common barriers to critical thinking

Eight Barriers to Critical Thinking

Eight Barriers to Critical Thinking
Part 1 of 2
by Mike Saxton, PhD

At the beginning of every term, I share a message with all my students about being critical thinkers, warning them about fallacious thinking: allowing cognitive biases and logical fallacies to replace reason. I highlight the barriers to critical thinking that come up most often, both in and outside the classroom. When students are aware of these concepts, they can participate in breaking down barriers and allowing real discussion to take place. While this article is not an exhaustive list, it comprises a number of issues that surface in academic settings.

Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias, one of the better-known fallacies, is effectively “cherry picking.” People seek only evidence that supports their views and disregard contrary points. This bias forms the foundation of “echo chambers,” where people with similar beliefs group together and assure each other that their view is the correct one. While it’s normal and reasonable to seek the company of those with similar views and interests, it can be highly detrimental to managers when they only seek advice from “yes people.” Part of the critical thinking that’s so important in management is to explore ideas contrary to one’s own and to evaluate them appropriately.

Normalcy Bias
Normalcy bias — the belief that because an event has seldom, if ever, occurred, it will never occur — can be intimidating, especially in business environments or project management. A person operating under a normalcy bias may ignore dangerous warning signs for significant events. A good example is the credit implosion of 2008. Although numerous individuals sounded the alarm, they were unfortunately dismissed and accused of paranoia. When they turned out to be correct, the global economy was near catastrophe.

Emotional Clouding
It is no secret that people are becoming increasingly sensitive to views that run contrary to their own. This sensitivity tends to elicit an emotional response. When confronted by areas of disagreement, logic flies out the window, replaced with reactions that defy reason. Emotion-based decision-making in management has led business units and entire organizations down destructive paths. I knew a small business owner who had an emotional response when the management qualifications of a business partner were challenged. In reality, the partner had no management experience or training, and the owner of the other company was correct in questioning the supposed expertise. This inappropriate response ultimately caused the small business owner to lose out on a valuable merger.

Sophistry and Rhetoric
This critical thinking obstacle treats conversations and discourse as competitive sports; the goal is to win, not to learn or seek truth, although some will claim otherwise. Illustrations can be found in the legal field. Prosecuting attorneys are interested in securing convictions or putting together advantageous plea bargains, while defense attorneys have the job of creating reasonable doubt. While there are certain ethical guidelines overall, both sides are more interested in winning than in reaching the truth. While this concept has its function in a courtroom, it does not belong in a classroom or in management. A board room decision made because one member “won” an argument will not benefit the company if that argument turns out to be wrong or unpacked by data (a discussion on data-driven management is a topic of its own).

Click here to go to Part 2 of “Eight Barriers to Critical Thinking Part II.”


Click here to learn more about Goodwin’s Management and Leadership offerings.