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Barriers to Critical Thinking

I have decided to post this article on the barriers to critical thinking, which I use in teaching, as the 3rd in a series of posts dealing with the psychological, emotional and spiritual components of emergency and disaster preparedness planning.

Normalcy Bias - Why People are attached to Inaction

The Emotional and Spiritual Components of Preparedness

As I have stated before, there is more to preparing for emergencies than the physical "stuff" you surround yourself with.  Evaluating, understanding and acknowledging all aspects of the planning process is essential for a proper and complete preparedness program.

This article, which I wrote, has been an important part of the college course I have taught on Critical Thinking - a class I believe to be an  important part of a college experience in philosophy.  I have not changed it for this post - this is what the students read, reflect upon and discuss in class.  Most struggle with its implications and accuracy.  It not only applies to preparedness planning - but to all aspects of human deliberation.

BARRIERS TO CRITICAL THINKING

Your responsibility as a critical thinker is to be aware of the barriers, acknowledge the challenges they present, and overcome them to the best of your ability.

“If critical thinking is so important, why is it that uncritical thinking is so common?  Why is it that so many people – including many highly educated and intelligent people – find critical thinking so difficult?”[1] And I [Denis] might add – impossible!

Discovering the answers to these questions is crucial to the understanding of what is required to be a true critical thinker, and the reasons you will encounter from those who resist embodying critical thinking skills are often quite complex, and can be both subtle and blatant.  The following list of barriers to critical thinking will help guide you to recognizing the challenges that await you and was compiled from Critical Thinking: A Student’s Introduction, our text Beyond Feelings: A Guide to Critical Thinking, and personal observation.

  • pride
  • greed
  • egocentrism (self-centered thinking)
  • sociocentrism or ethnocentrism (group/society/cultural-centered thinking)
  • an over-reliance on feelings
  • self-deception
  • the erroneous belief of personal infallible intuition
  • unconscious reaction
  • reacting in self defense – fear of personal attack – believing one’s ideas and beliefs are an extension of one’s self and must be defended at all costs
  • fear of change or an unwillingness to change
  • a pathological inability to evaluate, recognize, or accept an idea or point of view that differs from one’s own
  • a less than honorable agenda
  • lack of relevant background information or ignorance
  • inappropriate bias
  • prejudice
  • unwarranted assumptions
  • overpowering or addictive emotions
  • fear of being wrong or face-saving
  • selective perception and selective memory
  • peer pressure
  • conformism (mindless conformity)
  • indoctrination initiated by uncritical thinkers with malicious and selfish intent
  • provincialism (restricted and unsophisticated thinking)
  • narrow-mindedness or close-mindedness
  • lack of discernment
  • distrust in reason
  • relativism (relativistic thinking)
  • absolutism (there are no exceptions)
  • stereotyping
  • scapegoating (blaming others)
  • denial
  • wishful thinking
  • short-term thinking
  • political correctness
  • superstition
  • being influenced by drugs
  • excessive anger, hate, or bitterness
  • disturbing one’s comfort
  • lack of personal honesty
  • apathy
  • poor reading and comprehension skills
  • poor or dysfunctional communication skills
  • excessive addiction
  • a mental disorder
  • cognitive dissonance (psychological conflict resulting from incompatible beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously)
  • lack of humility

In general – the older one becomes the more well-established and rooted these barriers are in the thought process, and the harder it is to overcome them – they become part of you like a scar.  It is suggested to triumph over them as soon as possible.

Questions for reflection:

- What is the purpose and value in gaining critical thinking skills?  - Is it really necessary?

- What are the rewards?  - What are the challenges?

- Am I willing to do what it takes?  - How important is it for me?  - Can I do it?

- Do I realize that demonstrating, sharing, and embodying wisdom and discernment requires exemplifying critical thinking skills and overcoming its barriers?  -  Are all these barriers overwhelming?

- Do I realize this is a life long process?  - What is the difference between intelligence and wisdom?

- What are the steps required for developing critical thinking skills?

- How do I communicate with others who are not critical thinkers and have embodied these barriers to such an extent that they are unwilling to neither engage in a meaningful dialogue nor acknowledge any responsibility in the communication breakdown?  - Or do I bother at all?

- How am I to react or respond when I experience a lack of critical thinking in the media, among friends and family, at the work place, and in my academic courses and studies?

While many think developing critical thinking skills are for the beginning philosophy student, they are in fact vital for everyone.  Recognizing and overcoming the barriers to critical thinking listed above is essential in creating and maintaining genuine, honest, and nurturing relationships – developing leadership skills for both family and vocational choices – fulfilling the goals and missions of businesses and organizations – and discovering and achieving purpose and fulfillment in all aspects of one’s life.  Many of the barriers to critical thinking are barriers to joyfulness, selflessness, and contentment.

Do not be discouraged by the enormity of the task of reflecting upon, acknowledging, and overcoming these barriers.  Have confidence that you will recognize the hold these barriers have on your thought process, and I encourage you to be committed to achieving the obtainable rewards awaiting you when you have accomplished the goal of prevailing over these barriers one by one.

A common denominator of these barriers is that the individual has no control over their effects.  They are held captive by defective responses and impressions.   One “reacts” to a situation, idea, or challenge, whereas the critical thinker “chooses” the process of thoughtful evaluation – embracing – and embodiment.  The critical thinker has the freedom to rightly assess circumstances and concepts, and the result is to arrive at an appropriate and insightful conclusion and reasonable outcome.

In the pursuit of the embodiment of critical thinking skills always be mindful of the value and necessity of honesty, wisdom, discernment, and the need to distinguish the truth from the lie.  We live in an unprecedented time of media, institutional, educational, and political self-interest that will not hesitate to use any means possible to achieve its objectives including deceptive indoctrination techniques, propaganda, deceitfulness, fallacious argument, and fraud.

Life is like riding a bicycle.

To keep your balance you must keep moving.

Albert Einstein, in a letter to his son Eduard, February 5, 1930

The Problem of Egocentric Thinking[2]

Egocentric thinking results from the unfortunate fact that humans do not naturally consider the rights and needs of others.  We do not naturally appreciate the point of view of others nor the limitations in our own point of view.  We become explicitly aware or our egocentric thinking only if trained to do so.  We do not naturally recognize our egocentric assumptions, the egocentric way we use information, the egocentric way we interpret data, the source of our egocentric concepts and ideas, the implications of our egocentric thought.  We do not naturally recognize our self-serving perspective.

As humans we live with the unrealistic but confident sense that we have fundamentally figured out the way things actually are, and that we have done this objectively.  We naturally believe in our intuitive perceptions – however inaccurate [Denis - I personally believe that intuitive perceptions are vital to critical thinking - providing one possesses the required discernment skills].  Instead of using intellectual standards in thinking, we often use self-centered psychological standards to determine what to believe and what to reject.  Here are the most commonly used psychological standards in human thinking.

“IT’S TRUE BECAUSE I BELIEVE IT.”  Innate egocentrism: I assume that what I believe is true even though I have never questioned the basis for many of my beliefs.

“IT’S TRUE BECAUSE WE BELIEVE IT.”  Innate sociocentrism: I assume that the dominant beliefs of the groups to which I belong are true even though I have never questioned the basis for those beliefs.

“IT’S TRUE BECAUSE I WANT TO BELIEVE IT.”  Innate wish fulfillment: I belief in whatever puts me (or the groups to which I belong) in a positive light.  I believe what “feels good,” what does not require me to change my thinking in any significant way, what does not require me to admit I have been wrong.

“IT’S TRUE BECAUSE I HAVE ALWAYS BELIEVED IT.”  Innate self-validation: I have a strong desire to maintain beliefs I have long held, even though I have not seriously considered the extent to which those beliefs are justified by the evidence.

“IT’S TRUE BECAUSE IT IS IN MY SELFISH INTEREST TO BELIEVE IT.”  Innate selfishness: I believe whatever justifies my getting more power, money, or personal advantage even though those beliefs are not grounded in sound reasoning or evidence.



[1] Gregory Bassham, Critical Thinking: A Student’s Introduction, 3rd ed., (New York, McGraw-Hill, 2008), p. 11

[2] Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools, Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder


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