Critical Thinking

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or to any particular group, and the examples are composites from multiple cases.

The phrase “critical thinking” has been absorbed into a lot of current issues – think conspiracy theories, for instance. When someone expresses a conspiracy theory, it’s not long before someone else mentions the need for critical thinking. In this blog, we’re also interested in critical thinking, but in the context of coping with stress: Critical thinking is essential for effective coping. Being able to think critically about conflicts will help you immensely in resolving the stress involved.

Critical thinking means being able to evaluate, objectively, what a speaker says about an issue. The critical thinker will want the speaker to produce clear, impartial, independent evidence supporting their position, and to show how alternative explanations can be ruled out. In other words, the critical thinker wants something more than, “Because my Senator [or my dad] said so!”

Years ago, I had a college classroom discussion going about the psychological benefits of religious belief. At one point a young man ventured off focus and made a comment about Mormons: “They have more than one wife, you know.” I asked how he knew that, and he said, “My dad told me.” I said, “But where’s dad’s evidence? Where are all these extra wives? Are they hidden away?” “Must be,” he replied.

I told the class, “Hang on. Dr. Murphy in our department is an expert on Mormons. Let me go get her.” She was in her office and I asked her to come to the class and tell them what Mormons believe and practice. I didn’t tell the class she was Mormon; that was her business and she could tell them if she wanted. She didn’t. Instead, she treated the topic like any knowledgeable professor would: Here’s some history, some statistics and data, and current Mormon doctrine governing things like tithing, family, and ministry. At the end of class, as the students were filing out, I asked the kid who started it all, “What do you think?” He said, “I don’t care what she says, I’ll stick with my dad.” Critical thinking is a challenge because it may require you to discard ideas that bring you comfort and certainty, and this student was a long way from reaching that requirement.

Bart hears a speaker proclaim, “We are at the end of days. God has had it with humanity, filled with pedophiles, baby killers, and other assorted perverts, and the world will end within the year. Only my believers will be saved.” Bart is attracted to this notion because he also feels humans have screwed everything up. He doesn’t see much hope for the world, and he would love to have a pathway to salvation. “I should join this group,” Bart thinks.

But, wait, let’s have Bart do some critical thinking first. “Just because his words bring me comfort doesn’t make him correct. Since the dawn of time, the world has been filled with evildoers. Why hasn’t God ended it all long before this? Why would God single out this guy as His messenger? Does this guy have some private agenda? I know my buddy, Jim, is always telling me how much good there is in the world, if I just look around for it. Maybe he’s right, and not this guy. If I join this group, what will that mean for other parts of my life?” And on Bart could go, critically and objectively evaluating the claim that the world will end this year, and examining the guy’s motives in proclaiming that view. Bart must also examine his personal consequences of accepting or rejecting the world’s-end claim. The task requires him to detach himself emotionally from arguments on all sides and think about things rationally, logically, and realistically.

There’s one more thing involved, the most important thing, but it’s also the one thing that people never seem to realize: Critical thinking requires humility. Critical thinking requires you to admit that it’s not all about you, that you are not the center; you are not the indispensable ingredient in the recipe; you are not the one with the best judgment. Critical thinking – like effective coping itself – requires you to put aside such self-absorption and admit that you may be wrong! Unless you’re a narcissist, that admission shouldn’t be difficult. After all, it’s illogical to think that you are always correct, and those who disagree with you are always wrong. You say the government is evil and the source of all your troubles. Or, maybe it’s mom, dad, or any of several other authority figures in your life who are to blame. But you know your belief is true because you see yourself as superior to others in evaluating what’s around you.

But here’s the problem with such condescension: You are not superior; you just think you are. The truth is, you cannot accept uncomfortable truths about yourself; you are unable to hold yourself accountable for your actions and beliefs; you cannot devise your own independent, autonomous coping plan that includes the needs of others. In short, without humility, not only are you unable to think critically, but you’re also unable to cope with life as a rational, independent, self-sufficient human being.

Critical thinking and coping effectively and realistically with stress are tightly intertwined. Those whose self-concept is threatened by self-examination; those who see infidels under every rock and conspiracies around every corner; those who blindly follow and never question the wisdom of their own actions – they are self-absorbed and imprisoned by self-interests. They are incapable of handling stress because of denial, anger, fear, and self-blame – unchecked emotions and ego defenses that inevitably lead to self-sabotage.

[For more on critical thinking check out blog entries for May 14 and 21, 2021]

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