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.
Did I eat that?
Can you eat a banana without being aware of it?
On Mondays, Suellen and I go to an early morning exercise class at the University of Denver. Afterwards, we always go to the local bagel shop, have a couple of bagels, and do the New York Times crossword puzzle. (Monday is the easy day for the puzzle. They get harder throughout the week. Sunday is impossible.)
This morning we bought our pair of bagels and Suellen decided to add a banana to our standard fare. We then sat down and began to eat while also working on the crossword puzzle. I was working hard on my bagel and the puzzle. I thought Suellen was, too.
Some ten minutes later, Suellen held up the empty banana peel, looked at me, and asked, “Did I eat this?” Apparently she had though neither of us remembered it. We looked at the tables around us and couldn’t identify anyone who might have stolen the banana and left only the peel. It must have been the Freckled Beauty.
So, does this mean we’re senile? Hardly. It’s a good example, however, of inattentional blindness, something I’ve written about before. When you’re concentrating on something, a lot of other things can slip right past you. It’s a good reason to be suspicious of eyewitnesses and your own memory.