“The third-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the majority. The second-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the minority. The first-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking.” AA Milne
Perhaps geniuses and prodigies are born knowing how to think for themselves, but most of us have to learn how. And unfortunately many never do. Perhaps it’s because they never had the right teacher at school or met the right friend to show them. Or perhaps because thinking for yourself isn’t easy.
To think properly requires an understanding of the subconscious biases of the human mind. To then make conscious compensations to avoid falling into the countless traps of fallacious thinking.
An example of one such trap is the common belief fallacy; “most people I know hold the same belief, therefore it must be true”. In many cases it may well be true of course, but a cursory look back at history will show an endless list of things that whole societies and even civilisations believed to be true that we now know are not.
Evolution by natural selection, arguably the greatest single idea in human history, provides the explanation. If you doubted the common belief of the tribe that tigers were dangerous and decided to find out for yourself instead, you probably wouldn’t last long enough to have any children who might inherit your way of thinking. In this way natural selection favoured credulous thinking and over time we evolved towards many aspects of herd behaviour.
While this evolved natural tendency of accepting what everyone around you thinks without question or evidence provided a shortcut to survival to our ancestors, in many situations of the modern world, it is unreliable and lazy at best. And fatally dangerous at worst.
A look at the common beliefs in the political ideologies of the 20th Century serve as a sobering warning to the extent of this danger counted in the death and ruined lives of hundreds of millions of people. Communism and Fascism both presented visions of human society that gained popular following because of irrational, biased thinking that led to common belief fallacies that in turn led to the horrors of the Gulag and the Holocaust.
Another example of cognitive irrationality is confirmation bias; the natural tendency to cherry pick arguments and evidence to support and confirm your existing beliefs and opinions. The more emotive a subject or the more you feel the belief is part of your identity, the stronger your confirmation bias tends to be. Over a wide range of subjects - from belief in God and abortion to taxation and wealth redistribution and onto military intervention and disarmament - there are people equally convinced of their opinion or beliefs on both sides of a given debate who have little understanding of the argument from the other side. Often their confirmation bias is so strong that they have no understanding at all; they have simply never listened to it. Instead they have shouted over it and attacked the person making the argument. This is, in itself, another example of a logical fallacy known as ad hominem - attacking or insulting the person making the argument or casting doubt on their character or motive rather than engaging in the argument itself.
Which brings us to the potential downsides or costs of thinking for yourself - it sometimes leads to disagreeing with your friends. If it is a ‘blue touch paper’ topic of conversation, you risk falling out with them. Picking your battles carefully and deciding which friendships matter are sensible and serious considerations.
You can have the same disagreement with yourself too when you challenge your own heartfelt preconceived ideas and beliefs. This can take you towards an existential crisis if you are not prepared for it. There is no doubting that thinking for yourself can be a risky business.
A final note to add to the cost ledger is that there are no shortcuts. You have to first understand at least some of the many ways in which your human nature works against you, then correct for them and finally, and most importantly, practice.
But this is where things swing strongly in favour of taking the risk and putting in the time and the effort. With practice you realise that because it takes time to listen to both sides of an argument, measure the evidence and form an opinion, there is no shame in not having an opinion until then. You free yourself from the expectation to have opinions on everything and to pretend to know more than you do.
The benefits to independent thinking include (but are in no way restricted to) taking responsibility, learning more, improving yourself and bringing yourself closer to the truth. Arguably the most valuable benefit though is the liberation that the honesty that comes with it brings. By thinking for yourself you free yourself to learn who you are.