We Should Be More Critical…

… in our thinking. While loathe to say that in the current environment, and think we second-guess ourselves in unhealthy ways, am referring to a different type.

Whatever first brings my employers (clients) to my office- relationship problems, depression, anxiety, addiction, low self esteem, “stress”, anger etc…, I would argue that it’s really four things: they want to be happy, have a sense of self worth, have a relationship with another person, “succeed” in the environment/community around them. For all the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, attachment theory, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Gestalt, existentialism, psychoanalysis, client-centered-solution-oriented-short-term-evidence-based-practices employed by the therapist or improvised efforts on the part of the client, critical thinking can go a long way toward the wants/issues above. Critical thinking is an organized set of principles, and tools, that should be used as ways of knowing and problem-solving things.

When confronted with a problem, we tend to throw “will” (some kind of effort that is nothing more than improvisation) and/or thinking at it. That thinking tends to show up without use of actual critical thinking skills. Worse, these efforts are usually based on a tacit approval of both the cause of, and solution to a problem. There is a term for this in both philosophy and psychology: naive realism. More simply, we tend to identify causes and solve problems based on whatever arrives in our consciousness, without examination. As a default we treat our anger as righteous, our hurts as immediate and “true”, etc., though experience tells us we are usually “wrong” as often as we are “right”. This is a very poor foundation upon which to build problem-solving methods of any kind, let alone imposition of will and intellect. There is a whole discipline of philosophy dedicated to how we actually know things called “epistemology”, to which we arguably owe credit for the tools below.

In addition to will and intellect, there’s clearly other means to solve problems- asking for help, being honest/taking a risk about something, not intervening at all (something that’s really difficult for a lot of us), compassion, waiting/being patient, making amends, setting a boundary, “softening up” (as opposed to resisting, building up defenses, etc), educating ourselves about the problem and more – but these rarely get to see the light of day when it comes to our sorrows because of naive realism. Some problems that arise in therapy stay unresolved too due to critical thinking errors that we call “cognitive distortions”. A different way to begin problem solving is to have the tools of critical thinking at our disposal.

Few of us are taught critical thinking skills “proper”. These are specific skills/principles, and there’s methods for their use. Unfortunately, we’re not really taught what they are – even if we’re encouraged to use them. Our schools, family constellations, churches, therapy offices may suggest them, but there’s little attention on giving them consistent names, defining them, or employing their use. Though addressing how to employ them is beyond one blog, as a start, I’ll offer some important/fundamental ones that are almost universally accepted in science and philosophy:

1.  Skepticism

2.  Defining and examining “terms” (words, ideas…)

3.  Being cautious when drawing conclusions (most people don’t know the difference between correlation and causation, for instance, creating errors)

4.  Considering alternative interpretations of problems, solutions, words/terms

5.  Avoiding oversimplification or generalizing

6.  Observation, examination of evidence

7.  Socratic method/asking “higher quality” questions

There’s more ideas, and more technical means of critical thinking thanks to philosophers, but won’t labor those here.  Here are a few examples of “cognitive distortions”:

1.  Absolutizing (sometimes called “all or nothing thinking”, this creates or perpetuates a lot of relationship conflicts by way of asserting something “never” and/or “always” happens)

2.  “Mind reading” or “fortune telling” (making assumptions about people’s thinking or future behavior)

3.  Emotional reasoning (“I feel __________ so it must be true.”, an example of naive realism – these show up for example as “righteous anger”, low self worth, fears, etc)

4.  Mental filter (“cherry picking” evidence- though 9 things were done correctly, one was done incorrectly, the incorrect item is what’s focused on)

5.  Catastrophizing

6.  Solipsism (seeing things only from one’s own perspective)

7.  Perfectionism (both with self, and others)

8.  Fudging on efforts to change now, in favor of believing plans to “do differently/better later”

9. False equivalence (seeing/arguing that two things are somehow equal, that are not)

10. “Ad hominem” arguments: because __________ (a specific person said it), it is incorrect . . . this works both ways – that because __________ (a specific person said it), it must be correct (often called “appeal or argument from authority“)

11. My favorite of late – mistaking an interpretation or inference for a fact

Again, there’s more of these too. Others might be added, though they’re not always thought of as critical thinking errors or cognitive distortions in therapy circles. Beliefs about the ability to change others (sometimes calling it “influence”), awareness of powerlessness over a situation but endeavoring to manage or control it anyway, doing the same thing more than once and expecting different results… all might be additional examples.

Critical thinking though, can often be an antidote for cognitive distortions and a method for solving problems. Without principles or tools for doing so, we’re just burning calories (and few, at that). Or, as I often refer to clients “wasting cycles” (like a computer chip). A couple more examples: when feeling “low self esteem” (or as I prefer, “shame”) or anger, it might be helpful to “examine the evidence”. Are there current facts in hand, that are evidence I should feel “less than”? When ashamed or angry, many of us assume or treat their feelings in and of themselves as truth (like the “naive realism” mentioned above) … often finding out later there was little or no reason to do so. Many conflicts arise because a speaker or receiver make little (or no) effort to define or examine what they (or someone else) is trying to say, or because we have very different ways we’re defining a word or situation.

Regardless of what kinds of problems we’re assailed with, these critical thinking tools (and others) are very useful. It doesn’t seem to matter if these are problems of relationships with ourselves, relationships with others, or “Earthbound” problems (cars, money, weather, gadgets breaking…)- critical thinking tools are always necessary to employ, and are often quicker/more effective than our usual styles of solving problems.

There are quite a few fantastic resources for critical thinking, great people in our time that are doing important work in this way. Some of these people books are linked below.

The “industry standard” ideas and examples for philosophers is the “Delphi Report on Critical Thinking”

Daniel Dennett (Professor of Philosophy at the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts): a recent work, “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Critical Thinking”

Morgan D. Jones (former CIA analyst): “The Thinker’s Toolkit”

Christopher W. DiCarlo (Philosopher of Science and Ethics, Harvard and elsewhere): “How To Become A Really Good Pain in the Ass: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Asking the Right Questions”

Peter Boghossian (Professor of Philosophy at Portland State University): part of the “Skepticism 101” resources at the Skeptics Society, Peter’s “Knowledge, Value, and Rationality” syllabus.

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