David Mamet on How To Think

Passages from The Secret Knowledge by David Mamet

Jeff Cunningham
6 min readDec 11, 2021


Temple Grandin, an animal behaviorist, cattlewoman, and designer of livestock systems, is autistic and writes extensively about the similarities between autism and animal thinking. Both think in pictures. Both learn through observation.

A hand-reared animal does not know how to behave in the wild, what is food, what is threat, and how to behave toward its superiors. Stallions, she writes, have a reputation for viciousness but are not vicious because they are stallions, but because they, being valuable creatures, have been raised in isolation. They have never learned the submission and dominance patterns of the group.

College, while it may theoretically teach skills, also serves to delay the matriculation of the adolescent. He, thus, does not get a chance either to submit to nor to observe unfettered human interaction. This student, not surprisingly, develops a sense of immunity which, after graduation, often results in either a string of failures and rejections, or in his retreat to the exclusive coterie, and extended college-like atmosphere of protection, this last if he is blessed with the crippling curse of not having to make a living.

As we live by our brains, and as our brains function best through observation, the absence of actual experience of the world opens the student to formation of some conclusions which have no or only harmful application outside the halls of ivy. If he is rewarded by pleasing the teacher, that is, by repeating an endorsed behavior, he, like any other animal, is going to take his learning out into the world.

“ . . . Thomas Jefferson, third President, but owned slaves and kept a mistress.”

Light comes on, pull lever, get pellet of food.

This is fine for the rat, for the rat lives in the lab. In the wider world, however, the path to food is more demanding and its signals cannot be learned in the lab. To keep pulling the lever when the technicians are gone is called the Cargo Culture. The Trobriand islanders profited from the presence among them of the Allied Forces in World War II. The forces left, but the islanders kept building driftwood airplanes.

“Thomas Jefferson, third President, adulterer, slave owner.”

In the lab — get a pellet. Out of the lab — no pellet. Obvious answer — never leave the lab. What happens when you have to leave the lab?

The Left supplies the pellet.

It is now not a grade, but the protection of the herd. The problem for the ex-student, however, may be different from that of the rat. The rat pulls the lever, but the college student is not merely pulling a lever, but repeating ideas. He, of course, comes to prize the ideas whose repetition rewarded him. He thinks these ideas themselves are good. How could he think otherwise? For they have brought him food, and so are good. And so unquestionable.

But like the rat in the wild, looking for something shaped like a lever, the released student/intellectual will and must look for opportunities to exercise his behavior, and win a reward. The reward may be status or position. It is, more usually, safety in the group.

“Thomas Jefferson, slave owner, adulterer,”

Good. Pull the lever. Get another pellet.

Why, then, should the student, raised in captivity, examine either the content or the consequences of this connection? He is of that group, and rewarded for being of that group which knows that slave-owning is bad. But everyone knows that slave-owning is bad. The owners did as much as the slaves. There is no actual wider benefit or merit in being able to repeat it, so its repetition is useful only as a recognition symbol to those whose thinking process is similarly limited.

Group recognition symbols are essential; that’s why we all play, “Oh, do you know . . . ?” That’s how our animal minds know whom to trust and whom to kill.

Thomas Jefferson was an adulterer; so was every President, most likely. That’s why men get into politics; it gives them power. A further reward of these intellectual recognition symbols is a membership in a group trained to repeat rather than to consider or contradict.

Power brings sex, just as it was in the cave days. Politicians are supposed to have a wife. With increased success they can have all the sex they want, so they are invited to commit adultery. And those who do not steal (and many do not, but some do), will bend the laws, some for personal benefit, for contributions, for the benefit of friends, some in the service of their country, some through folly. Because they have power.

What else does power do?

Che Guevara was a mass murderer; we have his depiction on the walls of our children’s rooms. We do not have there the picture of Charles Manson. Why? Che “sought power for the People.” How does one know?

One has been told. Get a pellet.

But wait, as a politician, he was probably no different from Thomas Jefferson, which is to say, he was just a man. Is it different, being a mass murderer and being an adulterer? “Ah, but I have seen Che’s photo on the bedroom wall of my son.” Would I so mislead my son? Why not? It was done to you. And me.

“Capitalism is bad.” Get a pellet.

Not the capitalism that founded and supported Stanford or Harvard or Penn; not that which makes our clothes, and cars and guitars, and brings the food and so on, and not that which employs and supports us, or has supported the parents which supported us; and not those businesses we, in our dreams, would like to create (“Gosh, I’ve got a billion-dollar idea”).

But we have gotten the pellet for repeating that capitalism is bad, Thomas Jefferson was an adulterer and had slaves. And so this is a racist country. The loop is closed and we were rewarded. The pellet was fine, but it came with a price. The price was a limited ability to see the world.

Find the victim, get a pellet.

Let’s give them more power because I pulled the lever and I got a pellet. It’s a racist country, America is an exploiter. Capitalism is bad. Israel is corrupt. If we identify every interaction as possessing a victim, we are training ourselves away from the ability to ask what are the issues, how do I know, what are the biases of the reporters, how do the issues affect me, what, if any, is my responsibility? Perhaps there is another view of the world, in which every transaction need not be reduced to victim and oppressor. What would such a worldview be?

But our free enterprise system, and the free market in ideas brings more prosperity and happiness to the greatest number of people in history. It is the envy of the world. This envy often takes the form of hatred. But examine our local haters of democracy, and of capitalism, the American Left and their foreign comrades come a-visiting to tell us of our faults. They are here not because we are the Great Satan, but because here they are free to speak. And you will note that when they write they copyright their books, and buy goods with the proceeds.

Where and how do we learn to think for ourselves? In the world and only in the world. In the free marketplace of ideas, where one can run home neither to Momma nor to the enveloping warmth of the herd which has replaced her. Who is wise enough to untangle those processes of herd thinking which reward him? This was Freud’s question. How does the mind examine itself?

How do we learn zero-based thinking? How do we learn to see things as they are and form our own opinions? In the free market, we learn to follow those courses which support us. We learn not to yell at the boss, to get along with our coworkers, to consider the other guy’s side of the story. And we love the victim of colonial oppression and capitalism ’til we’re asked to actually work to support him.



Jeff Cunningham

Writing about extraordinary lives. Came for the people; stayed for the stories.