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Implications of the RIM

Thinking Is Tough!

Coming up with a complex plan of action is not a simple endeavor. The Trojan Horse required the cunning Odysseus to think hard for a long time, and this story is one of the main reasons he endures as a hero figure. In general terms, it is not easy to engage in reflective processing—beyond the subjective feeling of difficulty, there may be physical limits to the human ability to think (Gailliot et al., 2007). Although thinking may sometimes be facilitated when the reflective and impulsive systems are in accord, people must often use reflective processing against the pull of impulsive associations. Whether this struggle is due to temptation or to particularly complex challenges in the environment, the difficulty in staying the reflective course is clear.

However, cultivating moral or thoughtful habits may become easier with time. Specific propositional operations can become associated with the feeling of temptation if they are activated often enough, and even the experiential component of reflective operation (the feeling of effortful cognition) is itself represented in the impulsive system and may thus become associated with it. For careful planning habits, positive affect associated with successful plans may lead to the process of planning itself acquiring a positive valence, with these habits of thought perhaps eventually becoming inculcated through successful implementation. However, this effect is not sufficient to become truly automatic. Although reflective processing may become facilitated by such mechanisms, propositional reasoning itself cannot become automated. If resources are lacking, not even these habits of reflection will make for better control of impulses or careful planning. No matter how accessible the relevant propositional transformations may be in the impulsive system, reflective resources are required if a person is actually to bring those transformations to bear upon activated concepts.

The habit of critical metacognition is a particularly interesting case. Metacognition refers to thoughts about one’s own thoughts, and critical metacognition is therefore those thoughts that evaluate the thinking process. In cognitive-behavioral therapy, thoughts are actively evaluated by the patient and classified as rational or irrational (Baer, 2003). The goal of such interventions is often to change dysfunctional behavior or thinking patterns, such as “catastrophizing” (Beck, 1976). Pursuing this kind of metacognitive thought alteration or suppression may be especially difficult because of the vast reflective resources required. A strong association between the metacognitive monitoring process and the undesired thoughts would eventually activate the latter rather than suppress them, requiring additional reflective resources to eliminate them. Evidence from studies on emotional disorders shows that metacognitive thought suppression does indeed increase the frequency of unwanted thoughts (Purdon, 1999). Although long-term use of metacognitive strategies may eventually divest undesired thoughts of their potency, it seems clear that the way there is a long and cognitively taxing one.

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