Do you think for yourself? Every day, we’re bombarded with dietitians and nutritionists and doctors and other experts who tell us the “best” way to eat, drink, exercise, and live our lives. And in a modern world where there’s always something new being reported — and where we’re bombarded 24/7/365 with new studies, new research, and new must-try health strategies — it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. It’s no wonder that so many of us capitulate to the opinions of experts, and it’s no surprise that so many of us live our lives according to the guidelines and rules of people on the television, in magazines, or in our broader communities.
But have we taken things too far? As we wrap up celebrating America’s Independence Day, it’s time to look at your own mental independence, and why you need to start to think for yourself and be an advocate for your own health, your own life, and your own happiness.
Why We Trust Experts: A Mental Shortcut When We Feel Overwhelmed
Harvard University lecturer Vikram Mansharamani, in his book Think For Yourself: Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence, outlines a current trend that alarms his academic mind: A society that, by and large, has lost its ability to think for itself.
Instead, Mansharamani says that we’ve “outsourced” our thinking and our instincts to specialists — personal trainers or dating coaches or scientists or nutritionists or self-help gurus — and, in that process, lost our own self-leadership and autonomy.
Mansharamani argues that this is due to two reasons:
- The world is changing and making us feel overwhelmed
- When we’re overwhelmed, we look for the simplest answer, which is often an expert on TV or social media who tells us what to believe, think, or do
Throughout his book, Mansharamani explains that modern innovations in science, research, and technology have led to breakthroughs and inventions advancing at ever-increasing paces. And thanks to our always-on lifestyles and 24/7 media channels, the amount of information, data, and change that we’re having to process has accelerated.
“Our world today is complex,” points out Mansharamani in an interview with InfoQ. “We have many options, and, more importantly, we are aware of just how many options we have. When we choose between options, there is a human instinct—the one that economics as a field relies upon—to try to choose the best one. But attempting to optimize in the face of uncertainty and interconnectedness is challenging and doesn’t always happen.”
“I think people outsource their thinking to experts because it’s easy to do so,” he adds. “There’s a cost-benefit analysis that often leads to letting others think for you.”
Can You Really Trust the Experts?
Now, trusting an expert isn’t inherently wrong. Medical doctors, rocket scientists, psychologists, and other experts truly do have a role to play in advancing our society’s knowledge, inventing solutions to modern maladies, and uncovering new ideas and breakthroughs.
Mansharamani’s argument throughout his book isn’t that trusting an expert is good, or that trusting an expert is bad.
Rather, it’s about being self-aware of when and how you trust experts. It’s about understanding just how much we default to the opinions of others in every aspect of our lives without thinking critically about the advice we’ve been given. And it’s about taking back some of that autonomy, and learning to approach the opinions of experts with an open, yet critical, mind.
“I have no problem with deep expertise, and in fact we do want to rely on experts,” Mansharamani told the CBC. “My argument really is not one that we should dismiss experts but more that we need to, as I say in the book, keep experts on tap, not on top. It’s really about harnessing the power of expertise without giving up control or management of that expertise. So I find it equally problematic to blindly defer to experts as I do to those who completely dismiss experts. So it’s not about dismissing or deferring to experts, it’s really about the nuance of staying in control and extracting the best value we can from experts.”
And he has a point. As the Smithsonian noted, experts are wrong far more often than they are right. The publication noted that when a panel of scientists was tasked with predicting technology trends, 80% of their predictions proved wrong. Meanwhile, a panel of 284 political experts was asked to make 100 predictions about American politics. Their predictions and advice turned out to be no better than someone randomly guessing an answer.
How to Begin to Think For Yourself
When you reach for that bottle of vitamin supplements, question why you’re taking them. When you choose one meal over the other at dinner tonight, ask why you think one ingredient is healthier than the other. When you put on a face mask, read the ingredients label on a grocery store item, or talk about a social or political issue, ask yourself: Why? Why do I hold these ideas? Where did I get this information? Why did I accept that information?
To think for yourself, you must first recognize how often you probably do not think for yourself. The results may be startling for many.
2. Trust Yourself
Start to trust your own instincts and emotions. Does something not feel right? Does something not sit well with you? Rather than blindly dismissing your gut feelings and thoughts, let yourself sit with those thoughts and begin to consider where those thoughts and emotions are coming from.
3. Embrace Curiosity
Start digging. Begin asking questions. Push back a little (or a lot). If someone tells you “this diet is the best diet,” or “this supplement is a miracle supplement,” let curiosity run wild. Play the devil’s advocate, ask “why” more often, and start poking around at the evidence or the motivations of those telling you to do something, believe something, or try something.
4. Get as Much Data as You Can
Everyone is biased, including so-called unbiased scientists or researchers. It’s inherent in human nature, and it’s hard to shake our own biases. A great way to counter this is to take in as much counter-point data as possible. If someone points to a study as “proof” of something, consider if other studies might indicate a different outcome. If someone points to an “expert” or a “trusted researcher,” see if there are other experts or researchers who have different beliefs or advice.
5. Disconnect From What Overwhelms You
Finally, make your decision after disconnecting from the 24/7 data inputs around you. Log off of social media. Turn off the television. And think about all you’ve observed and felt before making your decision. Sometimes, you might decide to go along with what the expert was saying. And other times, your research and gut feeling might highlight a different path that’s right for you.
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