Photo: A View over Bradford on Avon © Andrew Clifton 2017

THINK BUBBLE THERAPY is an approach to open-minded thinking on controversial topics, based on the metaphorical notion of think bubbles. These imaginary entities can be thought of as small areas of mental space which surround and protect the ideas we feel most comfortable with, sheltering them from contradictory arguments and evidence.

The think bubble concept gives us a simple way of picturing the influence of a complex set of social and psychological effects – such as logical fallacies, cognitive biases, ideological tribalism and competitive bullythink. Mechanisms like these often play a powerful role not only in our adoption of mistaken beliefs in the first place, but also in our common tendency, often in defiance of evidence and reason, to hang on to them for dear life.

Thanks to these mechanisms, think bubbles can function as life-support systems for bad ideas, generating foolish decisions which often prove harmful, both to ourselves and to others. To make matters worse, think bubbles usually make it harder for us to understand and engage with people with whom we disagree – and hence, far more difficult for communities to resolve disputes and reach consensus agreement.

Worse still, unscrupulous and misguided people are often adept at exploiting and reinforcing our think-bubble mechanisms, so as to drive our beliefs and attitudes towards ever more divisive extremes – thereby, of course, making reasonable consensus, and social harmony, even harder to achieve.

The worst news of all, perhaps, is that delusional think bubbles can be socially transmitted, like viruses – that are easy to catch, but hard to shake off! Whilst we all sometimes create our own personal think bubbles from scratch, it’s much more common to acquire them second hand, through social interaction.

We encounter such ready-made think bubbles on a daily basis, promoted to us by all kinds of people, from the well-intentioned to the outright malevolent, including friends and family, mass media pundits, experts, charlatans, philosophers, political demagogues – and, I feel obliged to point out, the authors of online newsletters.

The various think bubbles such people often share with us vary in severity from dubious rumours and conspiracy theories to authoritarian ideologies and antisocial dogmas of the worst possible kind. For those who succumb to the most toxic of socially transmitted think bubbles, the only possible cure is an intensive course of thinkbubble therapy.

I DON’T MEAN TO SUGGEST that everyone in the world really needs to subscribe to this newsletter; nor is it my intention to promote the concept of think bubbles as some kind of universal intellectual panacea. It’s nothing of the kind. When I say that to escape from the baleful effects of think bubbles you need “thinkbubble therapy”, I’m using this phrase in a broad sense, denoting a process that happens quite naturally, all of the time, by means of ordinary, thoughtful, open-minded conversations and individual reflection. It doesn’t even require the use of the think bubble metaphor.

Nevertheless, I happen to find this metaphor very useful as a framework in which to explore and explain the phenomena it represents. With this in mind, the mission of this newsletter is twofold. First, it seeks to use the notion of think bubbles to critically examine a variety of controversial issues, in areas such as politics, ethics, psychology, economics, science and philosophy, spirituality and religion. Second, with the help of these illustrative examples, it aims to encourage the development of a broad understanding of think bubble effects, how they work and how we can escape from them.

By way of reassurance, however, it’s worth pointing out that a critical examination of think bubbles doesn’t necessarily justify the complete abandonment of beliefs and ideas we hold dear. On the contrary, this seldom happens – and I would argue that the think bubble therapy approach makes it easier for us to discover useful ways to improve, correct and strengthen our ideas, without rejecting anything of genuine value.

The Anatomy of Thinkbubbles

The metaphor of a think bubble represents the combined effects on our beliefs and ideas of a variety of different influences, which can be distinguished, I suggest, by picturing a think bubble as a complex structure made up of multiple layers. The innermost layers are those which depend most strongly upon factors closest to the individual and his or her personal preferences and characteristics, whilst the outermost layers are those which affect almost everyone within them in roughly the same way.

With these notions in mind, I think we can usefully distinguish at least ten such “layers”, at which think-bubble influences can be thought to exert their effects:

1. Individual characteristics – including personality traits, cognitive styles and habits of thought, as well as behavioural habits such as addictions of various kinds.
2. family influences – the impact on one’s thinking, ideas and beliefs of parents, siblings and other family members.
3. group affiliations – such as churches and other religious groups, political parties, professional communities and other such groups.
4. media bubble choices – the particular mainstream and independent news channels we watch, read, subscribe to or follow.
5. social institutions – such as schools, universities, prisons, places of work and nursing homes. These are places in which, we’re more-or-less compelled to live or spend much of our time, at least for significant periods in our lives – and which often exert considerable control
6. Social identity factors – such as race, gender, sexual orientation and religious affiliation.
7. Socioeconomic factors – such as social class, education, wealth and income
8. Mass media consensus – the dominant ideas and assumptions that are shared across large swathes of the mass media, from which most members of a given society receive news and encounter opinions about the world.
9. Physical circumstances – such as the location and physical environment in which you live.
10. Cultural perspectives – such as those which sharply distinguish the typical thinking styles that predominate in cultures we recognise, respectively, as “Eastern” and “Western”.

It should be noted, of course, that these layers interact with each other in all kinds of ways. For example, certain personally traits, such as narcissism, can to a large extent be learned from undue exposure to people who exhibit them, such as family members, school teachers or other such formative influences – and these traits can be further exacerbated through the influence of a extremely individualistic cultural environment, which tends to encourages them.

The various think bubble layers I’ve described above often act in combination with one another to establish, protect and perpetuate the same ideas and beliefs. Influences that shape our thinking at a socioeconomic level, for example, can steer us towards particular voluntary affiliations and media bubble choices which tend to reinforce the same ideas.

As a rule, the more this kind of reinforcement effect happens, the stronger and more persistent a particular think bubble typically becomes and the harder it is to see outside of it or break free from its grip.

Inter-Bubble Tension

For the sake of simplicity, I’ve described the anatomy of think bubbles as if the various bubble layers were all perfectly concentric and mutually consistent – but it’s actually a whole lot more complicated than that. There are often conflicts between the influences that affect us at different levels, and these can serve to open up chinks in our intellectual armour, potentially breaking us out of certain comfortable think bubbles – and sometimes, luring us into others.

The middle layers, in the model I’ve described, are those in which the social influences of group identity and tribal loyalty are at their strongest – but it’s very common for these loyalties to come into conflict, forcing us to re-examine and sometimes, to substantially change our beliefs.

However, whilst this may involve breaking out of established think bubbles, such changes of attitude are not necessarily rational, or socially benign; indeed, as the examples of street gang membership and terrorist radicalisation shows us, they can easily involve a shift from a relatively harmless think bubble to an extremely toxic and dangerous one.

However, the very fact that we all belong to multiple intersecting communities of interest offers hope for better ways of resolving our differences and rethinking disagreements within these domains. The first step is to recognise the fact that, hidden behind the salience of heated disagreement, there is usually far more potential for common ground and consensus agreement than we might think.

This kind of agreement is well worth seeking out, since it tends to reduce the sense of suspicion, mistrust and mutual hostility that usually causes us to cower within the protective confines of our own particular think bubbles.

Some Thinkbubble Strategies

My broad approach to thinkbubble therapy, on any particular topic, typically involves the use of a variety of strategies which I have often found useful. I’m sure I’ll get around to discussing many of these tricks of the trade in later instalments of this newsletter, but for now, I’d like to draw attention to some of the most basic principles that I turn to on a daily basis.

1. Establish clear definitions
A particularly important strategy, at least as a first step, is to critically examine common definitions of key terms that are used within a given controversial domain. As the noted French philosopher and cultural critic, François-Marie Arouet [1] once put it:

Define your terms, you will permit me again to say, or we shall never understand one another.

In politics, for example, this principle would apply to terms like “liberal”, “conservative”, “socialist”, “capitalist”, “libertarian” and even “left” and “right”. Each of these words tends to be used quite casually in political discourse – almost as though it has a perfectly clear, straightforward, unambiguous, consistent, universally understood and accepted meaning – but this is not the case. It often turns out that standard definitions and common usages of such terms are vague, ambiguous, inconsistent or misleading in ways which can give tendentious support to a particular point of view.

To avoid such difficulties, it often proves necessary to explicitly reject a misleading definition and propose a clear, straightforward and useful alternative in its place. This may seem drastic, but misleading definitions can serve as toxic think bubbles in their own right, which need to be diagnosed and thoroughly treated before any further therapy is attempted.

2. Acknowledging Scylla, whilst avoiding Charybdis

A second basic strategy is inspired by a marvellous quotation from the distinguished novelist and philosopher, Iris Murdoch. [2]

It is frequently difficult in philosophy to tell whether one is saying something reasonably public and objective, or whether one is merely erecting a barrier, special to one’s own temperament, against one’s own personal fears. ( It is always a significant question to ask of any philosopher, what is he afraid of?).

The notion of “a barrier… against one’s own personal fears” is, of course, very reminiscent of the concept of a think bubble – and clearly, this principle doesn’t only apply to philosophy, but also to any sort of idea that a person is inclined to fiercely defend. My recommended strategy, however, goes beyond the initial step of identifying possible underlying fears and suggests two further moves.

The first is to resist the temptation to mock the fear in question, but rather, acknowledge it as an understandable concern – comparing it, perhaps, to Scylla, the notorious multi-headed monster of Greek mythology. The second move is to draw attention to the danger of over-reacting to this fear and steering straight into the inescapable grip of the whirlpool, Charybdis – the fear of which provides an equally understandable motive for an opposing point of view.

It is instructive to compare and contrast these two mythical metaphors. Scylla is strikingly salient: a terrifying monster, with twelve huge, tentacle-legs; six long, sinuous necks, each bearing a ferocious head endowed with three deadly rows of razor-sharp teeth - and about her waist, another six heads, these, in the likeness of savage dogs... And yet, according to legend, the vast majority of Scylla's victims were devoured, not by her, but by her counterpart Charybdis – the treacherously hidden whirlpool, just across the water. Thus, Scylla is deadliest, by far, to those who fear her the most.

3. Allowing an escape route

A third basic strategy is inspired by the following quotation from the The Art of War by Sun Tzu [3] – a classic manual of strategy and tactics:

When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.

This is more than just a wise military principle; it’s also very useful when you’re seeking to persuade someone to think differently about some issue about which they care very deeply. You’re most unlikely to succeed if you simply attack their position in such a way that acceptance of your critique will inevitably feel like a humiliating and crushing defeat. However, if you offer them an escape from such a defeat, in the form of an honourable pathway to some kind of tolerable consensus, there is a considerable chance of achieving this aim.

4. Avoiding a surfeit of thinking

A further strategy is suggested to me these lines from the song Ashtray Heart by the artist and composer Don van Vliet: [4]

Make invalids out of supermen – Call in a “shrink”…
…Another day, another way – Somebody’s had too much to think.

I like to read this as a warning about the dangers of becoming obsessed with intellectual struggles of one sort or another, and failing to balance out your life with activities which promote good physical and mental health, such as taking exercise, particularly, out of doors; enjoying the beauty of the natural world and wildlife wherever possible; spending time with friends and family; creating works of art or craft of any kind, or simply working with your hands in some intrinsically rewarding way, like gardening.

Now, I happen to be a photographer by trade, and whilst I earn an income from it, I find the creative process extremely satisfying and rewarding. I find that it takes me outside myself, so to speak, and clears my head – and when I come home from a photoshoot and return to some heavy topic I’m researching or an article I’m writing, I often find myself, somehow, making unexpected progress.

With this in mind, I have decided to incorporate into this website’s monthly schedule a regular break from heavy-duty musing and pondering, in the form of a monthly photo set, featuring some of my recent landscape and wildlife photography. There is something of an ulterior motive to this idea, combined with something of an altruistic one. Whenever I sell fine-art prints and photobooks, I donate half the profit to local or national charities – and the rest helps to pay the bills and keep both my photography work and this newsletter going.

Warm Takes and Careful Judgement

There is one further strategy I’d like to mention, which is so fundamental to my way of thinking that the idea of discussing it here only occurred to me as an afterthought. It is hinted at in my description of these essays as “musings” – having in mind the sense captured quite perfectly in the Cambridge Learner Dictionary’s definition of the verb, to muse:

Muse (v.i.): to think carefully about something for a long time.

It has often been noted, as a cause for concern, that in the current age of 24/7 news channels and social media, an ever-increasing proportion of public discourse is dominated by instantaneous, uninformed, off-the-cuff reactions and “hot takes”. This is, to say the least, a potent recipe for misunderstanding, error and poor judgement. My approach to researching and writing about the issues that interest me seeks to avoid these pitfalls – and yet, I must caution the reader that my “takes” are by no means stone cold, in the sense of being exhaustively and definitively rigorous; indeed, there’s no way they could be.

In part, at least, this arises from the fact that aside from my degree in psychology, I don’t profess to any kind of formal authority or specialist expertise in any of the fields I wish to write about – I have sufficient time or means, in any particular case, to acquire any such imprimatur, and if I did, it would still not be enough. To clarify this point, I’d like to turn to the words of the distinguished historian Gwyn Jones, whose introduction his widely acclaimed book A History of the Vikings [5] includes the following sage observation:

There is a long-standing theory that by the time an actress is equipped to play Juliet she is too old for the part. The viking historian may equally fear that before he acquires all the languages, reads all the books and flushes the coverts of all the periodicals, he will have reached the blameless haven of senility without a word rendered. Patently, to wait for definitive knowledge is to wait on eternity.

The point, I think, is that we must seek a balance between careful consideration of the subject matter at hand, and the ever-present need to draw conclusions, reach a judgement and take a stand.

Having already reached an age at which the prospect of reaching that “blameless haven” looms alarmingly close, I confess to feeling pressed for time! Furthermore, I’m not at all the kind of preternaturally talented writer who can produce publishable copy in a first draft. I usually go through at least a dozen painstaking iterations of correction and revision before I’m satisfied – and yet, of course, readers reasonably expect a newsletter such as this to be fairly regular, with new updates roughly once a week, at the very least.

Working within these constraints, I still feel it is incumbent upon me to take my time, think carefully and consult expert sources in an even-handed way. Despite my best efforts, however, it’s surely inevitable that I will make mistakes and overlook or misinterpret significant points of evidence and argument. For any such future failings, I can only apologise, reiterate my commitment to try and avoid them – and promise to pay attention to constructive criticism.
It’s the best I can do.

REFERENCES


  1. Voltaire (1764) Philosophical Dictionary. This translation is sourced from: The Works Of Voltaire: A Contemporary Version, transl. William T Flemming. ↩︎

  2. Murdoch, I (1971) The Sovereignty of Good. ↩︎

  3. Sun Tsu (2018) The Art of War (trans. Lionel Giles) ↩︎

  4. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band (1980) Doc at the Radar Station ↩︎

  5. Jones, G (1984) A History of the Vikings ↩︎