On Accusations of “Overthinking” (inaugural post)

I’m regularly accused of “overthinking” some matter. First, it isn’t immediately clear what the concept should mean. The charge typically occurs while in the process of interpretation. For instance, in the process of training for my last job, I pointed out to my instructor ambiguities in a test question preventing me from committing to an answer. The instructor urged me to stop “overthinking” the question, confident that this would help me to correctly interpret its meaning. On their faces, such bits of advice ask one to “brake” or “pull back” one’s energies in aim of some answer. Thinking in proper measure is cast as a kind of restraint.

A “plumbing” analogy immediately comes to mind. Think here not of a plumb to discern depth but to catch some prize spelled out in advance—say, a fishing pole. We might pull back the line on the advice that our prize rests in shallower levels—that we have “overdipped” the cast beyond the point at which the fish resides. By analogy, “overthinking” must be a way of overextending one’s intellectual powers beyond some figurative point where the desired answer can be expected to rest.

This suggests the dubious usefulness of charges of “overthinking”: The fishing example only makes sense because there exists a “touchstone” in view of all by which to judge the extension of the cast as too deep. The cast is not just too deep but too deep for x- or y-type fish to be found. (Or better, it is deeper than 50 feet, coupled with the understanding that the fish don’t live there.) In this way, “over”-doing anything always takes an object: One casts too deep for finding x-fish, or thinks too much for gleaning x-piece of information. Whoever knows that “too much” of something is being done has to know just what it is too much for. The charge of “overthinking” is unhelpful because the conclusion for which one is thinking too much to locate is precisely the answer he seeks but doesn’t yet have. If one can comprehend the advice at all, he is already in a position of not needing it.

Put in other terms, thinking seems unlike fishing in that, since we don’t know what we’re looking for in advance, we cannot know when the process of “restraining” our thoughts is complete. We don’t know when we have actually followed the advice. We don’t know when to stop putting the brakes on thought and just “coast.” But perhaps a defense is arguable: Perhaps it is possible to think less without knowing how much less to think—we could simply decrease this quantity continuously, and stop when the right answer is struck. We would recognize it as the right answer by the “click” of remembering something we know but had forgotten. Perhaps this, to stretch the analogy, is like plumbing for a fish whose type we don’t recall by are assured by our fishing “instructor” rests in the water somewhere; we have reason to think we can recognize the right fish (among all the wrong ones in the same pool) after we catch it. When told we have “overcast,” we simply pull the line up gradually until we catch something that the “click” of recognition confirms as the one we seek.

But most cases in which one is accused of “overthinking” are substantially unlike this. I was once accused of “overthinking” during a workplace discussion of abortion. In a case where one is rendering an opinion—let’s say, crafting what he thinks about the issue—there is likely no “remembering” a position on the topic which one had forgotten. (At best, one can experience an “aha!” moment wherein one in a sense “recognizes” that the answer he has come up with is one he had held all along, implied in other things he believes.) In such cases, “overthinking” an issue probably means pursuing opinions which are untimately not selected; perhaps I started out thinking along the right lines, but I keep analyzing in a way that leads away from the correct answer. (I start properly investigating a murder and then consider that an animal has been slaughtered at the scene instead. Of course, I will never guess the murderer’s name down this path of thought.) Maybe I even draw the right conclusion, but keep thinking anyway, unconfident that I have “dug deeply” enough.

But in such cases, unlike the testing example, there is hardly that “touchstone” of truth in effect; there is no authority who knows the rights and wrongs of abortion in the same independent, uncontroversially understood way that my instructor knows what he himself means when he uses a certain phrase. Unlike test question #7, there is not ‘The’ answer to the question of abortion to which resides somewhere in prior, prearticulated fashion and to which my mind can be said to be “aiming” at even before it is made up. Far less which could be used to verify or disprove my views on abortion after I formulate them. My accuser has no such authority to invoke to prove that I am “overthinking” the issue; she has only her ability to argue to case to my satisfaction. Once she convinces me of her side of things, if she can, I am free to match it with own thoughts and see that I had been “overthinking” indeed. Of course, I could always accept that I am “overthinking” on her authority—just give up the debate and take her word for it. (Unlikely for anyone prone to “overthinking.”) But I could not know that I am “overthinking” in advance of formulating the “right” opinion for myself.

The point is all the more relevant to cases where “stop overthinking” is given as a guide not for some particular, present train of thought but as broad advice for living: Any Simpsons fan can recall a time Marge lectured Lisa for “thinking too much.” By this she was criticizing not any one behavior but a personality style, an approach to questions in general. Even if I could take my accuser’s word that I’m “overthinking” in a particular instance, she will not be around for all the future instances she hopes I will follow her advice. These cases will require varying “degrees of thought” to yield the right answers just as one needs to extend a measuring tape varying lengths to assay a variety of distances. Considering an issue is, as “considering” would suggest, about trial and error—throwing up hypotheses and reflecting on them until one “sticks.” I only know that the wrong ones are wrong—that is, that I was “overthinking” to entertain them—by considering them at first. So I have to “overthink” to think properly at all, and I can’t know I am overthinking until after, and from the perspective of, having done so in the first place.

But worse than its poor utility as a piece of advice, “overthinking” seems incoherent even as a concept. That screwy talk of “decreasing quantities of thought” until we can mentally “coast” to the correct answer should have already suggested this. Yes, one can plumb for fish in deeper levels of water and then switch to shallow. But thinking is disanalogous to fishing: In the business of “aiming” for an answer, one can think along other lines, pursue different conclusions than one is presently after—but it isn’t clear how these are in any way “under” the others; it is unclear how reorienting our thoughts along lines other than we started is a case of doing “less” of anything. (No map advises a left turn by demanding the driver restrain oneself from turning right, or that he turn right like before but less right this time.) If, by comparison, I were to ask you how you feel about Earl, and you give me your thoughts on Earl A. the county librarian whereas I was intending Earl B. the county Mayor, it would be odd and misleading to accuse you of “overthinking” my question. Even if you were dead wrong for assuming I meant the other Earl—let’s say we are at a ceremony to honor the Mayor’s years of service, and I call on you to give a few remarks accordingly—it isn’t clear how you have “overdone” anything by this. The idea of the librarian is not set “deeper” than that of the Mayor; in transposing the two, one does not “go beyond” and “above” the latter to apprehend the former.

Perhaps the analogy can be salvaged: For instance, my teacher might have meant that I should interpret the question less literally (or colloquially, etc.). “Literalness” and “colloquiality” are descriptions that would seem to admit of degrees: If I ask you to “grab me a lid from the counter, and please interpret my request as colloquially as possible”—I can hardly complain if you hand me a ballcap (for which “lid” is slang) instead of the top to my cooking pot. In this way, interpreting a question in figurative terms can be said to be doing less of something than interpreting it in highly literal terms.

But even so, this ‘something’ is hardly “thinking” per se. Neither “thinking in literal terms” nor “thinking in colloquial terms” are synonyms for “thinking”-proper; thus overdoing one is not synonymous with overdoing the other. At stake here are degrees but not degrees of thought; in thinking less literally about a term one is not thinking less—but still, only differently. This reiterates the dubious worth of “overthinking” as a directive or piece of advice: If the “over” aspect of my “overthinking” is always code for overdoing some very specific aspect of the thinking, then being warned against it will not tell me in terms of which particular dimension (literalness, colloquiality, or whichever) to “restrain” myself—any more than being told to “stop driving too much” will get me to slow my speed, turn down the radio, or reduce effort toward any other specific aspect of the driving.

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One response to “On Accusations of “Overthinking” (inaugural post)

  1. welcome to the blogosphere. i should have anticipated the fact that you’d be longwinded.

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