the kind of question you might be asked if you were a participant in a study on value-based decision-making. There has been a lot of progress in the science of how we evaluate and choose between well-defined alternatives, and much of the research on the topic would lead us to believe that we go about our days deciding between choices like options on a menu.

And yet, most of our decisions are not like that at all; they are open-ended. When deciding how to respond to an insult, we are not presented a piece of paper with two well-crafted retorts on it from which we can choose A or B. More often, such as when deciding how to spend a weekend evening, we first must mentally generate a range of options, a process that is crucially important for making choices.

For example, a 2021 study showed that people are much more likely to think of McDonald’s than Chick-fil-A when asked to name a fast-food chain and therefore more likely to reply, “McDonald’s,” when asked the open-ended question, “What’s your favorite fast-food chain?” However, in the same study, more people chose Chick-fil-A over McDonald’s when presented with an exhaustive list of chains and asked to choose their favorite from the set. Since we don’t carry around such lists in real life, we may end up eating at McDonald’s more often simply because it comes to mind more easily.

This suggests that what comes to mind has a huge impact on our choices—and that we may end up with something less satisfying simply because we didn’t think of something better in the moment.

Where Common and Good Meet

Researchers studying what kinds of options do tend to pop into our minds have found that they’re a combination of what is common and what is good. In a 2020 study, participants were asked to enter the first number that came to mind in response to different general prompts, such as “number of hours of TV for a person to watch in a day” or “percent of students who cheat on high school exams.” A separate group got the same prompts but was asked what the ideal number was, and another group was asked what they thought the average number was. Across the board, the researchers found, the numbers that came to mind for those asked the more open questions were a blend of those ideal and average numbers.

It makes sense for things that are most common to come to mind more easily, but this finding that things that are valuable, or ideal, also come to mind easily is novel. It suggests that we might prioritize remembering good things so that we can seek them out again later. It also implies that things we already like are apt to get chosen again, which might help explain why many humans are not great at considering new things.

Of course, in most situations choosing things that are generally good is fine; sometimes, we don’t want or need to put in the effort to generate a bunch of options before we make a decision. But if we consistently rely only on what comes to mind immediately and don’t take a moment to consider alternatives, we can miss out on some great opportunities.

The next time you go online to order dinner, scan a bit to make sure you are considering all of the options. To buy a gift, stroll around the mall first instead of just ordering from the same website you repeatedly use. Our memories are efficient, but they are also limited; if we create or seek out fresh menus before we make decisions, we might end up happier.

Karolina Lempert, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Adelphi University.

Andre Da Loba / Used with permission.
Andre Da Loba / Used with permission.

2. For Better Plans, Think Backward

By Eva Krockow, Ph.D.

Have you ever played the 21 game? Starting at 0, two players take turns adding 1, 2, or 3 to the total. The game ends when the sum of the added numbers reaches or surpasses 21, and the player forced to make the final move loses.

Sounds tricky, but what if I told you that it’s possible to win in a single move? Imagine the first player begins by adding 3 to the starting value of 0. Now it’s your turn, and if you choose strategically, you could set yourself up for a sequence of optimal choices, ultimately forcing the other player to hit 21. The solution lies in the decision-making approach called backward induction, which starts by considering the end of a problem and then works backward in time to arrive at an optimal approach for the beginning.

Imagine again that you are trying to decide on a move following your opponent’s initial choice of 3. Rather than considering only the immediate situation, backward induction would involve considering the game’s end first. Both players want to avoid reaching 21. This can be achieved by being the player who reaches 20, because then the next player’s choice must take them to 21.

How can you be sure to be that winning player? Take another step backward and you’ll see that the only certain way is to reach 16 in your penultimate move, because no matter the other person’s subsequent choice, the highest value they could reach is 19, thus allowing you to move to 20 on the following turn.

And how can you be sure to be the player who calls 16? Be the one to call 12. Working all the way back to the start of the game, backward induction leaves you with a clear solution: To win, reach a multiple of 4 with each move, guaranteeing that you’ll ultimately be able to call 20. Following your opponent’s initial choice of 3, then, your optimal response would be to add 1.

Backward induction is not simple. It relies on analytical thinking and perspective-taking, or the ability to imagine your situation at a later point in time. Psychologists have researched the skill using carefully designed puzzles and games to measure people’s analytical thinking. Their studies show that trained individuals and analytical thinking experts, such as competitive chess players, make frequent use of backward induction, but that most lay people either do not realize the strategy exists or aren’t motivated enough, or able, to perform more than one or two steps of backward reasoning. Hence, a case can be made that backward induction should be promoted or taught more widely.

Backward Induction in Real Life

Backward induction can be applied to many decision-making scenarios in which the outcome relies on a series of interdependent choices. A good example of this was portrayed on the sitcom Friends when Rachel’s 30th birthday prompted her to reflect on her future and specifically how she could achieve her goal of becoming a mother of three.

Reasoning backward, Rachel determines that she’d have to have her first child by age 35, meaning she’d have to get pregnant by 34. As she considers marriage a prerequisite to having children and wants to be married at least one year prior to getting pregnant, she’d have to marry at 33. Assuming 1.5 years to get to know the guy before her engagement and 1.5 years to plan a wedding, she concludes that that very moment, at age 30, is the time to meet her future husband. Hours later, she breaks up with her boyfriend Tag, six years her junior and not ready for such a commitment.

Rachel’s example illustrates how using a future goal as a reference point allows you to work backward and arrive at the most rational strategy for the present. Backward induction can thus be a helpful method of approaching any long-term goal that might appear unattainable in the moment.

Of course, the whimsical nature of life can render the best plans obsolete. As fans of Friends know, Rachel’s wish for a child became reality much sooner than she intended, albeit in an unexpected way. Still, it wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t concluded that she needed to break up with Tag.

Eva Krockow, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Leicester.

Andre Da Loba / Used with permission.
Andre Da Loba / Used with permission.

3. To Manage Overload, Think More Flexibly

By Ellie Xu and Darby Saxbe, Ph.D.

Imagine you’re organizing a dinner party. You’ve spent all day cooking, and you’re excited for your five closest friends to come over so you can catch up on each other’s lives. The table is set, the candles are burning, and the champagne is about to be popped. Then, you get a text: Two guests can’t make it.

How do you respond to your negative feelings? The answer could affect your mental health.

Do you try to see the situation more positively by focusing on feeling grateful for the friends who can still attend? If so, you’re engaging in cognitive reappraisal, or reframing something in a more positive way. Or do you instead ignore, or suppress, those feelings of disappointment or sadness? This is referred to as emotional suppression. Or do you think about all the possible reasons why two of your best friends weren’t able to come to your party, over and over again? This would be rumination.

Cognitive reappraisal, emotional suppression, and rumination are just a few examples of emotion regulation strategies, the techniques people use to manage their emotions. Research shows that certain emotion-regulation strategies may benefit your mental health and well-being more than others. For example, cognitive reappraisal seems to lead to greater well-being and better mental health outcomes, while the opposite is true of emotional suppression and rumination.

When you’re confronted with a situation that is out of your control, like a last-minute dinner party cancellation, cognitive reappraisal is typically most helpful. However, cognitive reappraisal may not be as helpful when you can control the situation. Let’s say you failed a midterm physics exam. You’re feeling sad, and you decide to use cognitive reappraisal to help reframe the situation. You might think, Oh, the midterm exam is only 40 percent of my grade, and my physics grade doesn’t determine the rest of my life. This might all be true, but making yourself feel better about failing the test could lead you to feel less motivated to study hard for the final exam.

Changing your use of emotion regulation strategies in this way, to best fit the needs of the specific situation you face, is known as emotion regulation flexibility.

With this in mind, a research team has developed the idea of a “thinking threshold,” which represents the point past which we’re no longer able to think clearly because we’re experiencing intense negative emotions that impair our thinking, such as feeling overwhelmed, panicky, hopeless, drained, or generally out-of-control sad.

When you’re feeling low, and your thoughts are pushed past your thinking threshold—perhaps because two of your best friends can’t make it to your dinner party—it might be helpful to call on body-focused emotion regulation strategies such as mindfulness meditation and breathing relaxation techniques. Alternatively, behavioral activation strategies could offer relief—engaging in hobbies or activities, like exercise, that make you feel good—until you can think more clearly about managing your negative emotions.

Determining your personal thinking threshold can be tricky and may require trial and error, but when you can recognize that you’ve reached it and have regulation strategies at the ready, your thoughts can support you instead of paralyzing you.

Ellie Xu is a doctoral student in the clinical psychology program at the University of Southern California. Darby Saxbe, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at USC.

Andre Da Loba / Used with permission.
Andre Da Loba / Used with permission.

4. To Boost Creativity, Think of Opposites

By Albert Rothenberg, M.D.

Creativity consists of the production of entities that are both new and valuable. The newness is unprecedented, and the value may involve usefulness, precision, or advancement. Creativity is at the core of the most important and far-reaching achievements in art, literature, science, music, business, and other fields. One vital creative strategy is known as the Janusian process, after the multi-faced Roman god Janus, who always looks in diametrically opposed directions. It consists of actively conceiving two or more opposite or contradictory ideas, concepts, or
images simultaneously, a conception leading to the production of new identities.

Although seemingly illogical and self-contradictory, creators construct these conceptualizations in rational states of mind in order to produce creative effects. Einstein, for example, described his “happiest thought” in the development of the General Theory of Relativity as his conceiving that a man falling from the roof of a house was both in rest (relatively) and in motion at the same time. Playwright Eugene O’Neill very early conceived the main character of his play The Iceman Cometh, Hickey, as motivated by wishes for his wife to be both faithful and unfaithful at the same time.

Simultaneity of opposites or antitheses is a core feature of the Janusian process. Creators conceive as simultaneously true and not true firmly held propositions about the laws of nature, the functioning of individuals and groups, or the aesthetic properties of visual and sound patterns. Or, both opposite and antithetical propositions are entertained as concurrently operative: A particle spinning is going too fast and too slow at the same time; a chemical is both boiling and freezing; kindness and sadism operate simultaneously. Previously held beliefs or laws are still considered valid, but opposite or antithetical beliefs and laws are formulated as equally operative or valid as well.

These formulations are way stations to creative outcomes. They interact and join with other cognitive and affective developments to produce new and valuable products. The Janusian process initially disrupts pre-existing conceptions. Thinkers like Einstein are sometimes both surprised and gratified when formulating such thoughts, sometimes feeling as if they came out of the blue. The idea that the contradiction or opposite of well-grounded fact, theory, or actuality may be simultaneously valid can seem astounding or inconceivable. In this way, previously held systems of ideas are split apart and broken or even essentially destroyed. This disruption provides for a creative result: the development of something both new and valuable.

Pulitzer Prize–winning poet James Merrill was once home thinking about a past travel incident —a horse had appeared at a lonely desert site—when it occurred to him that horses are animals that “renounce their own kind in order to live our lives.” This idea that horses live human lives, that they are antithetically both beast and not beast and simultaneously human and not human, generated his acclaimed poem, “In Monument Valley,” with its focus on a happy and intense relationship between a young person and a horse, together with their sad, resigned separation.

How It Works

The Janusian process proceeds through four primary phases: 1. the motivation to create; 2. a deviation or separation from usual, accepted notions or procedures; 3. simultaneous opposition or antithesis; and 4. construction of the new theory, discovery, artwork, or practice.

To apply the process, do not simply think in contrasts or “play” with opposites. Make endless lists of opposites, rather than searching for only the pertinent and important ones, or just turn things around or go in some reverse and opposite direction.

Do conceive two or more opposites as true, or theoretically, mechanically, or aesthetically operative at the same time—as, for example, dealing with an adversary in the geopolitical realm with loving hatred or, in the business world, both helping and contending with a competitor at the same time.

Albert Rothenberg, M.D., is a professor emeritus of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

5. To Maintain Focus, Practice Critical Ignoring

By David Ludden, Ph.D.

To think critically, you need to be able to seek out sources of information, read carefully, consider the credibility of those sources, and reason out conclusions on your own. In the days before the internet, critical thinking was the most important cognitive skill that informed citizens could have.

While critical thinking is still important in the digital age, Max Planck Institute of Human Development psychologist Anastasia Kozyreva and her colleagues argue that “critical ignoring” is an even more important skill today. With an overabundance of information, they claim, we need to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff, deciding what’s worth our attention and what isn’t.

For most of our history, we lived in small groups in which emotionally charged information typically signaled threats or opportunities. In that environment, letting our emotions guide our attention was generally a successful strategy. But today, if we clicked on every sensational item on the screen, we’d not only waste a lot of valuable time but also potentially pick up a lot of false information.

To protect ourselves, we need new ways of interacting with information. For Kozyreva and colleagues, that means critical ignoring, a complementary skill to critical thinking in which we intentionally control our environment to reduce exposure to low-quality information.

Critical ignoring, as the research team describes it, involves three strategies:

Self-nudge. To avoid low-quality information and retain more quality time for ourselves, we should aim to remove distracting stimuli from our environment. In this way, critical ignorers are like successful dieters who know it’s easier to avoid unhealthy foods if they just keep them out of their homes. Similarly, if you set up your digital environment with attention-grabbing items kept out of sight, or set time limits for your browsing, you’ll have a better chance of success than if you rely on willpower.

Read laterally. To improve judgment about the credibility of information, open a new tab next to an item to find out more about the source. Many sites have a particular agenda that makes them more interested in influencing than in informing. Their headlines may deceive or even be contrary to the actual facts. A check of the original source should expose them.

Don’t feed the trolls. We all know that there are malicious actors on the internet whose goal is to spread false information and hurtful rumors. It can be tempting to respond to them to try to set the record straight. But trolls don’t care about that. They just care about provoking your emotions, so instead of rewarding them with your attention, ignore or block them.

Critical ignoring is a key component of cognitive functions such as problem-solving and decision-making. When we have too much information, we become overwhelmed, and it’s more likely that irrelevant information will lead us astray. Effective problem-solving and decision-making rely on heuristics, or rules of thumb, that winnow the available information down to manageable chunks so that we can come up with good-enough solutions.

We have more information at our fingertips than ever before. But most of that information is of little value. Worse, a considerable amount of it will just lead our thinking astray. More than a century ago, William James remarked on this point in his Principles of Psychology, writing: “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” This observation is even more pertinent in the information age, when the most vital aspect of critical thinking may be learning what to ignore.

David Ludden, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and the chair of the department of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College.

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