Imagine walking in the countryside and you come upon a barbed wire fence. What do you do? Do you stay on one side of the barrier, cross it, uproot the fixed posts, or perhaps do something else altogether?
Why is there a fence in the middle of the field? Who put it there? Is the purpose of the partition to keep you out of an area? Alternatively, does it exist to keep someone or something else in a designated space?
Is there a reason for a divider in the pasture? Maybe it once served a useful function, though is it currently necessary? Who put the fence in its place? When was it erected? How might removal of the barbed wire impact you, other people, or the environment?
This thought exercise relates to a principle known as Chesterton’s fence, named after writer G. K. Chesterton. In a blogpost entitled A Patchwork Quilt, I demonstrated this principle as it relates to monogamy.
Outlining the utility of this principle, one source states:
When we seek to intervene in any system created by someone, it’s not enough to view their decisions and choices simply as the consequences of first-order thinking because we can inadvertently create serious problems. Before changing anything, we should wonder whether they were using second-order thinking. Their reasons for making certain choices might be more complex than they seem at first. It’s best to assume they knew things we don’t or had experience we can’t fathom, so we don’t go for quick fixes and end up making things worse.
In this regard, first order thinking considers intended significance of a decision. Second order thinking relates to unraveling the implications of first-order conclusions or impacts.
Suppose that from a first-order perspective, you reason that the barbed wire fence was likely placed in the field to keep livestock from venturing beyond a specific boundary. Perhaps it was erected to deter people from venturing into an area that contained a potentially dangerous bull.
A second-order viewpoint would address the possible ramifications of removing the fence. If you haphazardly tear down the barrier, you may wind up with penetrating or blunt force trauma from being gored by a bull.
In this way, first order thinking relates to a seemingly obvious reason for fence placement while second order thinking takes into account the significance of reforming or messing with the barbed partition. Therefore, Chesterton’s fence serves as a guide for understanding and not a rigid rule.
Humorously, one source adds, “Of course, there are some cases where, for whatever reason, we just can’t work out why that fence exists! For this we can use the Scream Test, which says simply: If you see something and you don’t know what it does, remove it and see if anyone screams.”
The amusing proposal of a scream test speaks to the aforementioned moralizing statement expressed herein, “Before changing anything, we should wonder whether they were using second-order thinking.” Chesterton’s fence addresses what is while also suggesting what ought to be done.
In my practice of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), I invite people to consider how demanding statements often contain should, must, or ought words and derivatives thereof. For instance, see if you can spot the moral prescription from Chesterton’s principle in the writer’s own words:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’
Chesterton stating that the “more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer” is an edict about how a person should, must, or ought to respond. One could synonymously suggest that the more intelligent type of reformer ought to answer in a specific manner.
Using the is-ought problem of philosopher David Hume, one may reason that first order thinking addresses what is while second order thinking assesses what ought to be done—if anything—about the newly discovered barbed wire fence. So, how does any of this relate to psychotherapy?
I encourage my clients to examine whether reasonable appeals or unreasonable requirements serve their interests and goals. When faced with what is, do people consider the potential consequences of their responses or carelessly react when using rigid expectations with which they self-disturb?
How about you? Imagine walking in the countryside and you come upon a barbed wire fence. What do you do?
If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.
As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.
At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!
Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW
Farnam Street Media Inc. (n.d.). Chesterton’s fence: A lesson in second order thinking. Retrieved from https://fs.blog/chestertons-fence/
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Hollings, D. (2022, October 31). Demandingness. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/demandingness
Hollings, D. (2022, October 5). Description vs. prescription. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/description-vs-prescription
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Hollings, D. (2022, November 1). Self-disturbance. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/self-disturbance
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Wikipedia. (n.d.). David Hume. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Hume
Wikipedia. (n.d.). G. K. Chesterton. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G._K._Chesterton