The importance of critical thinking

Most of us, in the course of our lives, have met a person or persons who will “believe anything you tell them.” These are people who are susceptible to hoaxes and scams, and they are often easy prey for con artists. We might describe them as gullible, or even stupid, if we are feeling unkind. However, perhaps a more accurate description of such an individual would be a person with poorly developed critical thinking skills.

            What is meant by the term critical thinking? According to dictionary.com, it means “disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.” So, among other things, critical thinking (or critical reasoning, as it is sometimes called) involves the ability to regard information with a degree of skepticism. In other words, we keep in mind that, just because someone said it, printed it, or put it online, that doesn’t mean it’s true.

            The internet is awash in false and misleading information, as is advertising. If you would like to see examples, you probably don’t need to look further than Facebook. Facebook is filled with links to “news” articles that people love to post, and a great many of them are false. Here’s an example. It took about three minutes to find that. If you don’t feel like following the link (or it’s not working), it’s a photo of Bill Gates holding a sign that says if you click on the photo, he’ll give you $5,000. Sounds great, doesn’t it? It’s accompanied by a caption that says “This is 100% TRUE.” The problem, of course, it that it’s 100% FALSE. (By the way, I found the link by clicking on the home page of someone I know who has notoriously poor critical thinking skills, and there it was.) If you want even more hilarious-but-depressing evidence of poor critical thinking skills, then I suggest you visit www.literallyunbelievable.org.

            Why is it important to develop one’s critical thinking skills, other than to avoid falling for satirical news stories from The Onion? Because of this simple fact: a great deal of unhappiness is caused by our steadfast belief in things that simply aren’t true, particularly things we have learned to believe about ourselves.

            A large part of what happens in therapy, particularly cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical-behavioral therapy (DBT), involves challenging self-defeating belief systems. In order to do this, one must possess a modicum of critical thinking ability. I personally try not to look for wisdom from bumper stickers, but I saw a good one that said “DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU THINK.” That’s a pretty succinct description of the philosophy behind CBT. Again: just because someone taught us to believe something, that doesn’t make it true.

            Who are our primary teachers in life? Parents. Who were their primary teachers? Their parents. A lot of what we are taught as true are statements that get passed down from one generation to the next, and very often, no one stops to look critically at these things. A lot of rules get imposed without anyone asking, “What is the reason for this rule? Is it a good rule?” If everyone asked this, and really thought about it, a lot of rules would get tossed out the window.

            One rule that I encounter a lot, and that I truly detest, is “Crying is a sign of weakness.” (I wrote about this in depth in my post, “What Not to Teach Your Kids.”) What this statement does is make children feel ashamed for doing something that is perfectly natural, normal, and healthy. There is no more effective way to release pain from our system than to cry, so if you teach your child to feel ashamed of it, then you are effectively blocking a vital pressure-release valve. Not a good idea.

            Here’s a true story: while I was working on the adolescent unit of a psychiatric facility here in Dallas, Texas, I met a 15-year-old girl, whom I will call Clara, who had been admitted after making a suicide attempt. She was obviously very depressed, but also very guarded and reserved. One day during group, I was asking the adolescents about the reasons for their admissions to a psychiatric hospital. When I got to Clara, she stated that she had been raped at a party. I responded by expressing sorrow at such a traumatic experience, and stated it was no wonder she was depressed. She responded by saying this: “I deserved it.”

            I was taken aback. “You think you deserved to be raped?” I asked.

            “Yes,” she said.

            “And where did you come by that idea?” I asked.

            “My mom said so.”

            My heart sank. I asked her to please tell us what happened, and this is what she said: A friend of hers was having a party on a Friday night, and Clara wanted to go. She asked her mom, and her mom said no. So Clara snuck out, and went to the party anyway. While she was there, someone put something in her drink, and she passed out. While she was out, she was sexually assaulted. When she realized what had happened, she went home and told her mom, who responded by saying, “That’s what you get for sneaking out.”

            I don’t know why her mother said what she did, but it was an awful thing to say. Even if she didn’t “mean it,” it was incredibly hurtful, on top of an already traumatizing event. And Clara bought it. She believed she had gotten what she deserved when she was raped.

            After Clara had told her story, I asked her this: “If you had a teenage daughter, and she snuck out of the house and went to a party, and you found out, what do you think would be an appropriate punishment?”

            Clara thought about it, and said, “Maybe being grounded for two weeks?”

            “Being grounded for two weeks sounds like a perfectly reasonable punishment,” I said. “So, you would not tell your daughter that she should be raped for what she did?”

            “No,” said Clara.

            “If you don’t believe rape is an appropriate punishment for your imaginary daughter,” I said, “then please don’t think it’s an appropriate punishment for yourself.” What I was trying to do was to get Clara to apply critical reasoning to the belief that she deserved to be raped. If her mother had applied critical reasoning before she had said what she said, then I would like to believe she wouldn’t have said it at all. Most people do not believe that rape is an appropriate punishment for sneaking out of the house, and they are right.

            Very often, the most persistent-yet-false belief that people hold is the belief that it was my fault, when it was not. This comes up most often in the case of individuals who have been the victim of childhood sexual abuse.

            Perpetrators of abuse want two things: they want access, and they want their victims to remain silent about what is happening to them. Perpetrators accomplish this in two ways: they threaten their victims, and they manipulate them into believing that what is happening is the victim’s fault. Perpetrators do not say, “I’m sorry I’m doing this to you. I am psychologically sick, and none of this is your fault.” Instead, they say things like, “If anyone finds out about this, you’re going to be in big trouble.”

            Human beings don’t start developing critical thinking skills until around age eleven or so, and by then, many of us have been taught to believe a lot of stuff that is both false and damaging to sense of self. Once, when facilitating a group session with about twelve trauma survivors, I asked the following question: “When is the abuse of a child by an adult the child’s fault?”

            After a moment, a woman raised her hand and said, in a timid voice, “Never?”

            “That is the correct answer,” I said. “The real question, though, is, do you believe that for everyone, or everyone but yourself?

            Several members of the group reluctantly admitted that they believed for everyone but themselves. This points to a common occurrence in doing therapy with survivors of abuse: the belief that somehow I am the exception, and it really was my fault. It’s amazing how many people believe that. How many of them are right? None.

            This is not to say that nothing is ever our fault. Everyone acts out from time to time, and if doing a bad behavior makes one a bad person, then we’re all bad. The reality is, we’re all human, so we’re not perfect. A problem arises when we employ thinking that says everyone but me is allowed to make mistakes. This is an example of a belief that relies on a double standard, so it is unfair, and should be challenged.

            Of course, realizing we hold a belief that is not supported by reason or evidence doesn’t mean the belief just goes away, never to trouble us again. Recognizing erroneous beliefs is actually the easy part. The really difficult work involves convincing the heart what our head knows to be true. How is this done? In a word: repetition. Consider this: most of us had to learn our multiplication tables somewhere in elementary school, and I have never met anyone who was able to look at a multiplication table once, and have it memorized. No, we learn through repetition. And often, in the process of making the journey from our head to our heart, new information has to compete with old, bad information. One example of this is the client who had to replace the belief, “When I was eight years old, I seduced my father,” with, “My father sexually abused me, an innocent child, and it wasn’t my fault.” Recognizing the truth of that second statement is an important step, but it is only the first step. As a psychiatrist I know is fond of saying, “Repeat that to yourself twenty thousand times, and it’ll start to sink in.”

            Critical thinking can be learned and practiced, and there are a lot of online resources for anyone who is interested. (Of course, even online critical thinking resources should be regarded with some skepticism. The only resource you can completely trust is me.) Honing one’s critical reasoning ability allows one to avoid being duped by the deluge of hogwash on the misinformation superhighway called the internet. It also allows one to question the wisdom of clichés, which are often accepted as truth without a second thought. Consider this cliché: “The best things in life are free.” Now consider this one: “Nothing good is free.” They can’t both be right, can they? The thing to remember about clichés is that they are probably right some of the time, and probably never right all of the time.

            As I have written elsewhere, one of the biggest causes of unhappiness is a belief that is some variation on the one that says, “There is something fundamentally wrong with me.” Very often, the only thing that’s wrong with the person who thinks this is that they are convinced there is something wrong with them. This belief causes unhappiness, which is mistaken for evidence that the belief is true. It’s a vicious cycle. “I think there is something wrong with me, which causes me to feel bad, and the fact that I feel bad is proof there is something wrong with me,” or so the thinking goes, although usually not on a conscious level. A big part of the process of therapy is breaking this cycle of thinking and challenging the underlying belief that feeds it.

            You want to know what’s wrong with you? I’ll tell you. It’s the same thing that’s wrong with everyone else: You’re human. You’re not perfect. Sometimes you screw up, even when you know better. Sometimes you have “bad thoughts.” Sometimes you don’t know why you do the things you do. Guess what? Join the club. The club is called humanity. We’re all members for life. If you want to enjoy it, and not feel like a rotten person, there is a way to do that. I’ll talk more about that later, but that concept can be summed up in a single word: kindness.

            See you!

Related Posts

Comments are closed.