Reversible Thinking: Fighting Cognitive Laziness

April 5, 2018

The other option is the one most of us usually choose: the exact opposite of the first one. You stick to your beliefs and they become irreversible. You close your eyes to any other possibility and keep an iron grip on your point of view. And this is all part of the wonderful complexity and imperfection of the human brain.

Why it is so important

Reversible thinking is the ability people have to be reason things in different directions. That is, the ability to see things from one perspective but also the opposite perspective. This ability helps you solve complex problems and see all positions on the spectrum between the two opposites.

It’s a kind of thinking that broadens your perspective and makes it easier to solve problems, whether personal or professional. Thanks to reversibility, you can deal with your problems in a more logical, direct way.

On the other hand, there’s also polarized thinking, which is actually very exhausting. In this case, it’s either one thing or the other. There are no middle options or any debate to be had. Polarity will leave you stuck. It paralyzes you.

If you manage to put yourself on one of the middle points of the spectrum, you’ll be taking full advantage of reversible thinking, the kind that truly gets you moving again.

two arrows symbolizing reversible thinking

Blind to proof

Now picture that you’ve been walking through the woods for hours and hours and you’re really hungry. Far off, on top of a mountain, you see an apple tree. You start running to it. The only think you’re focused on is that precious fruit.

But when you get to the top, you see that the apples are rotten. You can’t eat them. But all along the path you were running on, there were fruit trees of all kinds. If only you’d stopped and looked around you!

That’s how the human brain works sometimes. And that’s why we act so dumb sometimes: we look straight ahead without bothering to turn our heads and see what’s going on around us. 

We wander around with blinders on. It’s not exactly stubbornness though, because that has more to do with personality traits. What we’re really doing is letting irreversibly take over.

8 ways you can react to proof that goes against what you believe

Specifically, there are 8 possible reactions to being presented with proof that goes against what you believe (Chinn and Brewer, 1933). The first three reactions fall under irreversible thinking: ignoring the facts, denying them, and leaving them out.

The other five reactions fall under reversible thinking: leaving judgments aside, reinterpreting the facts, accepting them, and making minor changes to your idea, or accepting the facts and changing your idea.

Why don’t we use reversible thinking?

Our brains aren’t as perfect as we think they are. We see the brain as a perfect machine, accurately and rationally analyzing things. But when it comes to trying to reverse your thinking, you’ll realize that it’s far from perfect.

We make a lot of effort finding facts, proof, and theories that will confirm our beliefs. It’s not often that we go in a different direction. If you tried to look for proof that went against your inclinations, your brain would see it as like self-sabotage and try to get that idea out of your head.

“Reversibility is the clearest characteristic of intelligence.

-Jean Piaget-

All it takes is to find some tiny sign that you’re right for you to reaffirm your thinking and settle into it. For example, someone who’s convinced that tobacco isn’t bad for your health will search on thousands of web sites until they find the single one that says “smoking makes you live longer.”

And even though it’s not true, if you don’t have reversible thinking then you will believe it. Out of the thousands of sites that said the opposite, and all the studies that prove it’s bad for your health, you stick with the one that reinforces your belief.

two men figures on notebook symbolizing reversible thinking

Cognitive laziness

Have you ever heard of heuristics? They’re a kind of mental shortcut that your brain uses to save energy. That is, if there are two paths to the same outcome, your brain will try to take the one that involves the least amount of effort.

And that means that you’re ruled by a mental energy-saving principle. It’s uncontrollable, invisible, and unconscious. It’s also one explanation of why our brains like to look for facts that validate our theories in full view of ideas that prove them wrong.

If you want reversible thinking you need to think in a logical, rational way. That means making an effort your brain doesn’t always want to make. It takes less work to confirm an opinion and settle into it. Our brains are cognitive slackers! It’s extremely important to get all the other myths out of your head and remember that your brain will do anything to do less work.

It happens constantly in our daily lives. It might seem strange, but no one can escape it. When you’re presented with facts, you have two choices. Either stick to your opinion and disregard the rest, or broaden your perspective and consider other ideas.