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Critical Thinking Skills - The Two Most Important


What are the most important critical thinking skills you can develop? Some might say observation and logical thought. Although these help, both of these come pretty naturally in humans (even if we often choose to ignore logic when it doesn't take us where we want to go). I nominate two less common skills, ones that lead to more powerful thinking than just about anything else.

The critical thinking skills I am thinking of are habitual placing of truth above any other considerations, and the derivative skill of self observation. We can look at something and still not see what is there, instead seeing what needs to be there to confirm the beliefs we already have. But of course truth has to be above even our beliefs if we are to have the most powerful mind we can have.

We all can use logic to support our conclusions, and although we are better or worse than others at this, we are generally satisfied with our own results. But despite being supported by logical arguments, our conclusions are often arrived at by a process we are only partially aware of, which has nothing to do with logic at all. If we want to now where they really come from, and therefore whether they truly align with the truth, we have to see into our own thinking, even that which is normally a bit below consciousness.

Ego Problems

Even if we are the humblest people we typically have an ego so big that we can't see past it. What we think or believe becomes important because it comes from us. We identify with it as a part of our "self." But that tendency to create and defend a "self" gets in the way of developing our critical thinking skills fully. Why? Because once we identify with our own thoughts and beliefs anything that challenges them is felt as an attack we must defend against - even if that "attacking" idea is closer to the truth than our own.

A simple example will help make this clearer. You may have noticed that you can predict some people's behavior better than they can. Mark will be late, though he thinks he'll be on time. Sally is excited about the new get-rich-quick MLM business she's in, but her friends all think she'll be out of it in a year - and they're prediction comes true. A person should know more about himself or herself than any outsider it seems. They should therefore have a better ability to predict their own future behaviors, right?

Ah, but we don't see things as clearly when they involve our self images and self-referencing beliefs. Some readers of this will say "that's not true in my case!" Thank you, because that immediate reactive need to defend yourself makes my point even clearer. After all, a more rational response would be to think for a moment, "Hmm, is it true that I distort things to retain my sense of self?"

Hey, it's possible you actually investigated this previously and found that you are indeed the rare individual who is truly and always objective about everything. Of course, if you haven't done this "self work" and done it well, that reactive "not me" is premature, and it's a great example of the forces that distort our view of reality whenever it touches on our view of ourselves and our beliefs. You see, the reaction comes first, doesn't it? Then your mind quickly starts to produce a "logical" defense of it. It's not a very objective approach, is it?

We may be tempted to think that this is only relevant in areas directly and obviously related to ones self image. Surely we can still be objective about things like politics, or science, or money issues, right? It's not likely, because the "ego effect" is far more subtle than that. Choose any given political or philosophical view you have. You naturally think it's right, or you wouldn't have it - and it might be correct. On the other hand, consider honesty what happens if evidence to the contrary is presented. Do you find yourself automatically defending your belief as a first response?

That's not rational at all of course, nor objective. If the goal was to learn something, you would explore the new ideas in case they had something to teach you. If the goal was truth, you should be happy to find it even if it overturns everything you believe, right? Unfortunately we identify with our beliefs in much the same way we identify with our bodies, families, countries, and even houses and other possessions. All of these become a part of our "ego self," and so are defended as though our true self was being assaulted. It isn't a recipe for objective thought or an open mind, is it?

Suppose a man believes that stocks should sell for 60 times earning, or that deep fried cheese sticks are healthy. We can see how these mistaken beliefs can be harmful, but it goes much beyond these obvious cases. Virtually anytime we think and operate according to ideas which aren't in line with truth or reality, there is a risk. Certainly there is a risk that we limit our thinking.

For the most powerful mind you can have, then, try to habitually look for truth rather than confirmation of existing belief. To do that you need to be aware of what is going on inside your own mind, in order to "think past" these reactions and ideas. These are the critical thinking skills that are most important to a powerful mind, and perhaps a better life.

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