What Do You Need to Know to Become a Critical Thinker?

Making smart decisions requires shedding our assumptions and biases — and admitting we might be wrong.
What Do You Need to Know to Become a Critical Thinker?
Dale McGowan

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Business guru Peter Drucker once noted that making good decisions is a crucial skill at every level of an organization. Yet the odds are that you — and your colleagues — are making poorly considered decisions every day, despite your best intentions.

While difficult to quantify, the effects of those bad decisions can decrease productivity, hurt morale and cost your business or organization money.

What are the culprits that lead decision-making astray? Three little entwined gremlins called assumptions, infallibility and confirmation bias. The strategy for banishing them? A process called critical thinking.

There seem to be as many definitions of critical thinking as there are bad decisions. But essentially, critical thinking can be summed up simply as this: a systematic, objective attempt to avoid the wrong answer, according to Dale McGowan, a freelance writer and Web editor who taught critical thinking at the college level and has presented numerous corporate seminars on the topic.

“Most people try to think about finding the right answer,” he says. “But avoiding the wrong answer is the best way to get to the right answer. … In effect, you need to interrogate reality. It’s better to recognize what’s true than to always go with our emotionally comforting preferences.”

Clearly, not everyone is a critical thinker. In fact, it’s human nature to not think critically, because we usually tend to believe what we want to be true. But the good news is that anyone can learn how to think critically, McGowan says. And it’s not just something for philosophers and academicians to brood over — it’s a valuable skill that can be commonly used by everyone both at work and in our personal lives. And without hyperbole, it’s probably more important than ever to embed critical thinking into our everyday lives, he says.

An important tool

“I would argue that critical thinking is more important today because we’re all more interdependent than we ever were before,” McGowan says. “Wrong decisions can do more damage now than in the past — they can affect thousands of people. A good example is the Internet. If you make a bad decision and put out misinformation, it can rapidly reach millions of people. That power didn’t used to exist. … It’s easier for us to do harm than ever before. So it’s much more import to take care and be sure we have our decision-making processes in line.”

So how do we go about honing the skill of critical thinking? Fortunately, it’s not complicated — we just need to deal with those three gremlins: assumptions, infallibility and confirmation bias.

Seek the truth

The assumptions part is fairly obvious and easy to understand. To make sound decisions, we need to seek the truth, not what we prefer to believe. But in practice, it’s easy to succumb to other instincts, especially in the workplace. These flaws in reasoning are known as logical fallacies, and they’re so ingrained in our culture that they’ve even earned formal names and definitions, McGowan says. You may not know them by name, but you’ll no doubt recognize the scenarios.

For example, consider the so-called appeal to authority, in which we reason that if information comes from an authority figure, it must be true. Or the slippery-slope fallacy, in which we erroneously assume that one event will inevitably follow another — without any debate about whether or not the assumptions are true. Or the hasty generalization, in which we draw a conclusion about something based on an inadequately sized sample. Or the argument from false premises, in which we make what appears to be a logical argument that’s actually based on false premises, rendering the conclusion untrue. Or … well, you get the picture. “We have to work very hard in order to be totally objective and find the truth,” McGowan says.

You could be wrong

Diminishing your sense of infallibility sounds simple enough, but can be difficult to do. The bottom line: Always consider the possibility that you could be wrong.

“One of the most powerful things you can say in a discussion is, ‘I could be wrong,’” McGowan says. “You need to get to the point where you’re confident enough to ask that question. It’s amazing how much better everything would work if people would just admit their fallibility — it changes the nature of the discourse and keeps you examining your conclusions.”

The last hurdle to overcome is firmly entwined with the other two: confirmation bias, in which we’re inclined to go with things that we believe to be true, for any number of psychological or cultural reasons. This can manifest itself in something as simple as diagnosing a leak in a sewer pipe, McGowan says.

“You might view certain scenarios as easier to pursue and more cost-effective than others, which can lead you away from the right answer,” he says. “If we allow confirmation bias to lead the process, it can negatively influence decisions, waste time and money, and lead down blind alleys.”

So how do we avoid confirmation bias? This may sound silly, but you need to approach every issue with the intention of discovering the truth of the matter. Anything else will get in the way, McGowan points out.

Admit fallibility

“If you have a team member who is rock-solid on a particular position and not willing to recognize his or her fallibility, it will screw up the process,” he says. “We all need to approach things with humility and recognize that everyone carries within them preferences that may or may not be true.”

That leads to another issue: How to diplomatically dislodge people higher up the management food chain from their lofty perch of infallibility or confirmation bias. This is no small issue; telling the emperor he’s wearing no clothes could easily earn you a ticket to Unemploymentville. In short, be brave — and tactful.

“People's preferences are very dear to them and if you’re talking to your boss, your job is at risk,” McGowan says. “This is why executives often surround themselves with ‘yes men.’"

Agree to disagree

“There are good and bad ways to go about it,” he says. “You can’t make people feel threatened. It’s hard for people to hear something that contradicts their preferences — it’s emotionally important to them. So it’s important to move things ahead in a tactful way. You need emotional intelligence. And it has to come from both directions. In other words, managers and supervisors need to invite it — ask people to disagree with them.

People who can make this happen are a tremendous asset in good decision-making.”

So is it wise to try and banish that pesky trio of gremlins from your workplace? The decision is all yours.



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