How to Think Well in Challenging Times

A cognitive scientist offers tips for sharpening your critical thinking in 2020.

Posted Aug 24, 2020

 Robert Kundrak/Unsplash
During volatile times of change and danger, critical thinking skills are crucial to making good decisions, avoiding unnecessary stress, and minimizing risk.
Source: Robert Kundrak/Unsplash

Most people probably would agree that 2020 has been a tough year—and there is more to come. The COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, and an unusual governmental climate have turbocharged and exacerbated all the usual problems with social media deception, medical quackery, conspiracy beliefs, and political tribalism.

One way you might do a better job of safely navigating the dangers and stresses of a difficult year is to learn more about your brain and pay closer attention to how it processes information and leads you to important decisions.

Critical thinking simply means making the effort to objectively analyze and evaluate information or perceptions before accepting a claim, buying something, joining a group, etc. It is a way of reasoning that at least gives you a better chance of getting things right. In short, it’s thinking before believing. 

Critical thinking is always important, of course, but even more so in a year when stakes are high and the environment less stable. Julien Musolino, a scientist who holds a dual appointment in the Psychology Department and the Center for Cognitive Science at Rutgers University, has plenty to say about the importance of thinking well. He is the author of The Soul Fallacy as well as numerous scientific articles in top journals.

 J. Musolino
"The mind doesn’t work the way our untutored intuitions suggest it does." -Julien Musolino, Rutgers University cognitive scientist
Source: J. Musolino

What do you wish everyone understood about her or his own mind?

Julien Musolino: Our minds do not come equipped with a ready-made instruction manual. Understanding how the mind works and how to use one’s mind optimally requires a lot of effort and training. And yet, doing so is absolutely crucial to properly understand the world and try to make it a better place.

What are some important cognitive biases or effects that you believe people should be aware of for their own wellbeing?

Motivated reasoning [reasoning and decision-making unconsciously biased by what we want to believe]. Once you understand how this works, you get so much more for free. It raises your awareness of confirmation and disconfirmation bias, and the difference between system 1 [quick, unconscious, potentially error-prone thinking] and system 2 [reflective, deliberate, more likely to be accurate].

The illusion of explanatory depth [believing you understand something complex such as a scientific theory better than you really do]. Simple to demonstrate and very compelling. I like the ego-deflating value of the effect, too.

Dunning-Kruger effect [overestimating one’s ability or knowledge]. Once the illusion of explanatory depth hits home, the Dunning-Kruger effect is a really nice follow-up. Needless to say, Donald Trump is the poster boy for this effect, with disastrous consequences.

Halo effect [allowing one trait or characteristic to influence other judgments or an overall feeling about a person, brand, product, etc.]. Goes well with the other three. The myth that rich people are somehow also smarter, work harder, are more deserving, etc. has insidious effects in the United States. 

What is a productive and helpful way one can approach a friend or family member who believes something that is almost certainly false and possibly harmful?

I’m not sure there’s a universal recipe here. That said, approaching the friend or family member in question from a place of understanding, care, and compassion would seem like a good place to start. For what it’s worth, my own personal experience suggests that even that may not work in the end. This of course doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try.

How has your career spent studying and researching human thinking impacted your personal life?

Being an academic, I feel very privileged. I have been trained to think critically—although there is always room for improvement. The impact that access to higher education and intellectual life have had on me personally is incalculable. Much of my teaching and public outreach efforts are driven by a deeply felt desire to share the wonderful gifts that I’ve been lucky enough to receive myself.

We don’t know what lies ahead for the rest of 2020 or this century, but what does your gut tell you about humankind’s long-term future?

The historian Yuval Noah Harari recently described humanity’s predicament as follows: 1) We’ve made progress; 2) Things are still pretty bad; 3) Things could get much worse.

We are aware of some of the most pressing problems we face as a species and the solutions are, at least in principle, also reasonably well understood. I have in mind the threats posed by climate change and nuclear weapons—although there are certainly others. Whether the obstacles that stand between our understanding of these threats and their solutions can be overcome will, to a large extent, determine what’s in store for the human species.

Recommended books about critical thinking:

  • The Soul Fallacy, by Julien Musolino
  • The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan 
  • How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age, by Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn
  • Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, by Terence Hines
  • Pseudoscience and Extraordinary Claims of the Paranormal, by Jonathan C. Smith
  • The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe: How to Know What's Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake, by Steven Novella 
  • The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies, by Michael Shermer 
  • Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye, by Michael Shermer 
  • Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, by Michael Shermer 
  • Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science & Pseudoscience in Archaeology, by Ken Feder
  • Think: Why you should question everything, by Guy P. Harrison 
  • Good Thinking: What You Need to Know to Be Smarter, Safer, Wealthier, and Wiser, by Guy P. Harrison
  • Think Before You Like: Social Media's Effect on the Brain and the Tools You Need to Navigate Your Newsfeed, by Guy P. Harrison

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