Technologies evolve. But insecurities, blind spots, and gullibility rarely does. We might have the latest software across all of our devices. Sadly, this doesn’t mean that our ability to reason gets frequent updates.
Thinking, and most notably critical thinking. Gives us, humans, a way to parse our way through the plot-twisting narrative of this thing called life.
But simply understanding why is critical thinking important and asking critical thinking questions is rarely enough to move forward and successfully diverge from the pack.
Yes, we need to know how to think better. But we should also consider what can prevent us from thinking better.
This article describes 7 critical thinking barriers.
Obstacles, that can violate our ability to construct a sound thought and restrain us from advancing. And, also, potentially send us back to the starting point of our journey.
What Prevents Us From Thinking Critically?
A catch-all word for foolishness or lack of critical thinking is this one: hurry. As the famous Baltasar Gracián once said, “Fools are fond of hurry: they take no heed of obstacles and act incautiously.”
When we don’t pause to consider the consequences, we rely on the concepts that are top of mind. But what’s immediately available as a solution, it’s rarely the best solution.
And what else is true is that when we are quick to make a conclusion, it usually means that we fall into conformity. In other words, we barrow the viewpoints of the people around us without critical evaluation.
However, taking time to reflect and think deeply about a subject is a privilege not all situations can provide us with. We might be in a bad situation – say, you injured yourself and the doctor is suggesting an operation. And you have to decide fast how you’d respond.
Critical thinking requires analyzing the available facts; Considering what might be the unknown unknowns; Making predictions; Playing the different scenarios in your head and making a decision while excluding your biases.
All of this is hard work. And it’s not always successful.
Besides lack of time. Lack of access to vital information. There are other barriers to critical thinking.
Below, I’m observing the most common ones. Hoping that they’ll help you in your day-to-day decision-making.
7 Critical Thinking Barriers:
1. Lack of Expertise Knowledge
An obvious critical thinking barrier is lack of skills.
If you find yourself in a situation where you can’t find a good solution to a problem. Or you continuously make mistakes. Chances are, that you are still not skilled enough. You are still not in a possession of the main decision-making mental models the job requires.
Since your outside performance is based on your inner processes. When seeking to upgrade your skills in a given area of life, consider beginning by looking not at outside factors. But the reasons behind your current actions.
Consider what you were thinking about before making a decision and why. Develop the right mental representation – i.e., understand what’s the best way to handle a particular task.1
If you are new to a field. For example, if you just started a new position as a junior guy/girl, it’s acceptable to make mistakes. But the number of mistakes should decrease with time.
As the authors of the book Accelerated Expertise write, the main ambition of everyone looking to master a field should be:
“A sentiment that has been expressed by many people and in many ways is that apprentices make the same mistake twice, journeymen make the same mistake once, and experts work until they never make mistakes.” Robert R. Hoffman
How do you reach an error-free state?
Ask for feedback.
Seeking corrective feedback from coworkers needs to be part of your toolkit – even if you’re well past the junior state. By perceiving your errors, you will reduce your errors.
2. Knowledge Shields
Knowledge shields are a strange gimmick of the human mind. I’m sure you’ve experienced using a shield to defend your viewpoints – we all have.
The concept is the following:
When we are presented with evidence that is opposite to our views. Instead of taking a moment to make corrections to our wrong mental models, we do something else. We engage in mental maneuvers to rationalize our faulty beliefs.2
Simply put, through self-talk, we convince ourselves that what we believe is truthful and what was just presented is false or not that important.
For example, say you just opened a local business where you are going to sell t-shirts with funny prints. On day 3 of the grand opening, you meet an old friend who shares how most local businesses fail between the 1 and the 2nd year. “Huh! Thanks for the support,” you think. But at this moment, are you going to continue, or are you going to dig deeper into the subject and potentially pivot?
Commonly, people will dismiss the fidelity of such statements and push hard to make the impossible possible.
Another universal example is social media. By now, you’ve probably heard dozens of talks, posts, and videos on why social media is bad for you. I personally wrote about the topic here, here, and also here.3 Nonetheless, there is a high chance that you still participate in the endless online scroll. You hear the facts, but your mind simply passes them by.
In a way, what you know acts like a shield. It blocks new incoming ideas to defend your current beliefs. Thus, the phrase knowledge shield.
Facts that endorse and oppose our beliefs are all around us. You can go insane if you try to figure out all of them. But if you want to move forward, it’s vital to engage in the refinement of your own knowledge and beliefs.
Don’t hold your blinders and just hope to make it. Keep an open mind and make corrections when necessary if you really want to make it.
3. Cognitive Biases
Cognitive biases are gaining popularity. Which is good, more and more people need to understand how our brains are hardwired to operate.
While the topic deserves a longer treatment. This is the short version… Our brain is trying to reduce energy consumption. That’s why it creates shortcuts.
For example, instead of engaging in the prolonged process of considering all the present information. Asking for advice. Reading books on the subject. At the end of the day, you just put your salary under the mattress.
Why would you do something different?
Investing in stocks is risky. There are a lot of unknowns. In contrast, when your cash is “safely” stored under the mattress, you know where you put your money. You can see them. That’s why we avoid investing. We call it risky because the outcomes are unknown.
That’s a simple example of just one of the large list of cognitive biases – the ambiguity aversion bias. We prefer the familiar instead of something new that can potentially give you bigger rewards or will make you feel better after the initial dose of uncertainty.
That’s also the reason we prefer vacationing in the same average place year after year. Even when there are a ton of options out there.
In The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli presents a lot of thinking faults that can help you spot your errors. It’s a light read. Go and get it.
And if you’re looking for something more complex on the subject. Consider the following titles:
- Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
- Critical Thinking by Tom Chatfield
- Super Thinking by Gabriel Weinberg
Cognitive biases are a major critical thinking barrier. Keep them in mind when you are about to make an important decision.
Groups are all around us.
Hopefully, you have the opportunity to be a part of many different groups.
Your family is a group. Your friends are another group. In your job, there are many different groups within the big group with potentially different viewpoints.
And the above are just the primary groups you participate in – there is also the school, the church, the club you support, the online communities, etc.
We love to be part of groups. Especially groups full of people who understand and support us.
Sadly, groups have a terrible side effect. When we “live” in a group for long enough. We absorb the viewpoints of the group. Like a sponge, we soak up the main concepts of the group which then changes how we think and act. The so-called groupthink phenomenon.
I have a first-hand experience with the negative side of groupthink. When I switched schools around the age of 14, most of the folks in my new class were quite average. Not that they weren’t smart, they simply didn’t push themselves compared to my previous class where we were constantly competing for better grades. But instead of keeping my edge, I gave in. I started to didn’t care either.
Of course, there is also the good side. If you want to get fit. To ease the process, you can simply join a group of people who regularly train – e.g., go to the gym or insert yourself in a running club.
As James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits proposes. If you want to adopt a good habit do this:
“The key—if you want to build habits that last—is to join a group where the desired behavior is the normal behavior.” James Clear
Along with that, always keep a healthy distance. Never completely gave in to the ideas of the people around you.
You can be loyal to your friends, but this doesn’t mean that you should be loyal to bad ideas.
Ignorance can be intentional or unintentional.
Intentional ignorance is often caused by arrogance. You consider yourself too smart. Too “adult”. Or, for example, too superior to consider something said by another person lower down the hierarchy.
“Look at these pitiful reptiles. I’m way smarter than them. I don’t care what they say. I graduated from college and I own a Mustang!”
That’s something an arrogant person might think when other people are trying to share an interesting idea.
Ceasing this type of behavior is hard work. A step in the right direction will be employing empathy. In short, you stop thinking solely about yourself, and you start considering the other side.
The other type of ignorance is unintentional. Also labeled as drone mentality.
The short version of this behavior is that you stop paying attention to what’s happening around you. You just kind of live on autopilot.
No thinking is involved in what you do, and you proactively avoid involving yourself in new challenges or problems.
Overcoming this robot-like behavior requires critical awareness. Auditing your beliefs by considering what to think about and fostering your curiosity.
6. Rut Think
There are two different categories of rut think.
When psychologists talk about rut think, they mean that you feel stuck. Every day feels the same, and you are unmotivated to do anything.
The other definition of rut think is that you simply can’t produce original ideas. You are stuck in the “we’ve always done it this way” thinking.
Let’s consider an example to portray this better…
You work in a marketing agency. There’s a new client who sells mattresses. The representative of the company is looking for a fresh ad that will showcase the uniqueness of their brand. You, on the other hand, after working for more than 10 years in the same position. Don’t see them as unique as they claim to be. “You’ve seen it all!” So, you just copy an ad you did for a similar project in the past because you can’t think about anything else. The client is not pleased. You get fired.
In the book Learning How To Learn, the authors describe rut think as: “Your mind gets so used to running along certain neural pathways that it can’t easily change. You become less flexible in your thinking.”
The everyday sameness leads to the opposite of thinking outside the box – you think inside the box.
Now, after we have a better idea of what is rut think. We can see that the psychological explanation is the cause of the creative problem.
A solution to this type of thinking is doing something different. Read a different book. Learn a new skill. Do something different to break the daily dullness.
By engaging in something different, you’ll invite new original ideas and also start to feel better.
7. Emotional Distress
Emotions are probably the biggest critical thinking barrier.
Knowing the best thinking strategies along with the major types of thinking and actually applying them are two different things.
For example, you might consider quitting your boring job to start a small online business because it’s cool to do this these days. You have some money saved, and you go all in. However, after a few months, you realize that running a business is harder than what you initially thought. Yes, online gurus are telling you to keep pushing. But how can you? Your bank account is draining fast!
Let’s think about this for a moment.
Surely, you knew that it was going to be hard. But you didn’t know that it was going to be that hard – i.e., to hurt more than what you thought. It didn’t feel that bad when you were dreaming about becoming a business owner.
Even though we have the ability to forecast how the future will unfold, we can’t adequately predict how our emotions will guide our behavior. We imagine our future in a vacuum. A bubble that is emotionless.
When making a plan, the thought of losing half your savings feels quite different than when you actually lose half your savings.
So, when you are about to make a decision. Don’t simply consider what will happen. But also think about how you’ll feel when this happens. Then, think about how you usually respond when you feel this or that way.
If you freak out when you lose money, it’s probably not a good idea to ditch your current job completely. Consider starting a side thing and see how it will go.
Breaking Down Critical Thinking Barriers
If after reading all of the above, you think something like: “Oh, I don’t have any critical thinking barriers. My decision-making process is quite good, actually. Thanks for nothing, Ivaylo!”
If that’s the case. Well, you probably have a problem. The worst of them all – denial of your own flaws.
Thinking about how to improve your decisions is difficult because your initial thought is that you don’t have issues.
As pointed out above, our brains do all possible to rationalize our faulty beliefs.
So, the first step, sort to say, to crush the critical thinking barriers is to realize that it’s up to you. You are responsible for upgrading your thinking. And, it’s a never-ending process.
And it all starts with changing your perspective.
What’s the best way to do that?
- Read more books.
- Hang around people who either read a lot of books or are ought to write a book.
- Pay attention.
- Discover critical thinking skills.
The first one is obvious. By reading books, you soak up the knowledge shared by the author. The more you read, the more different viewpoints you accumulate.
Interested? Here’s something to get you started: Before, During, and After Reading Activities.
The second point is also something perceptible. Just change your environment.
Hang around people who complain and are quick to blame others and you’ll become the same. Conversely, talk with positive folks who are optimistic, have and pursue crazy ideas, and you’ll feel more hopeful. You know, smart folks who are so intelligent that you think that they should write a book.
Thirdly, pay attention. Actually listen to what others are saying. Then, think about why they said it.
To become better at critical thinking, you must become watchful of what others do. Deconstruct what they are saying and consider their thought processes.
And finally, acquire a set of critical thinking skills. I’ve covered this here: What Are The 7 Critical Thinking Skills? and here: How To Improve Critical Thinking Skills.
All of these will help you see the world through a different lens. You’ll expand your possibilities and start to notice things you were unable to see before. The new way of seeing things will lead you to new ideas and unique insights.
Some Closing Thoughts
Critical thinking sounds so mysterious.
Like a magical spell, that only a selected few are able to cast. Yet, everyone interested in learning how to think can become better at this skill.
The main point is to shift your attention away from trying to impress others, agree with others, and sound cool toward taming your mind.
Critical thinkers consider “is this true” and “what else is true” instead of automatically agreeing with everything they hear and see just to comply with the group.
Sadly, this doesn’t make them a preferred friend. Since you’ll commonly disagree with the people around you. There’s a possibility that the group will want to displace you.
But there is also good news. The better you become at this mind-flex, even if it’s in one field. The better you’ll see opportunities in other fields. Meaning that the skill of critical thinking is transferable.
And if critical thinking still sounds too “out there”. Simply call it thinking. The goal is to never stop doing it and become better at it.
“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” George S. Patton
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- I highly recommend reading my summary of Peak, or the actual book, for more on the topic of mental representation.
- The knowledge shield concept allows people to maintain their incorrect beliefs and understandings. It’s closely related to the cognitive dissonance theory.
- Honestly, I think that the normal usage of social media is devastating to your psychological well-being – and not only. If you are looking for a way out. I might have a solution. See: Follow Yourself.