The Power of a Single Thought

I had a dream last night, but I can’t remember anything about it because in that tenuous state between sleeping and waking I had another thought — specifically, an idea related to a short story I plan to write — and that thought drove every vestige of the dream from my mind.

And, in the process, it impressed upon me the power of a single thought: that it only takes one single thought to crowd out all other thoughts. One single thought, if we concentrate strong enough on it or if we find it sufficiently compelling, will color our perceptions and bind us in mental chains.

I admit that this observation is not really new or particularly profound — others have pointed out our tendency to hold on to and defend various ideas in the face of contrary evidence — but it hit me this morning in a powerful way.

Consider this: complete each of the following sentences with the first thing that comes into your mind.

  • Hillary Clinton is a __.
  • Donald Trump is a __.
  • Gary Johnson is a __.
  • Jill Stein is a __.

Locked and Loaded

What strong chains we forge to bind our thinking! (Image: “Locked and Loaded,” by Thomas Hawk, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)


Was your first thought about each of them positive, negative, or neutral? It likely depended on where you fall along the political spectrum and, in the case of the Libertarian and Green party candidates, whether you know much about them at all.

Now, consider each of the following statements that may be considered observable facts:

  • Hillary Clinton is a lawyer.
  • Donald Trump is a businessman.
  • Gary Johnson is a businessman.
  • Jill Stein is a doctor.

How do you react to those simple statements about the career paths of the candidates, based on your first thought about each of them? Do you find that the first thing that came to mind earlier influenced your reaction to the next thing that was presented?

It seems to me that those first thoughts become our filters, the lenses (rose-colored or otherwise) through which we see the world. The first thought, especially if it conveys a value judgment, becomes, if you will, a self-fulfilling mental prophecy.

This applies to more than just politics, of course, but the political example occurred to me this morning because it’s particularly timely. In some respects this tendency is wired into the way we think and learn: according to Theory of Knowledge, we form concepts and then test those concepts against reality, but sometimes our concepts affect how we perceive reality. As a result, I’m not sure any of us can (or if it would even be desirable to) remain completely objective, with neutral impressions of everything. We are not Vulcans, after all.

But maybe, if we recognize this mechanism in our own thinking, we can be a bit more accepting, a bit more forgiving, not by rejecting our first thought or convincing ourselves that our first thoughts are wrong, but simply by recognizing that our first thought may be incomplete.

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