Critical thinking

Today I am looking at another Via character strength: critical thinking. I wasn’t entirely sure what is the official definition so here it is: 

Critical thinking is the analysis of facts to form a judgment. The subject is complex, and several different definitions exist, which generally include the rationalscepticalunbiased analysis, or evaluation of factual evidence. Critical thinking is self-directedself-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities as well as a commitment to overcome native egocentrism and sociocentrism.

I personally feel really strongly about this one – although to be entirely honest it is not one of my top strengths. I was however raised to make informed decisions so I am still learning and hoping to get better at this. Oftentimes I am noticing people around me forming opinions based on commonly accepted norms and myths, not facts and I tremble – because I know I am doing that too. Sometimes I catch myself on repeating those myths but I am working hard on changing that. 

The idea of a fact is quite tricky anyway. Most of us know that even academic research can be political, of course, but the bottom line is this: when we read an article, any article (no matter how academic it is) our inner biases scan it not for facts but our own inner truths. How do we form our own truths? Based on our culture, upbringing, social norms, current trends, our peers even. Oftentimes we navigate our lives with confidence that what we hold as truth is objectively the ultimate fact. That makes sense – that’s what keeps us going.

So let’s go back to the idea that we all have a different, individual version of reality. We all experience the very same event or statement differently. We decode it and assign a meaning to it. We act based on that analysis. But is this process actually critical?  Do we examine our topic enough? How do we do it anyway?

Critical thinking definition contains few elements:

  • First of all, it is an analysis which implies focused effort to explore a topic. 
  • Secondly, the topic itself is complex and so it requires deep analysis. 
  • The process should be objective, unbiased and evidence-based
  • It also has to be self-driven – originating from us, driven by our commitment to this exploration. 
  • The definition also mentions excellence which implies it is not a destination but a process itself – we can strive to get better and better at it and always aim for higher standards
  • It requires good communication skills 
  • It requires good problem solving skills.
  • It also requires accepting that our perspectives tend to be egocentric (self focussed) but those perspectives can be shifted to a more general, universal view on the topic.  

Well, that’s a lot! If this is critical thinking than quite frankly it’s a lot of work. I am not sure if critical thinking is required in every single situation in our life, of course. But I am often surprised just how the above-mentioned elements of it are missing from significant conversations in our daily lives. How often we make statements that are quite quick and not entirely thoughtful. However, it is also due to the fact that in social interactions the sense of belonging to a group is important – way more important than being right. Our need to conform can be really strong and that’s understandable. We want to fit in and belong. But since we don’t need to be perfect at everything maybe critical thinking can be practised and developed in line with our need to belong to our group as well?

In my last two posts, I made a list of practical tips. Today I would like to continue with another one. This time I will leave you with a list of assumptions people tend to make when discussing digital technologies with me. I would like to ask you to explore your views on those terms and concepts in a more critical way. Treat it as a simple exercise and let me know how it goes:

  • Facebook blackout – blackout is a word associated with electricity, something we deeply rely on, so I personally found myself wondering why some people feel so strongly about this prominent social media network. The term was used in a negative context to implying that we rely on Facebook a bit too much. At the same time, the term resonated with fear of the lost connection with our fellow friends and family. So I was wondering about a few questions: what is the real importance of Facebook in people’s lives? Is this about Facebook or our inner need to connect with others? Was this term also implying access to information? Or was it a term born out of the idea that for some people Facebook is taking over their lives – in which case I am wondering why is that? Why do some people allow for this to happen and actually blame the tool for their own choices?
  • Content overload  – I hear this one a lot, but as a person born in a generation of people who still had to wait for access to books in the library I personally celebrate any access to content online, I crave it and I marvel when I can learn, study and explore things online for free (or for affordable prices). I can relate to the idea of emotional or intellectual overload, of course, I am just wondering why people use this term. To me personally, it implies the inability to manage your online sources and subscribing to too much. Why do people do that? There is also the idea of “less is more” which I personally really disagree with – I think that most of the time we are just lazy and do not pay enough attention. It happens to me when I attempt to read a book after a long and tiring day – but I do not blame the book for it. So I wonder if it’s the content or lack of time, or maybe our lack of skills in filtering through the content and choosing the right sources and amount of it? I much prefer to stay online where I can choose my content than to watch TV channels full of adverts and have no control over those whatsoever.
  • Internet addiction and gaming addiction – here I would really love to know what feelings come up for you when you are reading those terms. Oftentimes, most of the time, to be honest, my clients use them in very negative sentiment. In my opinion, both terms need to be used really carefully as they can very easily stigmatise people who use the Internet and online gaming. Those terms were introduced into the scientific world with a clear note that they both still need more research to be confirmed. Additionally, they are also quite political: I am yet to see a government happy to see its citizens accessing information freely and collectively building strong, opinionated communities without any limitations. So when I hear those terms I always ask: what do we mean by that? Addiction to what (content, networking, information, upsetting content, etc)? The compulsion to do what or to distract ourselves from what? What is the detrimental impact of Internet and gaming on our lives? When it comes to online gaming I also sometimes worry that in the new economies with a lot of pressure on individual and fairly new open conversations about mental health the play, joy of simply hanging out with friends online, having fun and not being productive but simply resting somehow is labelled as bad habit or even failure. Why? The real problem with over-using this term is the fact that when some of us really get into unhealthy habits online, we might not have the courage to recognise it and seek help.
  • FOMO vs. the need to disconnect, switch off and go outside – fear of missing out is a well-known sensation. We experience it when we travel and cannot attend our partner’s Birthday party or cannot witness an important event in our child’s life. We also experience it when we cannot access social networks to check in with our friends (now with the algorithms on social media channels this sensation is probably less common – we do not see all our networks in the chronological order anyway). It can make us feel really anxious and uneasy about the technology, but really deep down originates in a difficult truth: we miss something or someone. FOMO is a commercial tactic too so we see it on a daily basis in timed discounts and rushed offers – that can put a lot of pressure on us. On the other hand, we often express the need to switch off and disconnect because we feel overloaded with content and the amount of noise online. We cling on to our mobiles and check them out even if we do not have to and really wish we could go outside. So what is really going on? What is missing? Why do we feel this way? I find the two concepts really important because in my personal experience a lot of my clients actually have the need to reconnect – with their friends, family and with themselves. So I wonder: what happened to the idea of dreaming, hoping and connecting? Why do we blame ourselves for wanting to travel when our reality is suffocating? Why is it not OK to wish to be on that beach with our friends? Yes, it is a heavy feeling but it also means that mentally the moment we feel with our friends we are actually resting too. With a little bit of mindfulness and positive take on their holiday updates, we could simply be happy to them and feel with them for a bit? It’s a great opportunity to connect and emotionally bond with another person. So why do we choose to feel depressed? And if we do, why is that not OK? We are not perfect? Again, overusing this term means that some of us who have severe anxieties (and we know now that online networks can amplify those) might need help but never ask for it.
  • Minecraft/Fortnight obsession – both terms are used notoriously by parents who seem to worry about their children’s use of both of those games. In reality, in most cases, the obsession is actually a passion, a hobby shared by masses of other young people who simply find it a fun thing to do. Younger children hang out on Minecraft and build amazing structures collaborating with their friends. Older children and teens hang out on Fortnite and with the help of skins shift between various outfits and vitual identities. They do that at an age when searching for your identity and expressing yourself is an important part of our growth. Yes, Fornite does have addictive and gambling elements. Yes, both games can be taken to extreme levels and can lead to addictive behaviours but most of the time, they simply don’t. But when does that happen? If parents do not put rules, boundaries in place. Sometimes because parents do not make time for their children or do not have that time due to the amount of work and other commitments. Yet, we use the term obsession really lightly. Why do we use it? Are we worried about our children – that’s a good thing, we should care. Are we doing anything about it? I am not sure. Do we engage in open conversations about those games? Do we, possibly, envy our children for having free time and having fun? Or do we know better? Whatever the questions are, we need to ask more of them and find more answers – together with our children. Because most of them seem just fine. And if we replace the word “obsession” with “passion” suddenly the game is just another hobby – one that keeps our teens off the street and away from alcohol and drugs. Someone used the word “passionate” with the word “lunch” at work today and I found myself repeating it. I was thinking about the negative connotation of even that word, but I guess it’s a different topic altogether. It should be a good thing to have a hobby, anyway.
  • Social media having a negative impact on mental health – I hear this in every single mental health training and I cringe because the academic research confirms something else entirely: we come to social media with certain attitudes and feelings, they can be positive or negative and so we tend to choose online sources of content and connections that amplify our original feelings. I guess that is why we oftentimes do feel sad, depressed, worried, anxious – because we can suddenly see clearly what is really going on for us and for others. I just wonder if making a negative assumption helps those who struggle. Does it help? Or should we be having more balanced conversations about the technology and focus on helping each other with the actual needs and issues instead?
  • The narcissism of selfies  – this will be the last of my digital terms but I think it is really important because it touches on the idea of ego. And that in itself can be stigmatised a lot. Whereas in a healthy way of living we would aim for a healthy amount of ego as well. The common visual representation of this is a balloon – a good amount of ego allows us to fly, but too much of it will make us pop, not enough will stop us from thriving. Narcissism is overused a lot in conversations about online identity and it is still often times misunderstood, especially when it comes to selfies. When in actual fact some studies have shown that taking a selfie actually improves people’s body image. I just wonder if we are ready to accept that this can be a good thing? Maybe we should not judge others and ourselves so easily?

The reason why I have mentioned the above terms is that it’s the area I work in. I find it really difficult to correct people around me on most of those assumptions simply because they are now so often shared, repeated and slowly enter our common language. As a person working in digital wellbeing, I meet a lot of people who indeed feel affected by the digital innovation but their problems oftentimes boil down to our basic human needs: to belong, to be loved, to grow and to thrive. The lack of critical thinking in the way we relate to digital technologies results in a worldview which is shaped by fears, myths and opinions more often than facts or even individual experiences. That worldview is heavy and depressing. If we had more balanced and informed conversations about those topics maybe our versions of reality would move towards more balanced experiences too? 

I can see how critical thinking can be a strength. It is a very difficult process for me but as I study to become a therapist I am working a lot on my own biases and so I am also starting to benefit from more critical and balanced views.  I hope this will be helpful to you as well, but let me know – I would love to hear your thorughts too.

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