Critical Thinking: A Natural Resource

Rodin's Thinker

Let me open up here with a quick story. Although I write this story in the first person, the story is heavily modified from a story told to me many years ago.

I used to love the way my wife made a pot roast. It was just delicious.  I would enjoy that about every month or so. When I watched her cook it, I noticed the she would cut off the ends of the piece before she placed it in the pot. I asked why she did this. Her answer: “I’m not sure, but when my mom taught me, that’s what she did and hers always tasted so scrumptious.”

My curiosity was aroused, so the next time we had dinner at her parents, I took the opportunity to ask mom-in-law why cutting off the ends of the pot roast was part of the recipe. Her Answer, “My mom taught me the best way to make pot roast. My best results happen when I follow that recipe.”

I next asked my wife’s grandmother at the following Thanksgiving celebration about the abbreviated pot roast. Her answer: “Oh that was because my pot was too short and the meat wouldn’t fit into it without cutting off the ends.”

Hmmm…. Could it be true that countless pieces of meat had been wasted because we did not question tradition or apply critical thinking?

Dear readers, we live in a world that is undergoing many changes. It is our critical thinking that will expose those elements in our world that need to change as well as show us new options and solutions in changing them.

I would like to inspire us to look more critically at our own critical thinking. We need these skills if we are to make this world a better place.

What is Critical Thinking?
While trying to answer this question, I ran across many interesting web sites that required either the focus of a Buddhist monk, or familiarity with all the classical philosophers starting with Adam and Eve.

After trying to sort through all of this to find a comfortable answer, the best I can offer is the following: Critical Thinking doesn’t reflect how well we consume information. Instead, it relates to how we judge and process the information for either acceptance or rejection. Critical thinking pertains to how well we are asking questions about the information we are receiving.

Instinct vs. Critical Thinking?
Our instincts have grooved our thinking along specific lines that favor our prehistoric survival as a species. For example, our brain was prehistorically wired to pick out negatives more than positives. This was critical for survival. It was most certainly more important to know that a man-eating animal was lurking about than it was to know that some prehistoric Cutie had a crush on you. In present day, we still see this as people are more likely to avoid negative experiences rather than get positive experiences. Negative experiences, or the fear of them, have a greater impact on us than positive experiences.

(You can test this inside of yourselves now by imagining you’ve lost $100, and then imagine that you’ve found $100. Which feeling is stronger within you?)

Another example of how evolutionary instincts have channeled our thinking can be seen in our herd instinct. Today we might call it mob mentality, but let’s look at what brought it about. Just imagine, so very long ago, our ancestors huddled in a conference about the next day’s hunt. All of a sudden, in a flash, everyone jumps up and runs from the gathering, except for the one guy who ponders a bit about what is going on before a hungry saber-tooth uses him for a meal.

Well, that guy was taken out of the gene pool rather early in the game. We are the ancestors of those who did not stick around to ask questions. Our mob mentality, err… excuse me… our herd instinct can be explained in this light. And it gives us more reason to develop our independent critical thinking skills.

Instincts are internal to us. However the external factors influencing our thinking come from our culture and may not be seen. Culture serves as a framework for our thinking to channel it in certain ways and along particular lines. This is not inherently a bad thing. But we must guard against the many factors that degrade the quality and independence of our thinking.

Allow me to share just a few of the many examples of these external factors.

Who is in Control here? – Placebo Buttons
Our egos like to feel that we are in control. This illusion of control is well-known, and actually considered by urban planners. It is now documented, and you can Google this for yourselves using the keywords “Placebo buttons”, that many of the buttons offered to us throughout our day are only there to give us a sense of control. They actually do nothing at all.

Three quick examples of these “placebos” are:

  • Elevator door-close buttons – and you thought you were doing something when you pushed that.
  • Walk buttons on NYC traffic lights – If this worked the way you thought it should, NYC traffic would be even worse.
  • Thermostats in big office buildings – they are ornaments proven to reduce climate-related complaints.

Is communication your first language?
Our language has a tremendous effect on our thinking. This subconscious influence is so powerful that it is now a field of study unto itself – linguistic relativity. I can offer a few examples here. But there are a lot more examples all around us every day. If you train your mind to spot them, you too will see how our words both influence and reveal our thinking.

Consider the small but significant difference between the American culture and the French. After finishing a meal, a French speaking person pushes himself from the table saying “Je n’ai pas faim.” which translates to “I do not have hunger”. But the American completes his meal by saying “I’m full”.

Am I the only one seeing one of the insidious reasons that Americans have much larger waists (and health problems) than the French do?

But there is more. It doesn’t stop there.

If I were to ask you for the difference between happiness and excitement, most of us could pull together some sort of answer. But that answer would come from our personal (internal) relationship to these two concepts. However, let’s change that question a bit. (Remember, critical thinking is expressed in the questions you ask, not the information you take in.) Instead, I ask to clarify the difference between a happy person and an excited one. Now we are scratching our heads. That is because we can only tell the difference between these two from how they feel inside of us, not by how others express themselves.

For another example of this, consider how you would tell whether a person is rude versus busy? These two look almost the same as they emanate from an individual. But we are sometimes forced to judge the inside of others by using their outsides (or external manifestations). This will almost always lead us to erroneous conclusions, unless we ask the right questions.

Our language does not make the necessary distinctions needed to keep things easily separate in our minds. There is confusion and blurring. Again, examples are plentiful.

But wait, there’s more.

Here goes something that was meant to carry goodness into our lives. But it has been morphed into something potentially dangerous. What am I talking about? Consider “Live each day as if it were your last.” Now, I don’t know about you. But if I did that, I can ensure you there would be no tomorrow. Instead it is meant to say “Live each day as if it matters”. You see how dangerous words can be when we are not thinking?

Disguised and Deliberate Confusion
I want to share with you a couple of what I call “logic anomalies” that I have told to people over the years. You have no idea of how many times I’ve said these things and have gotten a look back that suggests that I’ve said something normal.

Example #1: People ask me how I came to settle in NH. Well, back in 1987, upon hearing the statistic that most car accidents occur within 25 miles of where you live, I moved.

Example #2: I tell people there are 2 types of people in this world – those that recognize two groups of people and those that do not. I say emphatically that I belong to the group that does not recognize there are two groups. And they nod approvingly at me.

Advertisers and marketers
And please, don’t get me started on how advertisers and marketers are trying to commandeer and direct our thinking. Not only do we have to sort through confusing offers such as “I will sell you 3 items for the price of 5, and as a bonus, throw in 2 extra for free.”

But we now have what has been called “ClickBait”. The idea is to get you to watch quick videos that you think you are interested in so that you can be exposed to a wide variety of advertising. The more advertising you are exposed to, the more someone gets paid. So the titles of these videos employ all the psychology they can muster to get you to click on them. Some of these titles actually border on the insulting. Consider to these:

  • Amazing donkey videos that you just have to see to believe.
  • What happened after the sun went down will shock and delight you.
  • A shocking twist to his regular morning coffee. Don’t let this happen to you.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Ask questions about everything
The message here is not to criticize the things happening around us as much as it is to call attention to that which is happening within us. After all that is where we will change the world from – within us.

The one thing that really does make sense to me is that the higher the quality of our critical thinking, the higher the quality of solutions will issue from us. We all know that self-approval is essential for the well-lived life. But none of us should be completely happy with who or what we are. There is always something that can be better. And at least some of that better should attract us.

Are you asking enough questions?

“The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance – it is the illusion of knowledge” (Daniel J. Boorstin)






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