Are You Doing Enough Critical Thinking? Probably Not

Demographics play a big role when it comes to engaging in differing opinions. Photo credit: GettyGETTY

The internet makes it easier than ever to spread disinformation, and from Twitter to 4chan to the local neighborhood list-serv, it seems like every day brings a new set of hoaxes, altered photographs and thinly sourced material. There is a way to put a wrench to the fire hydrant of weak information, at least temporarily. It is called critical thinking or the ability to employ thorough reasoning.  

Unfortunately, we’re not doing enough of it. That’s the conclusion of a survey conducted by the Reboot Foundation, which promotes critical thinking. I head up the foundation, and in a report released late last month, we found that almost everyone believes that we need more dedicated reasoning in society. In fact, more than 95% of Americans believe critical thinking is necessary in today’s world.

But people simply are not doing enough deliberate thinking, according to our research; and our study shows that less than a quarter of the public regularly seeks out views that challenge their own. People believe the accuracy of more than a third of what they read on Twitter and Facebook.

Or take Wikipedia. While the website’s information is crowd-sourced, more than one-third of people consider the tool to be the equivalent of a fully vetted encyclopedia.

Why does this happen? Our research suggests that schools are a large part of the problem. The nation’s education system is not doing enough to give students robust reasoning skills, and only half of the respondents in our survey say that their schools gave them top-notch critical thinking skills.

We also discovered that parents are overconfident about their ability to help their children reason in more effective ways. In our survey, most parents believe that they know how to teach critical thinking skills to their children. But only 20% of parents frequently or very often ask their children to consider an opposing view.

The research was conducted in September, and we used an online platform to survey more than 1,100 people. We also included some experimental questions, and our team created a simulation of a real-life scenario to see what links people might click on while doing online research.

Perhaps most surprising is the degree to which people do not pay attention to views that differ from their own. After all, there’s a lot of research — along with a solid dose of common sense — which shows that listening to various points of view helps people reason through issues.

Indeed, people know the value of taking another person’s point of view. In our survey, 87% of the respondents say that considering a different point of view is an important exercise.

Still, there is a large gap between what people say and what they do when it comes to opposing viewpoints. We found, for instance, that only 25% of Americans are willing to regularly debate people who disagree with them, and 24% say they actively avoid people with opposing views.

Demographics play a big role when it comes to engaging in differing opinions. For instance, men are roughly 20 percentage points more likely than women to avoid people with whom they disagree (33% vs. 13%).

In addition, low-income respondents are 20 percentage points more likely than those in the highest income bracket, $150,000 and above annually, to avoid people with whom they disagree (66% vs. 54%).

When it comes to critical thinking, the survey is only the start for the Reboot Foundation. Over the coming months, we plan to follow up with more in-depth research papers and science-based tools for parents, teachers and the public. We also hope to survey the public each year on critical thinking issues.

But what’s clear for now is that we can all do more when it comes to improved reasoning. In particular, we need to work harder at avoiding echo chambers and at more thoughtfully engaging with opinions that differ from our own.

These efforts will help us become better critical thinkers — and more prepared to uncover information that’s meant to deceive us.

I founded the Reboot Foundation, an organization that aims to better integrate critical thinking into the daily lives of people around the world. The foundation conducts surveys and opinion polls, leads its own research, and supports the work of university-affiliated scholar…

“This article first appeared on the website of Forbes.“

Helen Lee Bouygues is the president of the Reboot Foundation and author of a forthcoming book on critical thinking.

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