Using Language to Change How We Think

Mind the Gap-compressed

What kind of thinking leads to better outcomes?

That's the question that Roger Martin addresses in his wonderful book Diaminds: Decoding the Mental Habits of Successful Thinkers. Changing how we think isn't easy though.

The world is awash in complexity. Nearly every decision we make is uncertain. There is no one way to look at uncertainty. There are as many ways of seeing, experiencing and representing problems as there are people. Each person, in turn, brings their own mental models.

Successful thinking integrates several radically different models while preserving the thinker’s ability to act decisively. The successful thinker is an integrator who can quickly and effectively abstract the best qualities of radically different ways of seeing and representing; in doing so, that person develops ‘a better lens’ on the bewildering phenomenon we call the ‘world.’

Integrators attempt to hold two, often contradictory, ways of seeing the world. Rather than fearing the ensuing tension they embrace it.

This is reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who said:

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.

But that view is not out of reach to the layperson. It's also not new. Thomas C. Chamberlin, President of the University of Wisconsin from 1887 to 1892, proposed the idea of “multiple working hypotheses.” In an article published in Science, he wrote:

In following a single hypothesis, the mind is presumably led to a single explanatory conception. But an adequate explanation often involves the co-ordination of several agencies, which enter into the combined result in varying proportions. The true explanation is therefore necessarily complex. Such complex explanations of phenomena are specially encouraged by the method of multiple hypotheses, and constitute one of its chief merits.

Martin believes that “thinkers who exploit opposing ideas to construct a new solution enjoy a built-in advantage over thinkers who can consider only one model at a time.”

This is not either/or thinking, it's using a broad-based education to push past the limits of binary thinking and into new ways of combining things. Another of Martin's books, Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking, defines integrative thinking as:

The ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.

Martin argues that this type of thinking is both identifiable and learnable. Changing how we think is possible.

Thinking is Habitual

What we think is often made up of habits or, as Martin calls them, “repetitive and recurrent units of mental behavior that occur on very short time scales.” Most of our mental models and internal stories work by matching patterns — they close off ideas as soon as one fits without attempting to falsify it.

In an evolutionary context, this makes a lot of sense. If you see a lion, you run. This is fairly closed. You don't ask a lot of questions or attempt to discern if the lion is friendly or not. Our minds are optimized to think and act quickly. This is system one thinking at its evolutionary finest and it's fairly inexpensive as far as mental habits go.

Think about how we respond when asked a question of the sort – why did you do X. Our inclination is to respond with a because answer, which rarely includes a cause. If you made a decision, you would offer a reason “this was the best decision given the information” and not “it caused me to avoid someone I've been trying to avoid.”

Habits are not all burdens. Often, as Martin points out, they “make thinking bearably simple” But we need a way to describe them if we are to understand them. In Diaminds: Decoding the Mental Habits of Successful Thinkers, Martin writes:

Mental habits work in conjunction with one another to make up patterns of thinking, which are analogous to patterns of behavior in that they are reliably reproducible and yield predictable results in similar circumstances. It is a commonplace that ‘marketing people’ and ‘engineering people’ process information in different ways. But in what ways are they different? and what difference do their differences make?

This is where the language of cognitive science comes in handy as a language for describing patterns of thought. Thus one finds that ‘marketing people’ pay attention to a lot of information – they are informationally broad in their thinking patterns. They are constantly foraging the world for new bits of information and comparing that new information with parts of their existing database – which they keep around in working memory – in order to arrive at action prescriptions or decision rules. But they spend less time than engineers thinking about each piece of information and about how the various pieces fit together. In other words, compared to engineers, marketers are logically shallower in their thinking approach.

By contrast, one finds that ‘engineering people’ are informationally narrower but logically deeper in their thinking styles. They seek out far less information than do their marketing counterparts; then, having gathered it, they strive for logical consistency among the various pieces of information they deem relevant. For instance, they look for ways in which what they believe connects to what they know. They look for the logical implications of what they already know or believe in order to decide what new beliefs to hold out for testing. They look for connections of the logical and causal type among facts and quasi-facts, rather than just associations and correlations.

Aware of this difference, we can ask: In what circumstances should logical depth dominate informational breadth and, vice versa? In what situations is more thinking better than more foraging or more asking, given that one can only think (or forage) more if one forages (or thinks) less?

The point is to get marketing people and engineering people to think together to create better thinkers. We want to combine the broad thinking the marketers bring to bear on the problem with the logical depth the engineers bring to come up with better solutions.

Mental Habits: A Deep(er) Dive

Martin defines a mental habit as “a pattern of thought that is so entrenched and feels so natural that it has become unconscious and therefore goes unnoticed.” Elaborating on this, he writes:

What we look for when looking for a mental habit is a consistently recurring way in which these explanations are produced, a guiding rule or principle that remains unchanged no matter what the specific explanation.

These thoughts are unconscious and feel natural.

Consider the ‘place responsibility for negative effects elsewhere' habit.

You arrive late to a meeting. While the reasons vary from situation to situation, you likely never tell the truth but rather blame something else. Traffic was bad. My alarm clock didn't go off. You almost never hear anyone say, ‘I was late because I forgot to check the room for the meeting.'

This, in Martin's words, is the difference between responsible and defensive behaviors.

Systematically producing responsible (rather than defensible) causes for one’s behavior – even when it would be easy to produce irresponsible ones – is likely to feel effortful and to require an exercise of the will.

Consider the mental habit of ‘certainty entails truth', also known as over-influence from precision.

A CEO asks his CFO if he is sure about the data in the report. If the CFO responds with a no, the CEO thinks he is incompetent. Or maybe the CEO asks the lead on an important project what the odds are they can hit the deadline. The person responds with 80% and the CEO’s next question is “how can we hit 100%?”

As unconscious and intuitive habits, these are often hidden from us and often come from our desire to feel good. Over time, however, these habits become our reality. We believe in the validity of these explanations and this affects how we think about ourselves and the world around us, and how we approach problems. The words we speak become the way we think.

Eminem had it wrong when he said, “I am whatever you say I am.” He should have said, “I am whatever I say I am.”

Tinker With your Thinker

Designing and controlling our mental habits is possible because of thinking.

Thinking – especially thinking in words and sentences – is a form of internal communication. In thinking, you-in-the-present communicates with you-in-the-future. But though thinking is a private and covert activity, it is influenced by external interactions – in particular, by how you communicate with others. Communicative patterns become mental habits. The implication is that counterproductive – closed, oblivious, disconnected, narrow, hermetic, rigid – ways of communicating are thereby internalized and become counterproductive ways of thinking.

The key to changing how we think, then, is to switch from intuitive to deliberate thought, observe our patterns of communication, and then change the way in which we communicate. As Heinz von Foerster put it, ‘If you want to think differently, first learn to act differently.'

Communicating differently with others and yourself is the key to changing your mind.

What does this look like in practice?

… how one thinks is an internalized version of how one communicates – indeed, it sheds light on how one communicates. The systematic placing of responsibility elsewhere for ills and mishaps is a locally effective social strategy – one that is often rewarded by nods of understanding and (potentially false, but who looks that closely?) expressions of sympathy. It also helps one avoid being placed on the spot by difficult ‘why?’ questions. It feels good to get understanding from others and to avoid such difficult moments. In time, this way of communicating becomes a script.

There is one problem: it is difficult to produce the message convincingly without at least half-believing it. Most humans are reasonably good at identifying liars and dissimulators, even if they are not professionally trained to do so. … But a solution is at hand: make a habit of the way you communicate part of the very fabric of thinking. ‘Place responsibility for ills elsewhere’ thus becomes a mental habit, not just a social and communicative habit.

In the end changing our patterns of thinking becomes about changing the language we use for internal and external communication. We need to move to ‘I was late for the meeting because I forgot to check the room number' instead of ‘I was late because of something outside my control.' By addressing problems honestly (especially when they are ambiguous) we change how we think. This isn't new. Your body language affects how you act too.

Our ‘mind design principle’ for new and more successful mental habits is thus a simple one: because thinking is self-talk, talk and thought are linked. To change patterns of thinking, change patterns of talking.

Diaminds: Decoding the Mental Habits of Successful Thinkers is a fascinating exploration of how we think and offers a new way to improve our ability to think.