The Danger of Short-Circuit ThinkingMarch 22, 2013
Do you ever listen as the radio announcer shares breaking news? One morning within a two minute span I learned that 60 million people were in the path of a hurricane, students in the United States finished 17th worldwide in math and science testing, and political ads now contain more factual inaccuracies than ever before in history. That blast of information came in less time than it took me to make a cup of coffee. Delivered in quick snippets with one sound bite blending into the next, it was difficult to absorb the significance of one message before the announcer shifted to the second. So I let the news slide by, aware at one level, but not processing at another.
Grappling with an unending wave of information has become commonplace. The waves hit us at home and at work, and no one — not our employees, family or friends — is exempt. So, how do we cope? Not very well. We engage in selective attention akin to skimming a book. We remember bits and pieces, which can be adaptive in that it shields us from information overload, but the downside is an insidious habit forming practice, short-circuit thinking: we hear, we think for a moment, and we move on.
In that moment, a blink in time, it is hard to think deeply and to fully wrap our minds around an issue. Of course, some issues can pass by with limited attention and there are no consequences, but others need to be plucked from the stream. The problem is that once the habit is formed, we have trouble thinking deeply and efficiently, and our inability to do so has become a national crisis of sorts, similar to obesity and lack of exercise. As a nation, we are flabby and out of shape when it comes to thinking clearly.
This shortfall of clear thinkers is impacting business more than ever before. Critical thinking has become the most coveted skill in organizations today because a company’s success often rides on the ability to quickly differentiate information that is relevant from that which is not, and then think deeply about the relevant material, and finally, arrive at a well thought out conclusion. Critical thinking is the raw material that underlies decision making, problem solving, planning, and strategic thinking and it is a key ingredient in creativity, and a workhorse for innovation.
The good news is that critical thinking can be developed, just like any other skill. Diane Halpern, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, has been engaged in critical thinking research for over 20 years and her work shows that explicit training in critical thinking leads to improved thinking skills. Explicit training means teaching people specific steps and strategies for critical thinking as opposed to more general reasoning. It means giving people a model or strategy to follow — and then giving them opportunity to practice, receive feedback, and practice some more.
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