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Thinking under extreme time pressure is not optimal, but it is inevitable that we will find ourselves in this situation at times. It is always best not to rush and get seduced by mental shortcuts. Use all the time available to you in making a decision. That means slowing things down when possible. It means not allowing the external setting to dictate the terms of your thinking. Speed typically decreases accuracy— there is a direct relationship there.
Peter Shearer, M.D., is the associate director of the Mount Sinai Hospital Emergency Department in New York City. Athletic, with intelligent brown eyes and a compassionate demeanor, Shearer was surprisingly relaxed as he discussed a typical hectic day in the Mount Sinai ER. Over any given two- hour period, ER physicians like Shearer treat as many as sixteen patients and are interrupted as many as forty times. Shearer’s decision- making needs to happen in a focused, or ganized manner and at a rapid, intense pace, and it needs to be highly accurate. In his work, knowing when to settle on a firm diagnosis versus deferring to gather more information versus knowing when to take immediate and direct action has life-and-death consequences. Knowing when to pause and reflect more deeply to ensure adequate deliberation has occurred can also make all the diference for him and the patients he is treating.
“Sometimes,” Shearer said, “your intuition tells you to ask the more awkward question that most people don’t want to ask. Even doctors feel awkward about asking certain questions and prying, but what I’ve learned is that the patient is often waiting for you to ask. For every one we catch, there are prob ably ten we miss.”
During his assessment, he was able to control external stimuli and not allow the hectic emergency room environment to force him to rush. This allowed him to pay greater attention to his expert intuition that told him something was amiss. He then applied his slower, more logical, deliberative thinking to the situation.
The Problem Is: We Prefer to Think Fast
We’re all fast thinkers. We prefer to take mental shortcuts. We like to reach conclusions quickly but are often sloppy in our thinking habits. By contrast, slow thinking is simply harder to do. It requires more effort, and it’s tiring.
To give something deep thought—as when we learn something brand new or confront a puzzling, complex situation—takes more focus, concentration, and literal physiological energy, considering the fact that our brains eat up 20 percent of our bodies’ energy. When Dr. Shearer hit the Pause button in the ER, took a moment to reflect on what he’d just heard from his patient, and gave it his full attention, he lowered his risk of making an error, and he got it right. It was a conscious decision on his part to devote more energy to considering the patient he was treating. Devoting more of his brainpower to the task was the harder road to take, but it yielded a far better outcome for his patient.
Errors In Judgment and Decision-Making
In 1974, Israeli psychologists Tversky and Kahneman published groundbreaking work on the ways that people make errors in judgment and decision-making. Despite possessing the talent to think logically, human beings often rely on mental shortcuts, or, as Kahneman refers to them, rules of thumb. While this greatly simplifies and dramatically speeds up the process of making thousands of judgments a day, it often comes with a significant amount of error.
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Kahneman and Tversky describe the source of these errors in thinking, which take on predictable patterns, as cognitive biases. When you add time pressure and overstimulation into the mix, you can begin to imagine how often thinking errors occur for most of us.
The fact that these errors tend to be systematic is good news for achieving greater personal agency. If we are aware of our most common biases, we can work to keep our errors in thinking to a minimum, at least on the most important things. For example, when things work out well, do you catch yourself taking a little more credit than you might actually deserve? Likewise, when things don’t go well, do you sometimes push the blame onto others for things that perhaps they don’t have much control over?
If so, don’t be hard on yourself, but own up! These are just two of the many human biases that influence our thinking. Knowing where you are biased allows you to bring it to the surface to ensure that it doesn’t lead you astray.
Fast Thinking and Deliberative Thinking
Deliberation is an active pro cess that requires energy. It can be learned and practiced. The overall goal of effective deliberation is for you to make appropriate and judicious use of both System 1 (fast) and System 2 (deliberative) thinking. In order to do this, you need to learn to use them together in a self-aware manner. The vast majority of the time, you are using System 1 (“fast”) thinking because your brain has evolved to most readily perform this function.
Your environment requires you to use mental shortcuts to think fluidly in your day-to-day life where you must make decisions frequently. Otherwise, you’d be thinking intensely about every detail or every single decision, and not much would get done. And yet, you can’t and wouldn’t be well served by living your life making only quick, intuitive decisions.
There are clearly times when it is best to shift into intentional, slower thinking— thinking more analytically and methodically to arrive at a better decision. The key is knowing when it’s worth the additional effort that this requires and learning how to do it effectively.
Ideally, you should call up System 2 thinking when you need to make bigger decisions and when the stakes are high. System 2 thinking also helps you sort out and make sense of the massive amount of information hitting you each day. Generally, deliberative System 2 thinking requires you to seek out accurate information to make an informed choice.
Review this checklist of questions. These are typical of the questions we ask our clients to get them thinking more about (and improving upon) their critical- thinking skills.
* How good are you at engaging in slow, deliberate thinking?
* Do you believe you have the capacity to think critically?
* Do you use a particular method?
* Do you take the time to pin down the most relevant facts?
* Is this something you do consciously for the bigger decisions?
* Do you generally rush to a decision because it’s quicker and
easier and you just want to get it off your plate?
* Do you find yourself often getting distracted by the next thing demanding your attention?
* Do you tend to put off decision-making for as long as possible?
Be fair to yourself. If a highly educated expert like Dr. Shearer worries about making errors in his judgment, where in your life might you be making serious errors because you don’t slow down your thinking or don’t question how you think?
Again, in our experience, most people have not developed a reliable system to follow to keep their decision-making under their control. Few people try to step outside themselves to regularly observe how they employ their thinking skills. Surprisingly, many people don’t even seek out the best information up front before making important decisions. In short, most people have serious gaps in their ability to think critically. We continue to be surprised how many people we work with find themselves rushing to judgment and looking back with regret.
Critical Thinking: Another Means to Keep Unreliable Thinking in Check
The potential to think critically resides in us all. While some may be better at it than others, anyone can learn to improve. Critical thinking is most important in situations where we have strong emotions about a topic and perhaps are getting our knowledge through taking mental shortcuts (politics, for instance). The most fundamental principle of critical thinking is to question things for ourselves and to be aware of the assumptions we are making. The goal here is not to question absolutely every last thing but to be a prudent person who is aware of the limitations of one’s knowledge.
To engage critical thinking, your emotions and beliefs need to be held in check. This means that you need to start by suspending your fast, emotionally driven, and automatic thinking. In its place, engage slow, logical, and intentional thinking.
The easiest way to do this is to get yourself somewhere quiet, uncluttered, and private, and tell yourself you’re going there with a singular mission. You are going to spend time engaged in deep, reflective, logical thinking where you will question assertions, claims, and assumptions for their veracity and figure out a path forward. Below is a simple pro cess that will help you to activate and engage your critical-thinking skills.
Critical Thinking in Everyday Life
There are many articles, books, courses, and adult education classes on how to develop critical thinking skills. Consider any or all of these resources and start simple. The points we describe below are inspired by the work of two experts, Linda Elder and Richard Paul, and are based on their article “Becoming a Critic of Your Thinking” from the Foundation for Critical Thinking.
Start by clarifying your thinking. Watch out for “vague, fuzzy, formless, blurred thinking,” as Elder and Paul say. This is the type of thinking you’re likely to have when rushing, distracted, and fatigued. One example is when you rely on overgeneralizations, such as All banks are exactly the same, doesn’t matter which you choose. Resist thinking superficially. Challenge yourself to go deeper. Verify if your thinking is clear by running it by others and asking them if it sounds reasonable.
Also keep from straying off topic, and avoid making unjustified leaps in thinking. In other words, stick to the point. Don’t meander. Stay focused and relevant to the main issue you are trying to critically think about.
Become a more adept questioner as well, and don’t accept what others tell you unexamined. As Elder and Paul say, question questions. Ask yourself, Have I asked the right questions, the best questions . . . enough questions? Welcome questions (and feedback) from others, but be discerning and stick only to the questions or feedback of others pertinent to the topic and that really help to move you toward better thinking.
And last, try to be reasonable. This is easier said than done. First, acknowledge your fallibility. Realize you don’t have all the answers. Don’t be closed-minded. Be aware of your beliefs and biases. Elder and Paul note that the hallmark of a good critical thinker is the willingness to change one’s mind upon hearing more reasonable explanations or solutions. An earlier- discussed agency principle, Manage Your Emotions and Beliefs, will also help you monitor and control strong feelings and beliefs that can derail your critical thinking.
Analyze Your Current Situation as Part of Effective Deliberation
A real estate investor and businessman named Tim told us that he was aware of the role that emotions and bias play in his thinking. “The capacity for situation analysis makes all the diference,” he said when assessing the potential upside of a business opportunity. This helped him stay grounded and limit his losses in the real estate boom and subsequent 2008 economic crisis. “Sure,” he added, “while there’s a certain seduction to sizing something up fast and uncritically, because it gives you a green light to forge ahead quickly, it doesn’t typically work out so well in business.” Here, Tim preferred to use his critical-thinking faculties combined with a healthy amount of metacognition. He frequently questioned his own thinking. What am I missing in my thinking about certain properties? What if I’m wrong?
In this way, Tim exemplifies the agency principle of Deliberate, Then Act. While not an economist or even someone with an advanced business degree, over time through self-study and experience, he developed valuable expertise in the real estate business.
Critical thinking and meta-cognition carried over to a solid awareness of himself and the social world. He was observant and thoughtful to the point of often being trenchant in his perceptions of larger trends, and he used his observations to inform his business decisions. He frequently pulled himself back from following the crowd. He described having made many mistakes over the years, but he consistently made an efort to learn from all these mistakes. While he appeared to move into action quickly, he attempted to do so thoughtfully rather than impulsively.
©2019 by Anthony Rao and Paul Napper.
All Rights Reserved. Excerpted with permission.
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, www.stmartins.com.
The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms
by Dr. Paul Napper, Psy.D. and Dr. Anthony Rao, Ph.D.
Agency is the ability to act as an effective agent for oneself--thinking, reflecting, and making creative choices, and acting in ways that direct us toward the lives we want. It is what humans use to feel in command of their lives. For decades, agency has been a central concern of psychologists, sociologists, and philosophers seeking to help generations of people live in greater accord with their interests, values, and inner motivations. Renowned clinical psychologists Paul Napper and Anthony Rao offer seven principles for using mind and body to help you locate and develop your own agency. Based on years of research and real-world application, and stories of both high and low performers, their methods equip you to succeed in a world requiring constant adaptation. (Also available as an Audiobook, an Audio CD and a Kindle edition.)
About the Authors
PAUL NAPPER leads a management psychology and executive coaching consultancy in Boston. His client list includes Fortune 500 companies, universities, and start-ups. He held an academic appointment and advanced fellowship position at Harvard Medical School.
ANTHONY RAO is a cognitive-behavioral psychologist. He maintains a clinical practice, consults, and speaks nationally, appearing regularly as an expert commentator. For over 20 years he was a psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School.