One of the things that’s getting lost in our 24/7 hyper-connected, divided, news-as-cult-of-personality world is the ability to think for ourselves. To think our own thoughts, make our own plans, and form our own opinions. Worst of all, we’re losing the ability to think critically about the issues that matter, what solutions we want to see and, more importantly, how we can help improve things. We are becoming content to allow others to dictate what and how we think. This passivity is damaging not only our ability to be creative and problem solve, but also our mental health.
You might disagree with me. “No way is anyone else doing my thinking for me! I’m in total control of my thoughts.” But are you? Do you genuinely form your own opinion about an issue, or do you follow the lead of family, friends, or your chosen pundits/prophets/politicians? When confronted with a viewpoint that challenges your own, do you honestly try to understand the other person/issue, or do you dismiss them out of hand? Do you debate an issue with victory as your only goal, rather than to learn something new? Do you ever seek out new opinions or perspectives to challenge yourself, or to empathize with someone else? Are you convinced that you are always right and “they” are always wrong? Are you blind to the nuances of a situation that might make both of you a little bit right and a little bit wrong?
Here’s the thing. You don’t have to change your opinion or thought every time something new comes along. But you do need to retain the ability (and willingness) to think through the problem or issue and decide for yourself whether or not a change is warranted. Anything is else is simply letting others hijack your brain for their own purposes.
And there are plenty of people who want to control your thoughts for their own purposes. Let’s start with the news. The news (on both sides) wants to keep you tuned in, so they want to make you angry and afraid, even if there’s no reason to be so. Let’s take the innocuous weather report as an example. (You can apply this to politics, religion, crime, etc., but I’m not going there. But you absolutely should… In private where no one will beat you up for having a different opinion.)
Every time we have a chance of severe weather here, the meteorologists go on about it for days. Daayyyys. They use extreme language and graphics that scare everyone into thinking armageddon is upon us. But the vast majority of the time, our threat here never exceeds the Storm Prediction Center’s Level 2. What that really translates into is a 15% probability of damaging thunderstorm winds or wind gusts of 50 knots or higher within 25 miles of a point. When you look at the actual probabilities and not the hype, the chances of severe weather over our house are small.
But to hear the weather people, we all need to be on constant alert. Why do they do this? Because it drives people to tune in to all the newscasts, and those eyeballs make them money. Should they mention that we need to be aware of the chance? Absolutely, because something bad could happen. But they need to save the extreme fear-mongering for those three days a year when we are in major danger. The rest of the time could be served by a simple, “Hey, keep an eye on the radar today.”
If I don’t educate myself, I’m running for the bunker nearly every day during the spring and summer because it sounds terrible. But when I take the time to learn what these numbers really mean, I understand that my fear level is being manipulated for someone else’s gain. It’s the same for nearly every story on the news. You have to educate yourself to sort the truth from the exaggeration, and the only way to do that is to think for yourself.
If it’s not the TV news, it’s online news that’s hijacking your thoughts. How often do we really read and study an article versus skimming it and hitting the comments to see what others are thinking? Pretty often. Why? Because we want confirmation that our opinion is “right,” and that others think like us. We don’t want to do the hard work of thinking about the piece.
But that’s not the point of journalism. Good journalism presents the facts and the context and encourages you to think about the issue. What others think doesn’t really matter, and you shouldn’t be looking for confirmation of your “rightness.” (In fact, I’d advise you to stick to news sites that don’t have comments at all. Those with comments are usually the outlets with a “side” or an agenda and the comments are nothing more than an echo chamber designed to keep you reading for longer.) What matters is that you engage with the material, understand it, and understand why you feel about it the way you do. Open your mind to a new perspective and don’t just look to be right. You don’t have to agree with it, ultimately, but actually consider the root of any agreement/disagreement.
Which brings us to social media. Just like the news, your eyeballs equal revenue. To keep you scrolling, they need to keep you angry, afraid, and locked in the echo chamber. (Or numbed with cat videos and celebrity gossip.) The algorithms serve up a constant diet of things that will not challenge you to think. No one ever wins an argument on social media. Nuanced thinking is not encouraged. It’s us vs. them and heaven forbid you should try to actually articulate a thoughtful point. It’s debate to win, not to learn. If you want to preserve your ability to think critically, stay off social media. Otherwise, you’re allowing algorithms, bot posters, and extremists to control your thoughts.
So if all of these systems are out to hijack your brain, how does one avoid outsourcing their thoughts to the highest bidder?
- Read books/magazines/journals/websites that challenge your opinions. One of my favorite things to do is to hit the library and look for books written from perspectives that are not my own. Reading them does not always change my mind, but I do emerge with a fuller understanding of an issue, or why others think differently than I do. In any media, try to find something different that challenges you to see a new side of something.
- Stay off social media. Very little positive education happens there. It’s too controlled by algorithms to be a solid source of different opinions and constructive discourse. It’s mostly fights that no one will ever win and confirmation of what you already think. Don’t participate.
- Don’t skim articles, don’t read the comments, and seek out secondary sources. Read the whole thing, even the boring parts, and form your own opinion about what you read. Don’t worry about what other people say (especially since the comments are usually nothing more than an extension of Twitter fights.) And try to check out any secondary sources mentioned. Where is the cited information coming from? Does it provide more detailed information beyond the talking points in the article? Is something in the main article being presented out of context, or in a deliberately sensational manner?
- Spend time just thinking. We’re so conditioned to always be on our phones that we’ve lost the ability to just think. Take the time to simply daydream, or take a walk and think about something you encountered that day. Use your brain instead of constantly scrolling through what others want you to think and see. Let your brain sit with information for a while without overloading it. That’s when the connections happen.
- It’s fine to ask for advice or how-to, but don’t take people’s ideas as gospel. The internet makes it easy to ask others for advice. About everything, no matter how insignificant! It’s great that you can get advice and support in some situations, but never take what someone says as the absolute truth. Take advice onboard, but evaluate it for yourself. Think for yourself about how you want to go about your life. Never assume that someone, no matter how powerful, has the answer.
(Image courtesy of morhamedufmg)