Critical Thinking for Real People
Updated: Apr 26
You see it everywhere…”we need more critical thinking.”
Whether the World Economic Forum, Indeed, Forbes, or hundreds of other articles, there is a growing consensus that critical thinking is one of the top skills you need to survive and thrive in the world today (and tomorrow).
So, let’s start right now.
There’s 100+ years of research on Critical Thinking with dozens of definitions of critical thinking, but, honestly, none of those academic definitions are helpful for people in the real world. So, we made one that is:
Critical Thinking is sorting facts, beliefs, and uncertainty to create useful knowledge.
Philosophers who wrestle with problems like “All monkeys like bananas. This is a monkey. It likes bananas” put more emphasis on syllogisms, inductive, and deductive reasoning. Understanding logic is an important skill, but not only do most of us not have monkeys, most of us don’t deal in absolutes.
Our lives and the decisions we make about them are messy.
Other definitions come from educational theory…like “the correct assessing of statements” from Robert Ennis, arguably the pioneering researcher in the field.
Also unhelpful. Oh, that’s easy…just be “correct”. I just need to stop being “wrong” to be a better critical thinker.
At #HumanIntelligence, we extract practical lessons from our unique experiences as well as the sterile academic literature to help our clients Think Better.
Like you, our clients have real problems:
Should you quit your job and start your own business? Should you buy a home or rent? Is it better for your child to do remote learning or in-person school? What do we need to do to outperform our competition? How do I measure success?
Monkeys and advice to “be correct” aren’t helpful, but using the definition above, we can start on a path to better critical thinking.
First, let’s talk about facts. These are objective observations supported by sufficient evidence. There are 50 states in the US. 52 cards in a deck. Human genetics are encoded in DNA. Interest rates are currently at a historical low.
Facts are the output of science, as well as, just looking around with an objective mind. Notice, please, that I didn’t say facts were true.
History is full of examples of facts humans believed to be true, but turned out not to be. For nearly 2000 years, we believed the Earth was the center of the universe. The sun rises in the East and sets in the West everyday...case closed.
Copernicus, Kepler, and eventually Galileo started finding new evidence that didn’t fit with the accepted facts. Eventually, newly discovered facts revolutionized our understanding of the world.
We used to think life could be “spontaneously generated.” For instance, a Middle Ages recipe said you could spontaneously generate mice if you mixed dirty underwear and wheat kernels in a bucket and left it outside for a few weeks. Later, we learned wheat kernels left outside would attract, rather than produce, mice…and dirty underwear was better burned than mixed in a whole wheat slurry.
We don’t get to choose facts if we want to be a critical thinker.
We’ll come back to beliefs, but let’s jump right to uncertainty first.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. This is everything we don’t know or can’t know. The future--how other people will act, the price of gold in 2030, the secret ingredient in Aunt Marge’s pecan pie are all bits of uncertainty. This doesn’t mean, however, everything is equally uncertain. Every morning, I see the 5-day weather forecast. Tomorrow’s weather is less uncertain than the weather 5 days from now.
What bridges facts and uncertainty? Our beliefs.
We have to negotiate between what we don’t know and what we know certainly. Whether it’s raining right now or not is a fact. Whether it will rain on you later in the day is an uncertainty. If you are considering whether to carry an umbrella, you have to negotiate between your current, factual state and an unknowable future state. Beliefs are the bridge.
Your beliefs help you judge how much confidence to put in a weather forecast. Your beliefs help you judge how uncomfortable you would be if you ended up getting drenched in a downpour. Your beliefs help you assess how much trouble it would be to carry and umbrella and not need it at all.
Unfortunately, our beliefs about our toughest problems are not so sanitary. They become clouded by our cognitive illusions. These illusions are our brain’s way of trying to get to a quick solution. We crave making a fast decision more than we crave making an accurate one. This leads us to picture doctors as men, nurses as women, and pizza without pineapple.
To make fast judgments, our brains create an impressive array of shortcuts, heuristics, and biases. These fast lanes make sense: if we thought critically about every bit of information we encounter in the world, we’d get nothing done—and it would be incredibly uncomfortable.
Our brains are, above all, wired to protect us from physical threats. While we are operating in a world of information and artificial intelligence, our brains are designed to act as if we still lived in a small village with lions just out of sight.
Our brains are wired to minimize time thinking about non-physical threats, like which mutual fund to invest in, so we can be prepared for the lion to leap out of the pantry.
Thinking takes effort. Have you ever been lost while driving and turned the radio down? The radio volume has nothing to do with the direction you should take, but it has everything to do with reducing external stimuli to allow your brain to focus.
Maybe you haven’t been lost recently because you use an AI-aided, GPS-guided decision assistant. I do. I lived near Washington DC for 6 years, but I struggle to name the streets I traveled. Even in places where I have been dozens of times, it would take a massive amount of cognitive effort to figure out how to get back to my home if I lost my GPS signal. Our brains will gladly shed the cognitive load, so they will be ready for something else.
Overcoming these fast, but inaccurate, cognitive illusions is a key task of critical thinking.
We have lots of content on individual cognitive illusions, often called biases, on our blog. We give you clues about when you are likely to fall for them, how to identify them, and how to overcome them.
But, in this case, knowledge alone isn’t the answer.
At midnight the night before I was leading a workshop including a section on the Planning Illusion (how we simultaneously underestimate the time it takes to do something and overestimate how good we will be at doing it), my wife looked at me shaking her head. “Are you really up at midnight working on a lesson about procrastination?”
“Yes. Yes, I am.”
These shortcuts are deeply wired in us, and we can’t consistently overcome them on our own. It takes critical thinking just to know which pieces of information we should think critically about. This knowledge alone isn’t enough.
But, here’s another amazing thing about our brains. They work well with other brains. When we can connect our own brain to someone else’s in a psychologically safe, trusting environment, our cognitive illusions begin to lose their power.
In 1906, Sir Francis Galton took an ox to a county fair and asked people to guess the weight. When he examined the hundreds of guesses, he found the median guess was within 1 pound of the actual weight. The average error of individual guesses was greater than the error of the average (median) guess.
When we think together—collaborate—my cognitive illusions can be offset by yours. We are all susceptible to these illusions, but it is easier to see the illusion at work in someone else than in ourselves.
It was easier for my wife to see, and predict, I was falling for the Planning Illusion than it was for me to recognize it in myself.
Here’s the magic à the psychologically safe, trusting collaborative environment that helps you think better critically also helps you think better creatively.
When you use both good critical thinking to identify the problem you need to solve (rather than the problem you’d like to be solving) and good creative thinking to generate solutions, you are connecting to the full power of #HumanIntelligence. You are thinking better. You are unstoppable.
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If you or your team are ready to become better thinkers--critically, creatively, and collaboratively--send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org or click here to start a conversation.