When you need superhero skills, and your cape is in the wash, critical thinking is your best alternative. Whether you’re looking for that killer line in a difficult conversation, confidence when working remotely or clarity in a tricky relationship at work, critical thinking skills can get you a lot further than wearing your pants over your trousers.
‘Critical’ in this case is not about ‘critically important’. It’s about acting as your own critic, assessing your line of thought and making it as strong and robust as possible. Once you get into a habit of watertight thinking, you’re unassailable – much like a superhero.
When we make hasty decisions or get caught in a tough conversation, we might do or say something without thinking. We stray into pitfalls, doing or saying things that we might later regret. At work, this can be costly. By thinking critically, you can shine a light on the pitfalls, spot them in advance and find a way round them, eventually doing so by habit. At that point it becomes easier to see them in other people’s line of thought.
Problems in thinking come in all shapes and sizes, though they’re usually known as fallacies and biases. In our eLearning Learnflix course on Critical Thinking, we identify the more common examples. You’ll probably be familiar with some of them already.
An easy example is the circular argument fallacy. When Anna’s manager says she can’t be promoted to management level because she is not at that level yet, this argument is punctured by the spiky demands of logic. Logic and reason are difficult to get past, together they’re effectively the forcefield on which critical thinking depends.
A conclusion in a conversation – no matter how loudly it’s presented – must rely on a logical, reasoned argument. In the example above, the argument is not rational, it’s circular. The manager’s objection, if unsupported by anything else, is no reason to stop the promotion.
The manager might claim instead that Anna isn’t management level because she has dark hair or likes football. Targeting Anna for who she is rather than the skills she possesses (or lacks) is an attack on her as a person which might stem from more deep-seated biases, as explained below. Again, it’s no reason to stop her promotion. In fact, this is the ad hominem fallacy (from the Latin for ‘to the person’) and is also vulnerable to logic.
Other fallacious claims include the false suggestion that Anna doesn’t really want to be promoted at all. Falsely stating a position like this is known as the straw man fallacy (from the straw targets bayoneted by soldiers in training, a poor representation of people in battle). Other fallacies relate to probability. Anna might feel that whether she gets the job will come down to factors and events, past and present, that in truth are unrelated.
Fallacious thinking goes hand in hand with claims that also veer away from reasoned argument, for example biases. Fallacious conclusions stem from disjointed thinking. Biases on the other hand are shaped by more deeply held opinions or assumptions. They tend to prop up conclusions that are unsupported by a reasoned way of thought.
Anna’s manager might believe she hasn’t done much work at a senior level. This might erroneously be explained by something that the boss is biased about (perceived flaws in Anna’s background or personality, for example) – rather than the simple fact of lack of opportunity. This is an example of the fundamental attribution error.
If Anna’s manager were told about this error, she might still try to win the argument by pointing to evidence of Anna’s imagined flaws. But by looking for things she already imagines, the manager is simply confirming only what she wants to believe. Confirmation bias prevents her seeing the wider truth. As far as she’s concerned, Anna’s never going to be promoted – at least not by her. And so she doesn’t promote Anna, in a self-fulfilling prophecy (…another form of bias).
By seeing when fallacies and biases are present, it becomes easier to deflate them – or ask for help from others in doing so. Critical thinking can give you these skills. It can help you get round the flawed thinking of others by strengthening your own reasoned arguments. And that makes critical thinking a great superpower to keep in your mental armory.