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Today’s Fast Summary:
Critical thinking is a way to understand and process information to obtain a certain, positive result.
Critical thinking is the antithesis of the way you regularly think. It requires rationality, open-mindedness, judgment, and self-awareness.
Follow the evidence, not just hunches, beliefs, or confidence. Critical thinkers question all their sources, including themselves. Focus on independent, conscious analysis.
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Critical thinking is a Superpower. Here’s your Playbook.
Reboot, a French organization dedicated to critical thinking research, conducted a comprehensive study of the public’s perceptions of critical thinking in 2019. Here are some key findings:
94% of survey respondents believed that critical thinking is highly important
86% of respondents state that critical thinking is absent from the public
60% of the public didn’t learn critical thinking in school
25% of respondents report that their critical thinking skills have deteriorated since high school
I was stunned when I found these results. Here are some of my key takeaways:
Support for critical thinking is high, but individuals believe the public is largely lacking in this important skill.
Critical thinking declines over the course of our lives.
We aren’t systematically taught how to think critically.
When considering critical thinking, I’m reminded of the Lao Tzu quote, “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”
Thoughts are the primary catalyst for our future actions. They prime your brain for action.
Everything you do is downstream of a thought or idea, making them the most important units to optimise.
But if your thoughts are your most important asset, how can you be sure you’re thinking correctly?
The answer is critical thinking.
What Is Critical Thinking?
Critical thinking is a way to understand and process information to obtain a certain, positive result. It’s a deep activity that requires development and practice.
Critical thinking exists at the core of problem-solving, optimisation, and decision-making. It involves questioning not only the question or the source, but your own motivations and inclinations.
Humans think of themselves as logical, rational creatures when compared to their animal counterparts. However, we’re deeply irrational, and often let our emotions get the best of us.
Much of our conscious thought is governed by emotion. We mistake these emotions for thoughts, and let them cloud important decisions.
Critical thinking is the antithesis of the way we regularly think. It requires:
Rationality. Thinking beyond emotion allows the individual to clearly process evidence, leading them to the best solution or explanation.
Open-mindedness. Evaluating all potential observations, including those that don’t align with our preconceptions, is a hallmark of critical thinking.
Judgment. Skepticism is key to proper critical thinking. Critical thinking requires judgment and analysis of sources and data.
Self-awareness. You must be aware of your human nature. Selfishness, emotional impulses, and underlying motivations are forms of self-deception and are misleading.
Humans are creatures of habit. Information and processes are no exception to the rule. We rely on past information and habits because they’re familiar. This is a facet of the Illusory Truth Effect. The Illusory Truth Effect, or the Reiteration Effect refers to our tendency to believe that certain information is correct after continued exposure to it.
The concept operates most prominently in the media—seeing the same, scary headline multiple times instills in you a real fear of the event broadcasted.
The Reiteration effect extends to our thinking. We believe that because we’ve heard the information before—even information we’ve told ourselves—that it must be true. This is especially prevalent if the information we’ve told ourselves substantiates our beliefs.
Critical thinking seeks to dispel these ideas and to help you make more informed, rational choices.
How to Think More Critically
“The problem isn’t that Johnny can’t read. The problem isn’t even that Johnny can’t think. The problem is that Johnny doesn’t know what thinking is; he confuses it with feeling.” - Thomas Sowell
Use this guidebook to improve your critical thinking skills.
Avoid Ignorant Certainty. Ignorant certainty is the belief that all questions have an explicit answer.
This is far from the case. However, in today’s digital age, we come to believe we can simply Google the answer.
The issue is this: You can’t believe everything you see online. Some questions don’t have a clear answer.
Think rationally about problems, particularly when multiple answers seem sound. Oftentimes, more than one is correct.
Dispel Naive Relativism. Naive Relativism refers to the idea that truth is relative—all arguments are equal.
It sounds a little odd, but this belief is more widespread than you initially think.
Naive relativism misses the entire point of thinking: If no solution is better than another, what is the point of thinking?
Evaluating assumptions and arguments is a paramount facet of critical thinking. Some arguments are inherently more valid than others.
Employ Self-Reflection. To emotionally separate yourself from the problem, you must be able to reflect on your intentions.
Self-reflection requires an analysis of your present motivations. You must be acutely aware of your biases. Consider your role in the decision.
We often rely on past knowledge and experience when approaching a problem. When you feel yourself doing so, ask, “How do I know this?”
It’s often helpful to put yourself in the shoes of another. Consider how someone separated from the problem would react to the information at hand.
Follow the evidence, not just hunches, beliefs, or confidence. Critical thinkers question all their sources, including themselves.
Remain Open To New Ideas. Critical thinkers evaluate all possibilities, even those they haven’t already tried.
Don’t reject an idea simply because it’s your instinct to disagree. Instead, examine the idea.
Glean positive insights from novel ideas to lead you to your goal.
Question the Questioner. Questions are a key component of thinking critically.
Hence the importance of asking the right ones. This technique employs logic and reason as opposed to snap assumptions rooted in emotion.
Let’s say you’re in the midst of a debate with your team at work. You’re discussing the validity of a new product launch; half of your team believes it’s marketable, and the other half feels it’s a mistake.
First, ask yourself, “Which assumptions am I making?” What’s motivating you to believe one way or another? Or, in other words, question your motivations.
Then, ask, “What are my opponent’s motivations and assumptions?” Think logically about your team and their role in the argument.
Look at their background. If a member of the ‘do not’ group played a pivotal role in the product’s engineering, consider why they’re opposed to the launch.
Next, question the evidence. Ask, “What are we using to make this decision?” and, “How viable is this information?” Consider any potential information biases or the presence of misinformation.
Now, you have enough to make a decisive choice.
Think Independently of Those Around You.
After reading Einstein’s famous paper, C.P. Snow said this, “It looks as though [Einstein] had reached the conclusions by pure thought, unaided, without listening to the opinions of others. To a surprisingly large extent, that is precisely what he had done.”
Einstein thought independently, and it worked out rather well for him.
Don’t disregard the opinions of others. Instead, consider their opinion’s validity. Focus on independent, conscious analysis.
To answer tough questions, think for yourself.
This week, we’re going to employ critical thinking through self-reflection. For this exercise, practice asking questions in a way you haven’t previously. Use this newsletter and your prior knowledge to gain insight into your own motivations.
Think back to a time when you were in the middle of a difficult personal or professional decision.
a. What did you use to make the decision? On what evidentiary basis was the decision made?
b. What motivated you to make the decision? Was time, a deadline, or an external pressure a factor?
c. How do you feel about the decision today? In hindsight, was it a positive or negative choice? Why or why not?
Which questions did you ask prior to making or during the decision-making process?
a. Disregard the evidence for a moment, and consider the concrete questions you asked yourself throughout your process. If you didn’t ask any questions, think about why that was the case.
b. Which questions should you have asked? As in, should you have more thoroughly questioned sources or evidence? What about yourself—should you have more concisely questioned your motivations and needs?
c. Interrogate your questioning using this newsletter as a guide. Did you question yourself, then the questioner, then the evidence? Which questions would you have asked if you’d chosen to employ this model?
Employ critical thinking for all of life’s most daunting decisions.
I’d love to hear from you:
How can critical thinking benefit you?
Is there a time or situation in your life when you should’ve employed critical thinking?
What did you learn about critical thinking?
Tweet at me (@_alexbrogan) or respond to this email — I’ll try to respond to everyone.
Have a wonderful Saturday, all.
Until next time,