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The Perils of Independent Thinking

crowds photo After finding out that the Democratic party and Hillary Clinton fixed the 2016 primary election, Bernie Sanders is said to have considered running for President as an independent in 2020. Since both the Democrats and Republicans have become extreme and divisive, this makes sense. He may believe we need a third party that will be a centrist force and think independently in order to unify the country.

Bernie has always been an independent and has always run as an independent in Vermont, where he has been is the longest-serving independent in U.S. history. But what is an independent anyway, and how does one become an independent?

A definition of “independent” from the dictionary is given below.

INDEPENDENT: adjective

1. not influenced or controlled by others in matters of opinion, conduct, etc.; thinking or acting for oneself: an independent thinker.

2. not subject to another’s authority or jurisdiction; autonomous; free: an independent businessman.

3. not influenced by the thought or action of others: independent research.

4. not dependent; not depending or contingent upon something else for existence, operation, etc.

5. not relying on another or others for aid or support.

6. rejecting others’ aid or support; refusing to be under obligation to others.

What makes an independent thinker? How does a person become someone “not influenced or controlled by others in matters of opinion, conduct”? Are people born to think independently, or do they learn to do so?

It appears that all babies are to some extent born as “blank slates.” They are not born with political or religious leanings, prejudices or philosophies. They are raised in a certain way and taught in a certain way that causes them to form habits and attitudes and beliefs. Therefore, those things stem from nurture, not nature. Their families and other environmental forces shape their religion, politics and general attitudes.

In his book, Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud discusses the fundamental tensions between civilization and the individual. The primary friction emerges from the conflict between the individual’s search for instinctive freedom and civilization’s contrary demand for conformity and repression of instincts. A child starts out freely expressing his instinct for pleasure and for independence, but often society soon intervenes.

According to Freud, “Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.” This fear of responsibility also applies to independent thinking. When we think independently, we do not conform to mainstream thinking and therefore we must be alone and isolated in our opinions. Civilization makes it difficult to do that, as it pressures us to conform to the conventions of our time. If it becomes conventional to throw your shoe at a person’s crotch if they say “penis,” then most people will do that. An independent thinker won’t.

Every era has its approved belief systems, and in every era anybody who does not subscribe to one of the approved belief systems is ostracized. In Medieval times, when Christianity was the predominant belief system in Europe, Galileo was put under house arrest because he stated that the earth was not the center of the universe. It takes courage to be an independent thinker because independent thinkers often meet the fate of Galileo and sometimes worse.

However, independent thinkers are needed to guide humankind in a healthy direction. Historically, religious and political movements have lead humankind astray, as happened in Communist Russia and Nazi Germany. Independent thinkers don’t seem to have the same need to belong that draws many if not most people to join a movement and adopt its belief system. Independent thinkers don’t have that need to belong and conform because they most likely had an upbringing that did not stifle their natural tendency to explore and find their own meaning in life.

Bernie Sanders seems to be such an individual, a person who was allowed by his upbringing to follow his own instincts towards independence. But independent thinkers are rare, and it is rare for them to be elected to office. Do we have enough independent thinkers in our country to form a party?

It is hoped that we do. Many of the so-called Millennials (the younger generation) seem to be more able to do independent thinking, and Sanders seemed to be able to attract a lot of fervent supporters in the last election. They could be the basis for the formation of a new independent, unifying party.

The Perils of Independent Thinking

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2017). The Perils of Independent Thinking. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 19, 2018, from


Last updated: 19 Nov 2017
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 19 Nov 2017
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