Thinking about “Thinking about Thinking”

We all think about a lot of things, but most of it is driftwood, so to speak. Thoughts drift in and out of our minds with little conscious input or direction from us. Yet, at times, we do take control and consciously direct our thoughts. But do you ever think about thinking? “Thinking about thinking” is called metathinking. So, when we think about metathinking, we are thinking about “thinking about thinking”!

What does someone think about when they’re thinking about thinking? Well typical questions could include, “What are the various styles and types of thinking and how do they affect the outcome? Are some types more effective than others, or more appropriate in different circumstances? What are the barriers to effective thinking?”

Thinking about thinking, or metathinking, is similar to brain gymnastics or neurobics (mental exercises). That is, it’s good for us.Besides, as the seventeenth century French philosopher and mathematician, Rene Descartes, taught, “It is not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to use it well.” And if we want to use it well, don’t we have to think about thinking?

Examples of Types of Thinking

1. Positive Thinking

Positive thinkers look at the bright side of life. It is not wishful or Pollyannaish thinking, but pragmatic. Positive thinkers understand that anything can be seen as good or bad. It all depends on how we choose to view it. How does endless complaining, blaming, criticizing, or worrying help? It doesn’t. On the contrary, it merely leads to disease, depression, and failure. But those who choose to focus on the positive are happy, healthy, and successful. Positive thinking makes sense because it works.

Recently an acquaintance and I were discussing steps we could take to improve our lives. He told me that he often gets angry with his 8-year-old son, and he wants to do something about it.

I replied, “What a wonderful opportunity! Admit to your son that you sometimes unfairly criticize him. Tell him when you do so; he must feel hurt and upset. Tell him you are sorry and ask him to forgive you. And after he does, explain that you are not perfect, and some day in the future, you may slip up and unfairly criticize him again. But when you do so, you want him to hold out his hand, palm facing you, as a signal to STOP. And when he does that, you promise to immediately stop and apologize.”

My acquaintance’s ‘problem’ is a wonderful opportunity because if he carries out the above steps, he will be teaching his son that we can confess our mistakes and apologize. He will also be teaching him how to forgive others and accept their apologies. And by explaining that his son can signal him to stop, he has empowered his son, who no longer needs to worry about future outbursts. In fact, his son may even look forward to being unjustly criticized, just so he can practice his new power (“STOP daddy!). All of this will draw father and son closer together, creating greater intimacy. So my acquaintance’s ‘problem’ turned out to be a beautiful gift.

The purpose of this true story is to demonstrate how positive thinkers behave. You see, positive thinkers find a solution to every problem, but negative thinkers find a problem with every solution.

2. Optimal Thinking

Positive thinkers ask, “How can I get MORE from life?” Optimal thinkers ask, “How can I get the MOST from life. Positive thinkers ask, “How can I get BETTER results?” Optimal thinkers ask, “How can I get THE BEST result?” To learn more about Optimal Thinking, read, Optimal Thinking: How to Be Your Best Self by Rosalene Glickman, 2002.

3. Analytical or Scientific Thinking

The purpose of analytical thinking is to make good decisions. When dealing with a problem, possible causes of the problem are studied, and then facts are gathered and analyzed with the hope of arriving at a solution. For example, if farmers in a particular region find that their yield has dropped by 30%, a horticulturist will first try to determine the possible cause(s) of the problem. Was the poor harvest due to inferior soil, drought, pollution, or insects? If insects were the cause, research on how to eliminate the threat would be conducted, and this could lead to a decision to spray the crops with a pesticide.

4. Systems Thinking

This type of thinking was developed by MIT professor Jay Forrester. In it, the relationships of the object of investigation are compared to the relationships of all other objects in the system. For instance, in the above example, analysts studied the relationships of crops, insects, and pesticides. But they did not study the relationships of insects to insects, and pesticides to environment. And their limited investigation led them to believe the solution was to spray the crops with pesticide.

However, systems thinking does a much more complete survey. Not only does it study, in this case, the relationship of insects to crops, but insects to everything else as well. For instance, an insect that was believed to be the primary cause of crop destruction also eats other insects as well. And the insects it feeds on do MORE crop damage than it does. So, if the crops are sprayed, more, not less damage, will result because the pesticide kills the insect that feeds on the more destructive ones.

5. Innovative or Creative Thinking

While analytical thinking examines many possibilities, it zeroes in on one solution, but innovative thinking does the opposite. It starts with one possibility and explodes it into a huge number of possibilities. Brainstorming is a typical example.

Are you in management and would you like to create a work environment in which innovative thinking will flourish? Goran Ekvall, professor emeritus of organisational psychology at the University of Lund, Sweden has come up with this list of the nine characteristics of a workplace that encourages innovative thinking.

a) Challenging. A challenging environment is not boring, but stimulating; there’s lots of problems (opportunities) to grapple with and dig one’s teeth into.

b) Unrestrained. Workers are not shackled with reams of rules and regulations that monitor their every activity. They are free to work in their own style as long as they get the job done.

c) Relaxed. In a high pressure environment, workers are under stress and do not have time to think things through. Stress and creative thinking are incompatible.

d) Receptive. New ideas and fresh ways of looking at things are welcome by both management and peers.

e) Open. Workers trust one another and feel safe speaking their minds and offering different points of view. They count on each other for professional and personal support.

f) Playful. Workers are not only relaxed, but having fun. They don’t hesitate to joke and laugh. They are energized.

g) Harmonious. Workers get along with one another. They cooperate and feel like members of a team. They accept their differences and willingly compromise when necessary.

h) Lively. Workers freely debate the pros and cons of all issues. They argue not for the sake of argument, but for the purpose of resolving issues for the benefit of all.

i) Tolerant. The organization tolerates uncertainty and ambiguity in the workplace. Workers are willing to go out on a limb and share their ideas with management and peers. They are not afraid of taking a risk, which we all must do when trying something new.

6. Critical Thinking

While analytical thinking is associated with science, critical thinking is often linked to philosophy (especially logic) and education. It consists of asking questions, defining problems, examining evidence, analyzing assumptions and biases, considering other possibilities, and staying away from emotional reasoning and oversimplification. It deals with gathering, analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing information. A special feature of critical thinking is that it evaluates itself while it is taking place.

7. Magical Thinking

While people of faith may adhere to beliefs without evidence, magical thinkers go so far as to rigidly hold on to a belief even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Since magical thinking can be part and parcel of religion, I will give an example of a young Mormon mother who threw her two small children into February’s freezing waters of the Columbia River near Pasco and Kennewick Washington. I’m not trying to attack Mormonism in particular or religion in general, but illustrating how magical thinking can lead to disastrous results.

Returning to the young mother, why did she murder her two children? She believed she was living in sin and if she reared her children, they too may become sinners, so all three would be condemned to the outer darkness (eternal punishment). Because the Mormon faith teaches that children that die before the age of accountability (the age at which someone has the ability to know right from wrong) will automatically go to the Celestial Kingdom (the highest of three heavenly kingdoms). So, she murdered her children to send them to heaven.

The problem with magical thinking is those who accept it abrogate their mind and allow someone else to do their thinking for them.

Barriers to Successful Thinking

1. Uncreative. When we stop at the first answer or solution that comes to mind, we are limiting our vision. We need to get into the habit of asking, “What else can be done? What other possibilities exist?” Here’s an opportunity for you to test your creativity. Can you solve this puzzle?

Michael has to get three animals across a small river. His raft can only hold one animal and himself at a time. The three animals are: a fox, a chicken, and a worm.

If Michael leaves the fox and chicken alone (on either side of the river), the fox will eat the chicken.

If Michael leaves the chicken and the worm alone, the chicken will eat the worm.

The problem: How can Michael get the three animals across the river, making sure all of them remain safe?

Are you stumped? Stuck in conventional thinking and unable to solve the puzzle? If so, the answer appears at the end of this article.

2. Perfectionism. Stop trying to be perfect; it’s futile, you never will be. So, why try? Give it a shot: voice your opinion, trust yourself and share your ideas.

3. Confirmation Bias. This is the habit of always looking for evidence that supports your beliefs and discarding whatever doesn’t fit. It prevents you from seeing reality. The best way to overcome it is by looking for evidence for contrary beliefs. This will expand your view, bringing it closer to reality.

4. Need to be Right. Which is more important the truth or your feelings? Those who have an obsessive need to always be right can’t handle the truth. If their belief contradicts the truth, they simply deny it. Don’t you agree with Edward de Bono who said that “It is better to have enough ideas for some of them to be wrong, than to be always right by having no ideas at all.”

5. The “Village Venus Effect.” Villagers of an isolated village come to believe that the most beautiful girl in the world is the most beautiful girl in their village. She represents the standard by which all other women are judged. Similarly, thinkers believe the ideas in their mind (village) are the best there are. Such a narrow view prevents one from seeing and benefiting from the bigger picture, or as Roman poet Horace (65~8 BC) wrote, “Men cease to think when they think they know it all.”

6. Generalizing. When we believe everyone from a particular country, religion, race, or political party think alike, we are generalizing. It is a form of sloppy or lazy thinking. After all, it takes time and effort to gather the facts, and generalizing helps us avoid the drudgery of research.

7. Believing without Questioning. Too often we believe what we have read or heard without questioning the validity. Buddha cautioned his followers to question everything he taught them. If you accept things blindly, they are not your thoughts, but the thoughts of another. But when you question and mull over what you learn, it becomes YOUR thoughts, beliefs, and opinions. Better to follow a knowledgeable YOU then a questionable other person.

8. Gullibility. Of course we should have an open mind, but not so open that any fool can walk in and peddle superstition, conspiracy theories, and bizarre beliefs without supporting evidence. Make your mind a treasure chest, not a garbage dump.

9. False Claims of Causality. Did you ever hear that all heroin users started out as marijuana smokers? The implication is that marijuana leads to heroin use. But guess what? After long hours of research, I have discovered all heroin users ate food before they started to take drugs. Therefore, food is a cause of drug addiction! No, that doesn’t make sense. So, beware of false claims that link one thing to another. Often, the links are merely coincidences.

Tips and Caveats

1. When you’re finding it difficult to solve a personal problem, pretend the problem isn’t yours, but your friend’s. And imagine yourself giving advice to your friend. Alternatively, imagine that a friend, professor, or famous therapist is giving you advice. What would they tell you?

2. “There are two ways to slide easily through life: to believe everything or to doubt everything. Both ways save us from thinking.” (Alfred Korzybski, 1879~1950) Another way to slide through life is to follow tradition without questioning it.

3. Remember, “You cannot plough a field by turning it over in your mind.” (Gordon B. Hinckley, 1910~2008). Neither can you accomplish much in life by merely mulling over your thoughts; you’ve got to put them to use by taking action.

4. Don’t confuse thinking with feeling. When you say, “I think I’ll have another beer,” you’re not thinking; you’re feeling like another beer. If you were thinking, you may say, “I think I’ll stop. I had enough already.”

If the subject of thinking has sparked your interest, why not turn to the world’s leading expert on the subject, Edward De Bono. Click here to find many of his books.

Answer to Puzzle

1. Take the Chicken across.
2. Take the Worm across and take the Chicken back.
3. Take the Fox across.
4. Take the Chicken across.


  1. I am very happy to hear about this great hero of our time, and his marvelous deed’s and i ma praying that God will continue to produce more hero in the world for the compression of his work to humanity

  2. Def resonate well with the topic here, as I spend a lot of time inside my head. I think most writers def do spend a lot of time in their heads. But, yes positive thinking is not wishful thinking. It is simply a habit that one can adopt in their life to enhance the life experience in an awesome way. Great tips here.

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