Do you agree with this statement?
You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.
Odds are you do!
It’s one of Forer’s statements that almost everyone agrees with about themselves. They’re all vague and somewhat flattering, but the above stands out in particular because so many people’s identities are built up on the virtue of truth-seeking—which seems to necessarily imply independent thinking.
But if essentially all of us believe we’re independent thinkers (and the phrase actually means something) then there must be zero correlation between believing you’re an independent thinker, and actually being one.
Knowing that our subjective impression of this is basically worthless, how can we discover if we’re actually thinking independently?
Falsification vs. Confirmation
You’re were planning to look over a list of traits while thinking “ah, there I am”, well, let’s say that’s strike one against independent thinking.
(Don’t fret though, truly independent thinking is difficult, rare, and learnable, so there may be other reasons to think you’re thinking independently, or at least could learn).
I say this because independent thinking implies independence from everything except truth.
And if you are indeed using truth as your guide, then you must 1) demand that your beliefs be falsifiable and 2) actually try to falsify them.
Therefore, even if I did give you a list of habits of independent thinkers (or anything else for that matter), habitually looking for ways to disprove your current beliefs would be an indication of independent thinking.
An easy way to try to falsify your beliefs is to make small friendly bets or public predictions. The accuracy of the claims is secondary in some sense—the first and most important step is actually coalescing your beliefs into things that are even candidates for truth, i.e. specific enough to be falsifiable.
Prediction markets are just formalized bets and can be especially helpful because you see how others are betting, and therefore test both the truth and independence of your beliefs.
(I used to be somewhat alarmed when my predictions turned out to be very far from average until I realized I needed to balance the possibility of being especially wrong against that of just being especially independent.)
Most of us don’t use prediction markets though. However, every market is a prediction market in a sense, so if you’ve ever made any sort of investment through buying a house, picking a career, or buying a security, you’ve engaged in a falsifiable prediction.
Thanks to fairly-efficient markets, disproportionally unpopular positions are disproportionally rewarded, so if you’ve seen outsized-returns— so this could be a clue towards independence of thought. (Of course it could be luck or conformity of thought within a sub-culture which is itself is independent from the mainstream.)
Inexplicable Controversial opinions
Hot takes are fun. There’s this great feeling of satisfaction when one of yours is proven true, or even better, instantly recognized as a previously-unsaid “truth”.
This is not what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about a controversial opinion with no real upside: you can’t monetize it, saying it out loud just makes you seem weird and off, and it’s largely just pointless overall.
An example might be something like when I agree with a friend of mine who engages in what he calls “chew-and-spit”: he chews up (often large amounts of) tasty food for enjoyment but then spits it out to avoid the calories.
He’s pilloried for what’s called an egregious waste, but I see it as totally within socially established bounds—it’s no worse than wine-tasting or just eating fun but unnecessary food.
Here’s the thing. Defending this is largely pointless for me. The entire thing is just gross and weird (especially the aftermath) and since I don’t enjoy “chew-and-spit” personally I don’t even get the benefit of engaging in it.
A quick test for this is trying to think of things you like that everyone else hates. Even better if you’re actually surprised to learn of this fact! That way you can be more confident that you’ve independently arrived at the conclusion and hadn’t just reflexively rejected the mainstream position.
(Note: the inverse, i.e. hating something that everyone likes, is easy and usually unoriginal.)
How is this different from just being wrong?
People don’t like your takes, you’re shocked to find out your predictions are wildly off from what everyone else thinks—is this that different from just being dumb and wrong?
In some senses, no! If you legitimately don’t know anything, including common knowledge and cultural norms, you are necessarily going to think independently because you don’t have anything to correlate to—even if you were trying to be a conformist.
This would be something like independence through randomness though, which no one is aiming for. Ultimately you’re going to conform on 99% of decisions just to get through the day and live in society. What we can hope to do is peel off a few questionable positions, hold them to evidence, and try to make our own beliefs a little more true.
Sincerely considering “Am I really an independent thinker?” is a good place to start.
As long as you don’t actually swallow the food, it’s not bulimia? ↩︎
If he had less self-control and simply ate the same food, there wouldn’t be a peep, but the food is gone all the same. Why should he be socially pressured to harm himself with excess food? We have to take him at his word that simply not eating the food at all is not an option, as we don’t take seriously “just don’t” for any other form of consumption. ↩︎
However, now that I’ve used this example for something “useful” I can’t actually claim it as a point for my own independence. ↩︎
A major cultural milestone will be when reflexive contrarianism is considered as self-evidently wrongheaded as reflexive conformism is now. ↩︎