The Importance of Critical Thinking
Updated: May 11
“If there was one life skill everyone on the planet needed, it was the ability to think with critical objectivity” - Henry David Thoreau
Us humans are irrational by nature. We often rely on our opinions we haven’t thought through. We don’t take into account other factors that may give rise into possibly changing our opinions. Having an opinion is one thing, but to fully or partially believe in it and make paramount decisions on the basis of our beliefs, the very beliefs that might possibly be standing on a thin layer of irrationality, could lead to disastrous situations.
We all want to avoid such situations.
One of the most sought after attributes amongst employees is critical thinking. As the world becomes more and more technologically sound, the dynamics of work are getting faster by the day. Our current ventures in technological advancement demands more critical thinking than ever before, and will continue to do the same in the future.
So what is critical thinking?
Critical thinking in simple terms means to think the right thing. Here, the term ‘right’ doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be moralistically right, although it is encouraged that we do pivot towards the grounds of morality. Critical thinking entails the logic or conclusion we currently have must be supported by our former logic(s).
This could simply look like:
Logic A + Logic B ∝ Final conclusion C
The best example of our absence of critical thinking is that we mistake correlation, causation and coincidence.
For instance, we can evaluate a strong correlation in tropical countries between the rise in shark attacks and ice cream sales.
Here, we cannot conclude one situation is affecting the other or vice versa but rather the cause is the hot weather that potentially allows people to buy ice cream and go swim in seas that populate sharks. There has been enough data that has been collated to support the latter conclusion.
Given that it is fairly obvious and easy to distinguish the lack of similarity when it comes to sharks and ice creams, there are often situations that may fall inside the same realm. This is when it can get tricky, and we may fall into the trap of selective thinking.
Couple of scenarios related to critical thinking at work could be something like this:
1. Business scenario: A new feature was added to the existing application and downloads started to ramp up twice than the usual speed. We would like to think it’s the new feature that is resulting in higher downloads.
Is it caused by the newly added feature?
If so, how do we back up our hypothesis?
Do we have enough data?
What is the validity of the data?
Where and when is the data from?
Should we understand more facets of this change?
How much time are we going to spend on this? Is it worth doing?
What other changes have occurred recently in the organisation that might have caused it rather than the newly built feature?
Do we need to speak to someone outside of our department to understand their perspective on this? What about Marketing? What about Sales?
In the above example, to support a conclusion there are several other premises to be validated. Without finding an answer to each of the questions, the final conclusion might just be a correlation or simply, coincidence. In business, it isn’t wise to spend budget on the grounds of correlation. One might argue these are too many questions for a trivial find. However, if the answers are clear, they might come in handy in the important decision making process for the firm going forward.
2. Personal scenario: You witnessed a video on social media where there is a hot debate going on. There have been direct accusations from the seemingly ‘affected’ individual A to another group/individual B. On the basis of what you know, you conclude individual A is completely correct and is also the victim. That also meant you posting derogatory comments against individual B.
Do I have or need to get involved?
Would I rather be doing other priority activities?
Are individual A’s points valid? If so, how?
Do I have enough data or evidence to support that?
Why are individual B’s points not valid?
Do I want an opinion from someone I know?
How am I contributing to a bigger cause here?
Have I checked my emotional state currently?
Have I slept properly today?
Am I hangry right now?
In the above scenario, we have delved a little deeper into our conclusions and tried asking questions that should potentially support our hypotheses, or not. Understandably, it seems that there are a lot of questions for an absurdly minor activity, one might think. However, we all know how social media has been contributing to shaping our socio-political landscape and altering our belief systems. This doesn’t seem like a minor or trivial case in any sense.
There’s also a fantastic case study done in Harvard Business Review on making a personal decision between your company or your cousin. It’s a good read/listen.
So, how can we foster more critical thinking?
We could potentially adopt habits and activities that can engender critical thinking as below:
Challenge our own logic
This can be a tough one. This entails questioning our own logic web or chain. How our thought patterns emerged over-time could be the result of our selective thinking, and we might still be uninformed. This can be prevented through cultivating a learning/growth mindset. Laying off our hubris helps. Gathering real data helps solidify our stance in our decision making process. Creating your own mind map on a piece of paper or a tool like Mural helps.
2. Using outside the box perspectives
As much as we like to think a particular piece of work is ours and ours only, it is not always the truth. The truth is that our work and opinions are not always inherently ours as there are plenty of interconnectedness of them amongst other facets. It is always good to get a fresh pair of eyes and different opinions to evaluate our current work or thinking patterns. More likely than not, to our surprises, we may have experienced some valuable feedback from parties outside of our usual bubble. This supports the argument on the importance of having different perspectives. One activity that can be done to induce this is by forging relationships with people outside our departments or teams.
3. Daily habits
Performing physical and spiritual activities can help. We all know a healthy body is a healthy mind and vice versa. Whether it’s going for a walk or blocking out some time-frame in a day to perform a mindfulness meditation is a good start. Having enough sleep is not talked about often. The clear mind that ensues after a good night sleep can help inhibit the muddy thinking, which often is the proponent of selective thinking. An unclear mind often breeds regretful decisions.
Being rigorous in following a solid routine that supports a healthy body and mind is essential.
All we have to do from our end is to tap into our critical thinking skills, which is sort of a level of fitness in its own right. The more we exercise our critical thinking skills, the better we will get at it. This means objectifying the problem or scenario fully that is exempt from our common biases and fallacies. We opt for those to creep into our decision making process because thinking critically is not easy.
We can gather that the ever demanding markets as well as our daily lives seek for a sound decision making process, problem solving, creativity, growth and so on. A common potion amongst these components is critical thinking. We can appreciate how differentiating something as the most viable option, detached from a flurry of biases, retrospects and preconceived ideas can be tremendously onerous. The very fact that this is difficult makes it an attractive candidate to be mastered, for the sake of business and personal success.
HBR article - Helen Lee Bouygues
Case Study: Protect Your Company or Your Cousin? - Joseph L. Badaracco