31 July 2008

Antidotes to Groupthink: Critical Thinking

Detachment, and the overarching quality of **appropriate** inner-directedness [more on this at the end of the post], provide a good foundation for becoming groupthink-resistant. But there is one skill that is absolutely crucial to successful groupthink resistance. It is also key to keeping inner-directedness **appropriate**.

This skill is critical thinking. I will say, speaking purely from my own experience, that I have not seen it systematically taught anywhere below the university level. [I'd welcome comments from anyone who has studied logic and rhetoric extensively in elementary, middle, or high school; I'd be thrilled to find out that these things ARE taught, in depth, to the very young.] But whether or not it is taught to us at an early age, it can be learned at any age if the will to learn is present; and once one has experienced the dark side of groupthink, the will to learn can be very strong indeed!

Let me take care of a straw man, now, before going further. I've been amazed at the number of people I've met in realspace who, when I use the term 'critical thinking', immediately flinch or make a sour face, followed by a negative emotional comment about 'critical' or 'hypercritical' people. The word "critical" has several meanings. To wit:
1. Inclined to judge severely and find fault.
2. Characterized by careful, exact evaluation and judgment: a critical reading.
3. Of, relating to, or characteristic of critics or criticism: critical acclaim; a critical analysis of Melville's writings.
4. Forming or having the nature of a turning point; crucial or decisive: a critical point in the campaign.
5. Of or relating to a medical crisis: an illness at the critical stage.
6. Being or relating to a grave physical condition especially of a patient ["in critical condition in the ICU"].
7. Indispensable; essential: a critical element of the plan; a second income that is critical to the family's well-being.
8. Being in or verging on a state of crisis or emergency: a critical shortage of food.
9. Fraught with danger or risk; perilous.
10. [Mathematics] Of or relating to a point at which a curve has a horizontal tangent line, as at a maximum or minimum.
11. [Chemistry & Physics] Of or relating to the value of a measurement, such as temperature, at which an abrupt change in a quality, property, or state occurs: A critical temperature of water is 100°C, its boiling point at standard atmospheric pressure.
12. [Physics] Capable of sustaining a nuclear chain reaction [critical mass].
I personally regard some of these definitions as overlapping, but that is not ... critical ... to this discussion. What is important here is that 'critical' thinking does not mean a meanspirited, judgemental seeking to put down things and people. It means a careful -- care-ful -- reasoned, objective assessment of a situation, a person, etc. grounded in an understanding of basic reasoning.

Here, to start with, is a good introductory list of common logical fallacies. You'll find 'straw man' there, but you will also find the entire Groupthink Collection: the appeal to authority [''but a Thought Leader said so! It MUST be true!"], the appeal to belief ["We believe it, so it's true"], and appeals to emotion, flattery, popularity, and a perennial groupthink favorite, the appeal to spite. If you work your way slowly through this list, you may be amazed how often you've encountered the fallacies presented here... and how often they may have been used to persuade you to 'go along' with a group or its Groupthink Guru.

But please: don't take my word for this. Read the list, think about times in your own life - at school, at work, at home, at worship, with friends - in which these very tactics have been applied to you. If you take them slowly, think them over thoroughly, and don't rush, you should be able to come up with a real life instance for just about all of them; and you can probably also remember how and why you realized that many, if not most, of them were indeed fallacies.

You've seen these tricks; we all have, many times. But if you can't articulate them, you can't adequately defend your mind against them. The good news is: this isn't an exam; I won't be asking you to match definitions to names; nobody will. The point of this post, rather, is to give you the words to describe specific tricks that are often used to influence people's thinking and actions, and to show those tricks clearly for what they are.

You don't need to be able to say "Aha, that's a combination of peer pressure, appeal to spite, and an ad hominem attack!" But you will be hugely empowered, once you are able to say "Wait a minute! Y is attacking and discrediting X because Y doesn't like him. That doesn't make X's statements invalid. And the group's threatening to exclude me if I agree with X, just because they prefer Y! That doesn't make X's statements invalid either!" -- which comes down to pretty much the same thing.

For those wanting more than this little 'amuse-bouche', I suggest an in-depth exploration of the Nizkor Project site linked to above, and visits to the following links: enjoy!
Critical Thinking.org
Debating Globalization and Critical Thinking
The Independent Thinker

Now a few more words about **appropriate** inner-directedness. In earlier posts I've commented that abusers are EXTREMELY inner-directed, and this is true. Abusers are predators. Any predator, when interacting with its prey, is inner-directed relative to that prey. This is the essential meaning of 'it's always all about him/her, never about me, the kids, or anyone else'. This type of inner-directedness in human relations can also be termed 'selfishness'.

**Appropriate** inner-directedness is something very different; and while I don't wish to belabor the point, I do feel that this bears repeating.

Appropriate inner-directedness is self-preserving and self-aware, but it also never loses sight of the existence and legitimacy of other [nonpredatory] selves.

It is self-respecting, and when necessary self-reliant [sadly, this aspect is very often called upon in a predatory work, worship, educational or family setting].

But it is not self-aggrandizing, self-exalting, self-worshipping. It values and respects the self, but does not value and respect ONLY the self. This aspect, the ability of the healthily inner-directed to value not only one's self, but other selves as well, is very important. In fact, it's ... critical.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had an experience only this week where an administrator at my children's school thought I had a 'problem' with another teacher and sought to use every weapon available to bring me back into the fold, ie, that this person was a brilliant teacher and I was being too harsh in my judgement of her.

I was able to see through every appeal to my desire to fit in, to my faith in God (Where is God's grace in all of this?), and to my need to be accepted by others (you are the only one who is complaining). Unfortunately for this teacher, I have been at the receiving end of each of these sorts of verbal assaults, and I was able to maintain my stand. In my own defense I used logic and objectivity, critical thinking to counter the magical and circular thinking, and kept coming back to the issue at hand when I was being led off by emotional appeals.

At the end of an hour of debate, the administrator actually admitted that she didn't know how to deal with the teacher in question and that they had tried many things in the past to deal with her to no avail. In other words, I wasn't the only person to have come into conflict with her.

I walked out of her office feeling a sense of pride that I had finally learned to stand up for myself and back my own judgement. An administrator whose sole intention was to change my way of thinking to hers, and push as hard as she could for a nice neat cosy resolution, had in fact realised that there WAS no resolution to this situation, and that I was not the problem, the teacher was.

I am living proof that critical thinking skills give you an incredible power in your own life, to be authentic and not allow yourself to be robbed of self-respect and a clear conscience as happens when you give in to group-think.

I don't say it will always be this successful, but for once, I felt that what I had learned (the hard way)actually made me feel a sense of personal victory.

01 August, 2008 21:30  
Blogger Stormchild said...

"At the end of an hour of debate, the administrator actually admitted that she didn't know how to deal with the teacher in question and that they had tried many things in the past to deal with her to no avail. In other words, I wasn't the only person to have come into conflict with her."

Isn't it amazing, Meg, that this person put a solid hour's worth of effort into trying to convince you that YOU were the problem, when she knew, all along, that simply wasn't true.

Isn't it incredible, the amount of energy people will invest in trying to bury an issue rather than trying to deal with it. And the sad thing is, it usually takes far less energy to deal with the problem as opposed to covering it up.

The thing is, we're taught from our earliest youth that stuff like this doesn't happen. We're raised to believe that when we approach an authority figure with a legitimate concern, they'll address both us and our concern appropriately and respectfully. All too often, the opposite is true - our concerns will be evaded, and efforts will be made to discredit us for raising them. But we're not taught any skills for either recognizing that when it occurs, or dealing with it in a forthright and constructive manner.

Well done! Brava!

P.S. I'm reminded of a strange interlude I had with a bookstore clerk a few years ago, which I mentioned in a comment to another blogger a few days back.

I was trying to order a copy of Dorothy Sayers' "The Mind of The Maker" to send to a friend overseas as a birthday gift. The bookstore didn't have it in stock, but I knew they handled special orders; but this particular clerk clearly did not intend to. He kept telling me that the store didn't stock it because there was no customer interest in it - and I kept saying that I knew the store didn't stock it, and that was why I was asking him to order it for me.

Finally the complete absurdity of the situation struck me and I pointed out to him that I WAS a customer and that I was VERY interested in the book... and at that point my exasperation got the better of me; I asked which part of that he didn't understand.

He then told me that they didn't handle special orders at that counter [not at all true, but our retailer-customer relationship was pushing up daisies at this point]. So I said, "Oh, I see. Thank you for your time." and went off to find the manager. Who was perfectly happy to order the book for me. Along with a couple of copies for the shelves, in case any walk-ins wanted it...

There was one slight awkwardness, when the manager tried to send me back to the same clerk to get the work done ["Oh, X over there can help you..."], and I had to 'fess up ["well, he didn't think he could; I talked to him just now, before I came looking for you. I think he hasn't yet been trained to process special orders."]. This I did not like doing, but I wasn't about to go another round with Mr. Helpful-Nott, and I tried to be forthright without being retaliatory.

When I think about the ridiculous, Sisyphean effort I had to expend merely to order a book! In a bookstore! it boggles the mind.

I do wonder, in re your situation: if you know any other parents who've had similar problems with this particular teacher, do you think that a group visit to the administrator would do any good? This is tricky, since of course the other parents might abandon ship at the first hint of resistance; but sometimes it works.

PS on a completely different subject: your essay on the purpose of suffering, at BCF-Our Stories, is one of the best pieces on theodicy that I have ever read. Maybe not so different a subject at that: your writing is so good that I thought of Dorothy Sayers. :-)

03 August, 2008 17:23  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Firstly, thankyou so much for your praise re the suffering essay. I wrote it one day when I got sick of hearing people tell me it was all just part of God's great plan to make me more like him. I didn't reply to your comment because frankly I was so silenced by it, I didn't know what to say. You have already been through so much, sometimes more words just feel pointless, and it was clear that you were having a rough day (to put it mildly). Yet, I am glad you felt reading the article was time well spent.

As to the teacher, I knew for a fact that I was hardly a lone reed when it came to complaints. They had had plenty of people complain, teachers, parents and students, but this teacher has managed to convince everyone that she is brilliant, passionate and dedicated. I told the administrator that 'passionate' means nothing, and that it certainly doesn't mitigate abuse towards the individuals she is teaching, or the parents she is respsible to. It is another example of groupthink. Christians I feel are very good at enabling and propogating sloppy thinking because of this idea that logic and faith are not meant to co-exist.

You are right though, standing against it is an exhausting experience which requires every ounce of your intelligence, wit and verve. It surprised even me that I was able to argue my point without losing my train of thought once, and it proved that practice makes perfect in these experiences. I am not so sure that my faith in defensive pessimism isn't being shaken here. Sometimes, you get given a chance to prove that you are better at defending yourself ad hoc than you ever thought possible.

Thanks again for all your help and support.

04 August, 2008 01:50  
Blogger Stormchild said...

Meg, I was wrestling with an angel at the point when I read your post, and my struggles were desperate.

My single biggest sticking point, in terms of my faith, is that I always seem to be left to suffer alone, while also always expected to comfort others in their suffering. This gives me a rather jaundiced view of theodicy, to say the least.

To then understand that Christ very well may have died of a broken heart... and certainly died more alone than is even humanly possible... well. Perspective is one way of putting it.

But there is also a cosmic sense of no longer being alone even at one's most isolated, because of One who went before us even in THAT. For which a lifetime would not be long enough to thank you, so I am glad that there is eternity. [And very glad that there is an Internet, too.]

As for defensive pessimism - oh my, don't you know: it was defensive pessimism that prepared you to be challenged, that prepared you to defend yourself, that helped you keep your train of thought on track! Defensive pessimism is really just what engineers used to call 'planning for the worst case scenario'. Think of the worst that could happen, and plan accordingly. And it works! :-)

04 August, 2008 20:05  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You see, even in your darkest hour you think beyond your suffering to encourage somebody else.

I guess that's why others come to you for help. I can understand why you may feel nobody cares. It is that element of suffering which cuts to the heart like nothing else does.

I wish I could help you there to know companionship in the midst, but I myself have the same problem. I still don't understand so much of the why in our existence.

At least I haven't lost my faith entirely as some who came out of the cult have.

I have almost been there, but there is an indescribable, and unshakeable, too deep to explain, type of 'thing' in my spirit which just won't depart no matter how bad it gets. At worst I get angry with God, I mean really really angry, but I never sense him withdrawing, just this steady loving presence, just beyond the reach of my ability to detect and embrace him. He's there, he's just not showing himself.

I understand how others can lose trust and faith in God, but I have a wholehearted belief that they will one day regain what they have lost.

I hope you are feeling a little better today, and not so alone.

If it makes you feel better, you should know that your willingness to empathise in the midst of your own suffering has been a massive blessing to both me and my family.

05 August, 2008 21:16  
Blogger CZBZ said...

Another great message, Stormchild!

A great resource for learning how to think critically is a psychology textbook written by Carol Tavris and Carol Wade. They list eight steps for critical thinking that keep me on track since my mind is fairly open to new ideas, including psychological explanations of human behavior. Since we tend to accept pseudo-science as incontrovertible truth about the human psyche, it’s important to question what passes as fact “these days”. (“These days” defined as: the deification of psychology.)

If we question what authorities are telling us, then we’re in denial, we’re arrogant, and we’re narcissistic upstarts who don’t know our place in the pecking order. But even if we lack credentials and a proper education, we have every right to ponder ‘theories and hypotheses’ being promoted as truths about Homo sapiens erectus.

In fact, it’s been a plus to be a layperson.

I say that because after because my return to college, I discovered my professors were steeped in their own GroupThink and lack of critical self-inquiry. As an older woman, I was granted space within the inner circles of academia at my community college. Perhaps I was an anomaly as a midlife returnee, I dunno; but after a few heated debates over lunch, my favored illusions about Smart People were completely shattered.

GroupThink (though I didn’t know much about GroupThink until you started infiltrating my brain, dang ya…ha!) is so commonplace we don’t even see it until we ask our first question. That’s when we get the ol’ scapegoat routine for having had the nerve to threaten someone’s guru status. The social fall-out is comparative to being a heretic in a religious organization. Funny thing though, my intentions have nothing to do with dethroning kings and queens, but that’s how critical questions are perceived…even by laypeople unwittingly compromising their integrity through blind obedience to authority.

One more thing I wanted to say is that we don’t have to be ornery with our inquiry. If I knew more about logical arguments as you’ve described in this message, maybe I could articulate well enough to make my point without contradicting myself, or being defensive and angry. That’s my challenge. Maybe it’s everybody’s challenge. To ask critical questions, to think deeply enough to realize we have no answers and then, to liberate ourselves from the oppression of certainty.


07 August, 2008 13:18  
Blogger Stormchild said...

Meg: thank you. You do help, and have, more often and more deeply than you know. So often you post exactly what I need to see, exactly when I need to see it.

I am thrilled that you have been able to start a forum through your blog site, too...

CZ: Good to 'see' you! Yes. Being a layperson gives the advantage that one avoids being 'socialized into the profession'... which is just another term for institutionalized groupthink, isn't it?

On the subject of orneriness: true. Being contentious doesn't shed much light. But remember one of the key characteristics of abusers is that they define ALL opposition, no matter how slight, no matter how gently presented, as abuse of THEM.

So while it's important not to go about smacking people gratuitously [something I can't imagine you doing at all anyway] it's at least as important not to be so careful of others' feelings that we leave no room for consideration of our own. Our abusers will take care of that bit. We can count on them for it.

09 August, 2008 20:34  

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