The Trouble With Thinking?

We need Do, not Think.

Posted Oct 28, 2012

It’s long been thought that to change we have to radically alter the way we think. That’s not as easy as it sounds. Furthermore, psychological interventions that target thinking are not the answer to all problems. Perhaps it’s time for psychology to change if it is to fulfil its promises…

In his 1991 book ‘The User Illusion’ Tor Norretranders argues that it is an illusion to believe we are in control of ourselves. He says that many of the thoughts we have are little more than a by-product of things outside our consciousness. Thinking, it seems, is largely consequential rather than causal.

I want to show you in this blog why recent evidence into thinking is even more radical that Norretranders had us believe.  And that thinking does not provide a very useful basis for making the world a better place to work and live in. I want to show you that the thoughts we all have can be a barrier to our own well-being. I want to show you that these thoughts are often arrogant, however innocuous they may appear.  By arrogant I mean we attach far more importance to them than we should.

What is the basis for my argument? It is that thoughts come to us unbidden.  They have a primacy or imagined power which is illusory. In fact our behaviours and habits are far more critical to shaping a better life. If psychology in general, and self-help, education, training, or therapies in particular, are to deliver the value to individuals and society they should, more value must be placed on actual behaviours and outcomes in the real world. And less importance attached to thinking solutions, however coherent and rational they may appear.  In short, the science of psychology needs to move away from thinking and the arrogance of thought power.

Thoughts come easily to us – they just happen without effort.  Some people have thoughts that are inappropriate or troubling,– the automatic negative thoughts of the depressed person that Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) targets, for example. Or the unhelpful attributions we make that Mindfulness addresses. Easy, automatic thoughts can be barriers to happiness.

Our conscious thoughts define much of who feel we are. They give us our own ‘identity’ or the ‘I’ feeling. Yet psychologists have long researched what happens without thought and awareness. A great deal of research shows that we think one thing but do another (usually without even noticing). The moment-by-moment thoughts of our ‘experiencing self’ do not control our behaviour – their main use seems to be to be for our self-identity. I have suggested in other blogs that change processes are likely to fail if they just target this conscious aspect of self.

Psychologists are trained and employed to help when people’s thoughts cause problems. They do not only work in clinical contexts, of course, but also in organisations and other situations in which people need help to make a difference.  I have been in governmental and organisational meetings when clever people have been discussing possible solutions to change how people behave and the pull towards solutions that target thinking is very strong. A solution can have failed several times before, but because it seems ‘sensible’ and ‘rational’  thought arrogance often wins the day. The wrong approach is likely to be repeated. Governments repeatedly adopt models that educate or inform people, assuming that if people know what is good for them, then of course they will do it. Has the obesity crisis gone away because we know more about good nutrition and exercise than we have ever done? In organisations, how many employees are sent on training courses, or do e-learning packages which tick boxes, but do nothing to change actual behaviour in the workplace? These are examples of the arrogance of thinking.  I also suspect that many talking and cognitive therapies are guilty of wrongly attributing the active ingredients to thought-changing processes, instead of behaviour-changing processes. For example, Glenn Waller suggests that one reason CBT is less effective in real world situations compared to controlled trails is that ‘therapist drift’ occurs – in the real world therapists are happy talking and do not put sufficient emphasis on getting the patient doing new things. Thinking differently does not have change power for most people most of the time.

Why does this matter? It matters because I think psychology is failing to contribute to society sufficiently. And the reason for this is, I believe, that it is putting too much emphasis on what people say and think instead of what they do. It does seem as if the public is underwhelmed by the contribution made by psychology too. Contrary to psychologists’ beliefs, many people say psychology is common sense and its academic credentials of little value in the real world. In the American Psychologist in February-March this year, for example, Scott Lilenfeld tries to defend the discipline against such charges. Scott makes some excellent points but I think misses the main issue – why are people, including psychologists, so taken by the value of their own thoughts in face of evidence to the contrary? A list of ‘contributions’ made by the discipline does not demonstrate value – what about all the false trails, the large budgets spent, and opportunity costs, for example?

The success we have had with Do Something Different comes from people making small changes in behaviour.  It’s too difficult for most people to change what they think. Thoughts are mostly, as I have said, automatic and beyond our control. It is far easier to make small changes to what we do, and then to experience new thoughts as a consequence of that experience. Try it for yourself. Smile at people more tomorrow. That’s dead easy (as long as you remember to do it), and it won’t require willpower or cognitive effort. You’ll find this simple behaviour has some positive feedback on your mood, so your thoughts will start to shift. And by smiling more you’ll elicit different reactions from others, more positive ones than your grumpy face ever prompted. As a consequence your thoughts about other people might begin to shift upwards. That’s just one Do for one day. Imagine changing a small behaviour every day, imagine the slow and subtle shifts in thinking you could start to effect. That’s what Do Something Different is all about.

About the Author

Ben C. Fletcher, D.Phil, Oxon, is a professor of psychology, a behavior change expert, and the author of Flex: Do Something Different — How to use the other 9/10ths of your personality.

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