Today’s topic is a critical thinking – which is a fun and stark contrast to my last post which was describing my Tarot journey and the lessons from learning and embracing Tarot – so today is the other end of that scale for anyone who is more interested in the more logical, rational, and reasonable side of thinking.
What even is Critical Thinking?
The interesting thing that I think about myself when I consider the topic of critical thinking is that, of course, I had heard the phrase in my early adulthood and never gave it too much thought.
Until- I specifically remember – once in a work situation: someone in charge of a meeting asked a question and the room was silent and the person said “come on use your critical thinking skills, what does this situation mean.”
I remember, at that point, recognizing that while I had heard the phrase critical thinking before I didn’t really know what it meant and I was already an adult in the workforce by this point. I remember feeling confused by the term critical thinking.
I don’t think I ever had a critical thinking course or if I did I didn’t remember a specific class or lesson in elementary school or high school and I really don’t remember being exposed to it as a standalone topic in college.
The Best Way to Learn
And the reason why I think this is funny, is because a few years later, I was hired as an adjunct faculty member and one of the courses that I was approved to teach was called Research Methods and, really, it was a critical thinking course. So, obviously I was qualified to teach it – based on my educational transcript and resume- even though I could not put specific words to a definition. It makes me further believe one of my favorite expressions: the best way to learn something is to teach it!
So, today I want to give you my personal definition of critical thinking and tell you why, through teaching that Research Methods course, I fell in love with the idea of critical thinking.
I want to give you some examples of how you can use critical thinking as you evaluate the messages and offers and suggestions that you get from the outside world – and, more importantly, how you can use critical thinking to evaluate the messages and offers and suggestions that you get from your own brain.
Did you feel that same panic (or maybe just uncertainty) that I felt in that work meeting when you read this topic today? Did you feel like ”well, yes that’s a familiar phrase, but actually I don’t even really know what she’s referring to with critical thinking?”
Or is this just a normal every day phrase that you could use and understand in any kind of context? And how often do you just think about your own thinking? How often do you think about Critical Thinking?
You know, that’s one of my favorite things to do: is to get awareness around my thoughts and decide intentionally which thoughts I want to keep and which thoughts are no longer helpful to me or were never helpful in the first place.
Goals about Critical Thinking
So, my question to you, to set the stage, is how often do you think about thinking, and how often do you think critically about your thinking?
My goals are to, first of all, give you a definition of critical thinking, then I want to talk about why we don’t think critically all the time, what is standing in our way from employing our own critical thinking abilities, and I’ll finish by giving you a few suggestions about how you can practice critical thinking every day .
Definitions of Critical Thinking
The dictionary definition of critical thinking is the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment. So that sounds pretty academic and maybe even a little scientific.
Basically, what that means is when you think critically, you analyze and evaluate- without bias- before making a decision about whatever the topic is.
My more conversational, layperson definition of critical thinking is that it’s thinking about the source of a message, thinking about the motivation of that source, and then using logic and reason to evaluate the source instead of using emotion to make a decision about the message.
I also include noticing thinking errors in my own definition of critical thinking. The other addition that I’ve made to my own definition of critical thinking is that it’s using your prefrontal cortex, not the primitive brain in decision making.
Source and Motivation of a Message
When I think about a message I like to think about who is the source of this message and what is the motivation of that source?
A very simplistic way to do it would be to ask yourself who’s sending this message? Is it a friend, family member, stranger, advertiser, salesperson? Is it someone who wants something from me? Or for me?
Another differentiation that we make, maybe almost immediately, or subconsciously or subliminally is asking if the motivation of the messenger is to inform or to influence or to validate or to flatter? We’re instantly trying to figure out why this source is sending us this message.
One thing that’s so interesting about noticing the source and the motivation of the message is that you may evaluate the same message differently based on who the source is or who you think the source is.
Same Message, Different Sources
If politician A says something, there would be a group of people who would believe it and who would agree with it and then if they discovered that it was misquoted and it was actually politician B who said it, that same message with exactly the same delivery and meaning, suddenly all of the people who agreed and believed with the message from A would find themselves disagreeing and not believing the message – just because it came from B. Isn’t that so crazy? And I have to say I might be guilty of that same flip-floppery, when I’m not aware of what I’m thinking and why.
Source and Motivation Examples
Imagine that a friend of mine listens to this episode today and after she listens to it, she sends me a message that says “I loved that episode. You did an excellent job.”
So, if I think about the source and her motivation for sending that message, I can imagine that her motivation could be to make me feel good, or maybe to share her joy and appreciation with me, and maybe to deepen our connection.
If another friend sends me a different message, that has nothing to do with this episode, and nothing to do with me really, if she just wants to tell me that she just finished watching a television series that she really enjoyed and she thought I would enjoy it too.
Maybe her motivation is to inform me about something that she likes. Maybe she’s also trying to establish a deeper connection with me by encouraging me to watch and like the same thing that she likes.
So we really haven’t had to employ a lot of critical thinking yet with these two examples of friends messaging me. We can guess that their only motivation is probably just to share and to inform.
I guess we could say that in the second case of the television series that the friend was trying to influence my behavior by encouraging me to watch a show that she watched, but I don’t think we have to dig in too deep to make any judgments about those messages that I received from my friends.
Another example of a message that we could dig in deeper to evaluate would be if we’re driving on the freeway and we see an electronic billboard that is created and maintained by the Department of Transportation and that billboard has a message that says “Click it or Ticket.”
So, the source of the message is the state’s Department of Transportation. Maybe an engineer or maybe a policymaker or maybe a safety specialist. The source might also be the Department of Public Safety. I’m actually not sure who creates and directs and maintains those public service announcements.
When I think about what is the motivation of that message, I think it is to catch my attention with an easy to remember slogan.
And I think the motivation is to influence my behavior to buckle my seatbelt and remind me to buckle my seatbelt and maybe it’s even to plant an easy to remember slogan in my brain so that I repeat that slogan to other people because it is a fun thing to say “Click it or Ticket.”
The message is also creating a little bit of a warning for me: it’s suggesting that if I don’t “click it,” if I don’t have my seatbelt buckled, there is a chance that I could have a negative monetary repercussion, I could get a ticket.
And the motivation of that sign isn’t even implying or suggesting the real danger of not wearing a seatbelt- which is that I could die in an accident if I weren’t using that safety feature.
It’s so interesting to dig in deeper into that message that’s being delivered by either the Department of Public safety or the Department of Transportation or some other governmental agency and wonder what action they are trying to influence me to do and for what result and for whose benefit?
What About This?
Another sign we might see while we’re driving down the freeway, this time not created or maintained by a governmental agency, but actually owned and operated and maintained by a business, is an advertising billboard. The billboard might have a message telling me to buy something or check something out or go to a website or call the lawyer. In that case, the source of the message is the business or the advertiser.
And the motivation of the message is still to inform me or to make me aware of something or maybe remind me of something, for example, a brand or a business that I might not have been aware of before, and maybe the intention is to put something memorable in my mind, like a logo or a slogan or a product name, or to remind me of a phone number or a website, with the hopes that I will go and visit that or take action on it later when I’m not driving.
Those are all examples of how we could evaluate a message and notice who is the source of the message and what’s the motivation of the message.
A Message as an Offer
When I think about the message and evaluating the message I always like to translate the word “message” or replace it -with the word “offer.” I like to think of any input I receive as an offer and that reminds me that I always have the option to accept or decline.
I always get to decide what I want to do with what I’m being presented with. When I get a message or an offer, I might evaluate it based on who it’s coming from.
Is it a friend or a foe? Someone I like or someone who I don’t like? I can consider if this offer is a threat or a gift. Is it taking something away from me or is it offering me a benefit, or an advantage.
So, up to this point if we apply my definition of critical thinking to a message we are basically judging and deciding on who is the source of the message what is the motivation of the message and how should I evaluate this message.
You can do this quick exercise not only with messages that you get from the outside world: from advertisements and from friends and from social media, but you can also do this quick evaluation with messages that you get from inside of your own head.
You can consider your thoughts and consider what’s the source of the thought? Is it my amygdala, my primitive brain, the fear and threat detection center?
Or is it the logical, rational prefrontal cortex part of my brain which can think strategically and think of long-term consequences and benefits?
Is it a part of my brain that’s willing to prolong pleasure in order to have a greater benefit later or is it the part of my brain that doesn’t think about three steps ahead and only knows “pain bad, pleasure good.”
Being on the Lookout for Fallacies
Another way we can use critical thinking when evaluating messages is to think about if there are any errors in thinking, or fallacies. A fallacy is faulty reasoning. It’s a mistaken belief – especially when it’s based on an unsound argument.
Sometimes, I notice that many of my thoughts, at times, seem to be based on unsound arguments. I think I might do a whole episode about lies I tell myself and believe.
And when you think about it really, that is what resistance is. Resistance is the thoughts that you tell yourself and believe about why something isn’t possible, why you can’t do something, why this would never work, why people won’t like it.
Types of Fallacies
When I used to teach that critical thinking class, one of the exercises that we would do was to review and come up with examples of all the different types of logical fallacies like hasty generalization and logic turned on its head and strawman and appealing to guru hood.
(If you’re interested in learning more about logical fallacies I really recommend you just Google it because it really really is interesting to find those descriptions and examples and then start noticing them and catch them when you hear them from other people, from the media, in news reports, but it’s certainly the most interesting to catch them when you’re in a personal argument or conversation with a friend or family member. And, for me, the most interesting place to catch them is when I hear them from inside of my own brain.
One of these fallacies that I frequently fall victim to is “the crowd factor.” I notice that I feel a lot more calm and reassured about a decision if other people are making the same decision. And this makes perfect sense. This is my human brain. This is a time and energy-saving thinking shortcut that tells me if other people are doing this that it must be safe, or it must be appropriate, or it must be OK. That’s a fallacy!
I can notice that when I make a decision based on the actions or opinions of “the crowd” instead of FOMO fear of missing out, I like to call this one FOBLO: “fear of being left out.”
I’m just curious if you have any examples of that in your own life – if you go along something, without even really questioning it, without even really noticing if you want to go along with the crowd or if you agree with the crowd or if the crowd has any additional certainty if this is the right choice for you or not.
Why we Don’t Think Critically
I already brought up the idea that when you evaluate the source of your own thinking and your own messages and offers you may be getting an idea from your primitive brain or you may be getting a suggestion from your prefrontal cortex.
Knowing that, I believe that the reason why we don’t think critically all the time is because it really actually does take longer. It’s not as instantaneous as it is just to follow the suggestion or the utterance or the urge that comes from your primitive brain.
Obviously, thinking critically and taking the time to slow down and evaluate and consider takes more of our own mental capacity and energy as well. And the most basic reason is: I just don’t think we are in the habit of thinking critically
We Don’t Slow Ourselves Down
Even just this awareness, that frequently we follow the directives and suggestions of our primitive brain without considering if this is really what we want in the long term, if this is really beneficial to us, if we are believing a lie that we’re telling ourselves or acting on a fallacy that our brain has come up with for us, we can give ourselves a little grace and forgiveness and compassion for noticing that of course we don’t think critically all the time.
Of course we don’t slow ourselves down to evaluate and consider. We don’t do this and other people don’t do this ,so it lets us also be forgiving and compassionate and graceful to our friends and our family members and our media and our politicians and are strangers who also don’t think critically.
We’re just not in the habit to do it. And it does take more energy.
Think Critically More Often
If you are completely excited and interested now to learn about how you can think critically more often and maybe even be an example to all those friends, and family members, and strangers, here are three suggestions about how you can practice critical thinking every day.
The first thing you can do is ask yourself: how do I know this is the case? You can get curious about it. You can backtrack to the source of the information to figure out if, it is in fact, the case or not.
The second thing you can do is ask yourself “who is telling me this and why.”
And this question applies both to external messages that you get from outside of your brain (from other people, from the media, from strangers) as well as the internal internal messages that you create for yourself, in your own mind.
And then the third suggestion that I have for you about how you can think critically more frequently is not only to notice your thoughts, but also, to actually notice how you are feeling.
So when you think a thought, when you notice that you have a suggestion, or a message, or an offer… You can check in with your body. Notice do you currently feel threatened? Do you feel angry? Or does this message make you feel calm? Does this offer make you feel abundant? Or hopeful or excited?
Your Emotions as a Clue
Your emotions are useful in helping you notice what part of your brain is giving you information about a message, or an offer.
If you notice yourself getting angry while you’re reading a news story you can then backtrack a little bit and wonder why am I getting angry? Do I feel threatened? Do I feel fear? What part of reading this news story is making me feel threat or fear?
Just dropping into your emotion and noticing the emotion that is associated as you’re receiving the message might help you stop and remember “wait a second, who is the source of this message and what is their motivation? are they trying to scare me with this article in order for me to take action.
Or Am I just reading neutral facts that I personally have thoughts around and those thoughts are fear-based thoughts?”
In that case the message of fear might be coming from inside of your own brain and not necessarily the information that you’re reading from an outside source.
Just to sum up the message and offer I’m giving you right now. My motivation is absolutely to inform you, and to influence your behavior.. And also to deepen a connection with you!
My Suggestion for You
I am suggesting that consider who’s telling you what and why whenever you get a message – either from the outside world or from inside of your own head. And, I am suggesting that you notice if you’re falling victim to any errors in logic. And, I hope you do decide to check in with your emotions when you take in messages so you can better determine which part of your brain is responding – the fear center, the amygdala, or the logical, rational center of your brain.
And, now, I also want to influence you to take action. I want you to tell me your reaction to my definition and suggestions so I can think critically about what you have to say!
Get the Companion Workbook
Want to get a worksheet that summarizes 6 Habits that Hinder Thinking? It’s included in the companion workbook, along with many of the exercises and worksheets that go along with each of the other posts on this site – so no matter when you joined me, and no matter what you’re currently working on, if you download the companion workbook you should be able to follow along with most of the worksheets and exercises that I mention. Go get that pdf right now.