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What We Don’t Know and Don’t See

We have differing assumptions.

It’s hard to think critically when you don’t know what you’re missing. As we think about improving our thinking, we need to account for two things that are so subtle that we don’t fully recognize them:

  • Assumptions – we make so many assumptions about the world around us that we can’t possibly keep track of them all. We make assumptions about the way the world works, about who we are and how we fit, and about the right way to do things (the way we’ve always done them). A key tenet of critical thinking is that we should question our own thinking. But it’s hard to question our assumptions if we don’t even realize that we’re making assumptions.
  • Sensory filters – our eye is bombarded with millions of images each second. But our brain can only process roughly a dozen images per second. We filter out everything else. We filter out enormous amounts of visual data, but we also filter information that comes through our other senses – sounds, smells, etc. In other words, we’re not getting a complete picture. How can we think critically when we don’t know what we’re not seeing? Additionally, my picture of reality differs from your picture of reality (or anyone else’s for that matter). How can we communicate effectively when we don’t have the same pictures in our heads?

Because of assumptions and filters, we often talk past each other. The world is a confusing place and becomes even more confusing when our perception of what’s “out there” is unique. How can we overcome these effects? We need to consider two sets of questions:

  • How can we identify the assumptions were making? – I find that the best method is to compare notes with other people, especially people who differ from me in some way. Perhaps they work in a different industry or come from a different country or belong to a different political party. As we discuss what we perceive, we can start to see our own assumptions. Additionally we can think about our assumptions that have changed over time. Why did we used to assume X but now assume Y? How did we arrive at X in the first place? What’s changed to move us toward Y? Did external reality change or did we change?
  • How can we identify what we’re not seeing (or hearing, etc.)? – This is a hard problem to solve. We’ve learned to filter information over our entire lifetimes. We don’t know what we don’t see. Here are two suggestions:
    • Make the effort to see something new – let’s say that you drive the same route to work every day. Tomorrow, when you drive the route, make an effort to see something that you’ve never seen before. What is it? Why do you think you missed it before? Does the thing you missed belong to a category? Are you missing the entire category? Here’s an example: I tend not to see houseplants. My wife tends not to see classic cars. Go figure.
    • View a scene with a friend or loved one. Write down what you see. Ask the other person to do the same. What are the differences? Why do they exist?

The more we study assumptions and filters, the more attuned we become to their prevalence. When we make a decision, we’ll remember to inquire abut ourselves before we inquire about the world around us. That will lead us to better decisions.

Enclothed Cognition

Dress like a philosopher, think like a philosopher.

Dress like a philosopher, think like a philosopher.

I’ve written at various times about embodied cognition – the idea that the body influences the mind. (See here, here, and here.) In other words, our mind is not limited to our brain. We think with our bodies as well. You can improve your confidence by making yourself big. You can brighten your mood by putting a smile on your face. Want to feel morally pure? Take a bath.

How far does this extend? The clothes you wear, for instance, touch your body and mediate between your body and the world around you. It’s fair to ask: do the clothes you wear influence your thinking?

The answer is yes. Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky introduced the term “enclothed cognition” in an article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in July 2012. (Click here). They write that enclothed cognition describes, “…the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes.” They also suggest that two factors come into play: “the symbolic meaning of the clothes and the physical experience of wearing them.”

Many clothes have symbolic value. Take the humble white coat. In a hospital setting, we might assume that someone wearing a white coat is an expert or an authority. We behave differently towards her because of the coat’s symbolism. In other words, the coat affects the perceiver’s cognition and behavior. But does it affect the wearer’s cognition?

Adam and Galinsky conducted three experiments to find out. In the first, they divided randomly selected participants into two groups, one of which wore white lab coats, the other of which did not. The two groups then performed the Stroop test in which the word “blue” is printed in red or the word “green” is printed in yellow. The groups were asked to identify incongruities between the words and colors. The group wearing white lab coats performed about twice as well as the other group.

The second test used three groups. One group wore a white lab coat and believed that it was a doctor’s coat. The second group wore an identical white lab coat but believed that it was painter’s coat. The third group wore normal street clothes. The experimenters asked the three groups to spot discrepancies in a series of illustrations. Those who wore the doctor’s coat found more discrepancies than either of the other two groups. The symbolic value of a doctor’s coat had greater impact on attention than did the painter’s coat.

The third experiment was similar to the second except that some groups didn’t wear the doctor’s or painter’s coat; they merely observed them. Those who donned the doctor’s coat performed best.

The study suggests that the symbolic nature of clothing does indeed affect our cognition. Merely observing the clothes does not trigger the effect (or does so only mildly). Actually wearing the clothes has a meaningful impact on our thinking and behavior.

These studies suggest that our clothes not only affect how others perceive us. They also affect how we perceive ourselves. Even if no one sees us, our clothes influence our cognition. Perhaps, then, we can dress for success, even if we work alone. Similarly, wearing athletic clothes may well improve our chances of getting a good workout. Dressing like a member of the clergy may make us behave more ethically. Dressing like a slob may make us behave like a slob.

There’s one other wrinkle that was brought to my attention – oddly enough – by my spellchecker. When I wrote “enclothed cognition”, the spellchecker consistently converted it to “unclothed cognition”. This raises an interesting question. If clothes affect our cognition in certain ways, does the absence of clothes affect our cognition in other ways? Time for another study.

The United States of Mind

Each cell has its own agenda.

Each cell has its own agenda.

We didn’t really understand the human heart until the mid 17th century, when engineers developed vacuum pumps to move water out of mines. Anatomists realized that such pumps provided an excellent analogy for what the heart does and how it does it. As technology advanced, we used it to learn about our own biology.

In the 20th century, with the advent of the digital computer, we humans reached a similar conclusion-by-analogy: computers show us how our brains work. In the computer, we see elementary logic, various switches flipping on and off, and memory cells that hold information in its most elemental form – binary digits. Perhaps our brains work the same way.

The brain-as-computer analogy has never been perfect, however. The computer, for instance, has a central processing unit (CPU) that manages pretty much everything. The brain doesn’t appear to have an analogous organ. Rather, human thinking seems to be diffuse and decentralized. Indeed, much of our thinking seems to occur outside our brain; the mind is, apparently, much bigger than the brain. Similarly, we can precisely locate a “memory” in a computer. No such luck with a human brain. Memories are elusive and difficult to pinpoint.

Further, the brain is plastic in ways that computers are not. For instance, a good chunk of our brainpower is given over to visual processing. If I go blind, however, my brain can redeploy that processing power to other tasks. The brain can analyze its own limitations and change its functions in ways that computers can’t.

Given the shortcomings of the brain-as-computer analogy, perhaps it’s time to propose a new analogy. Having absorbed a healthy dose of Daniel Dennett (see here and here), I’d like to propose a simple alternative: the brain functions much like the United Sates of America.

That may sound bizarre but let’s go through the reasoning. First, Dennett points out that brain cells, as living organisms, can have their own agendas in ways that silicon cannot. Yes, brain cells may switch on and off as electricity pulses through them, but they could conceivably do other things as well. Perhaps they can plot and plan. Perhaps they can cooperate – or collude, depending on how you look at it. Perhaps they can aim to do things that are in their best interests, as opposed to the interests of the overall organism.

Second, Dennet notes that all biological creatures descended from single-celled organisms. Once upon a time, single-cell organisms were free to do as they pleased. Some chose to associate with similar organisms to form multi-celled organisms. In doing so, cells started to specialize and create communities with much greater potential. However, they also gave up some of their primordial freedom. They worked not just for themselves but also for the organism as a whole. Perhaps our cells have some “memory” of that primordial freedom and some desire to return to it. Perhaps some of our cells just want to go feral.

And how is this like the United States? The original colonies were free to do as they pleased. When they joined together, they gave up some freedom and created a community with much greater potential. We assume that each state works for the good of the union. But each state also has strong incentives to work for its own good, even if doing so undermines the union. Similarly, each state has a “memory” of its primordial freedom and an inchoate desire to return there. Indeed, states’ rights are jealously guarded.

Let’s assume, for a moment, that we have a microscope as big as the solar system. When we examine the United States, we see 50 cells. Each cell seems to be similar in function and process. We might assume that they always function for the good of the whole. But when we look closer, we see that each cell has its own agenda. Some cells (Texas?) may want to go feral to recapture their primordial freedom. Other cells are jockeying for position and advantage. Some are forming alliances and coalitions with like-minded cells to accomplish their aims. Red cells seem to have different values and processes than blue cells.

Could our brains really be as chaotic as the good old USA? It’s possible. If nothing else, such an analogy frees up our thinking. We’re no longer in a silicon straitjacket. We recognize the possibility that living cells may have complex agendas. We start to see possibilities that we were previously blind to. I would write more but I suspect that some of my neurons have just gone feral.

Thinking Under Pressure

Thinking is hard.

Thinking is hard.

Thinking is hard. It’s even harder when you’re under pressure. Stress lowers your IQ. When your boss is yelling at you, and your ears are pinned back, it’s hard to remember to think rationally. It’s hard to think at all – mainly you just react.

So, I always encourage my students to keep several go-to questions in their heads. These are simple, memorable questions that are always available. You can go to them quickly in an emergency. Why would you go to them? Perhaps you want to clarify the situation. Maybe you need more information. Or maybe, just maybe, you need to buy a little time.

In class the other night, I asked my students to write down their best go-to questions. They had been thinking about critical thinking for seven weeks so I assumed that they had some pretty questions on the tips of their tongues. I was right.

I looked over the questions and realized that they fell naturally into five categories. Here are the categories with the most frequently asked questions. You might want to carry some of them around with you.

1) Gaining Self-Control – first things first: you can’t manage a situation if you can’t manage yourself. My students focused first on assessing their own situation, with questions like these:

Am I breathing effectively?

What’s my posture like? How can I change my posture to present myself more effectively?

What am I feeling right now? Are my feelings rational?

How can I engage my thinking function?

What is the other person’s purpose? Why is he behaving this way?

2) Clarifying the facts – once you’ve calmed yourself and cleared your head, you’ll want to establish what’s actually happening, with questions like these:

What are the facts? How do we know they’re facts? How were they verified?

Where did the information come from? Was the source credible?

What are our assumptions? Are they reasonable?

How did we get from the facts to the conclusions? Were there any logical fallacies along the way?

Why is this important? How does it compare in importance to Topic X or Topic Y?

Who wants to know? What is her purpose?

3) Clarifying the other person’s position – the information you have may be accurate but you also need to make sure you understand the other person’s position regarding the information. Here are some useful questions:

What’s your take on this? How do you see this?

Why do you say that? What makes you believe that?

Can you explain it in a different way?

What does “xyz” mean to you? How do you define it?

Can you paint me a picture of what you’re seeing?

Why are you so upset?

4) Clarifying the decision – you now know the “facts” and the other person’s interpretation of the facts, but you still need to figure out what decision you’re trying to make.

What outcome do we want? What’s our goal? Why?

What outcomes are possible? Which one(s) seem most fair?

Is there more than one solution? Are we trapping ourselves in a whether-or-not decision?

What if the outcome we want is not possible? Then what will we do? Is there another outcome that we might aim for?

What’s the timeframe? Are we thinking short-term or long-term?

Who else do we need to include?

How will we know when/if we need to re-visit the decision?

5) Fixing the process – when a problem arises, most organizations aim to fix the problem. They often forget to investigate the process that created the problem. Don’t forget these questions. They may well be the most important. But don’t aim for blame; this is a good time for appreciative inquiry.

How did we get here?

How can we improve our decision-making process to avoid this in the future?

What were the root causes?

How could we make a better decision in the future?

 

 

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