Common Barriers to Critical Thinking

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  • 0:05 Limitations to…
  • 0:43 Tunnel Vision
  • 2:14 Sticking with the Group
  • 3:55 Assumptions
  • 4:34 Expanding Critical…
  • 5:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

Have you ever regretted how you behaved in a situation or a decision you made? In this lesson we will discuss critical thinking and the barriers that can prevent us from thinking clearly and making good decisions.

Limitations to Critical Thinking

In this lesson, we'll define critical thinking as the ability to think about an issue and make decisions objectively, without being encumbered by personal interests, assumptions, or influence from social groups. For example, have you ever made a judgment about a person based on what someone else told you, and later heard another side of the story? We have all made decisions or addressed a situation in a way we regretted because we did not think critically. This lesson explores the limitations that hold us back from thinking critically, and the tendencies that can be difficult to acknowledge or admit. We'll consider how understanding these barriers can be a start to overcoming them.

Tunnel Vision

Throughout our day, we pay a lot of attention to our own needs and wants. For example, we may spend time considering what we want for lunch, when we'll be finished with work, and even what other people are thinking about us. At times, we may be even more focused on ourselves. For example, if we are struggling with a breakup, or excited about moving to a new place, we might be thinking of ourselves more than usual.

Focusing on your own needs and wants can be a normal part of life, but self-interested thinking is a problem when you aren't able to think objectively because of it. For example, let's say that your boss comes to you and says that she wants to promote your coworker Bob, and wants to know your assessment of his work. You realize that Bob's promotion would change his schedule and would mean he could no longer give you a ride to work. You'd have to start taking the bus to work, which would be time consuming and expensive. You don't like that idea, so you tell your boss that you think Bob is not qualified for the job. As a result, he doesn't get the promotion.

In this case, you've let your own needs get in the way of considering whether Bob is right for the position. You've allowed the tunnel vision of your own desires to block you from being fair and objective about Bob's situation. People who think only in self-interested terms generally do not use critical thinking. When a person believes themselves to be more important that other people, this is egocentrism. Egocentrism is also not conducive to critical thinking.

Sticking with the Group

What about when it's not just your own needs you're considering, but the beliefs and views of the group around you? For example, let's say that you are part of a carpool, and Bob is the driver because he has a nice-sized SUV that can hold your group of 5 people. You want to tell your supervisor that Bob's an excellent fit for the position, but the carpool group you're in doesn't want to lose their carpool driver. They want you to tell your boss that Bob is not a fit for the new role. When a group of people wants one thing based on mutual self-interested thinking, this is called group bias. Group bias occurs when you value the views of your own group to the detriment of other groups. You forgive the failings of people like you, and you exaggerate the shortcomings of those unlike you.

If you go along with the group to fit in, you are sacrificing your own critical thinking skills to herd instinct. As you might guess, herd instinct has to do with wanting to be part of a group for survival and protection. In a social situation, like your carpool group, your physical survival is not at risk, but you might go along with them anyway to avoid being an outcast. If you go along with the group's wishes in this circumstance, you're allowing group bias and herd instinct to prevent you from critical thinking.

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