Second Order Thinking Strategies to Construct Deeper Meaning From Context & secondSituation – SDP#27

[podcast] In this episode of “The Safety Doc Podcast”, Dr. Perrodin describes first order thinking, which can be a visceral response, and also second level thinking, which goes a step further by having one reflect upon “why” he or she feels a certain way about a situation or event.  David shares his own awkward feelings upon reading the obituary of a man in his 20s that did many exciting, adventurous things during his short life.

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Most of us regret our initial reaction to something that how we act – be it something we do or how we feel about something – and that first order thinking (AKA, first level thinking) is primitive and totally natural.  A visceral response relates to deep inward feelings rather than to the intellect.   It is easy to chide ourselves for visceral feelings, when, in fact, such feelings are often beyond our control.  When we reflect upon such raw and immediate feelings, we admit to ourselves a disconnect from our belief set and our feelings and therefore traverse the thought-grinding task to take a first-order thought and evolve it to a second-level though, we have engaged in critical thinking – and people appreciate discourse with critical thinkers.


First order thinking is natural, but it’s not the pattern of thought associated with interesting people capable of assessing contexts and situations to make important decisions.  Hence, you want to be regarded as a second level thinker and David offers strategies to make you more comfortable and competent in that realm.  First order thinking can also just be a simple account of what one processed through the senses.  A first order thinker would be able to give a linear account of a movie, noting main events and main characters, but never really diving into the themes of the movie.  The world is very tangible to first order thinkers.  They are susceptible to rhetoric, or language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect on its audience, but often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content.  Hence, first order thinkers say things like, “Politicians are all clueless” after watching the evening news or “I guess I am stressed and need medication” after watching a 30-second pharmaceutical commercial (disregarding contributing factors to potential stress such as poor eating habits, careless spending, and not spending time with family and nature).  First order thinkers also tend to construct meaning from earlier developmental perspectives versus factoring in new information.  Decisions are made based upon past practices, patterns and routines.


Let’s use an example to explore second level thinking.  The popular Tom Hanks movie Forrest Gump pits determinism against free will.  As a man with an intellectual disability, Forrest could have had his life’s decisions managed by others, such as his mother, military superiors, bankers, etc.  While he experienced hardships, he was also the recipient of breaks, such as having an ethical, savvy business partner.  Another powerful backdrop of the movie is the Vietnam War.  One could parallel the polarizing portrayal of the war with Forrest’s own quests to prove his worth in a world that was two decades away from the passage of the American with Disabilities Act.  Of course, loyalty and goodness – or virtues, are rooted quickly and repeatedly in the film.  Forrest acts in the best interests of others and a second order thinker recognizes the message of placing a premium upon personal integrity as being the conduit to better outcomes in life.  Second order thinkers pursue what is known as epistemology – or the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.  “Why do I feel stressed?” is a question coupled to epistemological understanding of one’s self and one’s world.


David shares leading, or “trap” questions that are addressed much differently by first order thinkers compared to second order thinkers.  An example is someone claiming that they “understand” what it is like to be a permanent wheelchair user based upon a two-minute activity in which they sat in a wheelchair and navigated a hallway obstacle course.


David closes the show by pointing out how second order thinking benefits persons involved in intense, in-the-moment stressful situations.  He uses the example of an armed intruder in a school and how the widely-instructed response protocol is, in fact, heavily-focused on first order thinking.  This is a benefit for a quick response, but also not necessarily a pathway to a context and situation-informed response.

Second order thinkers follow a protocol of:

  1. think
  2. act
  3. fight protocol

First order thinkers follow a more primitive, patterned response of:

  1. run
  2. hide
  3. fight


David will respond to discussion thread comments or questions & also to emails.  The Safety Doc Podcast is hosted & produced by David Perrodin, PhD.


Opinions are those of the host and guests and do not reflect positions of The 405 Media or supporters of “The Safety Doc Podcast”.  The show is curse free and adheres to nondiscrimination principles while seeking to bring forward productive discourse and debate on topics relevant to personal or institutional safety.