Making Thinking Less Aversive



Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.    8-14

 ABSTRACT:  Apparently for many people thinking and contemplation are aversive activities.  Possible reasons for this are suggested, and ways to make thinking less aversive are described.

KEY WORDS:  thinking, thought, contemplation, meditation, self-esteem

Since serious thinking is the source of most problem solutions and many creative advances, one of the purposes of some recent educational reforms was to help children develop thinking skills rather than more rote, mechanical-type cognitive skills.  Now there is some evidence that thinking is actually painful or aversive to many people.  (See Kate Murphy’s brief piece “No Time To Think” in the Sunday Review of the New York Times, 7-25-14.)  This seems to be supported by the busyness of so many of us in this country, as well as our practice of filling up every spare second with electronic searches or interactions, since these activities and our over-working and over-busyness may be aimed partly at guaranteeing that we do not have the time or space to think.  This analysis is probably not applicable as much to the solving of concrete problem as it is to contemplation of the bigger picture of our lives, but it does apply to both areas of thinking.  Let us consider some elements of our culture and its maxims and dictums that may contribute to this aversion.

Every Problem Can Be Solved

We do have many problems to consider, including how to get the plumber to actually fix a problem rather than do something that doesn’t fix the problem, how to get the specific medical care that we want, how to fit in three childrens’ soccer games in one day, how to change one’s computer code so that the newly developed program one is responsible for at work will actually work, and all of the various other obstacles that we have to face in our lives.  By careful consideration, we can solve many of these problems, but beating our heads against various walls in attempts to solve what are essentially insoluble problems can lead to considerable emotional pain.  If one’s healthcare plan simply doesn’t cover the care we want, no amount of worrying, considering, or conniving is likely to change that, and if the boss has said “I want results, not excuses,” with the attitude that you should be able do it even if it is impossible (shifting the responsibility and blame to you), your thinking about this problem is likely to result in anxiety or depression.

In our culture, we believe that every problem can be solved rationally, so we blame ourselves when we can’t see a solution, but many problems take acceptance, compromise, and compassion to solve, rather than rational thought.  (Actually, the wisdom to know when acceptance, compromise, and compassion are necessary is a deeper kind of thinking than simply “trying to solve a problem.”)

Our “can-do” secular faith tells us that we can do anything, when in fact there are many things we can’t do.  Our “anyone can be President” attitude, which is useful if it encourages us to fulfill our potential, is destructive if we believe that we “should” be able to achieve beyond our potential and beyond available resources.


As we figure out how to make “gains” from increasing degrees of organization and interdependence among people and groups, we are creating a more and more complex world, as is very evident in the economy, the financial markets, and our nationwide power grid!  This complexity is daunting to grasp for people who try to think about such things, and it is understandable that this could make thinking aversive and that many people just give up trying.  Unfortunately this complexity also makes people more dependent on those who are involved in these complex entities and who understand them, at least somewhat, and this dependence makes everyone a bit more nervous about their daily lives.  Will “someone” ensure that we don’t have frequent power outages?  We see the police doing their job, but will the total justice system “work” and keep us and our children safe?  Will “someone” ensure that the starving poor do not starve?  We have no idea about these significant, specifically, and can only rely on our general impressions of recent history.

Many modern problems are so complex that it is easy for people to become frustrated thinking about them (and usually to throw up their hands and start avoiding awareness of such problems).  The Israelis and Palestinians could settle their warlike state of affairs, but it would take willingness on both sides to live with some risks and to give the other side more than one’s side wants to give up, in order to achieve a compromise acceptable to both sides.  So, no amount of thinking will solve this problem, since it is a matter of emotion and not of rationality, yet people keep dying, and the news keeps bringing that to our attention.  (No wonder so many intelligent people stop watching or reading the news.)  The Social Security System could remain solvent, but it would take willingness to jointly decide how much we want to provide to citizens balanced against how much we want to pay.  Again, this is not about thinking but rather about desires and emotions (and accepting the best available non-ideal, compromise solution).


The increased internal pressure that we feel to look good so that we can compete successfully in social popularity and mate-finding (augmented by our ever increasing exposure to other people and their activities through media) is a set-up for us to feel bad about ourselves, and thinking in this area is likely to be about how we can look better, even though our efforts don’t usually produce that result, so this thinking is likely to become aversive.  We not only feel bad because we don’t look better, but we feel bad because we can’t figure out how to make it happen.

We are urged several times a day by some source to eat a better diet (or go on a particular diet), but for most people a diet is viewed as a short-term effort, so that even if weight is lost using the diet, they gain the weight back in short order by going back to previous eating habits.  No one helps us to deal with the fact that unless we adjust our food expectations and desires, we will never lose weight or become healthier through our eating.  Hence, almost everyone feels bad about failures in this area, thinks about how to do better (will power?, magic pills or potions?) and eventually tries not to think about it at all, since it is painful to think about it.

We have lives with a sorry lack of the exercise needed by our human bodies to balance food intake with weight, which we have lost mostly through our success in “improving” our lives by not having to do physical labor of any kind (washing machines, dishwashers, cars, taxis, legal or illegal immigrants, tractors, harvesters, entertainment delivered right to our living rooms).  We are urged to become healthier and sexier and to lose weight through exercise, but no one tells us how much exercise we would have to do to “burn off” even one hamburger, which would make it immediately obvious that exercise will not solve our weight problems.  Even worse, people aren’t willing to follow an exercise regime for the rest of their lives just for the sake of health, but for maximum benefit this is what would be required, since exercise effects are current and disappear fairly quickly when the exercise stops.  Once again, we “know” that we “ought to” exercise, but we don’t do it adequately, and when we think about how to be healthier, thinking becomes aversive.


Our culture extols self-improvement and believes in our perfectability as human beings.  If we buy into this belief and its goal of striving for perfection, we are doomed to failure and to feeling guilt or shame about our inability to move very far toward perfection, as well as to giving up thinking about it at all because of the pain that this thinking causes.  Due to our imperfect biological being (diseases, birth defects, limited environmental tolerances, etc.) and to the fact that our cognitive capacities are limited, we cannot possibly be “perfect.”  There are quasi-philosophical efforts to help us believe that we are “perfect just the way we are,” which translates to “we are who we are” and tries to get us to fool ourselves by verbally linking our actual situation it to perfection, which it certainly is not. It can be true that we are OK the way we are, and it is desirable to accept reality (including our own biological and existential reality).  In fact we are truly amazing beings (that we exist at all, that our biology works as well as it does for as long as it does), but we are in no sense perfect.

It is a more psychologically healthy attitude to accept ourselves as we are but notice when we could take better care of ourselves (exercise?, diet?) or function better (not fly off the handle so often, remember our spouse’s birthday, etc.) and focus some insight and effort toward those improvements that we can make.

The principle illustrated here is that when our upbringing (men are jerks, girls deflowered before marriage are sluts) or our cultural beliefs or assumptions (Communism is evil in any form and to any degree; bad things happening are God’s will, and God’s ways are mysterious; homosexuality is a choice; he who dies with the most toys wins; etc.) cut us off from reality perceptions that we need in order to make sense of our world and our experience, it puts us in conflict within ourselves between what we perceive and what we can allow ourselves to perceive, and this will make thinking aversive.


Very early in life we acquire a sense of what is fair and what is unfair, and this remains an important consideration for us throughout our lives.  The complexity of our modern lives makes thinking about fairness more difficult.  Is it fair or unfair to send children back to their countries who have crossed our country’s border illegally without their parents in hopes of a safer or better life?  It is illegal for them to be here, and it’s fair with regard to the law that they be sent home (if they don’t qualify for any already established category of refugee status).  On the other hand, it’s not fair in a more general, moral sense for them to be sent back to a situation in which there is much more violence than in our society here.


Human beings naturally seek to be “free,” which generally means to us not being constrained, and this process of seeking increasing opportunity and decreased constraints is ongoing in our society (viz., censorship, gay marriage, more public displays of sex and affection, open-carry for guns).  This natural process, though, also fragments our sense of the total group and our place in it.  We are exposed though media to more and more diversity of what people find meaningful, and what is meaningful to us becomes a smaller and smaller part of the whole.  This makes it harder and harder to us to feel confident and centered in what is meaningful to us, as well as harder and harder to figure out exactly what is meaningful to us.


This increasing complexity and diversity (and our exposure to them in our media) both open up more possibilities of accepting more parts of ourselves as OK (being gay; being African-American) and expand the ways in which we can perceive ourselves as not OK and not comparing well with those around us (not getting our kids into Ivy League schools or even the best kindergarten in our town; not having a backyard barbecue installation; not feeling much authority as a parent; not having as many “friends” on Facebook as our peers).  It appears that the net outcome of this is lower self-esteem in our society, and it appears that this is an important motive for not wanting to think about ourselves.

Being Alone With Ourselves

Many people in our society don’t want to be alone with just themselves for any length of time, because this leads to more reflecting about themselves and their lives.  In the above illustrations, it seems clear that it has become increasingly difficult to know who we are and to find satisfying results when evaluating ourselves.  Our natural processes of comparing ourselves to others and competing with each other take place now in a larger and more complex cognitive milieu.  It takes considerable cognitive capacity to find our bearings in such a milieu, and largely since we don’t want to be told what to think and what to do (in the interest of our “freedom”), we have little leadership from authority figures to help us figure it all out.

What Can We Do To Make Thinking Less Aversive?

One approach would be to simplify our milieu to the point that thinking about our whole range of problems could be more productive.  Building on research suggesting that we can only relate meaningfully to less than 200 people and noting that political corruption can be dealt with more readily when voters know more about what politicians are doing, we might redefine our countries to all have less than five million inhabitants.  This would align our instinctive group identification with a group that is not so large that we cannot comprehend almost everything about it.

The cost to this would be that gaining the advantages of larger systems, such as efficiencies of scale, would become more difficult, since all of these smaller “nations” would have to negotiate any cross-border, complex arrangement.  (This would be OK with me personally, since I think that we have had enough “progress” and can bring a decent standard of living to everyone on the planet without any more “advances,” but this philosophy would be unacceptable to many who have had consumerism bred into them.)

A more feasible effort to becoming more comfortable with thinking would be to give ourselves permission to evaluate for ourselves the beliefs of our culture.  We could seriously consider what basic economic structure would work best for us in the 21st Century, rather than demonizing communism and socialism entirely without examining them or understanding them.  We could seriously consider whether we would prefer our society to be one in which everyone took the welfare of others into account more than we do now in our current “dog eat dog,” “devil take the hindmost” and “let the buyer beware” society.  Allowing ourselves to think freely and for ourselves would make thinking challenging but also exciting and pleasurable

If people are afraid to be alone because thinking about themselves and their lives is aversive, then some changes in underlying assumptions could help.  Instead of making what we don’t like “bad” and trying to destroy it (including parts of ourselves), we could choose to be more accepting of ourselves, others, and life in general, where acceptance is simply recognizing reality as it is rather than fighting against it by trying to destroy it or deny it.  This acceptance still acknowledges our potential for refinement and improvement and assumes that we will strive to have the best lives possible, partly through seeking to change and grow, and it allows us to stop using blame and shame on ourselves and others in efforts to force ourselves and others to change or to “be good.”.

Two correlates of a more accepting frame of mind are (1) to minimize comparing ourselves with others to see if we are justified in feeling good about ourselves and (2) to reduce competing with others to see who is “better” and “best.”  An ethic of basic equality is morally preferable to an ethic of status and power, since it cannot be moral to look down on others or seek advantage over others in order to get what we want.  Superiority always leads to conflict and threatened self-esteem, and we are better off finding ways to feel good about ourselves and trying to be persons that we would naturally feel good about than we are trying to beat ourselves into submission or achievement.

It would be useful to have visible leadership in these philosophical regards from leaders in our country, but this has been absent for decades now (as leaders spend all of their time in becoming leaders and remaining leaders, through keeping the people happy rather than leading), so it is up to you and me to change and grow and so by example to show others the advantages of a more reasonable and compassionate way of living.