How We Think

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The very first time I had an idea of what I wanted to become was when I was thirteen. I had read a section of Adam Smith’s “Wealth of all Nations” and I was fascinated by the intricacies of economic discussions. And so, I wanted to be an economist. About a year later, after I had solved a particularly difficult problem in a mathematics assignment, I was sure I was destined to be a mathematician. I think it’s safe to say, at this point, that neither of those dreams have materialized.

And when I first got into the University, to study Chemical Engineering, I thought what I wanted was a First Class degree, because that’s what all smart people were meant to want. And I was lucky to be surrounded by smarter people who wanted the same, but for different reasons. It was not until two years later that it became clear to me that that was not what I really wanted. Yes, I still wanted it, in the way fulfilling a particular goal offers a sense of self-validation and a base upon which I could build other goals; it connoted a certain limitlessness to the possibilities of what I could achieve. But what I found instead to be crucial to me was simply discovery, that pursuit of understanding the abstract world, connecting the dots between what was and what was not.

And in my quest for discovery, I stumbled upon a bit of philosophy and psychology, and this kick-started a love affair which has been difficult to end and has inspired me to take up writing, and the lessons derived from everyday interactions and reflections are what I write about, in essays and short stories. Through all of these, I have remained a massive football fan. And when I watch people get into arguments as to who the better player is between Ronaldo and Messi or which team plays more beautiful football between Real Madrid and Barcelona, I often wondered how it was possible for people to see exactly the same thing and draw entirely different conclusions. I wondered about how we think and why we do what we do.

We all think, and what we think about varies; whether it is to leave our present jobs for something new or to stay, or how to help the little boy we saw begging at the junction yesterday. And in this period of economic recession, we also have to think about how to ration our resources efficiently so that they are not exhausted before the month’s end. In essence, we have to consider our responses to the curveballs life throws at us. Thoughts are the foundations upon which the quality of our lives depend. But just how much control do we have over the thinking that precedes our actions and decisions? And are all decisions we make, made consciously or are there hidden bugs affecting our lives? And if there are, just how much do they shape the decisions we make and our view of the world around us?

Sometime last year, I ran into a stranger at a dinner party who mentioned that he was an old classmate of mine, from about ten years back. I barely remembered him but, for some reason, I felt a faint and instant dislike for him and soon after, I observed certain defects in his behaviour, which were at first unnoticeable. And this feeling of inexplicable dislike is not limited to people alone. There are also certain foods that we just do not like, without actually knowing why. For me, it was always moin-moin and for my sister, it was milk and butter. Have you ever asked yourself why you like one cola drink and hate another which tastes essentially the same?

Research has shown that our choices are usually between “to do” or “not to do”, or more appropriately, “to like” or “not to like”. Our brains consider things at the level of impulses and we feel emotions faster than we think thoughts. A way of viewing this is as an elephant with a very young and inexperienced boy as the rider. Whichever direction the elephant chooses to turn, the little boy has no choice but to go with it. After all, it is far more powerful. We can liken the elephant to our emotions and the rider, our thoughts. And both of these are simple reflections of our innate nature, in which emotions come first and strategic thinking comes second. And in my holiday job as a psychology nerd, we call this nature affective primacy.

A lot of us go to school or take a particular job simply because that is what we are supposed to do. We spend years chasing a dream we think is ours without stopping to ask ourselves whether that is what we really want. We sometimes chase an ambition subtly imposed on us by family or societal expectations. And this nature extends to the way we develop habits too. I have a cousin who often moves his hands about, gesticulating intensely, anytime he is talking. And at a much younger age, I really liked that and tried to copy it, and when I tried to quit, because it no longer felt cool, it was really hard for me to, as you can see.

Human beings are, by social design, tribal creatures and we see this in cases of jungle justice in which people beat up the accused “thief” before questions are asked about what was stolen or feeling the need to make a particular choice because someone else did. It was much later, as I got older, that I discovered these to be instances of herd thinking, the tendency to view something as good or bad on the basis of other people’s previous behavior. Psychologists observe that we often tend to copy and paste behaviour, after the first sub-conscious decision is made, and we fail to sufficiently examine the influence other people have on our points of view.

Recently, due to the recession, a high level of pessimism amongst Nigerians has become common-place, and it’s almost a losing battle to remain positive. And if you’re surrounded by friends who always complain about the effect the recession has had on them, chances are that, if you’re not already one of them, you would soon be. But beyond all of the negative stories we hear every day over our airwaves and in living room discussions, there is actually good news. If we look just below the surface, creativity is flourishing, and lots of Nigerians are still finding ways to break new ground. The Nigerian spirit is one of resilient and strong willed, and we are beginning to look beyond the prevailing circumstances for something better, leading to the starting up of many small and medium-scale businesses. What I have noticed is that there is a renewed awareness of what is possible when human potential is applied consistently, in an innovative way, to solve human problems.

A couple of months ago, at a conference in Port Harcourt, I was seated next to a delegate who was quite vocal. A short while later though, this young man drew out and began reading “Lost Nation”, one of my favourite books. And for some reason, I was confused as to what to feel towards him; dislike caused by his initial behaviour or comradeship borne out of shared interest ‒ talk about the dilemma of first impressions. After a few minutes of back-and-forth deliberation with myself, I decided to believe that his initial behaviour was not a true reflection of his personality, and after introductions were made, we shared an interesting conversation afterwards.

In our country, it’s fairly common to see civil servants who profess to be religiously upright and yet partake in unscrupulous practices such as bribery or forgery. And when confronted, they would often find means of rationalizing their actions, either by trying to reduce how negative their actions are‒ “everybody does this, so it’s not so bad” ‒ or simply blaming the system for making them do it.

People are generally uncomfortable with maintaining contradictory ideas, ideas that do not agree, and we feel mental discomfort when our actions do not match with our previous attitudes. And so we often try to lessen this discomfort, which we can term cognitive dissonance, through some form of self-justification.

And when it comes to elections for political positions or picking team members, quite a lot of the time, we instinctively align ourselves with those individuals we think share our interests and disregard the good points in others, choosing to see what we want to. When we think that we are analyzing a problem fairly objectively, what often is occurring is a search for confirming points to drive home our argument in the direction we want. We exhibit a bias towards a particular outcome, and that outcome is the only one we can picture. And this strongly affects our ability to have meaningful arguments from which we learn. If we are not open to different points of view, how then can we really grow? I think it helps if we leave ourselves open to the possibility that we might be wrong sometimes. That way, we can assess things fairly, and make changes, when necessary.

Finally, I believe we are all guilty of being led, in varying degrees, by irrational influences from our emotions, experiences and our environments. And not thinking about exactly how we think means losing power over ourselves. Being fully aware of what is going on within and around us is important to achieve fulfillment and help us fashion ways through which we can correct the errors in our thinking processes and start making smarter and more confident choices. There is something about the quality of a decision that we make and make for ourselves, a confidence that comes from having honestly thought through our reasons for doing something.

Developed societies have been built upon the willingness to question assumptions and push in uncertain directions, and we live in a society in which far too many people say “I wish I had started earlier”. If we are fully aware of how we think, we would then be on the right path towards having a society of more responsible and successful young individuals. Isn’t that what we all want? This is possible, but it would require clear and systematic thinking, discipline and a willingness to admit that our positions are sometimes built on faulty premises. As Jonathan Haidt declared in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, our reasoning is the servant of our emotions, and when the servant fails to find any good arguments, the master does not change his mind.

We can gain control over our decisions, if we really want to.