Do you ever feel as though you’re not in control of your thoughts and actions? Perhaps you become irrational when you’re tired or have skipped lunch. Pour yourself a drink when you swore you wouldn’t. If so, you are certainly not alone. All of us struggle to think clearly, understand our decisions or predict our actions at times. A little cognitive chaos is a very human trait.
Many factors shape the way we think. Genes and personality play a role, but so do fleeting states, such as hunger, tiredness, hate or love. And the less we understand these and other emotions, the more likely we are to be driven by them.
Our brains are hardwired to conserve energy and take shortcuts, and this sometimes leads to thinking that is biased, lazy and gullible. We are swayed by friends and neighbours; by advertising and social media; by the food, drinks and drugs we consume; and even by the micro-organisms in our gut and the beating of our heart.
Luckily, we’re not powerless. By recognising these factors and understanding how they hijack our minds, we can think more clearly, and improve our relationships, unlock our potential and live better lives. Answers to these four burning questions could help reshape how your mind behaves.
Are you a creature of habit?
Do you have a Saturday morning routine? Perhaps a lie-in with a newspaper and a coffee made “just so”. Or a run through the park before a fry-up. Everybody has routines (a preference for regularity) and habits (automatic actions, such as unthinkingly pouring yourself a stiff drink after work). These are often helpful and enjoyable, but they also have the capacity to cloud our thinking.
People differ in their reliance on routine. According to the University of Cambridge’s Creature of Habit Scale, you are likely to register high on the scale if you strongly agree with statements such as “I find comfort in regularity” or “Whenever I go into the kitchen, I typically look in the fridge”.
Habits can make us more efficient, freeing up the brain’s processing power to focus on challenging tasks rather than deciding what to have for breakfast. Their predictability can also help people who have anxiety or cognitive decline – which can happen with ageing or neurodegenerative diseases.
But habits have a darker side, too. If we’re always on autopilot, we may struggle to think flexibly, broadly and creatively. Research shows creatures of habit may also find it difficult to manage their emotions and behaviour, and become prone to compulsion, even addiction.
If this is not you, you may instead crave new things and experiences. This can help you to be more creative, flexible and open-minded. But craving change can become a habit in itself, and this can get in the way of the repetition needed to acquire skills or maintain rewarding, lifelong relationships. Some people who are extremely averse to routine may be impulsive – failing to think things through properly, perhaps deciding to suddenly quit their job without a backup plan.
To think well, we must understand how our habits affect us. If you’re impulsive or struggle with uncertainty, adding a little more routine to your life can create space for careful thinking. And useful habits can be encouraged by the use of cues – such as putting your jogging bottoms by the bed at night to help trigger a regular morning run.
Conversely, if you always seem to be on autopilot, try to break some habits and inject unfamiliar experiences into your life. Changing your environment can help – if you always snack at your desk, for example, change desks; it may be enough to remove the snacking “cue”.
Ultimately, we should all avoid constantly doing the same things and talking to the same people all the time– even if that feels comfortable. Seek out new hobbies. Make friends with people you wouldn’t normally talk to. Often when we encounter something new – rather than relying on the same old routines, habits and echo chambers – we can challenge our thinking and gain a deeper understanding of the world.
Are you stuck in the past?
In 1987, Terry Waite was taken hostage in Beirut when he was there as an envoy for the Archbishop of Canterbury. He spent the next 1,763 days in captivity, often in total isolation.
With a purgatorial present and an uncertain future, Waite travelled deep into his past. He relived distant memories: from being hospitalised as a child with scarlet fever to his first loves. It provided solace – and material for Taken on Trust, the autobiography he wrote in his head during his imprisonment.
We are all time travellers, of sorts, switching our focus between past, present and future. And this affects how we think. Focusing on the past can give life meaning, reduce loneliness and boost feelings of connectedness. But memories are fallible, obsessing about mistakes can overwhelm us, and fetishising some sort of golden age can also make us more conservative and less open to new ways of thinking.
For example, according to research, conservatives tend to use more past-oriented language than liberals – note that Trump and Brexit campaigners made the past central to their slogans, with “Make America Great Again” and “Take Back Control”.
Focusing heavily on the present, on the other hand, can help fill life with rich, new experiences. But it does come with a potential cost. An inherent “present bias” means most of us will opt for a smaller immediate reward over a greater one further down the line (think of those “buy now, pay later” deals). It may also put us in peril. Unsafe sex, drug use and squandering savings can seem less risky when we’re focused on present actions rather than future consequences.
Focusing on the future – paying into a pension instead of splurging everything today, perhaps, or prioritising long-term career goals over fun with friends and family – could boost our chances of a comfortable retirement. But it can also trap us into forgoing the very moments that make life memorable and meaningful. Instead, try to actively think across time. A simple writing exercise can help. To better appreciate and learn from the past, write down a memory a day. Or to be present, list the things you’re grateful for now. And to cultivate an eye to the future, craft a five-year plan.
Similarly, if you’re scared of change, seek out new people, experiences and ideas. If you’re impulsive, slow down and consider the consequences of your actions. And if you’re always making sacrifices for some future goal, take a break and devote time to doing what you love. You only live once, after all.
Under extraordinary circumstances, the past gave Waite meaning and a welcome sense of security. In everyday life, the rest of us need to balance the past, present and future to fully feel in control of our time.
Are you an addict?
We all have a “fuck it button”. Jackie Malton was a successful detective with the Metropolitan Police – who would inspire the character of Jane Tennison (played by Helen Mirren) in the TV series Prime Suspect. But in the late 1980s, Malton began pressing hers far too frequently.
Boozing heavily became an antidote to the pressures of police work. It also helped her feel less vulnerable as a gay woman – and a creative thinker – in the male-dominated, fixed-in-its-ways force of the late 20th century, and to overcome the sense that she didn’t “belong”. Besides, drinking after work was part of the culture.
But when Malton tried to cut down, she found it was almost impossible. As shame grew, she would pledge to leave the bar early – but find herself saying “fuck it” and ordering another round. One of the most courageous, forensic and flexible minds in the police had been hijacked by addiction.
We’re all vulnerable to temptation, particularly when we’re not paying attention, feel bad about ourselves, have fallen into habitual behaviours or prioritise present pleasures over future consequences. But there’s a point where too many “fuck its” constitute full-blown addiction, whether it’s to gambling, heroin or alcohol.
Addiction is much more than a binary choice. Genetics plays a part – alcoholism is estimated to be between 40% and 60% heritable – as does mental health (three-quarters of addicts also have a psychiatric condition). Some addictive behaviour may also be triggered by primitive areas of the brain, such as the nucleus accumbens, over which we have no conscious control. And, as Malton discovered, our environment and self-worth also play a part.
But we can change things. One study into drug use among Vietnam war veterans, for example, revealed vastly reduced rates of addiction when they returned to the US and were reunited with friends, family and the familiar. Drugs might have been a warped proxy for “belonging” in a frightening, uncertain environment – something that could apply to anyone who finds themselves cut off from positive relationships, meaning or “home”.
But as Malton – who joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1992 and hasn’t had a drink since – found out, we should also be honest with ourselves when a substance or behaviour starts controlling it. Perhaps we are drinking or gambling more to achieve the same high we felt before. Perhaps we’re letting commitments and relationships slide. Or perhaps we’re justifying our behaviour on the grounds that we’re not a stereotypical alcoholic who drinks for breakfast.
It’s only by identifying and admitting the faults in our thinking that we can hope to overcome them. We may need to develop new habits, new relationships, a new environment. But, as Malton says, one of the biggest obstacles to thinking clearly is to continue “doing the same thing and expecting a different result”.
Have your parents messed you up?
Alex and Helen (not their real names), twins in their late 30s, have identical genes. Growing up in a loving home in London, they had similar temperaments, achieved similar grades in school and were enrolled in almost identical activities. But do they think alike?
A personality test revealed that they don’t: Helen scored higher on agreeableness (friendliness) and openness to experience, while Alex was more assertive. Neither was surprised by the results. Alex believes working in a conflict zone “toughened her”. Helen thinks attending a more liberal university than Alex taught her to question tradition more and that meeting her wife “mellowed her”.
While our thinking is to some degree fixed by heritable traits, we can change who we are and how we think by continuing to learn, changing our environment and having new experiences. Thinking is largely determined by cognitive ability and personality – both of which are partly programmed in our DNA. This suggests that genes inherited from our parents do influence our thinking. Gulp!
Higher-level cognitive functions, including IQ and working memory, are in fact 51% heritable. High IQ helps us spot patterns in the world and solve complex problems, but doesn’t necessarily make us self-critical or aware of our biases.
Other higher cognitive functions such as “Cognitive flexibility” (an ability to switch between concepts – such as radically changing strategies to win a game), rational/critical thinking, creativity and emotional intelligence may exert more influence on the way we think. And researchers have invented exercises and training programmes that can help boost critical thinking, creativity and emotional intelligence, for example.
Personality – which is 44% heritable and changes over the course of our lives – matters too. High emotional stability and extraversion, for example, can make us gullible and overconfident in our decisions, while low emotional stability can make us deeply pessimistic. Openness to experience and conscientiousness (our sense of duty) are hugely helpful for thinking, with the former linked to flexibility, intellectual curiosity and creativity, and the latter to analysis and attention to detail.
Research also suggests that changing life circumstances can shape personality – and thereby thinking. If you take on a lot of responsibility, you might become more conscientious. If you make a considered effort to encounter, understand and appreciate different cultures, music or points of view, you may become more open. Indeed, research shows that people who live in diverse societies are less prejudiced towards people who are different from themselves.