Thought process

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I just watched a video of a man interviewing people in Washington Square Park, New York.  He asked each of them a series of leading questions about why they were still wearing masks outside when it was so hot and they had all been vaccinated, and some of them had even contracted the disease and developed immunity to it, plus even the government and the New York Times said there was no longer a need to wear the mask under such conditions.  When many of the people being interviewed said they were going to continue wearing a face mask nonetheless, his next question was "What's the thought process there?"

That sounded strange to me.  I have never heard anyone use that expression to ask a question of which the meaning is basically "What were you thinking when you made that decision?" or "How do you explain that decision?"

Have I missed something in all of my globetrotting?  Is this a common way for people to talk now?  In what circles did this mode of speaking evolve and spread?

I should note that all of the people being interviewed took the question in stride, without even batting an eye, and some even repeated it back to him, e.g., "The thought process?  I don't have one."  That tickled me.  Try to translate it into more conventional daily speech.  Or has it already become conventional speech among those who frequent Washington Square Park (but not yet Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia where I often go for the wonderful Farmers Market on Saturdays)?


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  1. Meg Wilson said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 6:48 am

    My impression is that talking about someone's "thought process" presupposes that they are being irrational, and the path that led them to what they believe is an object of curiosity. (Like "What were you THINKING?" only more polite.)

    If you're giving the person the benefit of the doubt that they might have a good reason, you'd more likely ask "What are your reasons?" or simply "Why?"

  2. Victor Mair said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 6:53 am

    @Meg Wilson

    Very helpful comment. Thanks!

  3. R C Belaire said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 7:04 am

    Very common here in SE Michigan, with one minor change: "What's *your* thought process there?"

  4. Michael P said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 7:26 am

    My understanding of the question matches Meg Wilson's, although I would not have matched the clarity and brevity of that explanation. In my experience, it's a leading question, and it strikes me as rude to ask directly to a person because of the implication of a flawed or absent thought process. My mental model of its modal use is in tirades against some out-group member who made a supposedly bad decision.

  5. karimpootam said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 7:31 am

    Very common in corporate-speak in India.( I can't remember now if I've heard it used by my american and british colleagues, will have to pay more attention to see.. but until now I just thought of it as normal corporate speak, not indian English).

    In my experience there's no presupposition of irrationality. You wouldn't ask if the reasons were blindingly obvious, of course. So there's an element of disagreement there that's being explored. But there's also genuine curiosity and it might end up that the person who asked will agree with the "thought process" and move on, or maybe suggest additional elements to.consider.

  6. Cervantes said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 7:39 am

    This seems very odd. To me it's a commonplace expression, something you hear every day. I don't know if you ever listened to Click and Clack, but "unencumbered by the thought process" was one of their catch phrases.

  7. Matt McIrvin said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 7:44 am

    It strikes me as rude but not an unusual usage. Definitely a rephrasing of "what could you possibly have been thinking?"

    (In this case it's politically loaded, but more generally it annoys me when people disparage others for harmless automatic behaviors they consider irrational, like pushing an elevator button that is already lit. And asking about a "thought process" actually reveals why this is kind of irritating. Handling everything with completely-thought-through rationality takes time and effort! Is it rational to expend that effort on something that doesn't really matter? Maybe they're busy thinking about something else.)

  8. Alan Dai said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 7:49 am

    A quick perspective from someone in college right now—I’ve definitely heard this phrase used among me and my peers in a way similar to what Meg Wilson described, although I’ve always felt like it was an instance of intentionally ambiguous (and perhaps verging on euphemistic) corpospeak that somehow ended up trickling down into daily usage… like people asking others if they want to “touch base” on something, or a friend asking another friend if they have the “bandwidth for this conversation right now”.

  9. David C. said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 7:55 am

    It's a commonplace expression for me as well. It's in the same line of questioning as "could you provide some color on…", which I find is becoming overused in the finance/business world.

    I don't perceive any presupposition of irrationality, nor do I perceive it in others I work with who use this expression. I think it's just a polite way of asking "Why? Please elaborate in more than just a few words". It also opens it up for the person responding to explain whether they have considered counterarguments and how they arrived at their ultimate decision.

  10. Tim Leonard said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 8:02 am

    Google Ngram suggests that it's from the late 1960s, and has grown at a constant rate in relation to "your thinking" since then. It's currently about 5% as common.

  11. Ash said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 8:07 am

    Having grown up in the 80's and 90's, I'm pretty sensitive to new expressions these days, but that one not only seems ordinary, but I'm pretty sure it was used in the 90's. For me, it's a completely neutral way of asking, "What series of reasons and responses led you to this conclusion?" In my experience, when someone is accusing someone if being irrational, they say something like "What the hell (/f word) were you thinking?", "How did you possibly come to such a conclusion?"

  12. Rachel Gordon said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 8:12 am

    It sounds normal, to me (native fluent english speaker, NYC metro area, very online). I think it escaped from academic usage at some point.

    IMO, it's usually but not necessarily obnoxious (though in this case that's the intent), but in non-academic use there's a definite implication that the action being questioned is so far from reasonable norms that they can only be understood by treating the person as an academic specimen (and thus an inferior life form).

    (non-obnoxious use: you might try to figure out the thought processes of not yet verbal infants, or pets – the way you can sometimes see them thinking as they figure out a puzzle, or as a way to lessen their frustration when they're unable to communicate with you. Or in academics (or possibly personal therapy) you might try to explicate a thought process to make sure you're not missing unstated assumptions. You can see how it becomes an insult/ put-down between adults.)

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 9:05 am

    Also perfectly normal to me (74-y-o native speaker of <Br.E>). No overtones of obnoxiousness, just a genuine interest in the thought processes that led to a particular decision being reached. How I might have expressed this before "thought processes" became an everyday expression I can no longer remember. But for me, always plural ("thought processes", never "thought process").

  14. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 9:05 am

  15. Victor Mair said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 9:21 am

    I wish that Wiktionary or other source had an etymology for it.

    How / when / in what language environment it arose. Two commenters mentioned corpo(rate )speak. Is that the real source? Is that where Click and Clack got it? Or did they start it?

  16. Vance Koven said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 9:53 am

    As to where Click and Clack got it, don't forget that Tom Magliozzi (was he Click or Clack?) taught at Boston University's business school, so if it was common corporate jargon, he could well have picked up on it there.

  17. Robert Coren said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 10:43 am

    @Vance: On the off-chance that your parenthetical question is intended seriously, I'll say that as far as I know they never gave any indication of which one was Click and which was Clack.

  18. Robert Coren said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 10:47 am

    Perceptions on this matter seem to be all over the map, judging from previous comments, but for me (native US English-speaker, 75 years old) "What is your thought process?", while it might imply some disagreement, is not necessarily a put-down, but rather curiosity at how the person derived their conclusion. Of course it can be used as a substitute for "What were you thinking?"

  19. Catherine Robert said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 11:17 am

    As I read your question of the question, "What is your thought process", I was a little confused as to why you would ask that question. I don't recall when I first heard that sentence or maybe I read it first. Either way, I know this question. I think it may have been a psychology term. To me, that makes sense because psychology is about thoughts, feelings, etc. It says, in my opinion, start from the first thought for your action and take me through, step by step. I think it's a very formal way to say, "what made you decide" or "why are you thinking that way"??? Still, I think it's popular enough that it is used in everyday language. Maybe in some areas more than others. Which can explain why you'd never heard of it before.

  20. Brian Ogilvie said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 11:30 am

    I grew up in SW Michigan in the 1970s and 80s, and went to college and grad school in Chicago in the late 80s and 90s. "Thought process" seems perfectly normal to me and has no pejorative connotation. I may have picked it up from Car Talk, but it's equally likely that I learned it at the University of Chicago, if not earlier. Notes from a talk I attended some years ago led me to the British psychologist Conwy Lloyd Morgan, who used the phrases "process of thought" and (less often) "thought-process" in his 1885 book _The Springs of Conduct: An Essay on Evolution_. It seems to have been fairly widespread in psychology by the early 20th century. A quick search of Google Books finds the phrase entering educational texts by the 1940s.

  21. Denis Christopher Mair said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 11:48 am

    That way of phrasing the question belongs to journo-speak. Journalists want a knowledgeable person to give them a "run-down" on something; they want to know your "take" on something. They want to get background ON something about which they have no preconceptions. I think "What's the X there?" is like "I'd like to know your X on that?" This sentence pattern gives me a mental image of a snuffling journalistic nose. /// As for the term "thought process," I think it has settled into common speech. It may have entered English from German. A google search for "Gedankenprozess" takes us to uses in German scholarly articles. Cognitive psychology in the German speaking world has long been relatively comfortable with discussion of internal states and events, while cognitive psychologists in the Anglo-Saxon world preferred the empirically safer waters of terms like "learning process." Hence the coinage "thought process" has a Germanic ring to it.

  22. 번하드 said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 1:46 pm

    @Denis Christopher Mair:

    Ah, that's funny (for me as a German). First thing it made me think was that it sounds like imported from German, but for me, it was "Denkprozess", which sounds pretty natural, while "Gedankenprozess" feels legal, but a bit weird/stilted.

  23. Kimball Kramer said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 2:52 pm

    @ Vance Coven:At their MIT 1999 Commencement Address Tom Magliozzi, who was class of 1968, was referred to as "Click", and hir younger brother Ray, class of 1972, was identified as "Clack".

  24. Viseguy said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 3:45 pm

    My first thoughts as to origin were business-speak or psychobabble, with the latter sounding a little more probable (to me). "What's your thought process when you do X?" sounds like the kind of question a cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist might ask, though "What's going through your head when you do X?" would be a less jargon-y, more inviting way to put it, I feel.

  25. Rachael Churchill said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 4:47 pm

    To me (BrE, late 30s) "thought process" is completely unremarkable – not even corporate or academic jargon, and not necessarily pejorative unless that was conveyed by the tone. I'd use it interchangeably with "reasoning" or "rationale".

  26. Dara Connolly said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 5:57 pm

    I agree with Rachael Churchill. Native speaker, Ireland, 50y.

  27. Aristotle Pagaltzis said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 6:14 pm

    My contact with English is almost exclusively limited to written English online (and some spoken English in conversations with non-native speakers), so take this for what it’s worth, but I have seen this expression *plenty* in all sorts of articles across all conceivable topics.

    And I read it as essentially a synonym for “reasoning”. In fact I can’t think of an example where “reasoning” is not an acceptable substitute for “thought process”, and indeed this is true of this interviewer’s question as well – “What's the reasoning there?” works essentially the same for me.

    I’d say I perceive the choice of this expression in this particular case as mildly adversarial. (Though, “reasoning” would make it more neutral.)

  28. Bloix said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 7:35 pm

    I did an ngram and found that the phrase seems to be non-existent until about 1880, when it emerges in psychology and philosophy, and begins a steady growth, spreading into educational theory and pedagogy, management studies, and the like. By 1935 it's appeared in Boy'sl Life, the magazine of the Boy Scouts.

  29. Victor Mair said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 8:18 pm

    I probably heard of "thought process" sixty years ago in high school (when I was in Boy Scouts!) and — being interested in psychology and philosophy — may even have used it myself. It's the peculiar (to me) construction consistently used by the interviewer — "What's the thought process there?" — that caught my attention.

  30. Bathrobe said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 9:54 pm

    @ Aristotle Pagaltzis

    I don't think it's quite the same as "reasoning", although close.

    The "reasoning" behind reaching a conclusion can be represented in an abstract, disembodied form and even put down on paper (after the stops and starts and dead ends are filtered out). "Thought process" refers to what went through the brain. This doesn't necessarily refer to logical reasoning.

    If an author were to put down the "thought processes" of a stereotypical 22-year-old blond bimbo (as I said, it's a stereotype) in stream of consciousness, I'm not sure this could be glorified as "reasoning".

  31. Michael Watts said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 11:21 pm

    (AmE, mid-30s) There is nothing unusual or rude about the expression. It's common enough.

    The question in the example, specifically, is rude, but that's because the interviewer is going for a particular conclusion. (That there is no thought process. He's right, as the interviewees admit, but telling someone "you didn't put any thought into this at all, did you" doesn't become less rude when it's accurate.) The same question in another context would not be rude.

  32. Luke said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 11:29 pm

    I don't find this strange at all. It's a turn of phrase I'd use when asking someone whom I truly don't understand to explain their thought process without being offensive or condescending (even if I wanted to).

  33. Luke said,

    July 4, 2021 @ 11:29 pm

    I realize I may have begged the question a bit in my answer.

  34. Scott Mauldin said,

    July 5, 2021 @ 5:36 am

    I agree with those commenters who find it common; among my milieus (formation in southern/midwestern academia and white collar workforce, now global Sino-American university), I wouldn't think twice about hearing or saying "can you explain your thought process?".

    However, unlike many commenters, I don't find it rude; it's more "you're definitely seeing this from a different perspective than I am, please help me understand your thinking". In a "bicultural" Sino-American university I feel that this comes up a lot.

  35. Trogluddite said,

    July 5, 2021 @ 10:54 am

    I (BrE speaker) agree with @Bathrobe's comment that there's a slight distinction between 'thought process' and 'reasoning'. I also agree with Victor that the construction "What's the thought process there?" is a little jarring: the 'thought process' is spoken of as if it is an entity independent of the thinker, implying that they lack influence over it or are voluntarily passive. I can certainly see why this would have negative connotations, and if such impersonal constructions are [more] idiomatic uses of 'thought process' [than for synonymous terms], it might explain @Bathrobe's distinction; the connotation of passivity having rubbed off on the term itself.

  36. wanda said,

    July 5, 2021 @ 3:33 pm

    I sometimes do ask students about their "thought process" as they engage with a question or problem precisely because I want the "stream-of-consciousness," in-the-moment version of their thoughts, not the final reasoning. When I do that, I may find that they are about to reject a correct line of reasoning for incorrect reasons or go down an entirely different line of thinking because of some association with some term in the question. That "pre-thinking" would have been erased from their final reasoning, but it's also really important to uncover and correct.
    If I am making a survey, I also ask test subjects about their "thought process" when they encounter a potential survey question. Here, I don't care at all about what their reasoning is for their final answer because I expect a range of answers. I want to know whether they are engaging with the question in the way I expect- does it bring up thoughts that are about the thing I want the question to be about? For example, say that I want to survey people about their understanding of molecular biology. If the question uses the word "family," the respondent's thought processes often center around heredity instead of molecular biology. That's a cue to rework the question.

    Given that some commenters here think "thought process" is pejorative, what would be a better, more neutral term for eliciting a "thought process"?

  37. Jon said,

    July 7, 2021 @ 11:02 am

    I work in software in the NY area. I find it very natural. Not sure how often I would have used it personally, but seems to make sense when you want to understand a process that might have included significant trade-offs and gotchas.

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