Critical thinking: from basics to reliable strategies you can use

  • 14 minutes read

  1. Critical thinking – what it is and why it matters in business
  2. The ideal critical thinker
  3. Cognitive biases – what they are and why they’re important for critical thinking
  4. Debiasing strategies in critical thinking training

1. Critical thinking – what it is and why it matters in business

A big part of our thinking is biased, distorted, uninformed or even prejudiced. We tend to think that it is in our nature to be so. But irrational thinking is costly for us in quality of life and in some cases also in money. Critical thinking is the way of thinking in which we improve the quality of our thinking. We do it by taking charge of the structures inherent and imposing intellectual standards upon them. Critical thinking training can help in this endeavor.

In his book, An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking, Edward Glaser defines critical thinking as an ability that involves 3 things:

(1) The right ATTITUDE and MINDSET: being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of your experiences

(2) KNOWLEDGE OF THE METHODS of logical inquiry and reasoning

(3) SKILLS in applying those methods

Simply put, critical thinking skills help you think better and smarter.

We believe critical thinking is one of the most important skills anyone can learn. World Economic Forum launched a report with the ten skills needed to thrive in 2020. Critical thinking was listed on the second place. Is worth mentioning that improving critical thinking skills is also beneficial for complex problem solving and creativity, the other two that complete the top three in the report.

How Is Critical Thinking Relevant to Business?

That is why we included this topic in our business offer. The critical thinking training we deliver gives applicable solutions to improve the way you analyse data and make decisions. Let’s see some examples that show how the results of your work can get better:

Managers

The way managers analyse problems influence their team members, as they set an example for them.  Managers that use critical thinking processes foster teams that are deliberate about assessing problems and framing solutions.

Business Analyst

BA’s have to evaluate data and make informed decisions about the performance of the business. Performant critical thinking can bring to surface innovative solutions that address issues and boost business growth.

Human Resources Specialist

Employees in the human resources department don’t have an easy job as relationships and interactions can be so complex. Situations like hiring and promoting people, analysing and resolving personnel issues require deliberate critical thinking on the part of human resources specialists and helps in taking the right decisions without being biased in any way.

Customer Service Representative

If a dissatisfied customer complains about a faulty product, a customer service representative that attended a good critical thinking training can easily get to the root of the problem and suggest possible solutions, satisfying the customers’ needs.

2. The ideal critical thinker

Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It implies problem solving skills, effective communication abilities and a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism. 

If you are curios where you stand concerning critical thinking abilities, we found an easy sort-of-test. We sometimes use it in critical thinking training. Is based on a set of sentences that can show you if you’re strongly disposed toward critical thinking or not. (from Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts – Peter A. Facione, 2007)

Someone favouring critical thinking would agree with statements like these:

“I hate talk shows where people shout their opinions but never give any reasons at all.”

“I always do better in jobs where I’m expected to think things out for myself.”

 “I hold off making decisions until I have thought through my options.”

 “Rather than relying on someone else’s notes, I prefer to read the material myself.”

 “I try to see the merit in another’s opinion, even if I reject it later.”

 “Even if a problem is tougher than I expected, I will keep working on it.”

 “Making intelligent decisions is more important than winning arguments.”

A person with weak critical thinking dispositions would be likely to agree with these:

  “I prefer jobs where the supervisor says exactly what to do and exactly how to do it.”

 “No matter how complex the problem, you can bet there will be a simple solution.”

 “I don’t waste time looking things up.”

 “I hate when teachers discuss problems instead of just giving the answers.”

 “If my belief is truly sincere, evidence to the contrary is irrelevant.”

 “Selling an idea is like selling cars, you say whatever works.”

How can you become an ideal critical thinker?

Critical thinking requires conscious intervention in your own thought process. Developing good critical thinking habits requires mastery of four basic skills:

  • Knowledge. Asking questions about the issue at hand generates the critical thinking process, can be improved with training.
  • Comprehension. You should be able to organize the information and prioritize the ideas under discussion.
  • Application. Using logical thinking, the application of facts and established rules to ideas can drive unbiased decision-making.
  • Analysis. Taking apart a problem or process is required to critically approach solving it.

Here are a few steps you can take in order to remove yourself from your own prejudices and make the most of any business interaction:

  • Always take the time to clearly identify your goal – in this information gathering stage you should ask questions as who, what, when, where and why an issue occurs.
  • Know your own biases – good critical thinking requires us to acknowledge them so that we don’t allow them to infringe upon our decision-making. I will begin describing biases in the next part so you’ll have a good start with this step.
  • Anticipate all consequences – all outcomes, even negative or unintentional ones, are explored. And you should consider the impact of your choice on every stakeholder

3. Cognitive biases – what they are and why they’re important for critical thinking

Critical thinking skills do not naturally develop as we age and gain life experience. We are packed with biases and prejudices and get stuck in the experiences we have. That is until we make a serious effort to change our view of them.

“Cognitive biases are systematic patterns of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment, and are often studied in psychology and behavioural economics.”

(The evolution of cognitive bias, 2005)

Biases may lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrational behaviour.

Bias arises from various processes that include:

  • information-processing shortcuts, also known as heuristics
  • noisy information processing – distortions in the process of storage in and retrieval from memory
  • the brain’s limited information processing capacity
  • emotional and moral motivations
  • social influence

(source: Cognitive Biases – Wikipedia)

Cognitive biases, organized and exemplified

We can describe four cognitive bias categories based on their theoretical causes:

Perception

We are drawn to things that confirm our beliefs and notice flaws in others more easily than flaws in ourselves. We notice things already primed in memory or repeated often.

Examples:

Confirmation bias – selective collection of evidence that supports what one already believes while ignoring and rejecting evidence that supports a different conclusion.

Selective perception – tendency to not notice and more quickly forget stimuli that cause emotional discomfort and contradicts our prior beliefs.  Ex: if you are thinking of buying a particular car, you will start seeing it all over town.

Subjective validation – a person will consider a statement or a piece of information to be correct if it has any personal meaning to them. Ex: paranormal phenomenon.

Reasoning

We find stories and patterns even in sparse data, we imagine people and things that we are familiar with as better.

Examples:

Illusory correlation – the phenomenon of perceiving a relationship between variables even when no such relationship exists. Ex: we believe that pit bulls are dangerous. We hear about a dog attack we assume it’s a pit bull.

Functional fixedness – limits a person to use an object only in the way it is traditionally used.

Authority bias – is the tendency to attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of an authority figure and be more influenced by that opinion. Ex: we give more weight to the software architects opinion on marketing than that of the developer.

Halo effect – a person making an initial assessment of another person, place or thing will assume ambiguous information based on concrete information. Ex: we assume that a person who is well groomed is also a good person

Cheerleader effect – causes people to think individuals are more attractive when they are in a group

Decision making

We favour the immediate, relatable thing in front of us and tend to complete things we’ve invested time and energy. We favour simple looking options and complete information over complex, ambiguous options.

Examples:

Effort justification – a person’s tendency to attribute value to an outcome which they have put effort into achieving, greater than the objective value of the outcome.

Self-serving bias – we attribute success to our own abilities and failure to external factors

Ikea effect – people place disproportionately high value on things they partially created.

Loss aversion – tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains. Better not to lose 5$ than to find 5$.

Memory

We store memories differently based on how they were experienced. We reduce events and lists to their key elements.

Examples:

Digital amnesia – tendency to forget information that can be found readily online

Modality effect – when a list is presented verbally we have the tendency to remember the last items

4. Debiasing strategies in critical thinking training

We discussed about Edward Glaser’s list of abilities that define critical thinking skills: the right attitude, knowledge of methods and skills. An important method that clears in almost 70% of the cases your irrational thinking is being aware of the biases you are a subject to and rationally eliminating them. In one word, this process was called “debiasing”.

The general approaches in debiasing are:

  • Incentives

Changing incentives can be an effective means to debias judgment and decision making. Ex. Taxing people smoking tobacco.

  • Nudges

Changes in information presentation or the manner by which judgments and decisions are elicited. Ex. People may choose healthier foods if they are better able to understand their nutritional contents.

  • Training

Critical thinking training can effectively debias decision makers over the long term. Ex. Presenting information on the 2 thinking systems and the benefits of engaging more System 2. Providing people with personalized feedback regarding the direction and degree to which they exhibit bias.

Our critical thinking training gives participants the necessary skills for a better System 2 engagement.

Engaging System 2 of thinking

The book “Thinking, fast and slow” presents research that Daniel Kahneman conducted over decades, in collaboration with Amos Tversky. It explains two modes of thought: System 1 is fast, instinctive and emotional and System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.

In Kahneman’s own words:

“System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.”

Thinking, fast and slow – Daniel Kahneman

Examples of things system 1 can do:

  • display disgust when seeing a gruesome image
  • solve 2 + 2
  • read a text on a billboard
  • drive a car on an empty road

“System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations.”

Thinking, fast and slow – Daniel Kahneman

Examples of things system 2 can do:

  • dig into your memory to recognize a sound
  • determine the appropriateness of a behaviour in a social setting
  • park into a tight parking space
  • solve 17 × 24

Kahneman showed that System 1 thinking involves associating new information with existing patterns or thoughts, rather than creating new patterns for each new experience. So it basically works on biases. One of System 2 main functions is to monitor and control thoughts and actions suggested by System 1. But it often doesn’t do that. The reason why is that it wants to spare us from cognitive strain. Engaging System 2 more would mean a conscious effort but it would free us of biases that can lead to irrationality. We explain more on this can be done in our training on critical thinking.

Conclusions

If you got so far, critical thinking is a subject of great interest to you. You should know we only covered a few basics and there is so much more to say about it. If you really want to become an ideal critical thinker and reap the great benefits of being one, read more on the subject. You can start with the reference list. Talk with people who are interested about it. But also, check the available choices in your area for critical thinking training. There is nothing better than to have a person guiding you through the process of thinking better and smarter.

References:

  • Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts – Peter A. Facione, 2007 http://www.insightassessment.com/pdf_files/what&why2007.pdf
  • The Foundation for Critical Thinking – www.criticalthinking.org
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman, 2011
  • Predictably irrational – Dan Ariely, 2008
  • Critical Thinking Academy – Critical thinking library lectures
  • American Philosophical Association, Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction. “The Delphi Report,” 1990
  • https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-10-skills-you-need-to-thrive-in-the-fourth-industrial-revolution/
  • Richard Paul and Linda Elder – The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, 2008
  • The evolution of cognitive bias – Haselton, M. G., Nettle, D. & Andrews, P. W., 2005
  • Solver Critical Thinking training handout
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