People caught in manipulative relationships that entail undue influence and predatory alienation often have doubts about their involvement, but learn to squelch those misgivings with some kind of mind-numbing activity or thought-stopping technique. Awakening their critical-thinking skills can help them objectively assess how they succumbed to coercive persuasion and, ultimately, restore any healthy relationships that were abandoned as a result. In the following interview, Bill Goldberg, a certified psychoanalyst and clinical social worker in Englewood, NJ, who specializes in treating people who’ve been harmed by undue influence, explains the concept of critical thinking, an essential element to their recovery. www.blgoldberg.com
Q: What is critical thinking?
BG: Critical thinking is a defense against the powerful forces that contribute to our propensity for self-delusion, our human propensity to think in emotional terms. We human beings are natural experts in emotional thinking. Children, for example, utilize magical thinking. Critical thinking, on the other hand, has to be learned. When we utilize critical thinking, it’s a form of self-defense — a skill that helps us recognize our human vulnerabilities and to guard against them. Critical thinkers recognize what poor data-collection devices human beings are and try to guard against the emotion-generated need for certainty.
Q: When is critical thinking useful?
BG: When we hear something that we want to believe is true because it fits with our preconceived notions or is so satisfying of our emotional needs, critical thinking teaches us to be doubly skeptical of ourselves, and to demand more proof before we commit. For example, conspiracy theorists will cherry-pick facts that fit their view of the world and will ignore the facts that don’t fit that view. But even many of us who are not prone to conspiracy thinking may act in a similar way, say, by only watching television news shows that slant the reporting in the direction that we want it to be slanted. So if we want to believe that there is an answer to some of the unanswerable questions of life, or if we want to believe that there is an ultimate truth and that we can be guided to that truth, we can become susceptible to manipulators who claim to have found that truth.
Critical thinkers recognize that we all are wrong sometimes, and that we all can be fooled. The concept of critical thinking is helpful in warning the general public and potential targets of manipulative individuals and groups about the tactics used in coercive recruitment, in recognizing manipulation, and in putting an abusive experience into perspective after someone has left it behind.
Q: What can interfere with a person’s ability to think critically?
BG: Aside from neurological and cognitive deficits, the common human propensity to look for simple answers to complex questions and our wish to see ourselves as more enlightened than others can be a problem. Most of us early in our lives learn to trust adults who, we believe, have our best interests in mind and who will protect us from bad things. Even when we grow up, that childlike quality exists somewhere in our psyche and it can be tapped by charlatans, cult leaders, and exploiters.
Q: When people hear the word “critical,” they typically assume some kind of negative judgment or criticism will be made. Can a positive person be a critical thinker and/or help another person think critically?
BG: Critical thinking is a positive mental attitude. When presented properly, it is filled with warmth, shared humor, and acceptance. It’s a celebration of our common humanity, not an indictment of our frailties, or those of another person.
Critical thinkers are always testing themselves to make sure that they are not deluding themselves or being misled by someone who is manipulating them. They are humble. They are not unwavering, certain, overly self-assured, or under the delusion that they’re infallible. A critical thinker tries not to be swayed by appeals to emotion, prejudice, wishful thinking, or simplistic ideas.
Q: What are some do’s and don’ts when trying to revive another person’s critical thinking skills?
BG: Speaking in a bullying, adversarial manner is counterproductive. Sound, critical thinking is compatible with friendly, supportive exchanges.
One way to help another person use critical thinking skills to assess their current situation is to model critical thinking by asking some questions. For example, asking them how they came to accept the beliefs they hold, and whether there could be other plausible explanations for phenomena they’ve seen or experienced is an example of critical thinking. Being curious as to whether they ever have doubts or regrets may bring to their mind the doubts that they unconsciously have but have not let themselves acknowledge.
Q: Can you give an example of how the revival of a person’s critical thinking skills can contribute to his or her escape from undue influence?
BG: When people are under mind control, they engage in simplistic, black-and-white thinking. When they can begin to use their reasoning skills, the logjam that is leading them to accept their subjugation may be broken. For example, in some coercive situations, the victims are forbidden to use the Internet. I’ve worked with several individuals who decided one day to look their group up on the World Wide Web. When they read the accounts of former members, they realized that the experiences they were reading about paralleled their own experiences. Reading about people like themselves who saw through the manipulation started them on the road that eventually led to their escape.
Q: What can each us do to sharpen our own critical thinking skills or to help our loved ones develop theirs?
BG: Critical thinking has to be learned, and it can be learned by reading a good book on logic, or by learning some of the techniques that charlatans, cult leaders, and cons use to manipulate people. When these techniques can be named, they can be recognized and counteracted.
"The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society
and is entitled to protection by society and the State."
— Article 16.3, Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations