When the BBC asked Harvard linguist and best-selling author Steven Pinker for advice on how to be more rational in 2022, he offered readers a simple mantra: Don’t aim to be right; aim to get it right instead.
Rather than trying to win arguments, he argued, we should all aim to end them a little more clear-headed than when we started them. The goal isn’t ego, it’s intelligence. That advice feels like a breath of fresh air in our highly polarized times, but it raises an obvious question: how do you do that exactly?
A humble and open-minded mindset is certainly a prerequisite, but do experts have any more concrete advice on how to keep conversations pointed towards truth rather than personal victory (or comfort)? Turns out, they do. For smarter conversations (and therefore smarter thoughts), rid yourself of something called “thought-terminating clichés,” psychologists urge.
Once you know about thought-terminating clichés, you’ll spot them everywhere.
Every once in a while, in the course of research for my work here at Inc.com, I come across a technical term that perfectly captures a phenomenon I had vaguely sensed in my own life but had no clear vocabulary for (see: “affective presence” for example). Stumbling across a recent Well + Good article on “thought-terminating clichés” was one such occasion.
What’s a thought-terminating cliché? “The term ‘thought-terminating cliché’ was coined by Robert Jay Lifton in his 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism,” explains Kells McPhillips in the article. The term refers to “short, clever phrases that aren’t necessarily untruthful, but don’t tell the full story” and that “bring conversation to a grinding halt and keep people from thinking more deeply about important issues.”
Some of these thought-terminating clichés are popular only within specific groups, like when conservatives answer any liberal point they don’t like with a cry of “fake news!” or liberals greet any conservative point that makes them upset with accusations of racism/sexism/something-ism. I’ll let y’all get into a massive brawl in the comments about these if you want (though maybe try to heed Pinker’s advice above before you do).
I was more intrigued by another type of thought-terminating cliché outlined in the article. These are phrases the less ideological among us use to tactfully shut down difficult discussions without digging into the actual merits of the arguments. Most of us probably hear — and use — these every day, and while they can smooth awkward moments they also rob us of chances for intelligence-boosting debate. Well + Good offers twelve examples:
“It is what it is.”
“So it goes.”
“It could be worse.”
“Time heals all.”
“Someone out there has it worse than you.”
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
“It’s always darkest before the dawn.”
“This too shall pass.”
“It’s all about balance.”
“Try to look on the bright side.”
“The sun will come out tomorrow.”
“The only way out is through.”
Which do you value more, comfort or truth?
There is nothing obviously wrong or offensive about these common conversational fillers. But as author Colin Wright points out in a newsletter on the same topic, they’re also “thrown around by folks who are keen to end a line of inquiry, to not have to think about something, or to quickly score a point in an argument that doesn’t seem to be going their way.”
Sometimes “Let’s agree to disagree” is the only way to get through Thanksgiving dinner with your sanity intact. Many other times it’s a way to avoid having a challenging, uncomfortable conversation that will actually make you smarter.
So what’s the concrete takeaway here? If you’re interested in making a Pinker-esque commitment to chasing truth over scoring points, then being aware of thought-terminating clichés is a good place to start. Every time you either hear one or are tempted to use one, ask yourself why you’re dodging conflict and settling for an oversimplification.
Sometimes the answer will be to preserve the peace when the peace really needs to be preserved. But other times, if you’re honest, the answer is that you or your conversational partner is shirking a bit of hard-but-rewarding intellectual work. If that’s the case maybe push back or dig deeper (tips on having better debates abound). Things might get uncomfortable sometimes but the chances are excellent you’ll end up smarter.