Action-oriented cognitive fallacies

January 27, 2011 | By | 2 Replies More

I was reading an article called “15 Styles of Distorted Thinking” when it struck me:  People who are extremely action-oriented often make unconscious use of these 15 mental distortions.  Further, people of action often fail to think things through carefully.  Let me offer a few examples:

1. Filtering: You take the negative details and magnify them, while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. A single detail may be picked out, and the whole event becomes colored by this detail. When you pull negative things out of context, isolated from all the good experiences around you, you make them larger and more awful than they really are.

2. Polarized Thinking: The hallmark of this distortion is an insistence on dichotomous choices. Things are black or white, good or bad. You tend to perceive everything at the extremes, with very little room for a middle ground. The greatest danger in polarized thinking is its impact on how you judge yourself. For example-You have to be perfect or you’re a failure.

3. Overgeneralization: You come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or piece of evidence. If something bad happens once, you expect it to happen over and over again. ‘Always’ and ‘never’ are cues that this style of thinking is being utilized. This distortion can lead to a restricted life, as you avoid future failures based on the single incident or event.

Each of these first three methods of dysfunctional thinking cause people to unwittingly make cartoons out of complex situations.  They thus feel fully justified when they cry out that there is a need for immediate action to remedy what they see as black and white situations.

Here are the other “Styles of Distorted Thinking” from the above article:

4. Mind Reading “You know what people are feeling and why they act the way they do.”
5. Catastrophizing: “You expect disaster.”
6. Personalization: “You relate everything around you to yourself.”
7. Control Fallacies: “You see yourself as helpless or you are exhausted as you attempt to fill the needs of everyone around you.”
8. Fallacy of Fairness: “You feel resentful because you think you know what’s fair, but other people won’t agree with you.”
9. Blaming: “You hold other people responsible for your pain”
10. Shoulds: “You have a list of ironclad rules about how you and other people should act.”
11. Emotional Reasoning: “You believe that what you feel must be true-automatically.”
12. Fallacy of Change: “You expect that other people will change to suit you if you just pressure or cajole them enough.”
13. Global Labeling: “You generalize one or two qualities (in yourself or others) into a negative global judgment.”
14. Being Right: “Being wrong is unthinkable.”
15. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy: You fell bitter when the reward doesn’t come as expected.”

In my experience, conservatives are much more likely to be people of action.  I suspect that they more readily engage in these 15 types of distortions, and that these distortions cause them to feel justified in their actions (e.g., bombing Iraq, censoring the press, torturing Middle Eastern men, and bringing religion into public schools).   If you tend to use the above techniques, you will tend to be a person of action because the situations you perceive in your world will seem more clear, more convincing and more urgent.  I need to stress that many (maybe most) people don’t consciously employ these techniques.  For the most part, they are subconscious modes of reasoning–the thoughts themselves are conscious but the distortion is not.  I work in a the legal profession where, sorry to say, many of us consciously engage in these modes of thought.

And here’s the flip side, people who tend to be extraordinarily thoughtful often aren’t people of action; they often excel at thought and flunk at action.  Philosophers tend to fall into this category.  They have trained themselves to be skeptical people who thrive on complexity and nuance.  Where does this leave them?  Too often, they are still sitting at the starting gate even after the race is run (I majored in philosophy in college, so I do have some experience here).  I hate to say it, but many liberal-minded people are like this too.   They sit and ponder (and blog, like me right now) while the conservatives are busy putting their people out on the streets in order to remake the world in their own image and likeness.

Image by MorganL at istock (with permission)

Of course, both of these approaches fail in the extreme.  I believe that we either need to each keep ourselves from falling prey to these 15 fallacies too often or, perhaps, conservatives need liberals and vice versa.

Summary:  People of action tend to make cartoons of the world, and the above list contains many common ways people make cartoons out of the world.   Further, conservatives tend to be people of action, because their (often unconscious use of these 15 ways of thinking) allow them to feel more justified acting than do liberals.

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Category: Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. TheThinkingMan says:

    A very good analysis of the differences between conservatives and liberals and the biases we see on both sides. I would hope that the parties aren't as polarized as that, and that it is simply a difference in philosophy rather than an apparently natural separation of the two "classes" of people.

    I am always careful when reading discussions suggesting that "liberal" should react "intellectual" whereas "conservative" should read "rich" or "dumb," etc.

  2. MikeFitz17 says:

    I found this article fascinating because it shed light on on one of the fundamental questions of our time: why do some people have a "conservative" viewpoint, and why do others have a "liberal" bent?

    Is it because the former group's members are more noble and moral than the latter group's? Or is it because the latter group is more intelligent and better educated than the former?

    The key thing, as Erich points out, is that some people's brains are hardwired for action. It explains why certain professions, such as law enforcement, the military and the financial sector, are predominantly conservative in outlook. And why others, such the worlds of teaching, entertainment and journalism, lean liberal.

    Action-oriented professions attract people who are not inclined to look for nuance, irony or contradictory historical patterns when it comes to the Big Picture. They want a black/white view of the world. That way, they can put most of their mental energy into perfecting the complex mechanics of their jobs, i.e., inserting an airborne assault team behind enemy lines, accurately firing a .50-caliber sniper rifle, busting a rural meth lab, making a pile of toxic debt look like a safe investment.

    Liberals, however, spend most of their lives working with words, both in written and verbal form. They want a Big Picture that is complex, deeply nuanced and full of irony. It's just how their brains work. They recoil from a black and white view of the world because, to them it'd be a) factually wrong; and b) intellectually boring.

    All of which explains why conservatives are very good at winning elections — they know what it takes to win, and have the skills to push the right buttons and levers to do so — but so often terrible at governing. Their ideas too often consist of shopworn cliches, hoary platitudes and blind obedience to ideology, which in turn is fed by disastrous misunderstandings of culture, history and science.

    Liberals can win national elections, of course, but too often they do so with difficulty. Part of the reason is because they dilute their message with contradictory signals, which is inevitable for any group with such a diverse base.

    Example: Yes, liberals want America to be safe, but they also believe in fair trials for suspected terrorists and the end of torture.

    Example: Yes, liberals believe in strong heterosexual families and sexual abstinence for teenagers , but they also want women to have access to safe abortions and marriage equality for gays and lesbians.

    Which sets up a scenario in which conservatives lose national elections to liberals, but usually after the public grows disgusted with the conservatives' bankrupt ideas and incompetent governing style. The 2008 election is a good example of this.

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