Where has our ability to think critically gone?

Amanda Woo
Aug 23, 2018 · 11 min read
Socrates, a classical Greek (Athenian) philosopher and father of “critical thinking”.

According to Wikipedia, “the earliest documentation of critical thinking are the teachings of Socrates recorded by Plato.” Socrates is the inventor of the “Socratic method”, a method used to stimulate critical thinking, which is still used for scientific research today.

Thinking Is Hard

Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is the probably reason why so few engage in it. — Henry Ford

In a world where technology has influenced our behaviours to do things faster and methodologies preach that we be more “agile” (often interpreted as “move faster”), it has become a common behaviour to get quick feedback. One of the ways to do this usually involves tapping a colleague on the shoulder to kindly ask if they have a minute so that you can get their quick feedback on something. Whilst the naive intentions of getting feedback is good, we often forget to think systematically and more deeply about the feedback that we intended on collecting and what has been collected. I’m not just talking about spending a few hours discussing and reflecting but rather asking questions like “why did action X result in Y and not Z?” and “what if I did X, how might that change my results?” Asking such questions and digger deeper for information for an answer that you’re not quite sure about is indeed a difficult and sometimes time-consuming task. But if we do not understand the difference between the action of collecting the feedback and systematically processing the information gathered, we are better off just making a guess.

Is “Good Enough” Dangerous?

We only think when we are confronted with a problem. — John Dewey

Have you ever encountered a situation where you did something in a rush and it was “good enough” but then some point later an undesired situation arose out of the blue? At this point, we start asking questions, analysing and trying to understand why it happened. On the positive side, you can learn from this situation and reflect on what could be done better next time. But in reality, we’re too busy trying to meet the next deadline. This is rather dangerous because it easily becomes an endless loop that spirals out of control. The good news it that there is something we can do to reduce the number of such situations and that’s to think more critically. What does it mean to think critically?

What Is Critical Thinking

According to Joe Lau, the author of Critical Thinking & Creativity, “critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking.” He also describes that “critical thinking should not be confused with being argumentative or being critical of other people.”

Critical thinking is the opposite of regular, everyday thinking. — Ransom Patterson

On a daily basis, we carry out a number of different tasks which require us to make decisions. This ranges from paying bills, traveling to/from the office and working out to facilitating meetings, solving problems and making decisions in the workplace. However, more often than not, these tasks do not involve critical thinking. In fact, “critical thinking is the opposite of regular, everyday thinking” because our day to day thinking is more “automatic”. In order words, we often just “do it”. This one of the biggest reasons that we do not engage in critical thinking enough. But if we knew that it could help us make better decisions that led to a better performing team, faster delivery of value, increased reliability of decisions, minimised poor judgements and/or increased revenue, would that be enough to motivate us to practice thinking more critically?

As humans, we are innately irrational and lack the mental effort to consistently make rational decisions. As a result, we are poor at making rational and unbiased decisions as problems arise (System 1 thinking). So, you can take a little sigh of relief that we are not completely at fault. With the appropriate training, we can become more rational to help us improve the way we make decisions. Learning how to think critically is one of those ways. Joe Lau explains that someone with critical thinking skills is able to do the following:

  • Understand the logical connections between ideas
  • Identify, construct and evaluate arguments
  • Detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning
  • Solve problems systematically
  • Identify the relevance and importance of ideas
  • Reflect on the justification of one’s own beliefs and values

At this point, some of you may be pondering that you already do some critical thinking through the activity of feedback. However, we shall be careful not to interchange feedback with critical thinking as they are very two different activities. In fact, feedback requires critical thinking to have a chance at being useful.

Feedback Is Not Critical Thinking

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Our little friend in the comic above could have taken a number of different actions. The activity of feedback allowed him to collect some information to influence the decision he/she was going to make, eg. “What should I do to improve my comic?”

Feedback does not tell us what exact decision to make. Instead, feedback is just information or statements of an opinion about something. For example, we collect feedback on what customers think about a new product feature or what customers think about the new dish on the menu. But then what do you do with the feedback collected? 99.9% of the time, it would not be able to tell you with 100% certainty to perform a certain action. Herein lies the issue with feedback, it is broad and can also be vague.

“Feedback itself is nothing more than a reaction or response.” — Mary Treseler, Radar O’Reily

Today, we turn to feedback in software development like its going out of style. With the growing popularity of the lean startup over the past few years, we also began running frequent experiments to collect feedback. Don’t get me wrong, I think great to collect lots of information and learn as much as possible. But often we avoid the challenging part of putting aside our cognitive biases to determine the best way forward with how to utilise the feedback. For example, I conducted a survey for a client where they had already “decided” on what the outcome of conducting some research shall be, eg. which billing cycle option (“Monthly”, “Annually” or “None of the above”) do our customers prefer? However, having “decided” on what that outcome should be, when the results came in, the thinking in the room was narrowed to “does this data support or decision or not?” This is dangerous because it makes it easier to overlook the discovery of new opportunities or information that may flag us to re-think the options that we’re providing.

There is also a good chance that we either need to collect more feedback or need to get our hands dirty and models the different scenarios in a logical manner once we’ve collected a round of feedback. For example, in software development, the success of building a new product is not guaranteed. So we should use models to quantify the opportunity to determine if the building of the product is a worthwhile exercise. This could include modelling what would be a feasible investment amount (given the expected returns and revenue), what is the cost of the benefits that I’m looking to deliver to the customer and what is my opportunity window for getting this product to market.

As you can see from the two examples above, “feedback itself is nothing more than a reaction or response” which means that we absolutely need to have the discipline of critical thinking in order for our feedback to be useful. In other words, making a decision based feedback without critical thinking is as good as guessing. Critical thinking is where the power lies.

Why Thinking Critically Matters

Too much knowledge can cause problems (Calvin & Hobbes)

Have you ever been in a situation where felt like you had too much information and didn’t know what decision to make? Information can be more paralysing than empowering if we are not clear on the decision that we need to make. Specifically, what is the question we’re looking to answer? This is where critical thinking plays an important role. It requires thinking effort to articulate and define the question we’re looking to answer. The same intensity of thinking effort is required to ensure we are solving the right problem.

If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking. — George Smith Patton

Believe it or not, “if everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking”. If we look at all the significant advancements in science, technology and process, the common factor to the advancement was that there was different thinking. To think differently, we need to think critically. Different thinking also enables creativity thus innovation. For example, Emily Rosa was the youngest person to have a research paper published in Journal of the American Medical Association for therapeutic touch (TT). In this case, critical thinking played a role from the spark of Emily’s curiosity, to see if patients really could feel the “Human Energy Field” (HEF) that they claimed to feel, all the way through to the designing of her experiment and analysing of the data from her experiment. The results of Emily’s experiment showed that the TT practitioners could not detect the hand more often than mathematical chance. Hence, the conclusion was that there was no empirical basis to the HEF and by extension therapeutic touch.

Our Day-To-Day & Critical Thinking

In our day-to-day life, most of our thinking is uncritical because it requires cognitive energy. But this can get us into trouble sometimes because we need critical thinking to help us make the important decisions. For example, if we just absorbed everything from the news and social media, we could never form our own opinion and judgements about what is actually happening. Another example of trouble is when we get into pointless arguments or say things that we later realise it was something we shouldn’t have said or should have worded differently, its now too late.

Critical Thinking & Software Development

Critical thinking in software development is often the difference between having another failing project or not. Confucius once said that “To study and not think is futile. To think and not study is dangerous.” I’ve witnessed the dangers of this on several occasions. For example, teams that get so focused on executing a process by the book that they forget the to ask the important questions such as “How will running this experiment help me make the decision I need to make?”. On the other hand, I’ve also observed teams who don’t use any process and take a “just do it” approach to software development which also ends quite badly.

To study and not think is futile. To think and not study is dangerous. — Confucius

Our many failures and lack of critical thinking are often too difficult to see and quantify for ourselves. Without this tangibility, the value of critical thinking is hard to see and thus there is little motivation to invest the time. Thankfully there has been plenty of research done on the benefits of critical thinking. So, whilst it may seem counter-intuitive to invest more time but its about investing the “right” kind of time to think it through. Research has proven that in the long run you will be better off, having applied some critical thinking. So have I convinced you now that thinking critically has useful benefits?

How To Start Thinking More Critically

Our world is full of complexity. Are you asking the right questions? Are you using the right information and evidence?

We are so lucky to live in a world today where the internet has made collecting and accessing information extremely easy. It is literally a blessing in disguise because one would argue this frees up even more time to think critically. We have no excuse now.

Success magazine wrote that Elon Musk mastered rocket science by “reading books and asking questions”

Secondly, let’s take a look at 3 ways you can use to start or improve your critical thinking.

1. Ask Questions

Asking questions is one of the quickest ways to learn information and where innovation happens. When beginning to think critically, here are some questions you should consider:

  • What do I already know?
  • What decision am I trying to make?
  • How will the new information support my decision?
  • What are the possible actions I will take given the outcomes of different situations?
  • What are the basic assumptions that have I have made?
  • How do I know the assumptions I made won’t impose negative consequences?
  • What am I trying to validate or invalidate?

2. Recognise Your Cognitive Biases

Our human mind is naturally built with two types of thinking: (1) Fast, frequent, automatic, emotional and unconscious thinking and (2) Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating and conscious thinking. The former is how we most often think which is not critical thinking and thus our minds are constantly taking “mental shortcuts” (aka cognitive biases). These mental shortcuts result in the following behaviours which you might be familiar with:

  • We often overestimate how confident we understand about the world (“Overconfidence”).
  • We are more often inclined to substitute a complex question for a simpler one, eg. the “Linda Problem” demonstrated that people claimed that was more probable that Linda was a female bank teller” than a “bank teller” yet this violated the laws of probability (“Substitution”).
  • We are more inclined to choose a higher/lower number based on the presentation of higher/lower numbers respectively. This means that if we were asked if a product was more/less than $50 versus more/less than $1,000, respondents would overall reply a lower dollar value in the first example compared to the second example (“Anchoring”).
  • Because we’ve already invested a certain amount of time and money into something, we justify a continued investment since the previous investment is a sunken cost instead of considering of the incremental investment providing positive returns (“Sunken Cost Fallacy”).

3. Assess & Formulate

There is plenty of existing knowledge and work out there to learn from. But when it comes to critical thinking, the following are important in order to formulate your own opinion (or even better, innovate):

Critical thinking can be applied both in the workplace and throughout life from designing and developing software products to working out how much to invest in a property (or maybe your third property). Also remember that the next time you set out to collect feedback, the feedback alone is useless until you apply critical thinking.

Try a simple exercise

Think of some of the situations or things currently going on in your life. Pick one and try to answer the following 3 questions:

1. What do you already know about {your selected topic}?

2. What information might help support your decisions about (your selected topic}?

3. What evidence could you present for/against {your selected topic}?

How did you go? What did you think of the exercise?

Feel free to get in touch (at hello@criticide.com) if you have questions or would like some help on how to improve your critical thinking.


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Critically Deciding

Critical Technology Product Development Decisions

Amanda Woo

Written by

Problem solver. Creative thinker. Obsessed with tech, products & people. | Director at Interesting By Default | Co-Founder at Criticide

Critically Deciding

Critical Technology Product Development Decisions

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