First published in Dutch 14th of March 2012

Difficult people

Sometimes students become desperate because of their study problems. They feel powerless and are at the end of their rope. “It is too much and too hard”, “I just can’t do it”, “It goes wrong every time”, “I’ll never finish”, “I can’t do anything”, “I have to pass this time, otherwise I am doomed”. An outsider could, in reading these sentences, react compassionately, but also a bit supercilious. “These people are making it very hard on themselves”, would be an understandable judgment. This is true. The thoughts are quite extreme and would sooner rouse feelings of misery rather than offer salvation and solutions.

Not the only ones

The outsiders who have their judgments ready must not be too quick in thinking they are much different. They might be able to relativize the situations that these students find unbearable but they also have their own crude idiosyncrasies. Someone who completely sympathises with the remarks above would after all conclude about the outsiders; “Such arrogance! They apply one measure to everyone”. This, too, is true.

Rule rather than exception

Once in a while, everyone is caught having unnuanced thoughts and drawing hasty conclusions. An attentive person would ascertain that this is a rule rather than an exception, especially when the emotions run high. Unsubtlety is not only “not uncommon”, it is a fundamental characteristic of our way of thinking. That is why these students struggle so much with themselves when they are confronted with serious problems they cannot find their way out of.

A hold on the surroundings

Every representative of a species tries to get a hold of their surroundings in order to secure the survival of its kind. Us humans are no different, but due to the increase of our mental capacities, maintaining our grip became increasingly complex. Because our ancestors could think increasingly better, they created more and more opportunities to get hold of things, which, in turn, made them even better at thinking, causing them to create even more opportunities and so on. It became a self-reinforcing system that brought about a gigantic explosion of intellectual capacities. The way of thinking that developed has yielded us an awful lot, but is simultaneously inherently problematic.

Searching for regularities

Our thinking is directed towards knowledge acquisition in the shape of unchangeable facts, clear processes, and unambiguous regularities. Only then do we experience a hold on the surroundings. Exceptions, irregularities, and variables are less interesting because they can cause doubt and indecisiveness. In the past, this was life-threatening but nowadays it can still be incredibly annoying because it makes us feel as though we are losing our hold on the surroundings.

Our quest for knowledge has a certain eagerness. The degree of grip is determined by our successes. These successes are subject to time pressure and competition. In the past, it was a conflict against nature and other animal species. Nowadays, it is primarily aimed at fellow humans. The learning process (that shapes our thinking) is thus not an objective, but a subjective process and has logically developed a number of characteristics with which we can quickly find (alleged) types of knowledge.

Properties of our thinking

Perhaps the most important property of our thinking is our natural tendency to form a hypothesis and then search for its confirmation (this is called the confirmation bias). We are not calm and carefully deliberating beings that, after collecting all the facts, come to a decent and substantiated conclusion. No, we quickly judge, look for the proof that agrees with it and act accordingly. Evolutionary speaking, this is understandable but it also has its disadvantages.

A student who desperately claims that “it is too much and too hard”, has probably already formulated his opinion about the material before he is even aware of it. The “fact” is continuously confirmed as soon as he does not understand a sentence or his thoughts wander off and he finds himself looking startled at the clock. But passages that he does understand the first time, and periods in which he is concentrated, are left unnoticed because they do not confirm his hypothesis.

Thinking hazards

Mainly noticing facts that confirm our hypothesis is called selective attention. This is the reason why most car drivers consider themselves above average chauffeurs and are we firmly convinced that we are always in the slow lane in the supermarket. We primarily see the evidence for that. The facts that contradict our thesis, we either do not see or forget them quickly. This does not only apply to the frustrated and arrogant people among us, we all do it. It is a characteristic of our thinking because we want to formulate a regularity as quickly as possible.

Another characteristic of our eager search is the tendency to simplify and to exaggerate. The thought, “It is too much and too hard”, for example, is a simplification because it conveniently assumes an indivisible “it”, while the material of course consists of different components. Furthermore, it is also an exaggeration by saying it is too much and too hard. In reality, there are several degrees of difficulty and probably only a small part of the material is actually too difficult for the student to fathom independently. This characteristic also applies to all of us. If I say to you “I am a bit in love with you”, then you will hardly register the word “bit”. O dear! He is in love with me! You will barely experience the gradation. This applies to most of the things we experience.

Finally, we generalize too quickly. After all, something only becomes a rule when it is always the case, never succeeds, or applies to everyone. The reasoning has a black-and-white, everything-or-nothing character. “It is too much”, has the same rigidity as “The earth is round”. It seems water-tight, while the student actually says: “I think it is too much”. The consequences are necessarily catastrophic since “too much” presumes an inescapability. The student can only end in the gutter.

An abhorrence

For supporters of philosophy of knowledge, the foregoing phenomenon is an abhorrence. These are considered fallacies, and scientifically and philosophically, they indeed are. But on the level of human functioning it is different. I know students who employ the scientific research method religiously for themselves and who, in effect, have no life left. Now, that is an abhorrence. They are constantly confused, indecisive en consequently frustrated. I also mentioned this in my essay on perfectionism (see Perfectionists and other road abusers). I also see students who struggle with choices because they want to make the best one. But their objective scientific method won’t help them there.


The degrees of the foregoing characteristics differ per individual as well as the capacity to become aware of them and to think (more) attentively. In every composition, there are positive and negative sides. But the limitation of our thinking is a fact. We draw quick conclusions on the basis of simplifications, generalisations, and selective attention. If we want to demonstrate a (quick) conclusion anyway, it is wise to choose a positive and constructive thesis. Not because this is scientifically or philosophically “more correct”, but because this one is usually more practical. “The glass is half full” or “the glass is half empty” are both equally correct, but the first one is generally more pleasant for our way of thinking.