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  • Writer's pictureDan Manning

The Secret Weapon to Survive and Thrive in the 2020's -- 6 Critical Thinking Hacks to Use Today

Updated: Nov 27, 2020

My phone vibrated with an incoming call on my business line. I answered mentally prepared to respond to whatever my client or potential client might need.

Instead, I heard the tinny robotic voice of a pre-recorded message. Evidently, the Internal Revenue Service had discovered my money laundering scheme and this was my last chance to settle with them. Soon, local police would show up at my residence to seize my property and take me into custody. Again, the robot warned me, this was my last chance.

I dutifully pressed 1 to be connected to an agent.

I struggled to hear the agent come on the line over the din of what sounded to be a warehouse full of Indian-accented voices in energetic conversations.

“Internal Revenue Service”

“How did you finally catch me?” I asked the now-confused agent.

“Excuse me?”

“The phone message said the IRS had discovered my money laundering scheme. I know the police are on the way….I’m caught….I just want to know what finally gave me up?”

This question remains unanswered to this day. The “agent” hung up on me.

Now, I am not and never have been a money launderer. How did I know the call was a scam and not a bureaucratic misunderstanding? Critical Thinking.

Critical Thinking is a skill in high demand in the 2020s. The World Economic Forum, the Society of Human Resources Managers, and the National Association of Colleges and Employers all list Critical Thinking at the top of their lists of the most needed skills in this age of increasing automation and artificial intelligence.

Technical skills are vital in today’s technological economy, but if employees lack the critical and creative thinking "soft" skills to solve the right problems, the "hard" skills are worthless.

What is Critical Thinking? There are dozens of definitions, and none of them are especially satisfying.

I use this one from John Dewey, 20th century American educational reformer and philosopher, as a guiding light:

“Critical thinking is thought aimed at constructing knowledge from observations.”

Most other definitions agree this sort of thinking is active, persistent, purposeful, effortful…and not our brain’s first choice.

As Dewey pointed out decades ago, critical thinking (he called it reflective thinking) has consequences. Knowledge, rather than assumption, opinion, or supposition, forms the structure shaping how we understand the rest of the world.

As soon as you realize there may not be a Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy aren’t far behind.

It is no small deal to construct knowledge out of noise these days.

In a world of pitched partisan political battles, deep fakes, information wars, instant social media, and rapid change, we must ask ourselves, “What do we know?” and “How do we know it?”

Rather than engaging in the mental effort Critical Thinking requires, our brains prefer to use shortcuts whenever possible. These allow the “fast” thinking in Nobel Prize winning economist Danny Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.

Most of the time, these shortcuts work well. They are especially useful and powerful when we the stimulus is aimed at our emotions (scared much?), vivid (viral video much?), and anchored to convenient bits of other knowledge (I’ve always done it this way).

But…there is a catch. This type of fast thinking assumes a benign environment where no one is purposely adjusting their behavior to take advantage of my fast thinking.

The “IRS” call did exactly this. They threatened a swarm of police at my house and evoked images of me perp-walking past garden gnomes on the way to a black Surburban. They targeted my lizard brain with emotions and vivid imagery

Scams like this rely on people using fast, rather than slow and effortful, thinking. In 2001, the US Department of Justice broke up a similar scam that took advantage of 15,000 Americans who didn’t think critically and lost hundreds of millions of dollars.

In a separate scam, Russian trolls spent 36,000 rubles to run this Facebook ad in July 2017. It generated 4,799 clicks from users who stumbled across it and unknowingly shared their personal data, preferences, and browsing habits with Russian intelligence agencies trying to influence the US Presidential Election.

An ad nestled between cute babies, pictures of 4th of July celebrations, and funny memes seems harmless enough to allow our fast thinking systems to do the work for us.

Odds are that your inbox contains a similar attack. According to Symantec, in November 2019, 1 in 456 emails contained malware…usually launched with a click on an innocuous and familiar looking link. Phishing emails accounted for 1 in 5,585 items sent to inboxes in November 2019.

Our Critical Thinking skills must be sharp to ensure we dodge these frequent attacks on our data and identity.

Today’s emerging technologies further disrupt the cues our fast thinking systems rely on.

Machine learning is a literal game-changer. Computers can teach themselves to play chess, poker, and Go on their own and beat…no demolish…human players precisely because they don’t play like humans. It is only a matter of time until the scammers incorporate this technology into their schemes.

Do you trust your lying eyes? Deep fake videos featuring political or military leaders saying or doing things they didn’t say or do can have international consequences. Your fast thinking system is trained to believe what it sees.

Today, you can make a convincing deep fake video online for a few bucks.

If it is this easy for you, imagine what a state actor can do.

So, what does creativity have to do with critical thinking…aren’t those opposites?

Not at all. They are complementary.

Critical thinking defines constraints. What is knowable? What information is trustworthy? What is my confidence in this information? If A is true, how does it impact B?

Will answering this question get me closer to an ultimate solution, or is the answer irrelevant? Am I being influenced by one of the many shortcuts (ie, biases) my fast thinking system relies on?

Is someone trying to manipulate my understanding?

By leading clients to answer these questions, we can better define the problem space.

Now, with the constraints better defined, we use creativity to find possibilities. Creativity fills the black and white, factual landscape with color.

Then, those possibilities are tested with critical thinking revealing more knowledge until you choose the solution most likely to achieve your goals.

Can you improve critical thinking skills?

Unequivocally, yes. Every student of science has improved their critical thinking skills by learning to apply the scientific method.

They learn to observe, hypothesize, experiment, and draw appropriate conclusions as well as boundaries around the consequences of that knowledge.

The research on improving critical thinking in other domains, however, is mixed. The lack of a good definition and short instructional periods make it tough to empirically judge the impact of training.

While Critical Thinking training can be effective, like most cultural change efforts, it doesn’t happen in a single afternoon training session.

But, you can take some simple steps today to improve your team’s critical thinking skills:

1. Reshare this article. Simply knowing our brains are designed to be cognitive misers can remind us to think more deeply and listen to the little voice telling us something may not be what it seems.

2. Understand our most common mental biases. We tend to give too much weight to our personal experience and too little to statistical probability. Do more people die each year in the United States from guns or car crashes? Unless you are an expert in the statistics of both, your fast-thinking answer depends on your personal experience. Mass shootings dominate our attention and news coverage for days. As a result, availability bias (we overvalue the information we frequently access) leads us to conclude these events are more common than the data demonstrate. As it turns out, guns and car crashes each kill about 39,000 people every year.

3. Watch out for overconfidence--the less we know, the more confident we are. In an ironic twist of mental bias, as we learn more about a subject we tend to doubt our knowledge more. We begin to learn how much we don’t know. On the other hand, when experts in one domain have to make decisions in a domain where they aren’t experts, they tend to be overconfident. This error can be induced by HR practices or because people are working in bleeding edge technologies where there are no experts (application of AI, hypersonics, TikTok).

4. Ask your team why they believe what they believe. Spurring thought about the reliability of data sources causes people to question unstated assumptions. The mere act of turning the unstated into the stated causes us to use our slow, critical thinking systems.

5. Use premortems. When a decision is almost final, asking the team to conduct an analysis of why this might fail is an antidote to overconfidence. Ask…”If we implement this plan and fail, what will we say were the fatal flaws?” Asking this question before the decision is made lowers the cost of dissent and allows more space for slow thinking.

6. Hire a Critical Thinker. Outside facilitators trained in both critical and creative thinking techniques are on the lookout for biases, unstated assumptions, over/under confidence, and other mental shortcuts leading us to bad decisions. These facilitators can guide you through your next tough problem AND improve your team's critical thinking skills.

Whether fighting scams, corruption, national security foes, or industry competitors, Critical Thinking is a powerful tool. Like most complex human skills, it improves with focused training and frequent use.

On the other hand, IRS scammers and Russian trolls might love you just the way you are.

Dan Manning is the Lead Instructor for #HumanIntelligence. Combining academic study with techniques refined over a career as a fighter pilot and warrior-diplomat, Dan unleashes the transforming power of better thinking to do what could not be done before.

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