On Word Thinking and Imaginary Rationality

Scott Adams, Dilbert creator and apparent political prophet is also a Radical Psychologist (though he probably doesn’t know it…).

Adams has taken an average-popularity blog tacked onto his comic site and turned it into a veritable gold mine of psychological tricks and knowledge. Adams has shown, repeatedly, that he understands human behaviour better than 99% of people you’ll ever meet (including me).

You see Adams introduced me, and countless others, to the concept of Word-Thinking.

Word thinking, according to Adams, is all about how we

Use labels, word definitions, and analogies to create the illusion of rational thinking. This group is 99% of the world.

Now its important to understand as Radical Psychologists that the idea of a rational person is largely mythological. That there exists people(s) who go about their day being 100% rational is, quite simply, nonsense.

Let me reiterate so we are under no illusions here; there is no such thing as a rational person. 

A caveat; we can use rationality in discrete bursts, what I am referring to is the idea that we can live rationally all or even most of the time. 

Now. Back to the Word-Thinkers.

Radical Psychologists know that human beings are pattern-recognisers. We don’t think in linear terms, but rather in a diffuse, inter-connected way. We use emotions, patterns, and imagined connections to navigate a confusing, incomprehensible universe without tipping off into the void of insanity.


Word thinking is the manifestation of this way of thinking. We assign abstract qualities to people and things because actually figuring the truth out would be too much work.

An example; lets say I have a friend, we’ll call her Jane. You have never met Jane but at a party I introduce you and she, Jane, excuses herself to get a drink, I lean in to you and tell you, quietly, “Shes a lovely woman but unfortunately three of her exes have restraining orders against her, she likes to stalk them”. You immediately put poor Jane into the category “Stalker” and with it make a whole host of judgement based on this knowledge.

Jane returns to the conversation and we carry on as normal, a few minutes later I excuse myself to go greet another guest and you are left alone with our mystery stalker. You chat amiably, wary of her now, when she asks this seemingly-innocent question “Do you live around here?”. You answer “no”, she says “Oh i’m just asking because I knew a guy who lived around here once, he had a lovely home, I use to go there often”. You laugh this off, wondering… She looks at you again, and says “I’ll be honest I only ever come to these parties to try and meet a nice guy, I’ve had such trouble with boyfriends in the past”.

So. Creepy or what, right? She’s obviously sizing you up to be her next stalking victim. Undoubtedly you’d run in the other direction as fast as you can.

Lets look at this like a Radical Psychologist.

You are thinking this way because I told you she was a Stalker. You interpreted her action in the context of that judgement. Asked about this encounter afterwards you would undoubtedly tell me how strange she is, how intense, how she was trying to pry your address out of you, you could even see the glint of madness in here eyes!

But it was imaginary. You took a pre-existing category, ascribed qualities to her based on this category, and then judged every action she took in the context of those qualities.

But here’s the thing. I was lying to you. Jane isn’t a stalker. She has no restraining orders against her. Her exes don’t think she is a psychopath.

Go back and re-read her questions. Does she seem crazy now? or is she just a single woman looking to meet a nice guy?

This is the power (and danger) of word thinking. We are all susceptible to this type of thinking and it’s important, as Radical Psychologists, to be able to detect it.

Look around your life. How many people do you judge based on an assumptive category? You can easily stop this by recognising the error and looking for actual evidence.


15 thoughts on “On Word Thinking and Imaginary Rationality

    • Peter says:

      “How is this similar to putting somebody in a category based on skin color? Or clothes? Or dialect?”

      I changed two words and your question went from implied negative to implied positive. Or did I change it from implied positive to implied negative? Depends on which words you’ve been programed with earlier in your life regarding those three subjects.

      Liked by 1 person

      • AK says:

        No, you asked a totally different question.

        “How is this different…?” starts with the implied assumption that they are basically similar except for what differences are enumerated.

        “How is this similar…?” starts with the implied assumption that they are basically different except for what similarities are enumerated.

        Speaking in evolutionary terms, I would think that our ancestors had an ability to put objects (e.g. potential predators, prey, conspecifics) into categories based on visual cues.

        When language came along, these neural processes would have been reused for linguistic cues.

        So the key question, IMO, is what differences were introduced during that reuse?


      • Peter says:

        @ AK: Two seemingly far apart and 180° different endpoints of a straight line in a two-dimensional world becomes one and the same if you close that line into a circle. In similar manner word-thinking is a two-dimensional phenomenon where everything can be argued to be either far apart or exactly the same just depending on phrasing. Exclusive or inclusive are just grammatical points of view depending on if “your” side sees the hand of another as about to close into a fist or as an invite to shake. As long as one cultivates having subjective skin in the game one is bound to constantly be drawn back into the two-dimensional view. Methinks Scott Adams wants us to start thinking about grammar and intent in three dimensions more often.


    • IJ says:

      I cannot understand your point. Can you reword it?

      Putting somebody into a category by skin is racism (when I say racism I mean the very basic and neutral definition: the recognition of races having different qualities), putting people into categories by dialect is linguistics.

      The clothes is the method of self expression and does not fall well near other two words. The clothes is what people choose themselves and it is what they may expect to be percepted through.

      Word thinking in these terms is, for example, naming every afroamerican with an N-word. This is word-thinking because N-word means much more than skin colour.

      Do you see that? Pointing out the differences between races is not word thinking, but trying to describe the race with any word that means more than that is.


  1. David Robbins says:

    Great post. This insight also feeds into why people are triggered easily. While Pavlov is reserved for the dogs, our axiomatic reactions based on word labels is a good example of our short fuses.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jason says:

    Well written and I’m encouraged more are waking up to the reality there is no reality. I’ve also enjoyed Scott Adams’ blog, especially this past year.

    Great job!


  3. Jean-Pierre Gygax says:

    I’m with Alec here. This is a very good illustration for confirmation bias – but not for word-thinking. Word-thinking happens when words get disconnected from the facts or ideas they were supposed to represent, leading to all kinds of wrong conclusions and illusions.

    I’m totally guilty of it. Words have incredible power over our minds. As a counter-measure, I try to make it a habit to “put myself in the other guys’ shoes”. I’m not sure that it helps all that much.


  4. Tom C says:

    The essay is a conjuring trick. The misdirection is the following paragraph:

    “A caveat; we can use rationality in discrete bursts, what I am referring to is the idea that we can live rationally all or even most of the time. ”

    One is thus hypnotized into accepting that the essay is a “discrete burst of rationality.” But there is no evidence that the essay is anything else than word thinking and imaginary rationality and that the writer is as big a BS’er as the guy in the story.


  5. Jean-Pierre Gygax says:

    @TomC: “The guy in the story” – you mean Scott Adams? I personally have great esteem for his way of thinking outside the box, and he definitely knows quite a bit about psychology.

    Regarding the “bursts of rationality”, I find the phrase strangely accurate. Blame it on our media-centric way of living, but language – words – seem to keep our whole individual world views under a kind of fog made of words. Sometimes the clouds part and rational thinking bursts through.

    As for the writer of the essay, I think he made an honest mistake here.


  6. Peter says:

    Here’s a thought: Is Cognitive Dissonance like the Schrodinger’s Cat of the mind? And Confirmation Bias the lid on that box until flipped off? If so is that the flipping point where a sudden burst of rationality either makes the mind accept the now unboxed content as a new fact of its accepted “reality”, or put the lid back on while retracting to its previously existing biases?


    • IJ says:

      > Is Cognitive Dissonance like the Schrodinger’s Cat of the mind? And Confirmation Bias the lid on that box until flipped off? If so is that the flipping point where a sudden burst of rationality either makes the mind accept the now unboxed content as a new fact of its accepted “reality”, or put the lid back on while retracting to its previously existing biases?

      If not true, largely correct.


  7. TheAngryPhilosopher says:

    I was with you, all the way up until your example…

    Interpreting someone’s actions in the context of past behavior is *precisely* what a rational person would do, especially if that past behavior was extreme enough to justify no less than three restraining orders. Maybe it’s not certain she was going to stalk you, but her past behavior definitely increases the odds.

    If in the end your friend lied, why does that make your judgments wrong rather than just making your friend a psychopath liar?

    In the end, Adams is right about word-thinking and you are right about him being right. But your example is a very poor one.


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