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Understanding Implications

Among the most important skills of critical thinking is the ability to distinguish between what a statement or situation actually implies and what people may merely (and wrongly) infer from it. An inference, again, is a step of the mind that results in a conclusion. For example, if the sun rises, we can infer that it is morning. Critical thinkers try to monitor their thinking so they infer only that which is implied in a situation—no more, no less. If I feel ill and go to the doctor for a diagnosis, I want the doctor to infer exactly what my symptoms imply. For example, I do not want her to infer that I simply have a cold requiring no medication when in fact I have a bacterial infection requiring antibiotics. My symptoms imply that I have a certain illness, which in turn implies a certain course of treatment. I want the doctor to accurately infer what my illness is, then accurately infer the proper treatment for it.

It is often the case that, in thinking, people fail to think successfully through the implications of a situation. They fail to think through the implications of a problem or decision. As a result, negative consequences often follow.

In any situation, three kinds of implications may be involved: possible ones, probable ones, and necessary ones. For example, every time you drive your car, one possible implication is that you may have an accident. If you drink heavily and drive very fast on a crowded roadway in the rain, one probable implication is that you will have an accident. If you are driving fast on a major highway and all the brake fluid drains out of your brake cylinders and another car immediately in front of you comes to a quick stop, one inescapable implication is that you will have an accident.

We reserve the word "consequences" for what actually happens in a given case. In short, a consequence is what in fact occurs in some situation. If we are good at identifying (making sound inferences about) possible, probable, and inevitable implications, we can take steps to maximize positive consequences and minimize negative ones. On the one hand, we do not want possible or probable negative implications to become real consequences. On the other hand, we do want to realize potential positive implications. We want to understand and take advantage of the real possibilities inherent in a situation.

We study the logic of things to become skilled in recognizing implications and acting accordingly. The art of doing this well is the art of making sound inferences about the implications of a situation by understanding exactly the logic of what is going on. As thinkers, then, we want to think through all of the implications (possible, probable, and inevitable) of a potential decision before we make a decision and act on it.

In addition to implications that follow from concrete situations are implications that follow from the words we use. These follow from meanings inherent in natural languages. There are always implications of the words we use in communicating with people. If, for example, I tell my daughter that she cannot go to a friend's house because she failed to clean up her room, I am implying that she knew she had a responsibility to clean up her room if she wanted to go to a friend's house. My statement to my daughter and my view that she should have consequences for failing to clean her room are reasonable if:

  1. I have previously communicated to her my desire for her to keep her room clean, and

  2. I have adequately explained my reasoning and the consequences that will follow if she fails to comply with my request.

As thinkers, then, we want to be aware of what precisely we are implying when we say things. We also want to take into account the reasonability of what we are implying. If we do, we say what we mean and mean what we say—an important principle of integrity.

Just as there are implications of the language we use in communicating, there are implications of the way we say things. For example, the statement "Why didn't you clean the kitchen?" asked calmly has different implications from the same statement shouted aggressively. In the first instance, I perhaps am implying only that I think you should have cleaned the kitchen, and nothing more. In the second, I am implying that your failure to do so is a serious matter, warranting a severe reprimand.

What is more, as we may fail to notice the implications of a situation or of what we say, we also may fail to notice the implications of what others say to us. People often fail to infer precisely what others are, and are not, implying in their use of language. People often read things into what is being said, inferring more than what is being implied. If, for example, your spouse says he wishes you had consulted him before making a large purchase and means to imply nothing more, you do not want to infer that he thinks you are not a wise decision-maker. Nor does it imply that he doesn't want you to ever make important decisions on your own, or that he thinks he is better at making decisions than are you.

In sum, as developing thinkers, we want to realize the important role of implications in human life. When we are thinking through a problem, issue, or question, we want to think through all the significant implications of the decisions we might make. We want to infer only what is being implied in specific situations. When we use language, we want to be aware of what we are implying. When others are speaking to us, either verbally or in writing, we want to figure out what they are logically implying. In every case, we want to interpret precisely the logic of what is actually going on and infer only what is truly implied, no more, no less.

Test the Idea
Thinking Through the Implications of Your Potential Decisions

As we have said, the ability to think through the implications of a decision you are faced with or a problem you are trying to solve is an important critical-thinking skill. In this activity we want you to think of a problem you need to find a solution to or a decision you need to make. Complete these statements:

  1. The problem or decision I am facing is…

  2. Some potential solutions to the problem, or decisions I might make, are…

  3. For each of these solutions or decisions, some implications that might logically follow from my acting upon the solution or decision are…

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