Critical Thinking Calls for Critical Feeling

Image credit: Milad Fakurian/Unsplash

(I run workshops on critical thinking. Contact me if you’d like to learn more.)

The term “critical thinking” is a bit of a misnomer. There’s a danger of seeing the “thinking” part as a contrast with “feeling.” The critical thinker, according to a popular misconception, shunts feelings to one side and examines the facts of the case with cold, hard logic.

If our goal is to avoid mistakes in our reasoning and get closer to the truth, we need to approach reasoning tasks with the right mindset. That mindset includes a commitment to care and rigour in our thinking. But it also includes an open and curious disposition—a certain way of feeling about the matter. People who dismiss the role of feeling in their reasoning are more likely to be narrow-minded and resistant to change.

The Endowment Effect

In a famous experiment, two groups of students were invited to assign monetary value to a mug. Students in the first group were given a free mug and then offered various amounts of money for it. Students in the second group were shown the same mug and asked to choose between having the mug and having the money. The students in the first group were willing to sell their mug for an average price of $7.12. The students in the second group chose the money rather than the mug at an average offer of $3.12.

What explains the difference? Both cases are functionally the same: either you end up with money or you end up with a mug. And yet the first group valued the mug more than twice as much as the second group.

Psychologists call this phenomenon the endowment effect. The only difference between the students in the two groups is that the students in the first group think of the mug as theirs. People tend to inflate the value of something simply because it belongs to them.

A Win-or-Lose Battle of Ideas

Something similar happens in the marketplace of ideas. People have a tendency to hold on to certain ideas and beliefs as theirs. When they do this, they can be reluctant to give them up.

The language we commonly use to talk about reasoning and argumentation encourages this endowment effect. Think of all the military metaphors: I attacked her position, he shot down my argument, you tried to sink her argument but she defended herself well. The metaphors suggest a struggle to defend my ideas and to defeat yours.

The win-or-lose language of sports comes up a lot too: I scored points in that exchange, she really dunked on you, he delivered a knockout blow. This sort of language pits you as a competitor in a zero-sum contest. If you put an idea forward, you have to defend it all cost, or else you come out as the loser. No wonder people with this mindset can be stubborn in argument.

The Mindset of Exploration and Discovery

It doesn’t have to be this way. If ideas aren’t mine or yours, there’s nothing to defend—and nothing to lose.

What we need is a whole new set of metaphors, and the different set of emotional dispositions that come with them. Instead of thinking about thinking as a battle or a contest, think of it instead as a process of exploration and discovery. This mindset calls for openness and curiosity. The competitive mindset is guarded and wary of exposing itself to criticism. Lowering your guard allows you to take in more information and examine the facts without bias.

If you like the military metaphor, think of yourself not as a soldier but as a scout. Your job isn’t to capture territory and defeat your enemies. Your job is to make a careful survey of the land with the goal of accuracy rather than victory.

The truth is no one’s possession and you don’t have to fight for it. Your conversation partners aren’t competitors that you have to defeat but collaborators that can help you. If one of them disproves a claim you took to be true, instead of feeling defensive you can feel grateful. Thanks to their constructive intervention, you’re now a little closer to the truth.

Practice Makes Perfect (or helps you realize that “perfect” isn’t what you should be aiming at anyway)

It’s one thing to describe a mindset. It’s another to put it to work. Most of us are so conditioned by a competitive approach to reasoning that the habit can be hard to break. Even if we don’t do it ourselves, others will try to “win” arguments against us, which naturally makes us defensive.

Changing your mindset takes practice. Here are three exercises you can try out on a regular basis.

Think in probabilities

Instead of thinking that x is false or y is true, think in terms of probabilities. I think that Candidate A is a better pick than Candidate B, but how certain am I? Surely it’s not as obvious as 2 + 2 = 4—otherwise, why do so many reasonable people prefer Candidate B? So what is it? Am I 70% certain? 80%?

People are notoriously bad at reasoning probabilistically, so it’s good to get some practice. Doing so can make you more flexible about changing your mind. It’s a lot easier to shift from 70% confidence to 60% confidence than from 100% to 0%. Taking a probabilistic approach helps us get over a right vs. wrong mindset and allows us to adapt to the changing flow of information.

You can practice probabilistic reasoning all the time. Someone said they’d come visit you at 6pm—what would you say the odds are that they’ll be there by 6:05? You’re waiting at a bus stop—how likely is it that the bus will come in the next five minutes? You can make little predictions all the time and test them out to see how you fare.

Remember, this isn’t about being right all the time. If you make five bets with 80% confidence, you should be right four times out of five. If you got all five bets right, you should have been more than 80% confident.

Practicing with probabilities in this way will gradually hone your ability to make guesses with the right level of confidence. That practice will seep into the rest of your thinking as well. You’ll become much better at recognizing just how confident you are in the claims that you and others are making. Contrary to the win-or-lose mindset, you should almost never be 100% confident.

Practice being wrong

Every day, see if you can find something new you’re wrong about. It could be a trivial fact—what do you think the population of Bolivia is? Or it could be a fact about the life or values of someone you care about. But the goal of the exercise is to find out you’re wrong. If you’re right about everything, you’ve failed.

One goal of this exercise is to induce curiosity. To find out what you’re wrong about, you have to explore and test out your beliefs. Curiosity is the first thing that goes out the window when a win-or-lose attitude to argument sets you into a defensive crouch. It takes work to make a habit of curiosity.

Making a game of it can also make it fun to be wrong. If you take being wrong as a sign of weakness, you’ll never be willing to learn. This exercise makes being wrong into a win condition so it trains you to look forward to finding out you’re wrong.

Practice empathetic thinking

I’m pretty sure you’re wrong. You’re pretty sure I’m wrong. Well, at least one of us is wrong (maybe both of us are). If what I want is to get to the truth rather than simply win an argument, I should take your view seriously. One way of doing that is to imagine that you’re right.

No really, try imagining it. If you find yourself attached to a particular point of view, try stepping into the shoes of someone who disagrees with you. What might they say against you? Don’t just think through this like a tactician, trying to anticipate their next move so that you can offer counter-measures. Really try to inhabit their point of view, articulate to yourself what makes that view attractive. Try to feel its attractiveness.

This exercise in empathetic thinking can help lessen your attachment to a particular point of view. Remember, your views aren’t your possessions. You should be able to let them go lightly and try on alternatives. Imagining your way into alternative points of view will increase your flexibility and make you more willing to explore.

Think Better, Feel Better

These exercises aim to break the habits of one mindset and instill a different one. All of them are exercises in reasoning, so in that sense all of them are techniques for better thinking. But they’re also techniques for better feeling. The exercises train you to take a different attitude toward your reasoning, one that opens you up and makes you more flexible.

In that regard, critical thinking has an important dispositional element. You need to feel the right way about a problem if you’re going to think well about it.

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