While incredibly valuable for making wise decisions in work and life, abstract thinking is greatly underappreciated.
Abstract thinking refers to our ability to understand complex concepts that don’t rely directly on our physical senses. Such thinking relies on our capacity to hold frameworks and models in our minds of how the world works. The ability for abstract thinking is so necessary for our increasingly complex and digitalized world—where our physical senses are not nearly sufficient to lead us in the right direction.
The key to abstract thinking comes from metacognition—our ability to understand our own mental processes. In turn, metacognition embodies the essence of abstract thinking, as we cannot observe with our senses our mental processes. We have to rely on abstractions—models of our mental processes—to understand how we feel and think.
Cultivating our metacognition represents an excellent way to develop abstract thinking.
Were you ever in a situation when you received constructive criticism—well-delivered or rough—from your boss, your customer, your colleague, or your coach? What did your gut tell you to do at that moment? Did it tell you to be aggressive and shout back? Perhaps it told you to hunker down and disengage? Maybe it pushed you to put your fingers in your ears with a “la-la-la, I can’t hear you.”
Fight, Freeze, or Flight
Behavioral scientists call these three types of responses the “fight, freeze, or flight” response. You might have heard about it as the saber-tooth tiger response, meaning the system our brain evolved to deal with threats in our ancestral savanna environment. This response stems from the older parts of our brain, such as the amygdala, which developed early in our evolutionary process.
Fight, freeze, or flight form a central part of one of the two systems of thinking that, roughly speaking, determine our mental processes. It’s not the old Freudian model of the id, the ego, and the super-ego, which has been left behind by recent research.
One of the main scholars in this field is Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize for his research on behavioral economics. He calls the two systems of thinking System 1 and 2, but I think “autopilot system” and “intentional system” describe these systems more clearly.
Developing your metacognition involves internalizing these two systems into the way you think about yourself and your own mental processes. In turn, by doing so, you also develop your abstract thinking, by thinking in an abstract manner about your own thinking.
The autopilot system corresponds to our emotions and intuitions—that’s where we get the fight, freeze, or flight response. This system guides our daily habits, helps us make snap decisions, and allows us to react instantly to dangerous life-and-death situations.
Fight-or-Flight in Modern Life
While helping our survival in the past, the fight-or-flight response is not a great fit for many aspects of modern life. We have many small stresses that are not life-threatening, but the autopilot system treats them as saber-tooth tigers. Doing so produces an unnecessarily stressful everyday life experience that undermines our mental and physical well-being.
Moreover, the snap judgments resulting from intuitions and emotions usually feel “true” precisely because they are fast and powerful, and we feel very comfortable when we go with them. The decisions arising from our gut reactions are often right, especially in situations that resemble the ancient savanna.
Unfortunately—in too many cases—they’re wrong, as our modern environments have many elements that are unlike the savanna, and with growing technological disruption, the office of the future will look even less like our ancestral environment. The autopilot system will, therefore, lead us astray more and more in systematic and predictable ways.
The intentional system reflects rational thinking and centers around the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that evolved more recently. According to recent research, it developed as humans started to live within larger social groups. This thinking system helps us handle more complex mental activities, such as managing individual and group relationships, logical reasoning, abstract thinking, evaluating probabilities, and learning new information, skills, and habits.
While the automatic system requires no conscious effort to function, the intentional system requires a deliberate effort to turn on and is mentally tiring. Fortunately, with enough motivation and appropriate training, the intentional system can turn on in situations where the autopilot system is prone to make systematic and predictable errors.
Effective metacognition involves addressing the problems caused by our autopilot systems. You need to catch areas where it goes wrong, and doing so involves abstracting yourself from your own emotions and intuitions. You need to recognize that your emotions, while they feel right, will often lie to you—as in the example with constructive critical feedback.
You also need to be able to manage your own emotions and train them to be more aligned with reality. Both the recognition and the training rely on the intentional system. By strengthening your intentional system’s ability to guide your autopilot system, you will build up your metacognitive abilities and your abstract thinking.
We Are Not Entirely Rational Thinkers
We tend to think of ourselves as rational thinkers, usually using the intentional system. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
The autopilot system has been compared by scholars of this topic to an elephant. It’s by far the more powerful and predominant of the two systems. Our emotions can often overwhelm our rationality. Moreover, our intuition and habits dominate the majority of our life. We’re usually in autopilot mode. That’s not a bad thing at all, as it would be mentally exhausting to think through our every action and decision.
The intentional system is like the elephant’s rider. It can guide the elephant deliberately to go in a direction that matches our actual goals. Certainly, the elephant part of the brain is huge and unwieldy, slow to turn and change, and stampedes at threats. But we can train the elephant. Your rider can become an elephant whisperer. Over time, you can use the intentional system to change your automatic thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns to avoid dangerous judgment errors.
It’s crucial to recognize that these two systems of thinking are counterintuitive. They don’t align with our conscious self-perception. Our mind feels like a cohesive whole. Unfortunately, this self-perception is simply a comfortable myth that helps us make it through the day. There is no actual “there” there—our sense of self is a construct that results from multiple complex mental processes within the autopilot and intentional system.
When I first found that out, it blew my mind. It takes a bit of time to incorporate this realization into your mental model of yourself and others—in other words, how you perceive your mind to work. Bottom-line is that you’re not who you think you are. The conscious, self-reflective part of you is like a little rider on top of that huge elephant of emotions and intuitions.
Want to see what the tension between the autopilot system and the intentional system feels like in real life? Think back to the last time your supervisor, client, or investor gave you constructive critical feedback. How easy was it to truly listen and take in the information, instead of defending yourself and your work? That strain is you using your willpower to get the intentional system to override the cravings of the autopilot system.
For another example, consider the last flame war you got into online, or perhaps an in-person argument with your loved one. Did the flame war or in-person argument solve things? Did you manage to convince the other person?
I’d be surprised if it did. Arguments usually don’t lead to anything beneficial. Often, even if we win the argument, we end up harming relationships we care about. It’s like cutting off your nose to spite your face; a bad idea all around.
Looking back, you probably regret at least some of the flame wars or in-person arguments in which you’ve engaged. If so, why did you engage? It’s the old fight response coming to the fore, without you noticing it. It’s not immediately obvious that a fight response will hurt you down the road. Thus, you let the elephant go rogue, and it stampeded all over the place.
Whether in personal or business settings, letting loose the elephant is like allowing a bull into a china shop. Broken dishes will be the least of your problems. Scholars use “akrasia” to refer to such situations where we act against our better judgment. In other words, we act irrationally, defined in behavioral science as going against our own self-reflective goals.
What If My Gut Helped Me Make Many Good Decisions?
It’s wise to be wary of absolute statements. Research shows that in some instances, gut reactions can be helpful in decision-making contexts. In other words, it’s not necessarily irrational to follow your gut. Developing your metacognitive skills involves learning when going with your gut may be a better idea and when it may not.
For instance, a great deal of experience on a topic where you get quick and accurate feedback on your judgments may enable your intuitions to pick up valuable and subtle signals that more objective measurements may not discern. Our intuitions are good at learning patterns, and immediate feedback about our decision-making helps us develop high-quality expertise through improving pattern recognition.
Another example: if you have a long-standing business relationship with someone, and then you experience negative gut responses about their behavior being somehow off in a new business deal, it’s time to double-check the fine print. The savanna environment involved us living in tribes where we had to rely on our gut reactions to evaluate fellow tribal members.
However, don’t buy into the myth that you can tell apart lies from truths. Studies show that we—yes, that means you, too, unless you’re a trained CIA interrogator—are very bad at distinguishing falsehoods from accurate statements. In fact, research by Charles Bond Jr and Bella DePaul shows that we, on average, only detect fifty-four percent of lies—a shocking statistic considering we’d get fifty percent if we used random chance.
Overall, it’s never a good idea to just go with your gut. Even in cases where you think you can rely on your intuitions, it’s best to use your instincts as just a warning sign of potential danger and evaluate the situation analytically.
For example, the person with whom you have a long business relationship might have just gotten some bad news about their family, and their demeanor caused your instincts to misread the situation. Your extensive experience in a given topic might bring you to ruin if the market context changes around you, and you find yourself using your old intuitions in a different environment, like a fish out of water.
To survive and thrive in the modern world, you need to develop your abstract thinking—the ability to think about the world through frameworks and models. To do so, you need to cultivate your metacognition, which is the capacity to understand and manage effectively your own mental processes—your thoughts and feelings.
The key to doing so involves the abstract thinking framework of the autopilot system and intentional system. You need to abstract yourself from your existing autopilot system’s emotions and intuitions, recognize and catch when they are leading you in the wrong direction, and train them to lead you in the right direction instead of using your intentional system.
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