What do you think about the following drawing?

Not great, right?  Now consider the second drawing below by the same artist.  

The only difference is that the one on the left took 10 minutes to complete whereas the one on the right took only 12 seconds.

What if all your thoughts were only 12-second thoughts?  That is the world that would exist without critical thinking.

Critical thinking is not well understood.  We take it for granted that it is something that is a byproduct of going to school.  People say “you go to school to learn how to think” but show no evidence that this happens.  We assume critical thinking happens at work but we can’t explain how we do it.  How is something so central to the way we live in the modern world so poorly understood?  What do we mean by “critical thinking” and how one might improve such a skill?

John Dewey, the early 20th Century American Philosopher, is credited with inventing the term. Though you can trace the foundations of critical thinking back to Socrates who famously said, “I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.” Dewey added that critical thinking is “suspended judgment, and the essence of this suspense is inquiry to determine the nature of the problem before proceeding to attempts at its solution.”

Critical thinking is only possible when you are able to recognize that your default impulses may not be correct and the possibility that there are many different approaches to analyzing a problem.  This essay explores critical thinking, how it is applied, identifies limitations, and a vital role in the consulting process.

What Is Critical Thinking?

The simplest definition of critical thinking is that it is space for thinking.  A pause or a delay in decision-making to consider additional possibilities.

The problem with defining critical thinking in a more detailed way is that it sends one in a circular loop.  It is hard to clearly say what we mean by “critical thinking” without referencing the process of thinking itself.  John Dewey is credited with being the person that brought attention to the idea of critical thinking and defined it as “suspended judgment; and the essence of this suspense is inquiry to determine the nature of the problem before proceeding to attempts at its solution.”

This process is not natural.  We are wired for survival and in today’s world, we have a hard time shifting away from the instincts that protect us and towards a slower and deliberative thought process.  Part of the reason for this is that many of our instincts and learned reactions are the right ones.  Jacob of the popular putanumonit blog argues that “The reason that intuition and social cognition are so commonly relied on is that they often work. Doing simply what feels right is usually good enough in every domain you either trained for (like playing basketball) or evolved for (like recoiling from snakes). Doing what is normal and fashionable among your peers is good enough in every domain your culture has mastered over time (like cooking techniques).” 

For things that humans haven’t figured out, like stopping or slowing the spread of a global pandemic, we need better tools than our intuition. 

Example: Critical Thinking In Consulting

Consulting at its best is an example of critical-thinking-as-a-service. Companies hire consulting firms because of their ability to deploy a rigorous problem-solving process to a wide range of problems.  This can be valuable for companies with a culture of reactivity and hasty decision-making.  Consulting firms can often help companies slow down and look at the big picture or look at something they are doing from a different perspective.  

The McKinsey problem-solving approach is one example and is been copied and altered by many companies in the business world. GE has its “workout” process.  Danaher has the “Danaher Business System.”  Toyota has the “Toyota Production System.”  The central element in all of these approaches is that they try to systematically embed critical thinking within the culture and day-to-day operations of a company.  

Critical Thinking Has Many Benefits

Apple iMac and Apple Magic Mouse and Keyboard on table

Critical thinking is a muscle that gets stronger over time with practice and, like exercise, there is pain before gain. In consulting many people struggle as they have to shift away from meeting the requirements of school reports to assessing ambiguous complex problems.

Critical Thinking Is Hard But Can Pay Off

Critical thinking sometimes means going against the crowd which can be socially costly but it  pays off, handsomely. 

Activist investor Michael Burry’ applied critical thinking to analyze the US housing market prior to the 2008 global financial crisis. The depth of his analysis led him to believe that nearly everyone in the institutional class had an incorrect model of how much risk there was in the market. He identified there was much more systemic risk than anyone knew.  He bet on this and many of the investors punished his rebellion by demanding their money back.  They didn’t trust his conclusions because they were so different.  Those who stuck with him shared in almost a billion dollars in profit from one bet. Burry had been right.  Billion-dollar companies needed to be bailed out and he got rich. He wasn’t making many friends by disagreeing with the consensus, but you don’t need friends to be right.  

In reflecting on how this might happen, Burry said, “Sober analysis on the part of the individual is paramount. We must remember that entire societies can and often do follow the wrong path for a very long time.” Part of Burry’s worldview was that institutions can hold incorrect views, often for long periods of time.  This is in contrast to most people’s default reaction to an institutional opinion: trust.  

Burry was skeptical of that impulse and wanted to check the numbers himself. I bet he’s glad he did.

See things others don’t

It feels intuitive to say “Seatbelts save lives.” and this is now common knowledge but that was not always the case. 

Ralph Nader, lawyer, and consumer advocate fought a decades-long battle against auto insurers in order to shift public opinion.  His ideas were brought to the forefront through his book Unsafe At Any Speed that highlighted the shortcuts car manufacturers made during the production of cars which included no seatbelts.  Until Nader, most people saw crashes and fatalities as something that was a fact of nature and most people blamed crashes on human error.  Nader, a critical thinker, started with a different question.  He asked, “what might save the most lives?”, rather than starting with accepting the status quo. 

Nader saw what others didn’t, wrote about it, and saved lives. The effects of one person applying critical thinking can have an enormous impact.

It Has Compounding Benefits

People avoid critical thinking because it can be a frustrating process.  However, if you spend the time to develop a process for approaching problems that are beyond the capacity of your normal intuitions you will be able to move on to more challenging problems.  

Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek once commented that he tries to “…avoid hard work. When things look complicated, that is often a sign that there is a better way to do it.” This is the secret sauce of any high-performing organization but can be hard to recognize if you were not there at the beginning.  Edgar Schein, one of the leading thinkers on corporate culture, defined culture as a group of people “who have been together long enough to have shared significant problems.”  An organization succeeds by taking the results of individual critical thinking and developing processes that can be implemented by others.  The better these rules are, the better the company is at solving the problems it faces in the market.  

Many companies default to taking as many clients or customers as they can find.  Yet when companies step back and analyze what clients or customers lead to the biggest impact on the bottom line, they often find that certain types of customers have an outsized effect.  Instead of simply defaulting to “more is better” a company might develop rules to determine who to say no to such that over the long term they have higher levels of growth.

It Enables You To Make Your Own Decisions

Why Oatly got people thinking differently about vegan milk alternatives |  Creative Moment

Critical thinking helps you protect yourself from attempts at manipulation and influence. In today’s world advertisers, companies, political groups, media companies, and apps are all using every tactic available to them to capture and keep your attention.  

Oatly is a drink company that has marketed its product with ads saying “like milk but for humans.”  When you see something like that you quickly start thinking about milk.  What’s wrong with milk?  Don’t millions of people drink it each day?

The critical thinker would step back and think about this from multiple perspectives:

  1. Milk: Are there issues with milk?  What is the evidence for milk being good or bad for us?  Are there different kinds of milk that might impact our assessment?
  2. Oatly: Oatly is a new product.  What is the right approach for thinking about a new product that doesn’t have long-term evidence in its favor?
  3. Milk vs. Oatly: What are the right models for thinking about comparing two different beverages, one new and one that has been on the market for a short period of time?

Critical thinkers  don’t take claims at face value.  They consider them based on a process of thinking.

Seeing The Signal From The Noise

Nate Silver is a world-class critical thinker.  However, the way the news media covers his predictions, showing them as “right” or wrong, is misleading.

Silver’s approach to polling is to develop a probabilistic prediction of different outcomes of elections.  He takes local, regional, and national polls, assesses them, and then develops a model of probable results.  In the 2008 election, he accurately predicted the results of 49 of 50 states and in 2012, predicted all 50 states correctly.  He was criticized in 2016 for incorrectly predicting the results of the election, but he had only given Hillary Clinton a 64.5% chance of winning the election, much lower than most other pollsters. 

Silver writes in his book about separating signal from noise, “The signal is the truth. The noise is what distracts us from the truth.”  Prior to his approach to political polling gaining popularity, many political analysts relied on conventional wisdom and mental shortcuts.

Most of Silver’s critics are signaling that they are not strong critical thinkers. By applying critical thinking in his work, Silver has been able to consistently outperform other analysts.

How To Be A Critical Thinker

If there was a patron saint of critical thinking it would be Dr. Gregory House.  He is the star of the popular show “House,” in which he spends every episode trying to solve a medical mystery.

Each episode of the television show starts with a patient that has an undiagnosed condition. House and his team iterate through many different diagnoses and ways of thinking about the problem.  What makes House unique relative to our conventional idea of a doctor is that he is highly disagreeable.  This is highlighted in the show’s branding of “Everyone Lies.”  What they are really saying is that at the end of the day the truth prevails no matter what people think the answer should be.  He even challenges his team to discount his own theories while still pursuing the truth: “You could think I’m wrong, but that’s no reason to stop thinking?”

House is applying a rigorous process and the point is not to be immediately correct but to continue to raise the odds of success of various diagnoses by considering many possibilities and then eliminating them.  In medicine, a “differential diagnosis” is one way to do this.  It considers multiple potential explanations for a set of symptoms and then tests the simplest theories first before moving on to the harder to test explanations.  

Critical thinking is about developing methods of thinking that avoid taking shortcut and defaulting to easy answers.  In House’s case, this is the only way of doing his job well, as he sees the patient’s that other doctors have already given up on.  Rigorous critical thinking is not only core to his job, but it is a matter of life and death.

Deliberate and not so deliberate thoughts

We are far too willing to reject the belief that much of what we see in life is random.

Thinking Fast and Slow

One of the best models for thinking about how we process information is through Daniel Kahneman’s breakdown of System 1 and System 2 thinking which he introduced in Thinking, fast and slow

System 1 refers to the kind of automatic reactions that we are wired with.  For the most part, these impulses do a good job of keeping us alive.  System 2 involves the slower, more calculated decisions.  This is where critical thinking happens.

Yet getting into this state is hard.  As Kahneman writes, 

A general “law of least effort” applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.

When we are able to shift our brains into system two thinking, that is where the magic happens and this will lead you to do the kind of work that people are gladly willing to pay for.

Consultants get criticized for creating “obvious” presentations. In some cases, consulting firms do fail to add much insight to a situation.  Yet in the best case, the presentation is only obvious in the sense that it is the result of a slow, deliberative process to develop clear ideas and takeaways for a specific audience.  The audience may sit there and think “wow this is so simple” but in the back of their mind there will be a little bit of a question, “how did they do that?”  

Train Yourself To Be More Aware

Mindfulness is a proven way to become more aware of your thinking process.  Research has shown that mindfulness, “involves two distinct dispositions, present-moment attentional focus and non-reactive monitoring.”  Non-reactive monitoring can also be seen as something Psychologists call executive function which covers three actions of the mind: “updating, inhibition and shifting.” 

  • Updating: Active “revision and monitoring” as new information emerges 
  • Inhibition: A suppression or skepticism of emergent thoughts
  • Shifting: going back and forth between tasks

Research has shown that with practice, mindfulness is something we can get better at and the “executive control skills of inhibition and updating were found to be positively related to critical thinking.”  Which is to say, training our minds to go slower can make us better at critical thinking.

Leverage Mental Models When Appropriate

Mental models condense entire textbooks or swaths of knowledge into simple, digestible, and friendly cognitive tools that change how we take on new problems. Shane Parrish, who studies mental models, explains, “Mental models are how we understand the world. Not only do they shape what we think and how we understand but they shape the connections and opportunities that we see. Mental models are how we simplify complexity, why we consider some things more relevant than others, and how we reason.”

In a sense they are shortcuts.  Taken at face value, they can help us shortcut the hard and rigorous critical thinking process.  But if we work backward and use them as starting points for developing our own knowledge about a situation, they can accelerate critical thinking.  Charlie Munger, the patron saint of mental models, suggests that we need to develop our own models of how the world works: “the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ‘em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form.”  Mental models are turning information into actionable ways of navigating the world, making decisions, and getting things right.

Thought experiments are common mental models we use to test out ideas and facts. One of the most intriguing mental models is Schrodinger’s cat. In quantum mechanics, particles can exist in many states at the same time and are reduced to one state when something interacts with it. Schrodinger’s cat represents a thought experiment of a cat in an unopened box being bombarded by radiation. The radiation will eventually kill the cat but we cannot see in an unopened box so we do not “know” that this really exists. The cat exists in two states: dead or alive, and only one can be observed when the box is opened.

The thought experiment demonstrates a mental model of understanding “quantum mechanical theory” that would otherwise be inaccessible because very few humans are going to derive the principles from scratch.  Instead, they can start with the mental model and then decide to dig deeper to understand what the theory is all about.

Charlie Munger argues that learning a wide range of mental models enables you to tap into a vault of “checklists of things to think about before he acted; and that he had mechanisms in his mind to evoke these, and bring these to his conscious attention when the situations for decisions arose.”

The Challenges Of Critical Thinking In Organizations

A challenge in consulting is that you are influenced by other people.  It can become easy to fall into groupthink and start to agree with the prevailing wisdom of your client or team members.  Yet this is not what consultants are paid to do.  They are paid to get to the best answer or set of answers to a problem regardless.  

At McKinsey one of the things they do to make sure that groupthink doesn’t prevail is to embrace the value of “obligation to dissent.”   A former McKinsey consultant Victor Ho, highlighted this playing out as  “the youngest, most junior person in any given meeting is the most capable to disagree with the most senior person in the room.”

In consulting, critical thinking is a process to be respected at all costs, and building a culture to protect that value is vital to success. One reason why so many consultants are able to develop strong critical thinking skills is that the organizations and client teams are oriented around learning.  A lot of this happens because of the way consultants work in teams.  People are dedicated to finding the best answers and our colleagues spend time pointing out errors or biases in our thinking.  This kind of teamwork takes a high amount of trust. 

It may be one thing to identify a way your company can make more money but another when that decision would put you at odds with the senior leaders of your organization who are in favor of a more popular approach. Social desirability bias, or in human language, making sure your boss likes you, is a real challenge for many people to get better at critical thinking.  When you are in these situations, the best thing to do is to look for a way out and to find a team, organization, or situation that will help you learn to become a better thinker.  

Make Your Life More Fun

If you are able to hardness this at an individual level, you can gain an unfair advantage, something Munger argued in a 2007 speech at USC law school:

I constantly see people rise in life who are not the smartest, sometimes not even the most diligent, but they are learning machines. They go to bed every night a little wiser than they were when they got up, and boy, does that help, particularly when you have a long run ahead of you. … So if civilization can progress only with an advanced method of invention, you can progress only when you learn the method of learning. Nothing has served me better in my long life than continuous learning. I went through life constantly practicing (because if you don’t practice it, you lose it) the multidisciplinary approach and I can’t tell you what that’s done for me. It’s made life more fun, it’s made me more constructive, it’s made me more helpful to others, and it’s made me enormously rich. You name it, that attitude really helps.

Munger embraces not only critical thinking but the desire to get better at it, forever.  Many of the incentives of organizations convince us that critical thinking is not worth it and our natural impulses convince us we are right when we are simply creating patterns in our mind.  By embracing a more deliverable approach and falling in love with the process of getting better at it, we can not only make better decisions but as Munger says, make life “more fun.”