1 Barriers to critical thinking
First, let’s briefly examine some barriers to critical thinking.
Take another look at the visual summary below on critical and analytical thinking, which was introduced at the end of Session 3. Note the warning sign next to the ‘black pit’ to the lower right of this figure.
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What are the common pitfalls or barriers to thinking critically and analytically? Some of these were highlighted in the visual summary, and include:
- Misunderstanding. This can arise due to language or cultural differences, a lack of awareness of the ‘processes’ involved, or a misunderstanding that critical thinking means making ‘negative’ comments (as discussed in Sessions 3 and 4).
- Reluctance to critique the ‘norm’ or experts in a field and consider alternative views (feeling out of your ‘comfort zone’ or fearful of being wrong).
- Lack of detailed knowledge. Superficial knowledge (not having read deeply enough around the subject).
- Wanting to know the answers without having to ask questions.
Why do you think being aware of these potential pitfalls is important?
As a critical and reflective thinker, you will need to be aware of the barriers, acknowledge the challenges they may present, and overcome these as best you can. This starts with an understanding of expectations. Some students feel anxious about questioning the work of experts. Critical thinking does not mean that you are challenging someone’s work or telling them that they are wrong, but encourages a deeper understanding, a consideration of alternative views, and engagement in thought, discourse or research that informs your independent judgement. At postgraduate level you will also need to read widely around a subject in order to engage effectively with critical and analytical thinking, and to ask questions: there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers, only supported arguments. This is at the heart of postgraduate study.
Critical thinking encourages you to be constructive, by considering the strengths and weaknesses of a claim and differing sides to an argument. It helps you to clarify points, encourages deeper thought, and allows you to determine whether information that you come across is accurate and reliable. This helps you to form your own judgement, and drives research forward.
People can find it difficult to think critically, irrespective of their education or intellectual ability. The key to understanding critical thinking is not only knowing and making sure that you understand the process, but also being able to put this into practice by applying your knowledge.
Critical and reflective thinking are complex and lifelong skills that you continue to develop as part of your personal and professional growth. In your everyday life, you may also come across those who do not exercise critical thinking, and this might impact on decisions that affect you. It is important to recognise this, and to use critical and reflective thinking to ensure that your own view is informed by reasoned judgement, supported by evidence.
Take another look at the visual summary. You will see two aspects to critical thinking: one focusing on the disposition of the person engaged in critical and reflective thinking, and the other concerning their abilities. Let’s focus here on dispositions. At a personal level, barriers to critical thinking can arise through:
- an over-reliance on feelings or emotions
- self-centred or societal/cultural-centred thinking (conformism, dogma and peer-pressure)
- unconscious bias, or selective perception
- an inability to be receptive to an idea or point of view that differs from your own (close-mindedness)
- unwarranted assumptions or lack of relevant information
- fear of being wrong (anxious about being taken out of your ‘comfort zone’)
- poor communication skills or apathy
- lack of personal honesty.
Be aware that thinking critically is not simply adhering to a formula. For example, reflect on the following questions:
- How can you communicate with those who do not actively engage with critical thinking and are unwilling to engage in a meaningful dialogue?
- How would you react or respond when you experience a lack of critical thinking in the media, amongst your own family members, colleagues at work, or on your course?
- Critical thinking takes place in a mental environment consisting of our experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Some elements in this inner environment can sabotage our efforts to think critically or at least make critical thinking more difficult. Fortunately, we can exert some control over these elements. With practice, we can detect errors in our thinking, restrain attitudes and feelings that can disrupt our reasoning, and achieve enough objectivity to make critical thinking possible.
- The most common of these hindrances to critical thinking fall into two main categories: (1) Those obstacles that crop up because of how we think and (2) those that occur because of what we think. The first category is comprised of psychological factors such as our fears, attitudes, motivations, and desires. The second category is made up of certain philosophical beliefs.
- None of us is immune to the psychological obstacles. Among them are the products of egocentric thinking. We may accept a claim solely because it advances our interests or just because it helps us save face. To overcome these pressures, we must (1) be aware of strong emotions that can warp our thinking, (2) be alert to ways that critical thinking can be undermined, and (3) ensure that we take into account all relevant factors when we evaluate a claim.
- The first category of hindrances also includes those that arise because of group pressure. These obstacles include conformist pressures from groups that we belong to and ethnocentric urges to think that our group is superior to others. The best defense against group pressure is to proportion our beliefs according to the strength of reasons.
- We may also have certain core beliefs that can undermine critical thinking (the second category of hindrances). Subjective relativism is the view that truth depends solely on what someone believesâa notion that may make critical thinking look superfluous. But subjective relativism leads to some strange consequences. For example, if the doctrine were true, each of us would be infallible. Also, subjective relativism has a logical problemâit’s self-defeating. Its truth implies its falsity. There are no good reasons to accept this form of relativism.
- Social relativism is the view that truth is relative to societiesâa claim that would also seem to make critical thinking unnecessary. But this notion is undermined by the same kinds of problems that plague subjective relativism.
- Philosophical skepticism is the doctrine that we know much less than we think we do. One form of philosophical skepticism says that we cannot know anything unless the belief is beyond all possible doubt. But this is not a plausible criterion for knowledge. To be knowledge, claims need not be beyond all possible doubt, but beyond all reasonable doubt.