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Thinking About Thinking

The paradox of the human brain is that it uses more energy each day than any other organ, and yet, researchers have found that the brain may very likely be hardwired to conserve energy. As a Canadian study pointed out, our brains may prefer being couch potatoes. “Conserving energy has been essential for humans’ survival, as it allowed us to be more efficient in searching for food and shelter, competing for sexual partners, and avoiding predators,” said senior author Dr. Matthieu Boisgontier, a postdoctoral researcher in The University of British Columbia’s Brain Behaviour Lab at the Department of Physical Therapy. (More information can be found in the article: Are Brains Hardwired for Laziness?)

This interesting tidbit is actually important for each of us to recognize because it impacts our everyday thinking. Our brain makes decisions and draws conclusions through quickly filtering data and relying on a significant bias mindset. This utilizes less time and energy than it does to actually think deeply and critically. While fast processing may have kept us alive in earlier times, it does not often serve us well in a fast-paced, information saturated world. There are literally hundreds of cognitive biases that result from processing errors related to challenges with memory, attention, attribution and many other mental mistakes.

Adam Grant, an Organizational Psychologist at the Wharton School of Business, writes in his new book, Think Again, that most of us take pride in our knowledge and beliefs. Though, he too cautions that in a rapidly changing world we all would do well to learn to rethink – to constantly test and question our beliefs – to think critically! 

Grant’s research revealed that mental horsepower (high IQ) does not mean mental dexterity. In fact, the higher the IQ, the quicker you fall into stereotypes because you recognize patterns faster. This leads to what many suffer from – confirmation bias – seeing what you expect to see and desirability bias – seeing what you want to see. “Smarter” people are more likely to fall into these traps.  As Grant writes, “The brighter you are, the harder it can be to see your own limitations.” 

Besides our brains processing quickly to conserve energy, he notes that we like feeling right over being right, hence we seldom take the time or energy to rethink our views.  In full disclosure, I can be as guilty of this as anyone else – and I am consciously working on it. Grant suggests that we need a healthy dose of humility to doubt what we know and to be more curious. Curiosity is a key element to being open-minded and learning.

It is no wonder why one of the most important skills our children can learn is the skill of critical thinking. It is not too late for us adults to work on that skill too. Adam Grant and others suggest that we begin by being curious. Curiosity sparks learning and signals that we acknowledge that we have something to learn. Ask questions and be actively open minded. Instead of looking for the flaws in others’ arguments, look for the flaws in your own arguments. Approach learning and issues with “confident humility” – we can have faith in our capability while appreciating we may not have the right solution to a problem. Think about our thinking!

In our polarized, information saturated world, we could use more individuals who think about thinking and as Adam Grant’s book advocates – to think again.  A timely example is the new, highly controversial, voting law in Georgia. Opponents of the law call it Jim Crow 2.0 and many people state, as an example, and with absolute certainty, that the law includes the prohibition of receiving water in a voting line. And yet, with equal certainty, opinion pieces in the Wall Street Journal will assert that the prohibition on water is an urban myth. Which is true? 

How many of us took the time and energy to find out what is really in the law? Is it really as bad and restrictive as the Jim Crow laws were or is it a better law than the laws currently on the books in New Jersey and New York as the Georgia Governor asserts?  Do we allow our confirmation and desirability biases to lead us to draw definitive conclusions that already fit our narratives?  My point is not about the law itself. However, you may have to “think again” to answer some of these questions. And if and when you do, you may discover that the issue of voter suppression is not as simple as “red or blue.”  I am convinced that if we approach issues with curiosity and an open mind we may be able to find some common ground to listen to each other, and with one step at a time, close the divide that polarizes us.

I know that the everyday experiences we encounter or observe reinforce how important it is to raise a generation of critical thinkers who approach issues, disagreements and problems with compassion and empathy. The simple problems humanity confronted are largely solved. Before us are complex issues that will require, among other skills, critical thinking with an open and humble mindset.

Critical, deep thinking is a skill we can teach our children and it should be a top priority. Many educational and business organizations list characteristics of critical thinking that we should teach and learn. Among these characteristics you will almost always find are curiosity, identifying biases, open mindedness, and humility. Here is an interesting list I found on the website, Entrepreneur. It is essentially the same list produced by the Centre of Innovation and Excellence in Teaching. What would you add to the list? 

3 Comments

  • Daniel Rubin - April 8, 2021

    Outstanding observations. I’ve forwarded this to my other adult children

    Reply
    • Steve Freedman - April 8, 2021

      Thank you!

      Reply
  • Sandra Froimovich - April 8, 2021

    So thought provoking, and so very true and relevant for current times! I was also thinking that this helps explain why the Torah and the Jews have endured as long as we have; we are constantly rethinking and questioning our own interpretations!

    Reply

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