Creative thinking, analytical thinking and critical thinking are different types of thinking that involve different processes and have different objectives. We likely engage in all three when seeking to understand a problem, find new solutions for it and decide on the best course of action.
So what is critical thinking?
I’ve noticed some misconceptions about critical thinking recently. It does not simply mean thinking more deeply about a matter or thinking negatively about it as in criticizing, although we do have a bias when it comes to negative critiques which will be discussed below.
Critical thinking is about thinking for ourselves and making our own judgments. Essentially, it means:
- gathering information,
- determining its credibility,
- assigning weight to it,
- seeking out what’s missing and
- forming our own conclusion.
When we take these steps in forming our own informed opinions, we can be confident that we aren’t just regurgitating what we have heard, regardless of where we heard it.
❓So what does this mean in practice?
There are a few common pitfalls to avoid when evaluating information. For example:
❌ The belief that it’s okay to get our news primarily from one source, as long as it’s credible.
Here’s a newsflash: There is no one, reliable source of news.
We all have biases that affect how we report events and the media is no exception. While they should be adhering to a higher standard of objectivity in reporting, we will find out that on any issue where opinions differ, coverage will differ.
❌ The belief that a source is credible because it cites 10 other sources that say the same thing or because 10 other sources say the same thing.
The problem here is that it’s easy to find multiple sources presenting the same facts. But what about the missing facts? Sources will often omit inconvenient facts. The only way to try to form a complete picture is to expose ourselves to sources with opposing views.
Here are some sources worth using as a starting point:
❗️Those that make a point of presenting opposing viewpoints on an issue, in the same article.
Strong arguments don’t omit inconvenient facts. They address them directly. Sources that present multiple arguments are a good starting point.
❗️Original sources, wherever possible.
This means original court opinions, studies, transcripts, the document at issue, the full footage of an event, etc. Of course it shouldn’t be our job to do the work of journalists, but we can usually put together enough to assess the credibility of some information by taking a glance at the original sources.
Thinking critically is about truly forming our own opinions and doing so responsibly.
The negativity bias and distinguishing negative critiques from critical thinking
Have you ever noticed the weight you give to a critical movie or book review vs. a glowing one?
Have you noticed the media’s obsession with bad news and criticism?
It often feels like the only way to get balanced coverage of a story is by switching between one source’s critique of one side to another source’s critique of the other side.
We have a tendency to view “critical talk,” or negative critiques, as the result of deeper critical thinking than positive interpretations or reviews. We even tend to perceive the providers of such negative takes as more intelligent (Professor Clifford Nass, et al.)((Alina Tugend, ‘Praise Is Fleeting but Brickbats We Recall’ (The New York Times, March 23, 2012)(citing Professor Nass). Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/24/your-money/why-people-remember-negative-events-more-than-positive-ones.html )). This is one aspect of a cognitive bias called the negativity bias, the tendency for negative information to have greater impact than positive or neutral information of equal significance.
It doesn’t mean we do it all the time or even that we all do it. That’s the thing about biases: they are tendencies but they aren’t hard and fast rules at play 100% of the time. Many other factors can make some of us more prone to see and value the positive.
❓When you read something positive, do you tend to be more skeptical of it?
❓Does a criticism of something come across as more thorough and knowledgeable?
This quote is from “The Purpose of Education,” an article written by MLK in 1947 for his college newspaper, The Maroon Tiger. Please read the article if you have a chance, for the fuller context of his words. While it was a reminder to think for ourselves and to use that ability for good purpose, to me, it’s also a reminder that our minds and our hearts do their best work together.
And the responsibility to think critically, to think for ourselves, cuts both ways: We never stop learning how to think, but it’s never too early or too late to stop telling others what to think.
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