Use-Oriented Thinking

tunnelThere is a type of thinking that is so deeply ingrained within Western culture that it seems the only way to think. In science-based education we are taught to advance toward defined outcomes by means of goal-oriented thinking.  This type of thinking is a skill that enables us to improve our circumstances by setting goals, measuring progress and evaluating outcomes.

It is like hiking.  After taking a compass reading, you set your sight on a particular destination, such as a tall mountain, and then continually adjust your course so that you are moving in that direction. In a similar manner, goal-oriented thinking is essentially the use of cognitive maps to target a particular outcome combined with the assumption that this outcome will serve a useful purpose.

An unfortunate consequence of this type of thinking is the notorious problem of tunnel vision. Flexibility is severely compromised when one’s vision is restricted to a single outcome. Other possibilities are never recognized unless they happen to fall within the scope of the primary objective. In other words, there may be a mountain just to the right of your destination that is a virtual paradise, but you will never see it as thus never find it. As a clinical example, an insight-oriented therapist may have difficulty using any aspect of the client’s personality that does not ultimately lead to increased insight. If with each problem you know exactly what is needed and have complete control over the situation, then goal-oriented thinking works very nicely.  Unfortunately, we are sometimes forced to deal with an uncertain future and circumstances that are beyond our control.

What is missing in most professional training is instruction on how to deal with the reality of limited knowledge and ability, the fact that we live in a universe which is much larger than ourselves and, ultimately, not under our control.  In contrast to goal-oriented thinking, use-oriented thinking is the type of thinking that allows us to make use of that which is uncontrollable. It is the type of thinking that makes utilization possible.

The difference between goal-oriented thinking and use-oriented thinking can be illustrated in terms of how attention is focused.  Goal-oriented thinking works like a funnel with the narrowest end at the top. This represents the one goal under which all other objectives must conform.  Initially, the span of attention may be very broad. There may be hundreds of objectives that are considered in service of the over-riding goal. But the further the person travels, the more time and energy he invests in that single goal, the less likely he is to see any other opportunities. The funnel becomes more narrow as the effects of cognitive dissonance overlay themselves upon the problem of tunnel vision. In contrast, use-oriented thinking starts narrow and then goes wide. Your attention is focused most on the one thing that is to be used, for example, a reoccurring behavior that has defied all previous attempts at modification. You end with whatever works. With use-oriented thinking you are more invested in the process than preconceived notions of what must be the outcome. Every single outcome is recognized as a series of opportunities that can lead to any of hundreds of beneficial outcomes. The possibilities become limitless.

Use-oriented thinking is based on the premise that for every problem there is more than one solution. In contrast, goal-oriented thinking requires concepts such as etiology and treatment protocol. The basic premise behind goal-oriented problem solving is that we must find the cause and then trace a linear path to a single solution.  But after years of debate over nature versus nurture, biochemical influence versus situational influence, the effects of prior experience versus future expectations, it is now generally agreed that all behavior can be traced to more than one cause.  The primary function of use-oriented problem solving is to help people work with what they’ve got.  Rather than a reductionistic attempt to determine “why” the problem has occurred, there is an open-ended attempt to determine “how” to bring about change.

Use-oriented thinking permits greater flexibility because there is no single end to use as a standard for judgment. There is no one right way to do things. No situation is entirely bad or entirely good. There is no permanent cure or solution. Choices are made without resorting to a rigid doctrine of “how things should be.” Instead, the moments of one’s life are embraced as a temporary state in which one finds the opportunity to do something meaningful. For instance, while working with those who are terminally ill, there is an opportunity to provide some relief and comfort. The fact that death has not been escaped does not diminish the importance of the opportunity. With this type of thinking you focus less on one all-important outcome (such as longevity) and more so on what opportunities can be discovered within the existing circumstance. Emphasis is shifted from the idea of success to the idea of opportunity. Within the context of use-oriented thinking, there is no such thing as failure. In fact, what is initially perceived as failure might later work to one’s advantage, if only it is utilized.

Tunnel image available from Shutterstock.

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3 Responses to “Use-Oriented Thinking”
  1. Gordon Lightfoot says:

    I loved this article regarding use-oriented thinking. I can see an algorithm if reading pedigree charts but can not solve simple addition or subtraction on my own. I am 60 years of age and never passed a math test in any school. But I can see trends quickly. I’ve studied the science of genealogy since the early 60′s so I exchange math symbols for given and surnames. I make do with what I have to work with.

    I am the principal mental health care taker for myself. I’ve been in and out of mental health facilities since 1981 and basically I tend to my personal needs alone. Is there a patient based forum website available to me as an individual? All I can find are sites for professionals, family members, friends, but no schizo-friendlies like me. I live in the Texas Panhandle and traveling is difficult and unpleasant.


  2. Dr Mukesh Samani says:

    Dear Dan Short, thanks for sharing your ideas. They are very important and ground-breaking.

    The idea of use oriented thinking is quite illuminating for me and I hope that it has been and will be illuminating for other readers as well. I was reminded of Solution focused brief therapy. There are some similarities.

    In general, psychotherapy is heavily biased in the direction of finding causes of the problems. This is connected with linear-causal thinking. That is a tunnel-vision. Current behaviour of anybody can be outcome of very many different paths. And, each path is outcome of multiple, interacting causes at any given moment. Psychotherapy is also biased in the digging up of weaknesses, failures, traumas and all the negatives. Now, we ought to shift our focus towards positives.

    Even when a patient is quite troubled, if we start focusing on positives- opportunities present in the situation; what behaviours and thoughts will lead to at least some positive outcomes, even under highly negative emotional state or situation; what were positive experiences in a person’s life etc, there is usually immediate beginning of a process of positive change.

    It is very true that for every problem there is more than one solution. The more this knowledge becomes part of my, your and other reader’s natural functioning, more it will be helpful to us and others around us through our interaction with them- including our patients- clients.

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