A 20081 study cited flawed critical thinking as a major contributor to the 2003 loss of NASA’s Columbia space shuttle, killing all seven crew members. More recent examples of flawed and costly critical thinking include the Volkswagen emissions scandal, the 2007 mortgage banking collapse, and failed military interventions around the globe.
Common contributors included inability to examine assumptions, limited information or perspectives, reacting and settling for apparent solutions too quickly, inability to project consequences, and tendencies to repeat past mistakes. Losses need not be so dramatic or costly to reveal the need for more and better critical thinking in our schools, organizations, and communities. Given the nature of today’s global, social and economic challenges, coupled with election season political rhetoric bombardment, the need for personal and collective critical thinking skills has likely never been greater.
David Moore2 defined critical thinking as “a deliberate meta-cognitive (thinking about thinking) and cognitive (thinking) act whereby a person reflects on the quality of the reasoning process simultaneously while reasoning to a conclusion. The thinker has two equally important goals: coming to a solution and improving the way she or he reasons.” [Moore, 2006, italics in original]
This suggests that an important foundation for critical thinking is awareness of how we think – our thinking style, strengths, and limitations. One popular measure of thinking style is the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, which among other dimensions reflects a preference for facts and details (“Sensing”) vs. big-picture patterns and connections of ideas (“Intuition”). If aware that I will not naturally focus on facts and details, I can compensate by working harder to uncover them and seeking the assistance of others so inclined. “Sensing” types can benefit by tapping my more natural style of “connecting the dots” and ability to detect patterns. Another resource for increasing awareness of thinking styles is the Watson-Glaser Profile, a highly respected assessment of critical thinking capabilities.
There is not only safety in numbers, but wisdom as well. One person with highly developed critical thinking capabilities is an asset; a team, organization, or community with comparable capabilities is a treasure. We “must use not only all the brains we have, but all that we can borrow,” to paraphrase President Woodrow Wilson. In addition to knowing and respecting different thinking styles, we need to cultivate relationships and cultures where they are leveraged. We can be certain that at Lehman Brothers running up to the mortgage banking collapse and Volkswagen pre-emissions scandal, diverse and dissenting voices were either reluctant to speak up or dismissed (figuratively or literally).
Here are some additional strategies for sharpening our critical-thinking capability:
- Examine assumptions; question prior experience and knowledge. Especially given today’s rapid rate of change and shifting global dynamics, chances are that what has been true may no longer be true. Ask what conditions or changes might invalidate assumptions or prior experience and knowledge; what are the chances of those conditions or changes, and how might that affect the situation? How might you see a situation differently if you didn’t know what you know now? (Mark Twain was right: “It isn’t what we don’t know that will get us in trouble; it’s what we know that just isn’t so!”)
- Ask challenging questions that stimulate thinking. A few examples are in the paragraph above. Others include “What information or perspectives might we be missing?” and “In what ways might what I think/believe be wrong?” or “In what ways might the opposite be right?” The intent of questioning should be opening up to new information, perspectives, possibilities, and considerations. In this vein for example, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” is not a rhetorical question but one to be taken seriously, along with consideration of what to do if the worst thing happens. Asking challenging questions does not mean personally challenging those with whom we disagree or have unpopular opinions; we need to ask questions in ways that invite them to share their thinking in a safe environment.
- Slow down. In our rush for quick resolution, we commonly settle for the first apparently good solution or response. Solid critical thinking is characterized by more than one right answer. It requires time to generate more alternatives and evaluate each critically. It takes far more time to undo the damage from a bad decision than to take extra time thinking through what would avoid damage in the first place.
- Use clear criteria. Specifically what problem is it that we want to solve or outcomes that we desire? Disagreements about relevant factors or potential solutions are sometimes based on different understandings of objectives or criteria for success.
- Be conscious of filters and biases; we all have them. Closely related to self-awareness of thinking style is greater consciousness of how we interpret information and communication based on past experience, preferences, hopes, or associations. It is helpful to examine why we interpret things as we do and why we believe or value what we do. Of course it’s useful to help others do the same, then we can get closer to determining what’s actually true. Humility is important here; we need to acknowledge that others’ experiences and perspectives are also valid.
- Manage emotions. We cannot deny emotions; they simply are. However we can be more aware of our emotions and how they may be influencing judgment. Personal likes and dislikes are separate matters from what might be true or prudent. Have we really heard and seriously considered what might be valid input from someone we dislike? Are we being unduly influenced by someone we like?
- Fact check. Intentional or not, what sounds convincing may not actually be true; political campaigns offer ample evidence if we pay attention to fact-checkers and “Pinocchio scales.” Repetition, reputation, delivery, and other factors can be influential, but do not correlate with truth; in important matters we need to be our own fact checkers by consulting multiple sources and critically evaluating each claim.
- Examine consequences. The “law of unintended consequences” is often more accurately the “law of unimagined consequences;” yes, we didn’t intend certain consequences, but if we had thought things through more carefully we likely wouldn’t be experiencing the negative consequences. We need to answer the question “Whom or what will/may be affected by a decision or action?” from multiple perspectives and realistically assess the likelihoods. Having gotten that far, some neglect the next important step: constructing scenarios of potential second, third, or even fourth-order consequences and their likelihoods.
- Step away from the “cave.” In his Republic, the Greek philosopher Plato describes a group of prisoners chained to a cave wall, unable to see actual objects outside the cave entrance and only their shadows from the sun’s light. Critical thinking requires stepping away from our own “wall” or “cave” and into the light generated from alternate viewpoints, data, and interpretations.
- In his 2011 TED talk3 “Beware of online internet filters,” Eli Pariser warns of internet algorithms used by social media platforms that filter searches without our knowledge based on our prior search history and postings. The effect of course is more concentrated exposure to what we already believe or think we know; conservatives reinforce their conservative views and liberals reinforce their liberal views, for example. If we are not careful and not actively seeking alternate perspectives, we therefore fashion our own “cave” with limited awareness of reality.
Improving critical-thinking capacities will be key for improving our organizations’ competitiveness and sustainability, building strong communities, strengthening our democracy, and resolving global challenges.
The online Master’s in Organizational Leadership program at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota builds critical-thinking capacity throughout the program; critical thinking is a particular focus in its first semester Critical Thinking and Research course.