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How To Think Critically in the Time of Snap Judgements

Seven questions to help you reframe your assumptions

Traffic on Lakeshore Drive | Photo by Jake Blucker on Unsplash

As a history major in college, I know all about making sure my sources are legitimate. Today I am both a programmer and a researcher, so I can think through at least a few things logically.

But more and more I’ve come to realize that unless I am actively working on something for a class or work, I just don’t put in the effort to think about things too deeply. Like, really put in the effort. I scan a Wikipedia page to find the key bit of information I want. When I see an online post on that same subject, I feel like I can make a general guess as to where I stand on that particular issue.

Whimsical flowchart showing grade-school level problem solving

In grade school we’re told that if we have a problem, we think about it for a while, consider what it’s asking, maybe do a little research, and you’ll come up with an informed opinion or answer. But in the age of easy internet access and rapid social media consumption, I’d argue that method is not enough—it’s actually severely lacking.

More and more we see companies curating ads and content based on the information they've gathered through our ‘likes’ and search history. Whether or not you realize it, an echo chamber is slowly being built around you without your consent.

Here’s where weak sense critical thinking comes in:

Weak sense critical thinking is when you know the rules of critical thinking, but you don’t realize the extent to which background beliefs, biases, and subconscious opinions are swaying you. You may be doing research and asking questions, but you are unconsciously confirming your already existing view by your specific word choices when searching Google or asking questions in a leading way.

Now more than ever, it's so difficult to overcome this or even notice you're doing it.

Let’s say you like gold sneakers. You search ‘gold sneakers.’ Suddenly Google, Facebook, and Instagram slam your feed with images of gold sneakers and ads for gold sneakers. You start thinking that you’re right on the money, on the cutting edge of the new gold sneakers fad, even if no one else is seeing them on their own feed.

Is it just me, or are these shoes speaking to me? | Photo by Brandon Kahler on Unsplash

You need to consciously notice that this echo chamber is happening and start pushing against those invisible walls. That argument that all your friends agree with you about on Facebook? Are you really on the right side, or is social media only echoing back your own opinions?

And don’t forget: it’s not just you. Everyone is in an echo chamber of their own.

Accessing your critical thinking skills

It seems like you can’t get a job without putting ‘great critical thinker’ on your resume. I’ve learned that everyone thinks they are pretty good at critical thinking—sometimes people say they are, even when they know they could use some practice and training.

It can only benefit your mind, your argument, and your communication skills if you thoroughly research what you’re speaking about. I encourage you to start trying to poke holes in your own arguments. Go even deeper: once you’ve found you can no longer defend your former viewpoint, start to ask yourself: what made me want to have that original opinion in the first place?

David Whited, the Director of Highland’s CX Practice, recently suggested I read The Book of Beautiful Questions by Warren Berger. It’s all about helping you think better, communicate more effectively, and exist in the world with the ability to make informed opinions. I gotta say, I love it and may never put it down. It is transforming not only how I want to communicate moving forward, but also how I want to think moving forward.

Questions to ask yourself

The Book of Beautiful Questions has a treasure trove of questions that will help you interrogate your own point of view. There are hundreds to choose from, but these are my favorites:

  1. What do I believe?
  2. Why do I believe that?
  3. Do I look for opposing views to what I believe?
  4. If someone argues with me, will I defend my belief? 
    Secondarily to this — How much do I need to be right?
  5. What would I like to be true?
  6. What if the opposite is true?
  7. Am I uncomfortable or pleasantly surprised when I find out I’m wrong?

In his book, Berger says that by asking questions, we learn, analyze, and understand — and can move forward in the face of uncertainty.

“When confronted with almost any demanding situation, in work or life, the act of questioning can help guide us to smart decisions and a sensible course of action. But the questions must be the right ones; the ones that cut to the heart of a complex challenge, or that enable us to see an old problem in a fresh way.”

— Warren Berger, The Book of Beautiful Questions


Learning how to press pause

These days, we are constantly asked to form an opinion, and often to pick a side. Coffee or tea? City or country? Yes or no? To put the pressure on, it’s expected that you’ll be able to answer immediately. If someone replies in the comments, it only takes a second to throw back a reply. In those moments, there is no time for reflection, and most often, people simply end up doubling down on their initial thoughts. In this day and age, quick replies are king, and silence is seen as making a choice.

Gif by @InnocentOnFOX

But what if you decided to resist the echo chamber and put a pause on your argument? What if you got comfortable admitting that you’re not as informed as you want to be on the subject, and would they mind if you continued discussing the topic in a few days? You might find as I have, in just the short time I’ve been practicing, that people are more than happy to wait until you’ve put in the work. They will actually think better of you because you care enough to do it.

Using these questions in your everyday life makes it so much easier to see the walls of the echo chamber and start inching towards the door. When you question what you think, why you think it, and why you want to think that way (this one is hard—it’s asking you to consider being wrong or actually being wrong), it becomes so much easier to understand the information presented to you. You’ll learn how to better communicate what you’ve learned in an informed way after considering all the perspectives of the issue.

Whimsical critical thinking flow chart. It’s not perfect. But its a start.

Remember, it’s okay to be wrong and learn from it

We are living in a time where everyone’s voice can be heard online and more information is available than ever…but that only means we can't live with our grade school thinking patterns. We can do better.

We can do better.

When our echo chamber is full of all our favorite thoughts, it is so hard to want to leave. But in my own life at least, I don’t want to be right all the time (and I rarely am anyway). I want to practice communicating in an informed and thoughtful way without feeling the pressure to respond immediately—and force a less-than-great conversation because of it.

In my eyes, there are only benefits to thinking critically, for both myself and everyone I interact with.