There seems to be an increasing trend towards what I call “robotic” (or “mechanical”) thinking. This is a type of thinking that leads people to jump to conclusions, make claims to universal truth, and depend upon simplistic explanations of complex realities.
The opposite of a robotic mind is an open and critical mind. This is where we are curious, questioning, flexible, and willing to consider a wide range of possibilities in dealing with a question or problem. And this approach lets us make judgements, choices and decisions for ourselves, instead of letting others do it on our behalf.
I think each of us would like to think we are open minded, but the truth is many of us are oblivious to our own individual thought processes. And there are, of course, various shades of gray in between having an open mind and a robotic mind. So lets have a look at what are, in my opinion, three of the major signs of robotic thinking and some ways to fix this problem.
1. Unwillingness to ask questions
A telling sign of a robotic mind is an unwillingness to ask questions. I see two major problems with this:
- A tendency to jump to conclusions
- Automatic acceptance of information (eg the news) “as if” or “as presented”
The problem with jumping to conclusions is, of course, that these conclusions may be wrong. In fact, if a person jumps conclusions – meaning they don’t take the time to gather information and question assumptions – there is a very good chance these conclusions will be wrong!
Automatic acceptance of information as if or as presented basically means a person relinquishes responsibility for making judgements and choices to someone else. And there are all too many people willing to be this “someone else”. It is critical to realize, however, that just because the President, a CEO, religious leader, parent, or teacher says something is right or wrong it does not make it so. And yet it seems there is a long line of people who are more than happy to hand over their brain to someone else.
The solution, of course, is to ask questions – and lots of them! In particular, we should regard authority with a healthy amount of skepticism. As Timothy Leary once said,
“Throughout human history, as our species has faced the frightening, terrorizing fact that we do not know who we are, or where we are going in this ocean of chaos, it has been the authorities — the political, the religious, the educational authorities — who attempted to comfort us by giving us order, rules, regulations, informing — forming in our minds — their view of reality. To think for yourself you must question authority and learn how to put yourself in a state of vulnerable open-mindedness, chaotic, confused vulnerability to inform yourself.”
Just to be clear here, I do not consider a systematic approach to problems and decisions as a sign of robotic thinking. Quite the opposite in fact. Taking a systematic approach – meaning you ask questions in a structured and logical order – is a very powerful method for coming to an informed and intelligent answer.
2. An inability or unwillingness to consider alternatives
An intelligent and open mind should be able to consider a wide range of possibilities in dealing with a question or problem. Why? Because, put simply, things aren’t always as they first appear. Take, for example, the following image of a turning dancer (I apologize to anyone who has previously seen this – I know it has been floating around the Internet for a few months now). Now, consider which way she is turning (if she is not moving try reloading the page).
Are you sure?
If you answered clockwise, you are correct. If you answered anti-clockwise, you are also correct. Huh?
The reason both answers are correct is because it depends on what side of the brain you use more. If she is turning clockwise, you use more of the right side of the brain and vice versa.
If you don’t believe me, try looking at the image with other people or concentrating on her for a few minutes as it is possible to change the direction she is turning. Also, if you are interested in finding out more about what it means to use more of the right or left side of the brain, you can find the original article here.
Now, if this was your first time seeing the above image and I hadn’t told you the dancer will turn either clockwise and anti-clockwise depending on the side of the brain you use more, do you think you would have worked this out? Probably not.
The reason I like this example is that it is a very good illustration that there is often more to an answer than first meets the eye.
I can just imagine a person who didn’t know any better being adamant that the way they see the dancer turning is the only correct answer and anyone who says otherwise is crazy. You now know, however, that it is not quite this simple.
This may be fairly harmless when it comes to saying which way a dancer is turning, but what if this closed robotic mindset is directed towards a topic such as the possibilities for our own lives. A robotic mind may, for example, see work as a necessary evil for living. An open mind, however, will realize that work can potentially be an expression of our passions and deepest desires (even if it hasn’t quite figured out what that work is yet). Or, it may question the assumption that we need to trade our time for money and instead come up with a solution such as The 4-Hour Workweek.
3. Dependence on simplistic explanations of complex realities
As I said at the start of this article, we live in a complex world. A person who fails to ask questions and refuses to consider alternatives is very likely to exhibit dependence on, and adherence to, very simplistic explanations of what are actually quite complex realities.
In school we learn to associate intelligence with knowing the correct answer to a question or problem. As we grow older, though, we should realize that there is often no single answer to the problems we face. I think we need to be particularly wary of people intent on pushing their ideological interpretations (eg liberal, socialist, capitalist, communist, conservative, social democrat) of issues and events onto us. Such interpretations are usually very selective in terms of the information they reference, and therefore will tend simplify issues for the pure sake of political advantage.
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I have disbursed within this article are a number of ideas to help fix robotic thinking. The following is a quick summary of them:
- Ask questions
- Be curious
- Approach life with a healthy amount of skepticism
- Be open to alternatives
- Avoid simplistic explanations for complex problems
What do you think?