How to avoid the trap of dogmatic thinking

by Eric Sangerma

“Some people live and act according to their own thoughts, and some according to the thoughts of others; this is a crucial distinction between people.” — Leo Tolstoi

In our connected society, our thoughts easily get polluted with dogma.

We keep getting bombarded by other people’s biases, prejudices, exaggerations, and outright lies.

We’re forced to process an incredible amount of information, and we have very little free time to do it.

It’s not surprising that critical thinking is becoming harder than ever.

Everyone deals with this deluge of opinions in different ways. I tend to look for a refuge in classic literature, and I highly recommend picking one author and deep-diving into his or her work.

Leo Tolstoy’s thoughts on Russia in the 19th and early-20th century have given me some important breakthroughs about my own life, especially when it comes to how I process politics.

I want to share some of his well-known quotes and how they’re relevant to us all.


“Unimportant people are those who accept other people’s thoughts without developing them themselves.”

Harsh, but I can’t argue with it.

We are too likely to accept the views and thoughts of other people, and we treat them as facts. We don’t even try to dig deeper and investigate further.

This turns us into mindless followers, and it can be extremely dangerous.

Consider the way people still pass on conspiracy theories about the pandemic, and they don’t stop to think until tragedy strikes their own family.

Now, this isn’t entirely our fault. There are no unbiased media outlets anymore, and political “debates” are nothing more than a spectacle.

But what do we do to develop our own thoughts and free ourselves from these external influences?


“Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs. This state of mind is not common, but it is essential for right thinking…”

It’s not easy keeping an open mind.

Our pride and the habits that shape our lives impede our progress. Once we decide something, we don’t want to go through the inconvenience of revising our opinions.

Even more dangerous, especially for young minds, is the bad example set by others. If everybody around you behaves in a certain way, it becomes natural for you to follow the same path and grow accustomed to living a lie.

Young people will look to parents or authority figures to set an example for them, but this can cause them to become blindly devoted to the previous generation’s mistakes.


“Real truth doesn’t need any other embellishments.”

It’s not always possible to recognize lies and distractions. But we must remain suspicious of the fanfare surrounding some ideas — the louder and more dramatic politicians are about something, the more likely it is that they are lying to you.

(If you’re from the US, you probably have a specific politician in mind at this point. But I assure you, the same is true all around the world.)


“We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”

Recognizing the limitations of your knowledge is the first step towards finding the real truth. But in today’s world, it’s embarrassing to admit that you’re still learning about something.

Instead, it feels like you’ve only got two options, especially on social media:

  • You can wear your ignorance as a badge of honor, refusing to take in any new knowledge.
  • You can force yourself to develop some kind of opinion about everything, even if you have no real idea what you’re talking about.

This is one of the reasons why social media is so bad for honest, nuanced conversation — we constantly feel the need to say something cruel and witty about people we’ve never met and situations that don’t impact us in any way.

To free yourself from this influence, stop trying to find a shortcut to knowledge. Admit it when you don’t know something, be honest if you’ve never experienced the situation that people are talking about.

Once you’re sincere about what you know and don’t know, it becomes much easier to start learning.


“If, then, I were asked for the most important advice I could give, that which I considered to be the most useful to the men of our century, I should simply say: in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.”

I sincerely think that the pace of modern life is why ignorance and hatefulness run rampant in our society — people are busy at work all the time, and they fill their free time with trivial distractions.

Life is frantic and exhausting. Nobody has time to seek out the truth behind the loud arguments we see in the news.

But to keep your thoughts safe from other people’s agendas, you must give yourself time to think.

Be patient with yourself as you seek clarity about who you are and what you stand for. Stop chasing the wrong things in life. Instead, focus on reality — how you live, how people around you live, where the problems we all face truly come from.

When you look around, you’ll discover that most people are quite similar to you, and you share some concerns and troubles even if you live very different lives.

In reality, the world isn’t as divided as we’re made to think. Connect with your community, your family, your neighbors. Never stop reading and deepening your thoughts. This is the only real way to escape manipulation.

Originally published by Eric Sangerma for Publishous on Medium.com.

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