The single most important reason for deliberately evaluating your own thinking is that thinking, left to itself, just cannot be trusted. Everyone thinks, but everyone doesn’t think well. And no one thinks well all of the time.
It is important to recognise that people already do evaluate their thinking. But they often fail to use intellectual standards to do so. In other words, they often fail to clarify their thinking, and to make sure it is accurate, logical, relevant, significant, broad, deep and fair (just to name a few intellectual standards).
There are two ways in which people tend to evaluate thought – one is by using standards which are either egocentric or sociocentric in nature. So instead of using intellectual standards to determine what to accept or reject, they often use standards like these: “It’s true if I believe it.” “It’s true if I want to believe it.” “It’s true if it is in my selfish or vested interest to believe it.” “It’s true if we believe it.” “It’s true if we want to believe it.” For example, when figuring out whether to accept an argument someone is putting forth, people will often ask themselves whether the argument agrees with what they already believe. If so, they tend to affirm it; if not, they tend to negate it. This of course usually happens at the unconscious level of thought.
Insofar as we can understand others’ viewpoints or feelings,
we do so only through our own point of view.
The other (far better) way in which people tend to evaluate thought is through implicit rather than explicit use of intellectual standards. Sometimes this works fine and sometimes it falls short of what is needed. For instance, people often do clarify thought (thus attempting to adhere to the standard of “clarity”), but in a way which is unconscious or implicit in the mind. They often attempt to adhere to the standards of accuracy, relevance, logic and so on, but in a way which, again, is implicit rather than explicit. This causes people to miss certain problems in their thinking.
For instance, if someone is giving you directions as to how to follow a particular procedure, and you attempt to be clear about that procedure implicitly, you might get the procedure right, that is, you might be perfectly clear about it. But you might not fully understand it, while thinking you do. In other words, you might think you are clear when you lack clarity, at least in terms of certain parts of the procedure. When you aren’t using an explicit conception of clarity, you will likely fail to ask at least some of the relevant questions that would make the procedure clear in your mind. On the other hand, if you explicitly focus on the standard of clarity while attempting to understand the procedure, you will ask questions like these: “What am I clear about in terms of this procedure? What am I unclear about? How can I gain greater clarity? What questions should I ask to be more clear? Should I ask the person to state the procedure in other words? Should I ask for an example?”
The same is true for all the intellectual standards. When you have worked them into your thinking, and have practised using them to the extent that they have become internalised in your thought, you routinely ask questions like these:
- Focusing on relevance: How is what you are saying relevant to this issue? How is this information relevent to the question at issue?
- Focusing on accuracy: How do we know this information is accurate? How can we check to see if it is accurate?
- Focusing on depth: Is this a complex issue? What makes it a complex issue? How can we make sure we thoroughly address these complexities?
- Focusing on significance: What are the big issues we face? Are we staying focused on these important issues or are we getting diverted onto less significant ones?
- Focusing on fairness: Are we considering all relevant viewpoints in dealing with this issue? Are we looking at this issue in the most fair and reasonable way, or are we priviledging one or more position?
These are just some of the ways in which people who think at a high level of quality use intellectual standards in their thinking on a daily basis, to evaluate both their own thinking as well as the thinking of others.
When people acquiese to their egocentric tendencies, they can’t see any problems in their thinking because they quite simply aren’t looking for any.
If we thought reasonably and thoroughly through every issue, our thinking would put us in good stead. Our inability to do so however, can cause problems for us and others. In situations of conflict or where we are negotiating issues with another party, it is almost second nature to regard our own thinking as inherently rational. In order to look at a situation honestly and assess how well we are thinking through the issues in it, we need to know some relevant things about how human thinking works. One is that human beings are intrinsically egocentric. This means that we naturally see the world from our own point of view. Consequently, we tend to see the world and other people in terms of how they can serve us.
This seems to me to be the natural resting place of the mind. This makes sense if you understand that everything in the world is experienced by us through our own minds. We think our own thoughts, not those of anyone else. We feel our own pain, not the pain of anyone else. Insofar as we can understand others’ viewpoints or feelings, we do so only through our own point of view. We do so through the lenses of our own minds – through our own assumptions and conceptions.
There are two motives of the “egocentric mind.” One is selfishness, to get what it wants when it wants it. The other is to maintain its own viewpoint. These motives lead to such dysfunctional (but common) ways of thinking such as intellectual arrogance, narrowmindedness, and hypocrisy. All human beings are frequently egocentric, and many are pathologically so. This is one of the main reasons why there is so much suffering in the world. When people assume their way to be best, though they may be selfishly imposing their will on others, injustices of many types follow from their actions (such as spousal abuse, child abuse, animal abuse, irrational domination of supervisors over subordinates and so forth).
When people acquiese to their egocentric tendencies, they can’t see any problems in their thinking because they quite simply aren’t looking for any. For an example, consider the manager who, though perhaps highly intelligent, always has to be “right.” He may make good decisions most of the time. But when he is wrong, and someone tries to offer a better way of looking at an issue, he is completely closedminded. He doesn’t want to consider another possibi lity. It is “his way or the highway.” This phenomenon is quite common in business and personal life at all levels. And it is just one manifestation of egocentricity.
Another formidable barrier to critical thinking is sociocentric thought, an ingrained tendency akin to egocentric thought. Put simply, where egocentric thought is based on the assumption that my ideas are always best, sociocentric thought is based on the assumption that our ideas are always best. Understanding the roots of sociocentricity should be fairly intuitive. Human beings are social animals; we run in packs. Therefore we tend to see the world from the point of view of “our groups.” This might be “our family,” “our peer group,” “our colleagues,” “our company,” “our country,” or indeed any group we belong to. Unfortunately we don’t tend to see “our group’s way” as one of many possible ways of thinking. We are not intrinsically open to considering that our group’s view might be wrong. Instead we take for granted that our way is best.
Every person is a combination of egocentric thought, sociocentric thought, and their opposite, rational or reasonable thought. These three different ways of thinking play themselves out in many ways in human life. When we take command of our minds, we are on the lookout for egocentric and sociocentric thought in ourselves and others. We consistently work to develop as rational, reasonable persons, concerned as much with the views of others as with our own. We actively look for selfishness, hypocrisy, prejudice, and narrowmindedness in our thought and are committed to diminishing the power of these forces in our lives. We want to be more intellectually autonomous, intellectually empathetic and fairminded.
A popular way of conceptualising the mind just now entails separating thinking from emotions. Thus some people are said to have a “thinking” orientation to life’s problems rather than an “emotional’ orientation. Some are said to be cold and calculating (or “rational”); others are said to be warm and emotional.
But this conceptualisation just is not logical. In fact, there is no thought without emotion. And there is no emotion without thought. If you feel angry it is because you think something has happened that is unjustified. You don’t feel angry for no reason. The reason may be irrational, but still, it is this reason (or thinking) that “causes” the emotion. Similarly, whatever thoughts you have are connected with, or lead to, some feeling state. If you think that a project you are introducing to colleagues at work may not be well received by them, you will likely experience some negative emotions like worry or anxiety.
Critical thinkers take command of their emotions. When they experience negative emotions, they try to identify the thinking leading to those emotions. They then deal with this thinking in some productive way. At the same time, they don’t assume that all positive feelings they experience are based on rational thoughts. For instance, if you are successfully manipulating people into doing things against their interest, you might well experience positive emotions. Fairminded thinkers would naturally avoid this, no matter how good it made them feel. Thus it is essential to be very aware of both your emotions and your thoughts, and how they interrelate.
Critical thinkers take command of their emotions.
If you want to understand critical thinking, you might begin with this basic conception – critical thinking entails an abiding interest in the problematics in thinking. It means thinking about your thinking to improve your thinking.
It recognises that human thought is often flawed and that identifying problems in one’s thought is often difficult. This is true because of our native egocentric and sociocentric tendencies, as already mentioned. But it is also because people tend not to take a disciplined approach to thinking. They assume that if other people just thought like them, the world would be a whole lot better place. But all of us sometimes think well and sometimes think poorly. When we understand the development of thinking in a way similar to development in any complex skill area, like learning to play the violin or learning ballet, then and only then can we grasp the grinding work and daily discipline that it entails. This take us full circle to my opening point. Everyone thinks, but few, very few people understand what it takes to develop the mind truly and deeply. Very few understand the mind well enough to think at a high level of quality across all the important facets of their lives.
When we cultivate our minds through critical thinking, we can improve our relationships, both at work and home. We can better address the many problems now facing us as human beings living together on an increasingly fragile planet. We can begin to cultivate societies in which fairminded critical thinking is valued in fact, not just in rhetoric.
|Dr. Linda Elder is an educational psychologist and a prominent authority on critical thinking. She is President of the Foundation for Critical Thinking and Executive Director of the Center for Critical Thinking. Dr. Elder has also developed an original stage theory of critical thinking development. Concerned with understanding and illuminating the relationship between thinking and affect, and the barriers to critical thinking, Dr. Elder has placed these issues at the center of her thinking and her work.|
|The Foundation for Critical Thinking seeks to promote essential change in education and society through the cultivation of fair-minded critical thinking, thinking predisposed toward intellectual empathy, humility, perseverance, integrity, and responsibility.|
This article first appeared in the July 2011 issue of HR Matters Magazine. Copyright HR Matters Magazine. All rights reserved. No part of these article, either text or image may be used or reproduced with express written permission from HR Matters Magazine. For copies of this article, to link online or to order reprints, please contact email@example.com. For more info, please visit http://www.hr-matters.info.