avatarDouglas Giles, PhD


People Aren’t Stupid — They’re Lazy Thinkers

Many people evade the ethical responsibility to think deeply

(Source: yayimages)

People are smart. We call ourselves Homo sapiens for a reason. People are smart enough to figure out how to go to the moon. So why do a small minority of people choose to believe we didn’t go to the moon, or stupid things like that the Earth is flat, that vaccines don’t work, that everything they disagree with (like election results) are false, and so on?

There are political motivations behind such false beliefs to be sure, but, mostly, people believe wrong and stupid things not because they are stupid but because they are lazy. We normally think of people being lazy in the physical sense — being too lazy to get up and do something. People have physical capabilities that they choose to be too lazy to use, but people also have mental capabilities that they choose to be too lazy to use. Lazy thinking is a problem that is all too common.

Two Forms of Thinking

In philosophy, we talk a lot about the importance of critical thinking. One is thinking well when one avoids precipitancy and allows the world to show one what is the case while maintaining a critical view of what one experiences. One is thinking poorly when one rushes to conclusions and is closed to new information. Good thinking is a deliberate, time-consuming effort. Poor thinking is being lazy — caring more about having an answer than having a correct answer.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, says that people form thoughts in two ways. One is fast, automatic, and stereotypical thinking, and the second is slow, effortful, conscious thinking. Here is a short but reasonable summary of Dr. Kahneman’s argument.

The forms of thinking that Dr. Kahneman identifies are a clinical version of a reality philosophers have explored for centuries. Both forms of thinking are part of how we all respond to the world, and we do need both forms. When interacting with the world around them, people can, and usually do, have simple, immediate reactions, but people can also respond with deliberate thoughtful responses, though people act this way less often.

There are situations when it is more advantageous to have a quick answer. Philosopher William James acknowledged the usefulness of such decisions, referring to the need for expediency of thinking, though he preferred that we all spend the time and effort to think deliberately. The issue for James was that we should think based on solid empirical evidence with an eye toward crafting beliefs that have value to us. His approach has a great deal of pragmatic sense (pun intended), but it also has a potential drawback.

James is correct that we believe all of our beliefs because we find them useful. He is also correct that usefulness is the goal of good-quality, deliberate, slow thinking. After all, what is the point of spending time and effort on thinking other than to arrive at answers that we can then use to do good things?

The key to James’s pragmatism is that our thoughts need to connect with how things are in the world. Philosophers from Thomas Aquinas to Ludwig Wittgenstein to Paulo Freire agree with that approach. Slow, deliberate thinking is philosophical thinking. It is the method by which we craft answers and solutions that reflect states of affairs in the world, adapt our thinking to the world, and fulfill our needs to create practically useful beliefs.

Lazy Thinking

The problem is that lazy thinking is also useful, but less useful, of course, because laziness is a motivation to settle for less. People choose to be lazy because they get something out of it. Physical laziness is either a lack of caring or a way to try to get someone else to do something. Lazy thinking is likewise either an absence of care or a surrendering to others of the acts of finding answers and solutions.

Lazy thinkers are either apathetic or wanting someone else to do the thinking for them. Either way, lazy thinking is an evasion of one’s personal responsibility to think and act for oneself. To fail to engage in deliberative thinking is an ethical failing just like failing to get a job to support oneself.

The worst consequence of lazy thinking is that it severs beliefs from engagement with the world. Good thinking is a deliberate, time-consuming effort of practical engagement with the world, continually adjusting one’s beliefs to one’s experiences. It is that slow process of continual adjustment that keeps beliefs grounded and useful. Without that process, beliefs become less valuable over time because they lose connections with how the world is.

If you own a machine, like an automobile, and do not maintain it, the machine will eventually break down. Beliefs are the same. They must be maintained through continual, diligent effort and attention.

Lazy automobile owners end up with a broken automobile. Lazy thinkers end up with broken beliefs. Neither a broken automobile nor a broken belief has much value.

I recently wrote about conspiracy theories and the false stories they tell. One reason why people accept conspiracy stories is that they fall into lazy thinking. Also, I recently wrote about political lazy thinking and the desire to twist things to fit one’s own preferences. One reason why people refuse to accept truths contrary to their desires is lazy thinking — it’s easier just to deny facts than have to think about how to adjust one’s thinking to deal with those facts.

People who fall into lazy thinking are evading their personal responsibility. They are letting other people do their thinking for them and are being too lazy to look at the surrounding facts. Spending the effort to think through the claims of a conspiracy story (political or nonpolitical) would dispel belief in that story’s false claims.

It is incumbent upon everyone to engage in deliberate thinking. One owes it to oneself and to everyone else. Lazy thinking is a temptation, and it is easy to justify falling into it. Just as it’s easier to destroy than to create, it’s easier to avoid one’s responsibility and, so to speak, burn down the evidence all around and accept stupid and wrong beliefs. How much of society’s problems stem from lazy thinking?

Not all lazy thinking is bigoted, but all bigoted beliefs are lazy thinking.

P.S. — To the anti-religion bigots out there tempted to twist this article to attack religious people: no, what I am saying here does not apply to religion in the way you want it to. The distinction between deliberate, philosophical thinking and lazy, ideological thinking is universal to all areas of human endeavors. That includes religion because religion is a human endeavor. Yes, like with everything, some people come to religion with lazy thinking, but many people engage with religion with deliberate, informed, quality thinking. Those of you who dismiss religious people as unthinking, stupid, and worse are the ones engaging in lazy thinking.

P.P.S. — No, I am not religious.

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