Musings on thought processes: do we start or finish with our conclusions?

I sometimes wonder how the thought processes of economists and other social scientists (although this could apply to any kind of thinking) proceed from beginning to their outcome or conclusion. Do we start at the finish line and then work out how to get there, making adjustments to the conclusions along the way if necessary, or do we simply run with our analysis from logical beginning to end? To some, the first way may seem illogical and the second the only possible way that our minds work, but where creative thought produces genuinely new ideas, it is surely often the case that intuition comes into play, giving the thinker an overall sense of direction in thought which then drives the steps taken to get there.

The concept of the conscious and unconscious or subconscious parts of the mind play a part in some areas of psychology. Simply put, we are aware of particular thoughts, feelings etc at any moment in time, unless we are asleep, and these can be classed as conscious. Anything else going on in our minds, that we are not aware of, and this could include biological processes outside of our normal influence such as breathing and digestion, as well as other thoughts, can be classed as unconscious. A number of years ago, I trained and worked for a brief period as a hypnotherapist, and although plenty of people dismiss such a field as quackery, I learned and experienced enough to see that it can be effective in changing people’s unwanted habits such as phobias, smoking, and even nail-biting. As a hypnotist in a private clinic, one’s job is to lead the client into a so-called ‘trance’, in which they are better able to engage with unconscious thought and feeling processes and assist them to change these for the better. The therapist acts as a guide and helps the client overcome their problem. So most of what goes on in our minds is at any one moment unconscious, and only what we need to be aware of is conscious. When something in the environment changes and our brain decides that what we are aware of needs to change, it will bring it to our attention. For example, we might be walking down the pavement thinking about what we want to have for lunch, but when we come to crossing the busy street, usually our mind will bring the passing traffic to our attention so that we can decide when to safely cross.

Much of our behaviour in life is automatic and triggered unconsciously. Some of this can be undesirable and bad for us, like the habit of smoking or repressed emotions leading to occasional and sudden outbursts; some can also be perfectly reasonable and helpful in everyday life, like our values and beliefs. The latter we tend to develop as we grow up, and unless we engage in much inner self-examination or are influenced by others in some way, these may last our whole life without much change. These values will influence much of our thinking. In economics, this may result in a concern with social justice and the welfare of others, particularly those less fortunate than ourselves. Such thinking in an economics student may lead them to study development economics, and politically to be more to the left, especially if they have formed the belief that social forces more than the individual are responsible for poverty and inequality. A student who has developed more conservative values may well focus on the positive aspects of individual responsibility and be less sympathetic to policies of state intervention. They might be drawn to ideas which aim to encourage what is known in philosophy as negative freedom (freedom from interference by others), and think that as long as this is promoted, the outcomes of poverty and inequality are of no great concern.

Returning to our original enquiry regarding the thinking process: given that much of our thought is driven by learned habits, including beliefs and values, I would suggest that it is these that usually structure our thinking and lead us to our conclusions, whether the latter are about the economy, society or anything else. Conclusions are surely often reached paradoxically first, at least partially, in the process of creative thought, and this could be the outcome of intuitive or more logical thinking; the two probably work together in the analysis of social science or other such disciplines. We may not be aware of this, as it happens on an unconscious level, leading us to be conscious only of the steps we take to reach it. This need not always be the case, but given the above comments on the unconscious part of our mind, it may happen far more than we realise.

Thus, for those who take an interest in politics, whether they are economists concerned with effective policies and their social outcomes, or anyone else, our political allegiance and the kind of vision of society and economy we support, may inevitably be driven by, in part, values and beliefs learned in early life as well as our innate constitution or genetic inheritance, which we cannot change. The former can be subject to influence throughout our lifetime, probably moreso in today’s fragmented UK politics and increasingly complex world, but to repeat, unconscious, learned, thought processes have a major influence on our thoughts and behaviour. In economic analysis, these processes may cause us to focus on ideas whose outcomes resonate with us at a deeper level, at the level of values, beliefs and the resultant ideologies. To the extent that these are learned, they may be a result of parental guidance, formal education, or, more generally, socially in our interactions with others. However this learning might happen, its effects are likely to guide us in our thinking about society and draw us toward particular conclusions, outside of our conscious influence.

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