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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 22-Jun-14


Sunday 22-June-14

About thinking about thinking about...

Perhaps uniquely, the human species can not only think and know that they think, but in 'self-aware metacognition' we can look in the mirror and think about thinking and the thoughts we have. This is the critical ability that is used in much therapy, as patients are asked to consider causes of their damaging thoughts. Perhaps this endless circle of thinking about thinking about thinking also contributes to our neuroses. In a current long-running advertising campaign, a mobile phone company urges us to 'Be more dog', which in effect means not thinking so much and just getting on with things. Maybe it's not bad advice sometimes, though sometimes reflecting on what's going on upstairs can be a useful exercise.

Nicholas Shea and colleagues looked at this through the lens of Daniel Kahnemann's 'System 1 and System 2' automatic and effortful thinking (which is itself related to Petty and Caccioppo's Elaboration Likelihood Model). While the process may start in the unconscious, we may notice we are consciously thinking about our thoughts. And once we think consciously, we can then feed the reflections into other cognitive processes, such as decision-making. Conscious thought can also lead to verbalisation and consequence communications and socialization. We can discuss our thoughts with others in ways that no other creatures can achieve and so grow closer with others while also improving our thought processes.

In other words, thinking about thinking is good for us, which perhaps explains its evolutionary benefit (which is always a good question to ask). It is also very helpful in persuasion, where you can get people to think about how they are thinking and hence see how that thinking is incorrect or in appropriate. Reframing is a classic method for getting people to see things differently and shows a practical way to persuade by reflection and thinking change.

Nicholas Shea, Annika Boldt, Dan Bang, Nick Yeung, Cecilia Heyes, & Chris D. Frith (2014). Supra-personal cognitive control and metacognition Trends in Cognitive Science

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