Issues Magazine

Thinking about Thinking

By Deborah Graham

Unless we stop and think about thinking, critical thinking can be elusive.

Thinking about thinking is a form of metacognition. It requires effortful understanding of the thinking process and an ability to exert control over it.

When we think we often use heuristics, or a rule of thumb, to guide our conclusions. This of course means that there is no guarantee that our conclusions are correct. Conclusions may be drawn on the basis of impressions. These cognitive shortcuts allow for rapid processing of information, but they can also mislead and be inaccurate. Stereotypes are another example of classification according to salient features rather than factual elements.

Before these are discussed in more detail, a quick look at comprehension and evaluation is worthwhile. Comprehension can be taken for granted or people can be put off thinking about what is being said by jargon-heavy or discipline-specific language. It is easy, though, to unpack information and identify exactly what is being communicated. This unpacking will ultimately result in a far better ability to evaluate information. Although this may seem self-evident, unless we are thinking about what we are thinking, and why we are thinking about an issue in a certain way, we may fall into effortless thinking that can lead to false conclusions.

Unpacking information inevitably aids comprehension and allows information to be evaluated. The conclusions of others can be fraught with problems. An authoritative conclusion can fit a heuristic of “sound knowledge”, thus encouraging uncritical acceptance at the expense of accuracy. Take the following example, which has often been presented to university orientation students:

Watching a violent movie after my brother’s violent death was cathartic. This helps to demonstrate the construct validity of Breuer’s hypothesis. On testing, however, no changes in circulating serotonin had occurred due to the movie. Thus, the ability of reconstruction to effect real change may be questioned.

What is being said?

The technical language initially puts off many students. However, five minutes of research can unpack the statement and make it much more cognitively accessible:

• Cathartic: producing a release of pent-up feelings;

• Breuer (Josef 1842–1925): Austrian physician who explored re-exposure therapy and laid the foundation for psychoanalytical approaches;

• Serotonin: a chemical produced naturally in the brain. It is involved in modulating mood and has been implicated in depressive disorders.

Having comprehended what is being said, students are now in a position to evaluate the information.

The ability to evaluate information is a key component of critical thinking. Some of the types of evaluative responses that are made after unpacking the material are:

• “When was the serotonin measured? It can take weeks or even months for changes in the system to be evident.”

• “Why not measure a stress hormone like cortisol instead of serotonin? Breuer himself rejected this approach eventually.”

• “If I feel better, does it matter what measured serotonin levels suggest?”

The unpacking of the information now allows the individual to disagree with the conclusion drawn in the original statement. This is empowering and encourages individuals to challenge conclusions rather than passively accepting them because they appear to be from a source with high face validity.

Thinking critically about issues often requires that people become better informed. However, some sources are so well respected that there is immediate acceptance of information. Under such circumstance, critical thinking can be difficult.

A well-known example involves the well-respected and prestigious journal Science. In 2002, the journal published a paper by George Ricaurte and colleagues claiming that methylenedioxymethamphetamine – ecstasy – causes severe dopaminergic depletion and can lead to Parkinson’s disease. The research behind the study was funded by the US government and was widely cited around the world, particularly by the media and anti-drug groups. The message was clear: ecstasy is dangerous and has irreversible effects that can lead to illness and decline.

Considering that ecstasy has a documented history of use as a therapeutic tool in psychotherapy, post-traumatic stress disorder and family therapy, the published findings puzzled many people, including those who had used the drug recreationally over many years. When the results of the study were scrutinised, problems became obvious. The animals used in the study had been administered quite large doses of methamphetamine instead of ecstasy. A range of methodological and reporting problems were identified that led to the retraction of the paper.

This outcome has since been discussed in the context of medical fraud and the nexus between government and scientific funding. Unfortunately, while the original message of harm and decline due to the use of ecstasy was widely disseminated, the retraction was not.

While false information is obviously misleading and may represent a hidden agenda, there are much more immediate consequences. People who have taken ecstasy over time, including young adults and teenagers, find a mismatch between their own experience with the drug and their health outcomes, and claims of inevitable, serious decline. This mismatch can lead to scepticism about drug information generally. Future important drug harm messages may be ignored because they are seen as having low or no validity.

So while prestigious sources of information can lead to a greater acceptance of information with little scrutiny or critical thinking occurring, if a source of information is damaged, any subsequent information may be viewed with scepticism regardless of the veracity of the information. This then becomes “knowing” rather than “thinking” about an issue on the basis of the evidence. This type of “knowing” can be automatic and can preclude critical thinking.

A much earlier example of general social acceptance of information (which was later shown to be false) comes from the work of British physician and early psychologist Havelock Ellis (1859–1939). Ellis wrote (among many other things) the Psychology of Sex, a four-volume work that used research rather than social mores to unpack and understand sexuality in different cultures.

Ellis lived in a time of repressed sexuality where information about sexual matters was largely based on myth and fear. One prevailing belief was that masturbation led to blindness, illness and even death. Fascinated by this, Ellis decided to conduct a case study using himself as the subject to document his inevitable decline in order to understand the processes underlying this phenomenon. Of course, his health did not decline with increased masturbation. This prompted Ellis to further investigate this and other matters of sexuality in a systematic way. It became clear that prevailing beliefs about sexuality were largely false.

Ellis faced a severe social backlash and was somewhat demonised for his research. Nevertheless, his ability to think critically about these issues led to a much more factual and open examination of ideas surrounding sexuality.

It can be extremely difficult to think critically in the circumstances that Ellis faced. Barriers to critical thinking include a general acceptance of “facts” supported by social mores. Ellis demonstrated independent critical thinking that assisted in breaking down damaging and controlling influences previously taken for granted. He moved away from an automatic acceptance of the “facts” to a clear analysis that allowed the truth to be revealed.

Another example of potentially damaging automatic thinking is an over-reliance on stereotypes to understand an issue. While stereotypes are quick shortcuts that allow immediate classification and apparent understanding, they inappropriately classify people or events based on perceived group membership.

In March 2006, Lisa Millar reported on the ABC’s World Today the story of an eminent 62-year-old female Aboriginal elder in residence at Griffith University who suffered a stroke at a busy university campus bus stop. She collapsed and was ignored for 5 hours as hundreds of people walked past her. Eventually, Japanese students asked her if she was okay. Security and an ambulance were both finally called. An excerpt from the interview conducted by Lisa Millar with Boni Robertson, a professor at Griffith University, illustrates the stereotyping that seems to be occurring:

LISA MILLAR: “Why do you think people walked past her?”

BONI ROBERTSON: “Well, Aunty said to me, ‘I wasn’t dirty, Boni. I wasn’t unkempt.’ She said, ‘I was very well-dressed.’”

“And I said that shouldn’t even be a factor and she said, you know, ‘Is that what this country has come to?’ And I believe she said that ‘this was about me being Aboriginal and they have their own perceptions as to why I would be there vomiting.’”

“And she said, ‘I’ve never had a drink in my life, of alcohol.’”

“And I said it could be race, and definitely that’s a factor that needs to be considered.”

“But also, I singly said that this is also an indictment and a clear example of what this country has become. You know, we don’t even look after our old people in this country.”

Boni’s analysis of why the woman was not rendered assistance is cogent. There is a stereotype that Aboriginal Australians drink to great excess. What many people are not aware of is that fewer Aboriginal Australian adults drink alcohol than those who do not. That is, there are more alcohol abstinent people in the Aboriginal population than there are people who drink alcohol. This stands in contrast to the non-Aboriginal population, where the vast majority of adults do drink alcohol.

Stereotypes allow facts to be (unknowingly automatically) bypassed when conclusions are drawn. Many people, when confronted with this distressing episode, seem to think that they would be the one person in the crowd that would have helped. Interestingly, it was students from another culture who finally intervened.

Heuristics also help to explain the lack of assistance over such an extended period of time. Keeping in mind that a heuristic is like guesswork based on previous experience, a conclusion guided by a heuristic may be false.

Take the bystander effect investigated in social psychology. The probability of someone helping in an emergency situation is inversely related to the number of people present. Individuals are less likely to take action if there are many more people present because the situation is less likely to be perceived as a problem (people assume someone else would have done something if it was).

This diffusion of responsibility became a hot topic when Kitty Genovese, a young woman in New York in the 1960s, was murdered in front of her apartment block. As Mark Gado reports in The Kitty Genovese Murder, Kitty’s screams and cries for help were heard and observed by at least 38 people over a period of 32 minutes. About 20 minutes after her death, a neighbour called the police. A police car apparently arrived within 3 minutes. The lack of direct intervention is understandable given the risk to personal safety. However, one timely phone call to the police may have prevented Kitty’s death.

It takes effort to stop and think about our own thinking. Automatic processing is critical to perception and interpretation of the environment generally. At times though, challenging automaticity is necessary and rewarding. Actively thinking about thinking can change life for the better.

It is surprising that most people don’t realise that the majority of our self-talk (i.e. our inner voice that evaluates who we are) is negative. It has been variously estimated that between 60–80% of self-talk is self-critical. People seem to judge themselves much more harshly than other people do.

Challenging negative thinking is a skill that has to be developed over time and practiced. After all, overruling a lifetime pattern of thinking is not easy. It means being aware of your thinking and how your thinking creates emotional responses.

Take failure as an example. People are taught from childhood that failure is bad and that success is good. These are very relative terms. Indeed, if an individual never attempted anything that stretched their capacity, failure would never be experienced (and perhaps neither would satisfaction).

Yet Walt Disney experienced a range of personal and financial disasters before becoming a household name. Not only did he learn practical skills from these failures, he learned how to move forward positively after failure.

Too often, people feel totally miserable over something that they have done or failed to do. This should be the time that people stop and think about their thinking and how their thinking is making them feel this way.

Unfortunately though, depression and sadness can reduce the ability to think about thinking. Active, effortful, directed thinking can lead to solutions and movement beyond the immediate problem. One small action or step away from the “disaster” helps to leave it behind, allowing an individual to move forward.

Most commonly, thinking patterns and negative conclusions are not challenged, leaving negative emotional states to dominate without arrest. Thinking about thinking can allow new possibilities to emerge while moving an individual to a more positive emotional state and a greater awareness of the myriad of possible self-directed solution-based behaviours that can be engaged in order to move away from current circumstances. If individuals are mindful and remind themselves to stop and think about thinking, they can find greater contentment in their daily lives.

Thinking about thinking puts the individual in control. A desire and ability to assess information will lead to greater insight into issues and hopefully assist individuals in drawing informed, thoughtful conclusions. Of course, what we already know can be a significant barrier to what we do not know.

Thinking is channelled by our understanding and interpretation of people and the world around us. This “knowing” can preclude the possibility of challenging accepted views and making new discoveries.

Thinking about thinking can reveal new possibilities. It can lead to better understanding and powerful insight into why we think and feel the way we do.

It seems so obvious, but unless we think about our thinking we may barely be thinking at all. As Oscar Wilde noted, “a man who does not think for himself does not think at all”.