In an era of information overflow, where facts, fallacies, and fiction often collide, there’s a secret weapon we all need to wield effectively – critical thinking. It’s more than just a buzzword; it’s the golden key to unlocking a trove of discernment, the compass guiding us through the maze of misinformation, and the lens that sharpens our focus on reality. Critical thinking is our intellectual lifeline, helping us to make sense of the world, untangle complex problems, and make informed decisions. But what happens when we hit a plateau in our critical thinking journey, and how does recognizing and breaking through these plateaus affect our decision-making and understanding of the world? What barriers stand in our way, and how do we break through them to reach new heights of understanding? Dive into this comprehensive exploration of the often uncharted terrains of critical thinking plateaus to find out.
Plateau 1: Confirmation Bias
One of the most significant barriers to critical thinking is our own psychology. Specifically, confirmation bias, which is the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of our existing beliefs or theories. Think of it as looking at the world through a pair of tinted glasses. It colors our perception and interpretation of information, often skewing it towards our preconceived notions. This plateau is particularly challenging because it is an unconscious process. We naturally favor information that aligns with our beliefs and discount information that doesn’t. It’s a defense mechanism that protects our ego and maintains our worldview. In the worst scenarios, it can lead us to completely dismiss or ignore any information that contradicts our beliefs, even if the evidence is overwhelming. Breaking through this plateau requires deliberate effort. We must consciously challenge our own beliefs, seek out diverse perspectives, and be open to being proven wrong. It’s essential to foster a mindset of curiosity over defensiveness, and inquiry over assumption. Some close relatives which are worth being aware of and could be included within the Confirmation Bias Plateau are:
- Overconfidence Bias- The common tendency to overestimate our knowledge, abilities, and the accuracy of our beliefs.
- Groupthink- This is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when a group values harmony and coherence over accurate analysis and critical evaluation. It causes people to reach a consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas.
- Binary thinking- Or black-and-white thinking, is the tendency to think in extremes. It’s the belief that things are either one way or another, with no room for nuance or gray areas. It oversimplifies complex issues and prevents us from seeing alternative perspectives or solutions.
Plateau 2: Religion
Religion is another substantial plateau in the journey towards critical thinking. It provides many people with moral guidance, a sense of purpose, and community. However, when it comes to critical thinking, religious doctrines can sometimes present an obstacle. This is because faith, by definition, often relies on belief without empirical evidence or despite contradictory evidence. This can lead to a kind of ‘blind spot’ in critical thinking where religious matters are concerned, and it opens the door for bad actors to manipulate us. This does not mean that religious people cannot be critical thinkers; rather, it means that religious beliefs can make it difficult to objectively analyze issues related to those beliefs. A strong critical thinker must be able to understand, articulate, and acknowledge the strongest points against their own beliefs—a concept known as ‘steelmanning’— to ensure they’re not ignoring valid counterarguments, or practicing willful ignorance. Overcoming this plateau doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning one’s faith. Rather, it means being willing to examine religious beliefs with the same objectivity one would apply to other areas of life. It requires a careful balance of maintaining personal faith while also acknowledging and engaging with opposing viewpoints or conflicting evidence. For many people, it can be simply handled by recognizing that faith and critical thinking can coexist, using each appropriately in different realms of life.
Plateau 3: Socio-cultural Conditioning
We are all products of our environments, and the norms and values instilled in us by our society can create a formidable plateau in the journey towards higher levels of critical thinking. This socio-cultural conditioning can lead us to unconsciously favor the norms, traditions, and beliefs we’ve been exposed to without question, and to reject others out of hand. This bias towards our own culture is also known as cultural ethnocentrism. Every culture has areas worthy of admiration. Your culture must definitely have certain aspects which one may consider as superior to others, but rest assured that other cultures have certain aspects which one may consider as superior to your own native culture. If it’s the first time you are hearing about this, I’m sorry to break it down to you, but your culture’s inherent defects are not qualities, no matter how much you’ve grown to love them… To overcome this plateau, we must first recognize its existence and the potential biases it may instill in us. Only then can we consciously challenge ingrained biases and stereotypes, seeking out and considering viewpoints from different cultures, societies, and backgrounds. This can broaden our understanding and help us see beyond our conditioned perspective. Our planet is vast and our customs are many. There is no real need to be tribalistic when one can benefit from all the diversity and beauty our human race has to offer.
Plateau 4: Emotional Reasoning
Emotional reasoning is the practice of making decisions based on how we feel rather than objective reality. When we reach this plateau, we allow our emotions to cloud our judgment and dictate our actions, leading to irrational thinking and poor decision-making. For example, if we’re feeling fearful, we might overestimate dangers, or if we’re feeling optimistic, we might underestimate risks. Emotional reasoning is difficult to overcome because it is rooted in our biology; our brains are wired to respond to emotional stimuli. To break through this plateau, we need to practice separating our feelings from the facts and making decisions based on evidence rather than emotions. This is of course, easier said than done. Techniques such as mindfulness and cognitive-behavioral strategies can help us recognize when our emotions are influencing our thinking and decision-making, allowing us to step back and evaluate the situation more objectively. However, it’s important to remember that emotions are not inherently bad. It’s important to not confuse emotional reasoning with emotional intelligence. We could actually treat these as polar opposites. Emotional intelligence is the constructive attunement to our emotions, intuition and gut feeling, as well as the understanding of the emotions of others. The difference lies in the rationality behind the decision-making process; the positive use of emotions is often informed by subconscious processing and past experience, while emotional reasoning is a more reactive, less reflective process. The good news is that emotional intelligence is the antidote to emotional reasoning, and can be cultivated by being self-aware and through introspection, making it available to everyone willing to develop it.
Plateau 5: Information Overload
In the digital age, we are bombarded with information from countless sources, leading to information overload. When faced with too much information, it can be difficult to discern what is important or true, which hampers our critical thinking skills. We might accept information at face value, make snap judgments, or become paralyzed by indecision due to the sheer volume of information. To break through this plateau, we must develop strong information literacy skills. This includes the ability to assess the credibility of sources, distinguish between fact and opinion, and analyze the context and potential biases of the information. It also involves developing strategies to manage the volume of information, such as focusing on reliable sources and summarizing or categorizing information to aid understanding. This plateau is a significant issue in today’s society in great part because it is exponentially enhanced by advancements in technology. The older population is left vulnerable, unable to keep up and comprehensive solutions are still elusive. As a rule of thumb, we should strive to maintain a skeptical mindset and to get information from as close to the source as possible. The presence of an intermediary source can distort the original information, potentially skewing it to benefit someone else’s agenda at our expense.
As we navigate the labyrinth of life, wielding our secret weapon of critical thinking, we must remember that it is not a destination but a journey. We have now explored the complex landscapes of various critical thinking plateaus. Each, representing an opportunity for growth, a challenge to our understanding, and a step towards a more profound level of discernment. Breaking through these plateaus is a challenge that requires self-awareness, open-mindedness, and practice. It involves questioning our beliefs, examining our biases, and making a concerted effort to think more objectively. Each moment of introspection, every question asked, and every assumption challenged brings you one step closer to becoming a more effective critical thinker. Continue on this path, and let your critical thinking be the beacon that illuminates your journey through the world of knowledge It’s crucial to remember that there is no perfect “critical thinker.” We all have biases, blind spots, and barriers that can affect our critical thinking. The goal isn’t to eradicate these completely, but rather to continually become more aware of them, understand them, and strive to mitigate their negative impacts on our thinking.
Where to go from here
I left out about a dozen other plateau candidates because they simply weren’t substantial enough to bring up. If you enjoy dedicating time to honing your critical thinking abilities and want to take it to the next level, you would be well served by reading up on logical fallacies, where you will learn all about some terms you’ve probably heard, but haven’t really paid attention to, such as: strawman, red herring, ad hominem, special pleading, and many more.