It can be very easy to point out the window…
The challenge is to look into the mirror.
A quote attributed to Alan Alda reminds us that our “assumptions are the windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while or the light won’t come in.”
Assumptions. We all make them. They can help us make sense of our world and navigate our journey. They can also create huge obstacles, narrow-minded thinking, and fear-based decision making.
Early in their book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work Chip and Dan Heath outline four cognitive traps (they label them as “villains of decision making”) when it comes to decision making (and critical thinking). If we do not recognize and understand these pitfalls we undermine our abilities to make appropriate and right-minded decisions.
- Narrow Framing. This occurs when we look at a situation and only give ourselves limited choice options (usually just two). Either A or B. This one or that one. Black or white. Go or stand still.
#My example. Listen to the political diatribes and the shrill voices of the 2016 presidential campaign. Lots of “either my way or no way.” Not much choice other than either you are “with the team” or “against the team.” This way is correct; that way wrong.
- Confirmation Bias. This happens when we lean toward or agree with only information that confirms already held personal beliefs. We tend to overlook or dismiss anything that may challenge or disprove our opinion.
#My example. Perhaps you know folks who get their “news” from only one source or perspective. Anything else they consider suspect. Or a corporate manager or educational leader wants to move the company/college in a certain direction. She believes so strongly in the position, only evidence that supports that decision is given any real attention.
- Short-term Emotion. Pressures and conflicts in the near term can cloud the long-term solution. If we make decisions based on an immediate and visceral response we may be missing the bigger picture.
#My example. This really calls to question what we pay attention to. If we steep ourselves in nothing but fearful images (see #1) about a topic, issue, or group of people then our decision may be knee-jerk with little well-rounded information to support our position. Would we want to make a business or financial investment or career move in this manner? (The Heath brothers present an intriguing statistic: In 2009, more than 60,000 tattoos were reversed. What was initially embraced with enthusiasm, wanes on further consideration after the fact. See page 5.)
- Over Confidence. Confidence and belief in self can be powerful. And it can create awful consequences if we do not step back and understand and question our assumptions about what we know and what we do not know.
#My example. A strategy I used with my students encouraged them to move outside of their “I-know-all-about-this” mindset. I would write three columns on the board: “What I definitely know about this topic,” “What I think I know about this topic,” and “What I would like to know about this topic.” Then we would start to support, debunk, and add to our knowledge base. No shame in not knowing. I would think it would be more embarrassing to continually shout shrilly about a position, only to be dead wrong (see Confirmation Bias above).
When we make decisions we have to understand that cognitive traps will undermine us. You need only look at political debates, corporate politics, community disagreements, or even your own self arguing with your own self!
Video recommendation of the week. Julia Galef in this TEDx Talk explains the decision-making dilemma as “motivated reasoning” with an interesting metaphor.
As this week unfolds, it would do us all well to pause from time to time and analyze our decision making and critical thinking. It can be very easy to point out the window and say, “Geez, if only they knew how to critically think.”
The challenge is to look into the mirror and ask, “How am I doing with my critical thinking?
Make it an inspiring week and H.T.R.B. as needed.
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My books Choices for College Success (3rd edition) and Study Skills: Do I Really Need This Stuff? (3rd edition) are published by Pearson Education.
(c) 2016. Steve Piscitelli. All rights reserved.