The Nature of Intelligence

Chapter 10. Autistic Thinking

L.L. Thurstone

Table of Contents | Next | Previous

Stated in a condensed way we should consider thinking as realistic when it looks toward actual execution in the real world about us, whereas autistic thinking is that which we indulge in for partial satisfaction of our ambitions, without intending to execute these ambitions in any real sense. If we are day-dreaming of the success that we should like to have, or of the satisfaction of our various desires, we are doing autistic thinking. If our thinking is considering the ways and means of attaining our ambitions in reality, then we are doing realistic thinking. It will of course readily be seen that there is no sharp line of distinction between these two types of thinking, although we can readily recognize the two extremes as such. This continuum from one psychological category to another is almost universal. We have previously seen this with regard to such categories as perception and imagination. The terms are useful in distinguishing types of mental activity even though they shade into each other and are inapplicable in any definite way to many ordinary mental states which involve elements of both the contrasting classifications.

The provocation for autistic thinking is found in the ease with which mental satisfaction of our ambitions and desires can be attained, as compared with the difficulties and the

(136) competition which are to be overcome in order actually to attain our ends. If the difficulties that confront us in the attainment of our ambitions seem almost insurmountable, there is the possibility of gaining at least momentary satisfaction by day-dreaming of success. If a person is relatively unpopular with the opposite sex, there is a kind of partial satisfaction in day-dreaming the attainment of that popularity. The weakling frequently day-dreams of feats of remarkable strength and of the admiration which he would like to enjoy but which he is either too lazy or too crippled physically to attain. The child may dream about an orgy of cake, candy, and jam, which may be partially denied in reality. We should not jump to the conclusion that all day-dreaming and all sleep-dreaming are necessarily. wish-fulfilment, but that this factor is apparent in most forms of day-dreaming would probably be admitted by every frank observer of his own mental life.

Most of the psycho-analytic interpretations of mental states reduce them to expressions of wishes. The Freudian psychology is based primarily on the interpretation of free moving thought as wish-fulfilment. With this point our present discussion is entirely in accord. What we have been calling the life-impulses, the dynamic self, is identical with the libido of the psycho-analytic schools. In their writing, the origin of mental life is either explicitly stated to be in the organism, or the discussion implies such an assumption. All the environmental factors are interpreted as opportunities for the expression of the libido.

The general provocation for autistic thinking is the ease with which imaginal satisfaction of a motive may be attained

(137) compared with the usual difficulties of attaining a motive which has been sufficiently blocked to become keenly conscious. There are several typical situations under this general head which it may be profitable to keep in mind when attempting to classify any particular occurrence of autistic thinking. I shall list four such sub-classes which I should consider as logical possibilities, but I cannot say anything regarding the relative frequency of these different types of provocation for autistic thinking or day-dreaming. The first that comes to mind is that of indolence. It is conceivable that a person may have the ability to attain his ends, and that the situation is suitable and even immediately present, but that he is too indolent to act. In such a case one should probably say that the motive is, in this man, not very strong, or that he is rather unusual in some aspect of his volitional make-up.

A more interesting case would be the situation in which a man has actually tried to attain his purpose and has failed. He may then withdraw to himself, as it were, and day-dream the attainment of his ambitions instead of trying repeatedly to realize them in the environment. He may perhaps become gloomy and pessimistic. He withdraws from social contact at least in those particulars in which his frustrated motive is involved. He spends his time gaining some partial satisfaction in dreaming of the attainment of his ends and the consequences of such attainment. This situation can be thought of as rather momentary, temporary, or as a more or less permanent mental state, following a failure. Examples of the momentary kind of autistic thinking is the situation of a small boy who has been " licked " by his 

(138) stronger or more dexterous opponent. The boy will imagine himself a giant, a hero, subduing his opponent with the greatest ease and receiving popular acclamation for his superiority. This illustrates a function of autistic thinking in relieving the motive partially at least in an overtly ineffectual way. I should represent this second type of autistic thinking in Fig. 11 by the motive which becomes focal at F in the thought of beating the opponent. It expresses itself overtly by the particularization A to D, as in the diagram. Suppose now that the final overt particularization of the motive in the attributes ABCD fails to relieve the motive. The motive to be master is still there and it may issue in continuing the fight or it may issue merely in mental form. When the motive becomes focal, as at F, the successful overt issue is inhibited and a mental particularization of the success is substituted, as at d'. It is characteristic of autistic thinking that it is not very consistent as to the means whereby the end is to be attained. This I have indicated by leaving out of autistic thinking the plausible means whereby the end might be attained such as the particularization ABC. Autistic thinking revolves about the end D and ignores as far as possible the absence of suitable means to arrive at D. In the case of autistic thinking that we have just described we have an ineffective mental anticipation of satisfaction following an overt failure. This is another instance of the trial-and-error expression of the motive which refuses to be assimilated elsewhere immediately. Its repeated overt expression is inhibited because of its impossibility, and some partial satisfaction is gained by imagining the success which has in reality been denied.

Fiuge 11, Trial and error formula

( 139)

A third type of autistic thinking is caused by a motive that is too weak to force its way to successful expression in overt behaviour, especially if some resistance or inconvenience is encountered. The motive may, nevertheless, be strong enough to cause day-dreaming. The weak motive which expresses itself in autistic form may be indicative of a personality in which the life-impulses of various types are weak, and it may also be indicative of a personality that has not become accustomed to overcome real difficulties and to take the necessity for effort as a matter of course. The former cause is in the weak personality itself, and the latter cause is primarily in the moral experience of the subject.

A fourth type of provocation for autistic thinking is the conflict of several motives which are simultaneously pressing for expression. When the satisfaction of one of these motives means the frustrating of another motive, the conflict is identical with a failure which is anticipated mentally. If the two motives are very unequal in strength, the stronger will survive and reach expression with a slight disappointment of the weaker motive. In such cases we have mixed satisfaction, one strong motive being satisfied and a weaker motive becoming conscious as having been denied. When both of the motives are strong we have several kinds of resolution possible. Some of the ways in which a conflict of motives is resolved lead to insanity.

The main difference between autistic thinking and realistic thinking is not in the actual content of the thought itself. but in the attitude of the thinker toward the attainment or satisfaction for which the thinking is normally a preparation. In realistic thinking the actor anticipates the satisfaction. In

(140) autistic thinking the actor lives imaginally the satisfaction itself. In realistic thinking the actor is striving to attain, whereas in autistic thinking the actor lives the attainment imaginally as though it had already been reached. It is not possible to differentiate the two forms of thinking merely by the content. Both deal with imaginally represented experience. Both deal with ideational or conceptual representations of expected experience. Both represent a willingness of the thinker to live the imaginal experience in reality if it were readily at hand. Both may have the appearance of abstraction, and both forms of thought may give enjoyment to the thinker. The autistic form of thought is, of course, less critical of the means for attaining the imaginal experience because in this form of thought the instinctive satisfactions of the day-dream are represented as having already been attained.

If one is thinking about something that has no immediate behaviouristic equivalent, such as the solution of a puzzle, the satisfaction that one is seeking may be merely the feeling of control and mastery. While thinking about the puzzle, the attitude is characteristically that of realistic thought because it is an attitude of expectation of future attainment ; it is a search with effort for the means of attaining future satisfaction; it is an attitude in which the ineffective spontaneous ideas are promptly discarded as soon as their ineffectiveness is definitely anticipated. It is not, therefore, the exclusively mental reference of the thought that constitutes the criterion of autistic thinking. The way to determine whether thinking at any moment is realistic or autistic is to ask what the attitude is with regard to attainment. If

( 141) the attainment is imaginally represented as having been reached, if the attainment is imaginally being enjoyed, the thinking can be declared with certainty to be autistic.

I have described autistic thinking as though it were entirely bad and to be shunned. Such a recommendation should be guided by the circumstances. A child that spends much time day-dreaming should be encouraged to participate in activities which involve concrete reality in order to establish as habitual a willingness to check day dreaming occasionally with reference to its probable successful issue. But to insist on this can also be overdone. The person who lives in particulars, in concrete reality, in that which is obviously practical on the face of it, is living a life of narrow usefulness. Most concrete-minded persons who pride themselves on being " practical " live such lives. Their usefulness is necessarily restricted because their minds work exclusively with the so-called practical particulars.

It is a question of considerable practical and educational importance to determine the extent to which autistic thinking is to be encouraged or discouraged. Fundamentally, autistic thinking is not effective in reaching the solution to a pressing problem, because the thinker takes the attitude of enjoying the imaginal goal instead of devoting himself to the search for ways of attaining it in reality. But, on the other hand, we must not forget that a certain amount of the free moving thought of the anti-tic sort gives opportunity for many ideas to appear which would not appear with the strictly realistic process. The reason for this is that in autistic thinking there is a marked reduction in the

( 142) critical evaluation of means to ends, and ideas which are remotely relevant might be discarded in the realistic attitude on account of superficial incongruity. An idea which appears in the autistic attitude may be favoured for no explicit reason but simply because it seems attractive. Such an idea is not infrequently loaded with some characteristic that is essential for an effective solution of a problem.

It is probably true that the best ideas regarding our problems come to us in attitudes that are relatively free from immediate purposive restrictions. The best thinkers are those who allow themselves a considerable amount of day-dreaming, but the interests that guide such reverie should be social in their benefits rather than individual and immediately personal. A good personality cannot be developed in the person who limits his conscious life strictly to purposive thought. When the autistic attitude is carried to extremes the actor becomes relatively useless because he evades by his autistic habits the trial-and-error struggle for attaining desired reality. Teachers should recognize the advantages and the disadvantages of autistic thinking. They should encourage it where it is entirely lacking, while discouraging it where the attitude is interfering with productive accomplishment.


No notes

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2