One common misunderstanding when it comes to critical thinking is the assumption that human emotions and instincts are inherently faulty or unreliable – and that thinking critically thus means trying to overcome them.
In fact, there’s nothing wrong with following your instincts in most everyday situations. Indeed, attempting constantly to distrust your own feelings and experiences isn’t either sensible or possible, precisely because a combination of habit, emotion and experience is very effective at telling us what to do, say and think. We wouldn’t be able to function if we had to think hard about every single action and decision in our daily lives; and we’d almost certainly get a lot of things wrong if we did.
We do, however, have the ability to pause and to think more deliberately about some things – and it’s this ‘slow’, considered thinking that we develop when we improve our critical thinking skills. Importantly, we can also use this kind of deliberation as the basis for making better rapid decisions in the future; and for examining, and seeking over time to adjust, our habits. This is why the first and most important point about putting critical thinking into practice is about speed and selectivity: about knowing when, and how, to slow down and seek cognitive reinforcements.
In his bestselling book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman offers a useful phrase to describe the problem of relying too much on first impressions, feelings and the information we happen to have to hand. He calls this problem WYSIATI, a not-so-snappy acronym that stands for What You See Is All There Is.
This phrase describes something that almost all of us do all the time in everyday life: we form a judgement based on what we know, without pausing to consider whether we actually know enough to justify such a judgement.
If you develop a deep dislike of someone you work with because they have one unpleasant habit – picking their nose constantly, say – this may be a case of wrongly assuming that one thing you happen to have noticed means you understand what kind of a person they are. Similarly, if you only read just one article about a particular subject and then assume you can confidently analyse it, then you are mistakenly relying upon the most easily available information as if it were all you needed to know (for example, writing an essay about Daniel Kahneman based on a single Wikipedia entry).
For me, Kahneman’s great insight is not so much that we can’t trust our intuitions, but that we are dangerously poor at knowing when we shouldn’t trust them: that, thanks to a deeply engrained tendency to minimise mental effort, we often rely on mental short-cuts and rules of thumb even when the question we’re facing is not amenable to such short-cuts.
The 21st-century context of constant connectivity only makes this worse (and more open to manipulation). How often, online, are you called upon to trust – or to condemn – someone, or something, you have no informed experience of? And how often are you encouraged to do this at high speed, repeatedly, in the context of highly charged emotions?
Most people, I suspect, will find that they’re wrestling with such questions much of the time – and that coping with the sheer volume, speed and intensity with which information arrives in their lives is a constant challenge. There are, of course, plenty of ways of doing this successfully; not to mention of taking advantage of the immense riches and opportunities available online. For all of this, however, everything begins with one foundational piece of advice:
If something isn’t important, or you have plenty of relevant skills or experience, trust your gut. But if it matters and it’s novel or tricky, slow down and seek further information, insights and perspectives.
If you’re looking to develop just one habit when it comes to critical engagement, make it this.