In this information age where we are overloaded with so much information at our fingertips, our ability to think critically is now more important than ever. It is easy to get to lost at sea or overwhelmed by the avalanche of information that comes to us daily, courtesy of traditional media sources such as TV and radio and social media sources as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. You can also add to that Siri, Google, Wikipedia and YouTube where you can easily find information on just about any topic you are interested in. And if the extraordinary access to multiple sources of information was not complicated enough, the information we receive changes so quickly that what we knew yesterday can become outdated and irrelevant tomorrow.
Every day, we run the risk of getting caught in a tailspin just trying to keep up with everything that is going on in the world around us. This results in many of us feeling wired, stressed, depressed, anxious and uncertain about the future. So how do we make sense it all of this information? How do you evaluate what we read, see, and hear to determine what is accurate and reliable? How do we wade through the bias, political agendas, and conspiracy theories to form our own opinions, make decisions, and solve problems effectively? Enter critical thinking!
What is Critical Thinking?
Critical thinking is one of those skills we often talk about, believe we do well and can readily identify as lacking in someone else especially when problems are unsolved, issues are left unidentified and poor decisions or choices are made. However, critical thinking is not about criticizing something or someone, finding fault with a process and/or just voicing an opinion you heard from a friend, family member or trusted source. CriticalThinking.org defines it as “that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it.” Working with this definition, I believe it is safe to say that many of us spend a lot of time thinking and over processing, but struggle with thinking critically. This is partly due to our education and training which taught us what to think but not how to think.
Critical Thinking Killers: Are You Guilty?
Critical thinking killers are those behaviors we do daily which limit our ability to think critically. So, think about the last decision you made or problem you had to solve? How did you go about it? Did you gather the information and objectively look at the pros and cons? Did you ask questions to get additional information? Did you verify the source of the information you were basing your decision on, or did you act on your gut feeling or what a friend or family member told you? Making assumptions, jumping to conclusions, reacting emotionally and not being able to distinguish between facts or fake news are obvious indicators that you might not be thinking critically about a particular situation, individual or issue.
However, some of the main critical thinking killers that we commit everyday have to do with one or all the following:
- Over Reliance on Authority: This is the tendency for us to see people in authority as the source of all wisdom and knowledge. We probably learned this tendency early in life when most of us were taught to not question or challenge authority- whether it was our parents, teachers, pastors, politicians, or public figures. Critical thinking does not work in environments where you cannot ask questions and challenge ideas or in spaces where people do not feel safe to speak up and express their thoughts.
- Black/White Thinking: The comes from a us versus them mentality or a either-or way of thinking that embraces the view that the choice of one thing excludes or negates the other. This approach to dealing with people and issues can stifle critical thinking since it fails to acknowledge complexity and ambiguous.
- Hasty Moral Judgements: We all have our own ideas of what we believe to be right and wrong. This is normal and fine. However, quick moral judgments become a barrier to critical thinking when we make assumptions about people, places and things on the basis of limited observation, the opinions of others and our personal preferences. These snap verdicts can prove especially problematic when they inform how we treat others and respond to issues.
- Labels: As we interact with the world around us, we attach labels such as good, bad, healthy unhealthy, positive, or negative to everything. When we do this, we form stereotypes, lump things and people together and make generalized statements that are unhelpful and untrue, thereby by undermining our ability to practice critical thinking.
- Resistance to Change: Change is hard and at some point or the other, we have all been guilty of resisting change in both our personal and professional life. We demonstrate our resistance to change by responding instantly and negatively to ideas, beliefs and attitudes that do not line up with our own. When this behavior is driven by our emotions, it becomes hard for us to apply critical thinking to make sound and rational decisions.
Real Life Application: Thinking Critically About the COVID Vaccine
As COVID-19 vaccines become increasingly more available, we will all have to decide whether to take the vaccine or not. While this is a touchy issue for some, it is one we will need to think critically about as we determine how to continue to protect ourselves, our families and by extension the community. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an increase in people across the world voicing opposition to vaccinations (Anti Vaxxers). But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and scientists and governments across the world scrambled to develop a vaccine to halt the spread of the coronavirus, the anti-vaccine sentiment went up a thousand-fold. Since then, we have been bombarded with all kinds of conspiracy theories about the vaccine, news about side effects, as well as mixed messages from people in authority to include religious leaders, politicians and even trusted friends and family.
Even in my own circle, I have heard some persons voice strong objections to the vaccine due to the unanswered questions, uncertainty about its effectiveness, as well as genuine fears about how it might impact their bodies and health in the future. On the other hand, I also have friends and coworkers who have taken at least two of the three vaccines available in the U.S. with no complaints or remorse. So how do you cut through the noise to decide on taking the vaccine or any other issue you might be dealing with?
I’ll admit that at first, I also had reservations about taking the vaccine. This was because I didn’t have full information about the vaccines available and I wanted to play the wait and see game to assess if and when anything went wrong. And since I have working from home and have been taking all the necessary precautions, I felt reasonably safe. But recently, I had to reassess my position when I was faced with the prospect of returning to the office and given an opportunity to sign up for the vaccine. Was I going to take it? If yes, why and if not, what was driving my decision? Was it fear of possible harmful side effects or the undue influence of friends and family? What information did I have, or what additional information did I need? And what if I did not take it and got sick, would it have been worth it? What are the benefits? Does my faith affect my decision? After running myself through this process of questioning- I made the decision to register to get my shot.
Though your decision about the COVID-19 vaccine or the variables you might need to consider in your next decision(Or whatever you are dealing with) might be different from mine, your ability to think critically, suspend judgement and process information to arrive at the right decision will be important. Here are a few questions that you can use to strengthen your critical thinking skills and make the right decisions for you:
- What information or data do I have or need?
- What could go wrong if I make this decision? What are the possible negatives?
- What are the positives and benefits of making this decision?
- Is there another way of looking at this? What are my alternatives?
- How do I feel about this? What is my sixth sense/intuition or gut feeling?
- What will I do next? How will I put my plan into action?
In closing, I cannot make any of your decisions for you, nor am I recommending a band-aid to solve any of your problems. So, the next time you have a problem to solve or a decision to make, I urge you to use these tips to think critically. Should you do so, I’m confident that you will end up much better outcomes.
Until next time, Remember, It’s A Learning Life!