The Problem with Absolute Thinking
Empathy promotes flexibility in our thought process.
Posted Sep 27, 2011
One of the gifts of being human is having a brain that recognizes a need for shortcuts. This is what leads to the use of tools that enables us to lead more comfortable lives. Our ability as intelligent creatures to recognize shortcuts is both a gift and a curse.
Take for instance, I was recently asked to participate in a radio interview with BAM! radio having to do with racism. Specifically the topic in discussion is "What teens need to know about the world of skin heads." I was hesitant to accept the interview because as I shared with the co founder of the network, Rae Pica, I prefer not to address racism directly, because I see the topic as a symptom of a bigger problem. I did accept to do the interview, and in a few weeks once it is released, I will write about it.
Now it might seem odd (or not) that I, a black man who resides in the United States, isn't interested in speaking publicly about racism. As a clinician I can tell you that in my years of practice I have long come to appreciate that by treating only the symptoms a client presents with one of two things will happen, either the symptoms will get worse or new symptoms will emerge.
Therefore it is not possible to truthfully advocate against racism if you hold any prejudices. That means if you are anti racism, you have to be anti classicism, anti sexism, anti homophobia and the list of prejudices goes on. Often times I have heard people, who will rightfully speak out against discrimination and in the same sentence, turn around and devalue their righteous words by making a prejudiced statement against a particular group of people.
So what does this all have to do with absolute thinking? Well it's this simple, human beings, regardless of race, religion or culture, are likely to embrace any belief that is absolute. This is because absolute beliefs are simple, easy to comprehend, and false positives that offer us a false sense of security. If we come to believe that a particular population of people are either all good or all bad, then we fool ourselves into thinking that we have got a piece of a particular equation all figured out. This is a comforting state of mind to be in, as we feel assured and in control. If you have decided that a group of people are all bad, then all you have to do is stay away from them. Life just got easier. If you decide that a group of people are your enemy, all you have to do is make war against them and once they are all gone life would be better, right?
The problem with absolute thinking is that it causes pain and suffering in the life of the person who adheres to an all-or-nothing attitude in any facet of his thought process. This is because the person is routinely exposed to contradictions to his beliefs, which creates a sense of threat to his world view. Absolute thinking doesn't just come into play in prejudices, it is a primary factor in how people live their lives. Often times I encounter people who have come to believe that if they engage in one particular activity all their problems will go away. A common example would be weight loss. It's obviously irrational, but from time to time we have all been guilty of some form of absolute thinking or the other.
The complexities of life are like fractions for the average fourth or fifth grader. The more odd numbers that exist in the equation, the more intimidating the problem becomes. The best remedy for habitual absolute thinking--especially when it comes to relating to others--is the practice of empathy.
With the practice of empathy, youth are taught to practice being considerate to others from these simple baseline questions.
"What if it were you?"
"How would you want people to treat you if you were in that position?"
Once people begin to see themselves as being powerless over most facets in their lives regardless of their circumstances, or what they believe their circumstances to be, flexibility in thinking sets in.
So what are your thoughts? Do you have a better argument? If so please leave your interesting, non prejudice and creative comments in the comment section.