Two definitions of “Critical Thinking in Life”
There seems to be two general definitions of critical thinking. One is having a systematic approach to analyzing a situation and making a decision about it. The other definition is to be able to look at—and improve—the quality of your own thinking.
In this chapter we’ll approach critical thinking both ways. Starting with the second definition, we’ll ask you to look at your own thinking, your past successes and failures at important life decisions. Then, using the first definition, we’ll provide you with one or more methods for analyzing a situation and making a decision when you know you should take time to make a good decision.
This Bonus Webpage Is Optional and Experimental
People write whole books about critical thinking. So do we really think one webpage can change your life? We think this one might — if you follow instructions and exert some effort.
Why do we think this could really change your life? First, there’s substantial research that shows that mental rehearsal can improve performance. Our central exercise is based on the idea of doing rehearsal/visualizations about the moments of decision. In other words, we thought up some common-sense exercises that make you look at your own thinking, and then create a better script for the moments of decision.
One thing that our life experience tells us is that maybe only 5% of the people who read this page will actually go all-in and do the exercises. That’s okay. Some readers may feel fine about their critical thinking abilities. Others may not be ready to do this now. Still others would benefit greatly, but some of the obstacles that we’ll discuss will prevent them from doing it. That’s regrettable, but all we can do is point out the many benefits and payoffs, and let you decide.
Another thing that our life experience tells us is that serious people are open to feedback to make their methods better. We’re talking about ourselves here. In other words, we will be conducting quasi-experiments with this webpage. We’ll look for people who want to improve their critical thinking abilities so as to make better decisions. We’ll give them these materials and ask them to keep checking in with us over a couple of months. We plan to use their feedback to improve the materials, and to give you a sense of how well (or poorly) they work. We’ll even plan a follow-up a year later to see if the participants have really integrated the skill. [If you’d like to be part of this study, contact us.]
Finally, earlier we stated that we expect that people will need about 14 hours to do the Critical Thinking and Strategic Action 1.0 course. We don’t consider this to be part of the course. It’s a bonus section. The exercises for this page may take 10 hours over two months, but we believe they can give most people huge benefits.
Our Little Joke about 1% Enlightenment
Zen masters are supposed to be totally enlightened, 100% awake and alive.
It seems like life would be so much better if we were fully awake, fully in touch with each moment of our lives! But if you look into the Zen path, ultimately a lot of effort and obedience are required. You also have to give up a lot — many small sacrifices and some big ones. Few people are really serious about attaining that kind of enlightenment.
But if you look at life, one way to think about it is that you live in chunks of time, and in between each chunk or period of time is a decision. For instance, after work you might ask yourself, “Should I play a video game or read a book?” Maybe you decide to play a game. When you’re playing, you are in the flow of it. When it ends, it’s time to make another decision.
Our little joke about 1% enlightenment is this: About 1% of your time might be spent making decisions about how you will spend the other 99%. If you can be really awake, really alert while you are making those decisions, you’ll probably make good decisions about the other 99% of your time. You won’t be a Zen monk, but this 1% enlightened life wouldn’t be half bad!
By the way, in life there are “chunks within chunks.” For instance, a big life decision might be whether to work for company A or company B. After going to work for Company B, one morning you have several projects you could be working on. So you make a decision, and then for an hour or two work on a certain project. Then it’s time to make another decision.
Pay Attention to the Moments of Decision — What’s going on?
We’re only going to ask you to do two exercises – but do them over and over. The first exercise is the central one. It’s in three parts. First you are going to list some major decisions in your life, both the ones that turned out well, and the one’s that didn’t. Then you’re going to figure out what influenced how you made the decision. (Note that in some cases the process you used to decide was good, but it just didn’t turn out well. Or the process was bad and you just got lucky.) In the case of well-made decisions, you are going to rehearse the well-done aspects of the process. Finally, you’re going to mentally rehearse and visualize making similar decisions without making the mistake.
But before we do this, we’d like to present a list of things that interfere with clear thinking. If we were robots or computers, decision-making would be relatively simple: We’d ask ourselves what is the best use of the next chunk of time. To answer that question, we’d generate a list of possible uses of the next chunk of time, and then calculate the one that would give the most benefits relative to the costs. But since we’re not robots, there are other things that might be going on during the moments of decision:
[Obstacles to Clarity List]
1. Mood. Are we tired? Are we unfocused because we ate a lot? Or are we in a hurry to decide because we’re hungry?
2. Self-esteem/ ego issues. Are we wanting to look good? Wanting to appear intelligent or decisive? Are we telling ourselves that we don’t deserve better?
3. Social pressures. Are we wanting to be liked? Wanting to be noticed? Wanting to be accepted?
4. Attraction/repulsion. Are we being influenced (either positively or negatively) by the person making the request? How will our judgments of the people around us affect the decision?
5. Residual feelings. Do we have residual feelings from the event just prior? Will a recent success make us over-optimistic; will a recent failure make us be too wary or cynical? Will recent anger or grief affect our decision?
6. Persuasion or manipulation techniques. (There are too many to list here. But one simple example is that the person asking you for something gave you something recently, so you feel some obligation to reciprocate. You can search on “Influence Robert Cialdini” for some articles or videos about these techniques.)
7. Greed or over-eagerness for a potential reward, or fear or aversion of an appropriate consequence. An example of the first is a hasty decision. As an example of the second, you might decide to lie to cover up for a mistake you made, but that will just get you into deeper trouble.
8. Strong emotions. For instance, anxiety as you think about the possible consequences of a bad decision, or as you think about how much is at stake; or irritation at not having as much information as you want to make the decision. Because you feel so much stress or irritation, you rush the decision process to get it over with.
9. Wishful thinking. Unrealistic thinking. Irrational belief. For instance, believing that some relationship or situation will turn out well because it’s similar to something you saw in a movie—and that movie had a happy ending!
10. Laziness. For instance, not wanting to make mental efforts for maybe one hour — to systematically use a decision-making process (or use your worksheet created in Exercise 2 below). Instead of spending one hour, you might lose hundreds of hours of time, or lose thousands of dollars on a bad decision.
Exercise 1: Rehearsing
Here’s an example of how someone might go through these four steps – their imagined response is in italics:
1. What are some major decisions and recent decisions you made?
a. Accepting request to lead committee (ate up a lot of time)
b. Bad three-year relationship with John Doe.
c. Joining hiking group (made a lot of friends, get energy from walking.)
d. Learning to play guitar because I enjoy it so much.
e. Not learning a marketable skill when I could have.
2. Precisely what was happening or influencing you during the moment of decision to either make a good or bad decision? Use the above Obstacles to Clarity list to help become conscious of what was going on.
a. I was thinking that the people would like me more if I did the work. Also, I thought that it would be good for my resume, even though I really wasn’t interested in the goals of the committee.
b. In a relationship there were many decision points. At first it was plausible to believe that if I showed her a lot of support and unconditional love that she would give up her partying, drinking, and drugs. But later I just kept hoping against hope in the face of evidence. Also, to be honest I was hooked on her body and passion.
c. I was thinking that I needed the exercise and it would be a good way to meet a lot of people. I didn’t have to love them all, and I could always move on if there was no one interesting.
d. I started and quit a couple times, but then I decided that I really got deep enjoyment from music. So I faced the music.
e. When my uncle offered to teach me plumbing, I told myself that I was better than that. He offered to teach me, and if I liked it and got good at it, it would only require paying for an exam in a year or so. But I was starting college locally and I pictured myself an executive with my business degree.
3. Briefly re-imagine a decision that was made poorly, but imagine it being made with more self-awareness and thought. In this step, don’t just make a statement like, “If I had to do it over again, I never would have agreed to X.” What we’re asking you to do is to take a couple of minutes to re-enact the decision in your mind, using your own style and language, but with a more self-aware and controlled process of deciding.
e. My uncle is asking me and I am feeling some aversion to getting my hands dirty and dealing with muck in toilets and the rest of it. I picture the comfort of an office job. But I think that I should take time to really weigh the costs and benefits. Whether or not I do it, it would be a big life decision. So I tell him I will think it over.
When I think about it, I weigh the costs and benefits. One cost would be time away from studies—but I’d have the benefits of my uncle being flexible with my schedule. A benefit would be that I’d be able to fix my own plumbing problems, or at least be knowledgeable enough to know when someone is good or overcharging. I’d also have something to fall back on if my future company downsizes. A big benefit is that I can see how it is without paying any money up front and I can quit at any time. So I will give it a try!
4. Now rehearse some other similar decision situations that could happen at this stage in your life. The key is to really put some effort into imagining the situation and acting it out physically. Say it out loud and use whatever posture and gestures you normally use. Pretend you are directing yourself in a play or movie. When athletes visualize they are trying to make it as real as possible in their minds. Do the same.
It’s important to visualize or pretend to feel the emotions or feelings that you’d expect to have in that situation, and not imagine that you’ll feel different or that you will just ignore or suppress the feelings. For example, if you normally have anxiety when you make a big decision, don’t pretend that you won’t have the anxiety; instead, imagine yourself talking through the anxiety saying something like, “Okay, I’m feeling anxiety, but its okay to have these feelings since a lot is at stake. However I will still go through the process of thinking through the benefits and costs.”
Similarly, you can talk to the person who may be pressuring you to decide fast, saying for instance, “I have a feeling you think this should be an easy and fast decision, and I wish it were too, but since so much time [or money, or “relationship-future” or reputation, etc.] is at stake, I’m going to take a day to think this over.”
There are two general kinds of decisions to rehearse. One kind is the big moments-of-decision when a lot is at state — a relationship, a lot of money or a huge investment of time. The other kind is smaller decisions that are made repeatedly so that they add up to having a similar huge impact on relationships, your time or financial future.
Again, the important thing is to act it out as fully as possible. This is critical because an intellectual rehearsal won’t reach or touch all the emotional, psychological and physiological factors. Actors, to be believable, must fully commit. You should, too.
Now think about your work life, home life, relationship life and “goal-life” and think about some possible upcoming decision situations. Think about the area of life where you most often make bad decisions. Then role-play making good decisions.
Formal Decision Making
So many very good decision-making strategies have been devised that we won’t present any new ones here. Rather, we will just sketch the basics and suggest that you find one that appeals to you.– If you like it, you’re likely to use it!
The basics seem to be that decision-making is five steps. First you assess the situation or problem. Then you generate alternatives. Then you pick the best alternative, based on your goals, values and available resources (time, money, skill, help from others, etc.) This is the actual decision step. Then you create and carry out a plan based on your decision. That’s it!
Below, five different approaches are briefly summarized with links to detailed descriptions. You can find many more, by doing a search with terms like “life,” “decision-making,” “steps,” “making wise choices,” “making good decisions,” and “efficient decision-making.”
A very clear and logical set of steps – for anyone, not just teens.
This method really has eight steps.
A set of steps that seem more thoughtful and complete than most others. (But ads on the page are sort of dropped into the text.)
Unlike the others, this model talks about consequences and tradeoffs.
Systematically compare the benefits and costs of many alternatives.
Make your own model by simply turning one of the models into a set of questions that you ask yourself! Then add in questions from some of the other models. The more questions you have, the better. You won’t have to answer every one. If you put these questions in a document file, you can make copies of the file and use it as a worksheet. — Then use it for big life decisions! It might help you to create a personal rule for yourself such as: “If strong emotions such as a fear of losing a lot of money or time, or excitement regarding a possible shining opportunity confronts me, I will use the worksheet to consciously optimize my decision.”
By the way, we suggest adding a step to whatever decision-making model you choose: Once you are almost settled on your alternative and plan, ask yourself, “Is this the best, most loving use of some of my time and life?” If it doesn’t feel the best, most loving use of your life, maybe keep working on it!
[This page and website brought to you by Group Genie, a nonprofit creativity team and action network, headquartered in Pittsburgh. Learn more at GroupGenie.Org.]