Working Towards Rational Thinking

Charles Dickens opens The Tale of Two Cities with memorable lines about the French revolution.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.”

Do these thoughts sound familiar? They should if we’ve been paying attention to what’s broadcasted across the media, social or otherwise.

I’ve been thinking about how to sort through all the noise. I came across a book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World by Dr. Hans Rosling.

In his book, Dr. Rosling takes information in their context over time. This is a similar way I try to see the world. I agree with Dr. Rosling in that the world is better now than it ever has and it’s getting better over time. Yet, it takes a rational mind to see it this way.

The foundation

Ever since people had free time to think about things other than food and safety, the question of being rational has been a question in our minds.

What does it mean to be rational? If we look at the technical definition we’ll find being rational means looking at the world using proof.

This is something we are all capable of doing yet we find it difficult because of assumptions and biases. We are imperfect people. We can’t expect perfection in our reasoning. But, we can expect that we learn from our mistakes and see things how they are.

So when we look at what it means to be rational, in a general sense, we can see it as taking actions using proof. Using proof to make decisions that make sense, to achieve a specific goal.

I know, this sounds like a lot of gray area. What can “make sense” mean? If something can make sense to me but not make sense to you, is it still rational?

Our actions make sense when they follow a logical pathway. For example, you want to get in shape. A logical pathway would be to find exercises you can do at home or join a gym then use these resources on a regular basis.

Examples of the rational vs irrational

Rational thought is based on facts. I want to get in shape so I look into what kind of shape I want–cardio or muscle– I join a gym and I go to the gym on a regular basis with this goal in mind.

Irrational thoughts are based on incorrect beliefs. I want to get in shape so I join a gym, maybe go once in a while with no real plan on what to do. Then I get angry because I’m not in shape. We can see one pathway has a plan and the other doesn’t and results are to be as expected.

Sources of irrational thought

Intuition and bias

Our minds are always in a struggle when getting new information. We struggle with our intuition or that feeling we get when we think something isn’t right. These are biases we generated over time based on experiences. These can lead us to believe things that might not be true.

In the past intuition and biases may have helped us avoid dangers of living in rural areas where help would be days away. Though these types of thoughts may not help us in our current environments.

Today we have multiple sources for our news, this can be a good thing if we choose to view sources from different perspectives or a negative if we only watch sources that support our current beliefs. These news sources send us a constant stream of negative events such as train derailments or plane crashes or violent crimes.

It can seem as if these are the worst of times if we don’t look at the context. There may be a plane crash or a violent crime but does this happen more or less than it used to? It actually happens fewer times than in the past so things aren’t as bad as the news makes things seem.

Dealing with the irrational

Focus on the facts, not the misconceptions

I find that when trying to deal with irrational thinking with aggression, the situration only gets worse. People will entrench themselves deeper in their beliefs when they think they are being threatend.

This may cause these thoughts to be fixed deeper into their thoughts and harder to figure out.

It may be best to start with a larger topic and drill down to why people believe what they believe. We are often mentally stuck at a certain age in our lives, typically in our 30s when we have a real idea how the world works.

Once we have this as our foundation, we rarely change it. We use that experiecne to base our world views for decades to come. What may have been true 20 years or 5 years ago may not be true today.

This causes us to form an incorrect world view and this has other affects of our decision making processes. It’s a hard thing to overcome in ourselves but it’s possible when we are able to update our foundational information.

Ask the person to explain what they know

When people have a belief, it’s hard to change this, even when presenting new information. It’s natural for us to be this way but it’s up to us to keep ourselves updated so we can make the best possible choices for ourselves.

One way to challenge ourselves and others is to ask for an explanation about the beliefs. When asking someone to explain what they know or what they believe, we can have a good understanding of their perspective. This can be a source of shared experiences. An opportunity to learn or provide information to help someone learn that things arent how they used to be.

Final thoughts

Dealing with irrational thoughts demands patience. It takes an attempt to understand what the other person believes and how they form their beliefs. It’s best to challenge irrational thoughts of others and ourselves by asking questions.

We can ask ourselves or others about why we believe in a topic. Then ask where do we get our information? Is this information reliable and why?

We can use this as an opportunity to learn about people and ourselves. Allowing us to make better, informed decisions about our lives.


Spring board for aspiring fiction writers. Using free time to write sci-fi / drama.

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