January 16, 2022

Why We Need to Develop More Effective Critical Thinking Skills

“The unexamined life is not worth living” is a quote credited to the ancient philosopher Socrates. Many of us feel that we are strong critical thinkers, but the research shows that our capability in this area is likely less efficient and effective than we believe.
Moving on from Altruism to Critical Thinking

For the last two weeks, the blog focused on the humanist commitment of altruism as an essential element of the Humanist Manufacturing framework.  The first asked, “Is Altruism Good for Business?”.  The next shared that “Altruism is Good for Business” with examples of companies that outperform their competitors by using this as a core concept in their approach to doing business.  The following humanist commitment we will review is that of critical thinking.  Many of us feel that we are strong critical thinkers, but the research shows that our capability in this area is likely less efficient and effective than we believe.

What is Critical Thinking?

For this purpose, the definition of critical thinking is “The ability to think reasonably, detaching yourself from personal bias, emotional responses, and subjective opinions.  It involves using the data at hand to make a reasoned choice.”  The benefit of effective and efficient critical thinking is a better opportunity to solve problems and accomplish defined goals.  Developing a deeper understanding of the topic is essential to becoming better members of society in general and our work as humanist manufacturers.  Of course, to be genuinely critical thinkers, we should further evaluate whether we could improve upon this definition.

“Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work.” - Adrienne Rich
Why Listen to a Poet and Essayist?

In 2010 I accepted a job to teach at Mary Baldwin College, now Mary Baldwin University.  It was a good decision for several reasons at that point in my life.  I learned that it was a “liberal arts” college that was new to me.  As someone coming off of a thirty-year career in manufacturing, it sounded like something not of interest to me, but taking the job led me to embrace what the American Association of Colleges and Universities defines as the skills that should be gained from a liberal education found in their Essential Learning Outcomes: it turns out that “liberal arts” are also the critical elements of leading and running a successful business.  Of particular interest to this blog post is the essential skill of critical and creative thinking.  This expansion of insight has led me to be open to non-business individuals, helping to evolve my work approach.  Thus, a poet, essayist, and one of America’s foremost public intellectuals, I found Adrienne Rich was someone with valuable insight on the topic of critical thinking.

Is Our Brain on Cruise Control?

By the time we are in our thirties, 95% of how we function is hard-wired subconsciously, with only 5% done consciously.  If we want to change undesirable behaviors, we first need to become aware of our unconscious reactions.  If we agree that this is true, we can evaluate if our brain keeps us from being better at critical thinking.  Five potential barriers to this include:

1. Trusting your gut - Otherwise defined as intuitive thinking that automatically leads to the absence of analysis.  The intuitive thinking process allows our personal biases and experiences to cloud our decision-making leading to potential errors.

2. Lack of knowledge – Our current level of topic understanding, despite thinking otherwise, may not be sufficient to make a judgment that is critically thought out.

3. Lack of willingness – We must determine if we are open to using critical thinking.  If we honestly reflect on how recent decisions were made, it may help us determine if we are willing to fully use this necessary thinking process.

4. Misunderstanding of truth – Critical thinking requires an honest and objective pursuit of the truth.  Do we make decisions lacking empirical evidence to justify our review or instead rely on  commonsense/belief statements or unsubstantiated stereotypes?”

5. Closed-mindedness – Do we allow ourselves to consider alternatives?  An opportunity to participate in a “Devils Advocate” dialogue can reduce our rigidity in thinking, enable us to consider conflicting or divergent perspectives, and seriously consider the insight of others if we desire to become more open-minded.

Even the most brilliant among us are clouded in our critical thinking by how our brains operate.  The beauty of being intelligent is that we can continue to evolve our understanding of how our brain functions and respond appropriately.  

Key Takeaway  

“The unexamined life is not worth living” is a quote credited to the ancient philosopher Socrates.  Our ability to examine our true capability as critical thinkers is essential if we desire to make a more substantial positive impact on those in our personal and professional lives.  We must first understand that our brain is wired to cause unconscious reactions.  Fortunately, neuroplasticity allows us to rewire the desired changes in our brain through growth and reorganization, but only if we first understand that we need to do so and then put in what Rich described above as “hard work.”

First Step

I encourage individuals that desire a better understanding of the current critical thinking situation to read The State of Critical Thinking: A New Look at Reasoning at Home, School, and Work white paper from 2018.  The researchers found that 95% of survey participants saw critical thinking as an asset.  However, education institutions are not doing enough to develop this skill in their graduates.  Furthermore, people surveyed said they practice critical thinking, but the evidence showed a wide reality gap between perception and actual practice.  Instead of seeing this as a weakness or threat, I encourage us to see this as an opportunity to develop further this vital skill to improve both our personal and professional lives.

My Gratitude

I am grateful for the evolving research on neuroplasticity, where we are learning that we can rewire the brain.  Changes in the neural pathways occur through our experiences, which cause the brain to reorganize by repeating new favorable practices.  Using neuroscience to reshape our behavior requires effort to change and adapt the brain to feel motivated and apply the necessary focus.  Through repetition and practice, the new neural pathways strengthen.  Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), meditation, and mindfulness enhance neuroplasticity through repeated training and stillness.  Ultimately, just as physical fitness requires regular and balanced exercise to reshape the body, those wanting to rewire the brain need to do good work to achieve the desired result.  

Sneak Peek

Next week's blog will move from looking at barriers to critical thinking to improving our capability to apply this essential humanist commitment in our work as humanist manufacturers.

To learn more about our work or read more blog posts, visit emmanuelstrategicsustainability.com.

Cover Image Credit: Bruno Scramgnon from Pexels

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