Review – How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World At Odds

I often wonder how it is that America is so deeply divided –  why is it that so many very intelligent people can have such opposite beliefs.

I found the little book “How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds” very helpful in sorting this out.  I recommend it highly!

Alan  Jacobs, a professor at Baylor University, writes:

“Given the questions that constantly confront us as persons and societies, about health and illness, justice and injustice, sexuality and religion, wouldn’t we all benefit from a better understanding of what it means to think well? So in the past few years I’ve read many books about thinking, and while they offer varying and in some cases radically incompatible models of what thinking is, there’s one trait all of them share: they’re really depressing to read.

“They’re depressing because even when they don’t agree on anything else, they provide an astonishingly detailed and wide-ranging litany of the ways that thinking goes astray—the infinitely varied paths we can take toward the seemingly inevitable dead end of Getting It Wrong. And these paths to error have names! Anchoring, availability cascades, confirmation bias, the Dunning-Kruger effect, the endowment effect, framing effects, group attribution errors, halo effects, ingroup and outgroup homogeneity biases, recency illusions…that’s a small selection, but even so: what a list. What a chronicle of ineptitude, arrogance, sheer dumbassery. So much gone wrong, in so many ways, with such devastating consequences for selves and societies.”

In short, his book has helped me to think better and (hopefully) communicate better to people who I disagree with.  Here’s how.

Thinking is hard work.  Slow work.  It requires self-discipline to not react immediately to something we find objectionable.

Reasons we don’t think:  Thinking deprives us of the “pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved” by our “tribe” – that is, by the peer group that we belong to, that we seek respect from, those that we admire (for example, fellow conservatives, or progressives, or Ivy League folk, or fellow journalists…).  Especially true in the online environment where social approval is measured in likes, faves, followers and friends – where approval is acquired instantly.

In a world where information overload is the norm (a gross understatement), we have developed mechanisms to filter and process information.  Quoting T. S. Eliott, Jacobs writes “when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we always tend to substitute emotions for thoughts.”   We desire acceptance, social bonding, and we all are affected by social pressures (approval of the ingroup and disgust for the outgroup).

To think, we must master our fear of social rejection.  We need to recognize and overcome the social pressures to conform to the ingroup and to react in disgust to the outgroup.  We need patience.

Jacobs is a member of multiple, competing communities.  He is an academic and a Christian.  He writes “when I hear academics talk about Christians, I typically think That’s not quite right, I don’t believe you understand the people you are disagreeing with.”  And visa-versa, his Christian friends don’t understand academics.

For Jacobs, thinking “right” is just that – belonging to multiple (competing) communities, understanding the worldview assumptions, the language and code-words,   It means overcoming – and helping peers in both communities to also overcome – the Problem of the Repugnant Cultural Other (RCO).

To a secular academic, an evangelical Christian is an RCO.  Likewise, to an evangelical Christian, a leftist professor is an RCO.

Quoting Jacobs again  ” The cold divisive logic of the Repugnant Cultural Other impoverishes us, all of us, and brings us closer to that primitive state that the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes called “the war of every man against every man.”

More quotes from Jacobs:

“To think, to dig into the foundations of our beliefs, is a risk, and perhaps a tragic risk. There are no guarantees that it will make us happy or even give us satisfaction.”

“To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. And when people commend someone for “thinking for herself” they usually mean “ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.”

Why do we disagree with one another – especially about politics and religion – and why is it so hard to see our opponents as equally intelligent, equally decent human beings?  The question is discussed in the book “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt.  He writes:

“Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning.” Our “moral arguments” are therefore “mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.”

So we bind ourselves to our tribe that shares our moral beliefs, and we blind ourselves to the legitimate existence of other beliefs.

Jacobs claims “Our moral intuitions are formed as we respond to the irresistible draw of belonging to a group of people whom we happen to encounter and happen to find immensely attractive.”  Once we are drawn in we become part of the Inner Ring, and we maintain our status by rationalizing our group identity and confirming the nastiness of those who are Outside, the RCOs.  The Inner Ring ruthlessly mocks and excludes those who ask uncomfortable questions.

Jacob writes “the pressures imposed on us by Inner Rings make genuine thinking almost impossible by making belonging contingent on conformity. The only real remedy for the dangers of false belonging is the true belonging to, true membership in, a fellowship of people who are not so much like-minded as like-hearted.”
The idea is to belong to or create a community based on mutual respect, good character, willingness to listen and debate, people who accept each other no matter their religious or political views.  People who are tolerant.
These attitudes have serious social consequences.  Jacob writes

“many Americans are happy to treat other people unfairly if those other people belong to the alien Tribe. And—this is perhaps the most telling and troubling finding of all—their desire to punish the outgroup is significantly stronger than their desire to support the ingroup.”

“And this is why learning to think with the best people, and not to think with the worst, is so important. To dwell habitually with people is inevitably to adopt their way of approaching the world, which is a matter not just of ideas but also of practices. These best people will provide for you models of how to treat those who disagree with them”

A hundred years ago G. K. Chesterton wrote, “If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”*

Jacobs includes a quote from David Foster Wallace:

“A Democratic Spirit is one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others. As any American knows, this is a difficult spirit to cultivate and maintain, particularly when it comes to issues you feel strongly about. Equally tough is a Democratic Spirit’s criterion of 100 percent intellectual integrity—you have to be willing to look honestly at yourself and at your motives for believing what you believe, and to do it more or less continually.”   – Jacobs says “Which is more or less what this book is about” but adds you can’t self-examine continually, so be brief, be blunt and be gone!

It is important to recognize the dialects and contexts, the habits of speaking and patterns of thinking, of those we disagree with.  If you want them to understand you – you need to take the time and effort to learn their language.  It is, in a way, basic cross-cultural communication.

So when relating with your RCOs, emphasize the things you have in common; tread lightly but honestly when describing your position on issues where you disagree; seek to act in goodwill with respect.  Even if you can succeed in not thinking your RCO friends are foolish, don’t expect them to do the same.

Jacobs concludes:  “You have to be a certain kind of person to make this book work for you: the kind of person who, at least some of the time, cares more about working toward the truth than about one’s current social position.

Jacobs, Alan. How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (p. 148). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In the afterword, Jacobs provides a helpful tool for our journey.

The Thinking Person’s Checklist

  1. When faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said, give it five minutes. Take a walk, or weed the garden, or chop some vegetables. Get your body involved: your body knows the rhythms to live by, and if your mind falls into your body’s rhythm, you’ll have a better chance of thinking.
  2. Value learning over debating.  Don’t “talk for victory.”
  3. As best you can, online and off, avoid the people who fan flames.
  4. Remember that you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness.
  5. If you do have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness, or else lose your status in your community, then you should realize that it’s not a community but rather an Inner Ring.
  6. Gravitate as best you can, in every way you can, toward people who seem to value genuine community and can handle disagreement with equanimity.
  7. Seek out the best and fairest-minded of people whose views you disagree with. Listen to them for a time without responding. Whatever they say, think it over.
  8. Patiently, and as honestly as you can, assess your repugnances.
  9. Sometimes the “ick factor” is telling; sometimes it’s a distraction from what matters.
  10. Beware of metaphors and myths that do too much heavy cognitive lifting; notice what your “terministic screens” are directing your attention to—and what they’re directing your attention away from; look closely for hidden metaphors and beware the power of myth.
  11. Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use, without indulging in in-other-wordsing.
  12. Be brave.


Jacobs,Alan. How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (p. 148). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.



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