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Chapter 15. Strategic Thinking Part One

There are two phases to strategic thinking. The first involves the understanding of an important principle of mental functioning. The second involves using that understanding strategically to produce a mental change in ourselves. In this chapter and the next, we move back and forth between important understandings and strategies based on them. Strategic thinking is the regularization of this practice. From understanding to strategy - and from strategy to self-improvement - is the pattern we are looking for. Using critical thinking strategies systematically to improve our lives is characteristic of the "practicing" thinker.

Understanding and Using Strategic Thinking

If I understand that the mind has three functions - thinking, feeling, and wanting - and that these functions are interdependent - by implication, I realize that any change in one of them is going to produce a parallel shift in the other two. It follows, then, that if I change my thinking, there should be some shift at the level of feeling and desire. For example, if I think you are insulting me, I will feel some resentment and a desire to respond to that insult.

By the same token, if I feel some emotion (say, sadness), my thinking will be influenced. It follows, then, that if I experience an irrational negative emotion or an irrational desire, I should, in principle, be able to identify the irrational thinking that is creating that feeling and desire.

Once I discover irrational thinking, I should be able to modify that thinking by more reasonable thinking. Finding the thinking to be irrational, I should be able to construct a more reasonable substitute. I can then work to replace the irrational with the rational thinking. As the new, reasonable thinking takes root, I should experience some shift in my emotions and desires. More reasonable emotions and desires should emerge from more reasonable thinking.

Now to a specific case. Suppose you are in competition for a promotion with a colleague that you do not like. Suppose also that this colleague is given the promotion and he is now supervising you and criticizing your work. Your interpretation of him and the situation will naturally lead to feelings of resentment on your part and a desire to see your colleague fail. Given your thinking and resultant feelings, it will be very hard for you to be "objective" about events. Part of your negative thinking and feelings may be subconscious and, in any case, you will lack the motivation to be fair.

Much human thinking is subconsciously suppressed. Through active work, however, you can bring it to the surface of your conscious mind. You can do this by first recognizing that underlying every irrational feeling is based in an irrational thought process. By figuring out exactly what feeling you are experiencing, you can begin to trace the feeling to the thinking that is leading to it. Hence, as in the case above, you should be able to spell out the probable unconscious thoughts that are fueling your irrational jealousy of, and anger toward, your colleague.

You will usually find that suppressed thoughts are highly egocentric and infantile. These covert thoughts are what often cause negative emotions. If you can determine the irrational thinking that is driving your emotions and behavior, you have a better chance of changing the emotions and behavior by working on the unreasonable thinking that is causing them.

Whenever you feel your irrational jealousy emerging, you deliberately think through the egocentric logic of jealousy. You do it again and again until you find productive, rational feelings and desires emerging. Since many of the most powerful thoughts, feelings, and desires, though, are unconscious and primitive, we should not expect ourselves to be able to completely displace all irrationality. Yet, by making our irrational thoughts explicit, we can better attack them with reason and good sense. We can be better persons with healthier emotions and desires if we learn how to undermine, and thereby diminish, our irrational emotions and desires.

Now let's look at how we proceeded from understanding to strategy and from strategy to improvement in the example above:

The understanding

The human mind has three interrelated functions: thinking, feeling, and desiring, or wanting. These functions are interrelated and interdependent.

The strategy

Whenever you find yourself having what may be irrational emotions or desires, figure out the thinking that probably is generating those emotions and desires. Then develop rational thinking with which to replace the irrational thinking you are using in the situation. Finally, whenever you feel the irrational negative emotions, rehearse the rational thinking, using this format:

  1. Explicitly state what the feelings and desires are.

  2. Figure out the irrational thinking leading to them.

  3. Figure out how to transform the irrational thinking into rational thinking - thinking that makes sense in context.

  4. Whenever you feel the negative emotion, repeat to yourself the rational thoughts you decided you needed to replace the irrational thoughts, until you feel the rational emotions that accompany reasonable thinking.

In this chapter and the next, we briefly review some key concepts, principles, and theories discussed thus far in the book, followed by examples of strategic thinking based on the examples. The aim is illustration, not comprehensiveness.

We hope you will develop ideas of your own for improvement. There are no formulas for a simple and painless life. Like you, we are working on the problem of targeting and removing our defective thinking. Like you, we are working to become more rational and fair-minded persons. We must recognize the challenge that this development represents.

As with all forms of personal development, development of thinking means transforming deeply ingrained habits. It can happen only when we take responsibility for our own growth as rational persons. Learning to think strategically must become a lifelong habit. It must replace the habit most of us have of thinking impulsively, of allowing our thinking to gravitate toward its own, typically unconscious, egocentric agenda.

Are you willing to make self-reflection a lifelong habit? Are you willing to become a strategic thinker? Are you willing to unearth the irrational thoughts, feelings, and desires that lurk in the dark corners of your mind? Are you willing to develop a compassionate mind? If so, you should find these two chapters on strategic thinking useful.

Components of Strategic Thinking

Before proceeding to examples of strategic thinking, please note that strategic thinking has two additional components. You will have these to add to your intellectual repertoire as you seek to implement any of the strategies outlined in this chapter:

  1. An identifying component. You must be able to figure out when your thinking is irrational or flawed.

  2. An intellectual action component. You must actively engage and challenge the acts of your own mind.

In the intellectual action component, you must figure out four things:

  1. What is actually going on in the situation as it stands.

  2. Your options for action.

  3. A justifiable rationale for choosing one of the options.

  4. Ways of reasoning with yourself when you are being unreasonable, or ways of reducing the power of your irrational state of mind.

Test the Idea
An Introduction to Strategic Thinking

Identify an area of your personal or professional life in which you use thinking that is possibly irrational. If you are having trouble, think of a situation in which you felt a powerful negative emotion and had difficulty dealing with it. Write out the answers to these questions:

  1. What is actually going on in the situation as it stands? Elaborate on the details.

  2. What are your options for action?

  3. Which option seems best? How do you know? Can you view the situation in any other competing ways?

  4. Construct the reasoning you need to rehearse when you are again in this situation or a similar situation. If you have trouble doing this activity, read the example in the next section.

The Beginnings of Strategic Thinking

Let us now consider some basic concepts, principles, and theories of critical thinking, providing examples of strategic thought as implied by those principles. In each case, we will start with a key idea. We then will explore strategies for improving thinking based on that idea. We will begin with a more formal approach to the example given at the beginning of this chapter.

Key Idea #1: Thoughts, Feelings, and Desires are Interdependent

As noted already, it is important to recognize that the mind is composed of three functions: thinking, feeling, and desiring (or wanting). Wherever one of these functions is present, the other two are present as well. And these three functions are continually influencing and being influenced by one another. Our thinking influences our feelings and desires. Our feelings influence our thinking and desires. Our desires influence our thinking and feeling. We cannot immediately change our desires or feelings. It is only thinking that we have direct access to. It makes no sense for someone to order you to feel what you do not feel or to desire what you do not desire. We do not change feelings by substituting other feelings, or desires by substituting other desires. But someone can suggest that we consider a new way to think. We can role-play new thoughts, but not new emotions or desires. It is possible to reason within a point of view with which we do not agree. By rethinking our thinking, we may change our thinking. And when our thinking changes, our feelings and desires will shift in accordance with our thinking.

Strategic Idea

With a basic understanding of the interrelation among thoughts, feelings, and desires, we should be able to routinely notice and evaluate our feelings. If, for example, I experience a degree of anger that I sense may be unreasonable, I should be able to determine whether the anger is or is not rational. I should be able to evaluate the rationality of my anger by evaluating the thinking that gave rise to it. Has someone truly wronged me, or am I misreading the situation? Was this wrong intentional or unintentional? Are there ways to view the situation other than the way I am viewing it? Am I giving a fair hearing to these other ways? By pursuing these questions, I can come closer to a rational view of the situation.

Even if my way of viewing the situation is justified, and I do have good reason to feel some anger, it does not follow that I have acted reasonably, given the full facts of the situation. I may have good reason to feel angry, but not to act irrationally as a result of that anger.

This strategy might be roughly outlined as follows:

  1. Identify a feeling you have experienced that you suspect might be irrational (a feeling such as irritability, resentment, arrogance, or depression).

  2. What thinking would account for the feeling? There may be more than one possibility here. If so, figure out which possibility is most likely.

  3. Determine the extent to which the thinking is reasonable. Pay close attention to the reasons you give to justify the thinking. Is it possible that these are not your actual reasons? Can you think of any other motives you might have? Consider alternative interpretations of the situation.

  4. If you conclude that the feeling is irrational, express precisely why you think so.

  5. Construct thinking that would represent a rational response in the situation. Actively attack the irrational thinking with the thinking that is rational. Actively rehearse the thinking that represents a rational response.

For example, suppose I read an article about a fatal disease and come to the conclusion, from reading the symptoms, that I probably have the disease. I then become depressed. Late at night I think about how I will soon be dead, and I feel more and more depressed as a result. Clearly, the irrational feeling is the depression I am feeling. It is irrational because, until a doctor examines me and confirms a diagnosis, I have no good reason for believing that I actually have the disease in question. My irrational thinking is something like this:

I have all the symptoms described in the article. So I must have this awful disease. I am going to die soon. My life is now meaningless. Why is this happening to me? Why me?

In the same situation, rational thinking would be something like this:

Yes, it is possible that I have this disease, given that I seem to have what appear to be symptoms of it, but very often the same symptoms are compatible with many different bodily states. Given this, it is not likely that I have this rare disease, and, in any case, it will do me no good to jump to conclusions. Still, as a matter of prudence and for peace of mind, I should go to the doctor as soon as possible to get a professional diagnosis. Until I get this diagnosis, I should focus my thinking on other, more useful things to think about than an unsubstantiated possibility.

Whenever I find myself feeling depressed about what the article said, I rerun the rational thinking through my mind and give myself a good talking-to as well:

Hey, don't go off the deep end. Remember, you will see the doctor on Monday. Don't put yourself through unnecessary pain. Remember, there are probably a lot of possibilities to account for your symptoms. Come back down to earth. Remember the Mother Goose rhyme, "For every problem under the sun, there is a solution or there is none. If there be one seek till you find it. If there be none, never mind it." Don't wallow in misery when it doesn't do any good and only diminishes the quality of your life today.

And now, how about scheduling some tennis for this afternoon, and a good movie for tonight?

Test the Idea
Focusing on the Relationship Between Thoughts, Feelings, and Desires I

Focusing on a negative feeling you sometimes or often experience, go through the five-point strategy outlined in the section you just read, writing out your answers in detail.

A similar approach can be taken to changing irrational behavior grounded in irrational desires or motivations:

  1. Identify the questionable behavior (behavior that is getting you in trouble, causing problems for you, or causing problems for someone else).

  2. Identify the precise thinking leading to that behavior. What is the thinking that is generating the motivation to act in this manner?

  3. Analyze the extent to which the thinking is justified, without leaving out any significant relevant information.

  4. If the thinking is irrational, develop thinking that would be reasonable in this situation.

  5. Actively attack the unreasonable thinking with reasonable thinking.

We might use many examples here to illustrate our point. But let's choose one that deals with a large segment of irrational human behavior. Here we are thinking of the many times when people abandon a commitment to change a bad habit because they are unwilling to work through the pain or discomfort that accompanies changing habits. Here's how the irrational behavior arises:

  1. We notice that we have developed some bad habit that we would like to end. We realize, quite reasonably, that we shall have to make a change in our behavior. This could involve giving up any of the following habits: smoking, drinking too much alcohol, eating foods that are not good for us, not exercising enough, spending too much time watching television, spending too much money, not studying until just before an examination, and so on.

  2. We make a resolution to change our bad habit.

  3. For a short time, we do change our behavior, but during that time we experience pain or discomfort. These negative emotions discourage us. So we give up.

The irrational feelings are not the sensations of pain or discomfort. These reactions are to be expected. The irrational feeling is discouragement that emerges from the discomfort and causes us to give up our resolution to change. This feeling is a result of irrational thinking (probably subconscious), which can be put into words roughly as:

I should be able to change my behavior without experiencing any pain or discomfort, even if I have had this habit for years. This pain is too much. I can't stand it. Furthermore, I really don't see how my changed behavior is helping much. I just don't see much progress given all of the sacrificing I am doing. Forget it. It's not worth it.

This thinking makes no sense. Why should we expect to experience no pain or discomfort when changing a habit? Indeed, the reverse is true. Discomfort or pain of some kind is an essential by-product of going through a process of withdrawal from almost any habit. The appropriate rational thinking is something like this:

Whenever I am trying to change a habit, I must expect to feel discomfort, and even pain. Habits are hard for anyone to break. And the only way I can expect to replace the habit with rational behavior is to endure the necessary suffering that comes with change. If I am not willing to endure the discomfort that goes hand-in-hand with breaking a bad habit, I'm not really committed to change. Rather than expecting no pain, I must welcome it as a sign of real change. Instead of thinking "Why should I have to endure this?" I rehearse this thinking: "Enduring this is the price I must pay for success." I must apply the motto: No pain, no gain.

Test the Idea
Focusing on the Relationship Between Thoughts, Feelings, and Desires 2

Focusing on some questionable behavior you sometimes engage in, go through the five-point strategy as outlined in the section you just read and write out your answers in detail. As soon as you have a chance, experiment with making some change in your behavior that you have wanted to make. See if you can succeed now with new thinking at your disposal. Don't forget the essential ingredient of predicting, and accepting, discomfort or pain as a likely hurdle in the process of change.

A Caveat: Powerful Emotions That Seem Disconnected from Thought

Sometimes we find ourselves struggling with emotions or passions that seem disconnected from thought. At least, we may not know what thinking to trace the emotion to. Whatever the exact thought is, it seems unconscious, primitive, and powerful. For example, suppose a man or woman feels powerful urges to have sex with persons other than their spouse and suppose further that these urges become very intense when alone with a particular person. The urge may be experienced as irresistible at the moment. How do we reconstruct the primitive thinking at the root of such urges? Very possibly the thinking may be different for women and men. The common denominator might be suggested by the primitive desire to prove our sexual attractiveness and therefore reinforce feelings of being "masculine" or "feminine." As Freud demonstrated, the thinking of the unconscious mind may be very hard to plumb. It may take years to uncover and bring to consciousness deeply primitive unconscious thoughts. And even then it may be hard to be sure we are correct in our analysis. In cases like these, we should experiment with a variety of strategies. If the urge results in consequences harmful to another person, then we should harness the thinking of our conscience, making the harm as explicit as we can to ourselves, and keeping that ethical logic before our minds, like a mantra, especially for those times when we actively experience the urge. If obeying the urge does not result in any obvious harmful consequences other than to violate a social convention, then the solution may be to act on the urge, but only in private. In many societies of the past, many dissenters violated social norms and conventions in private.

Key Idea #2: There is a Logic to This, and You Can Figure It Out

As a critical thinker, you approach every dimension of learning as requiring the construction of a system of meanings in your mind that makes sense and enables you to make logical inferences about the subject of your focus. We use the expression "the logic of..." to designate such a system. As a critical thinker, you recognize that there is a logic to academic subjects (a logic to chemistry, physics, mathematics, and sociology). There is also a logic to questions, problems, and issues (a logic to economic questions, social problems, controversial issues, and personal problems). There is a logic to situations. There is a logic to personal behavior. There are explicit and implicit logics, admitted and hidden logics. There is a logic to warfare and a logic to peace, a logic to offense and a logic to defense. There are political logics, social logics, institutional logics, and cultural logics.

There is a logic to the way the human mind works, a logic to power, a logic to domination, to mass persuasion, to propaganda, to manipulation. There is a logic to social conventions and a logic to ethical concepts and principles. There is theo-logic, bio-logic, and psycho-logic. There is even patho-logic (the logic of disease and malfunctioning). Each can be figured out by the disciplined, critical mind.

Using the elements of thought to figure out the basic logic of something is a practice to which we hope you are becoming accustomed. It is a powerful strategy for achieving perspective and gaining leverage or command. In this section, we confine ourselves largely to the logic of personal life.

In every human situation or context, multiple systems of meaning are usually present. As a critical thinker, you engage in a process of figuring out why your associates, friends, clients, children, spouses, and employers relate to you in the way they do. This is true because everyone makes sense of the situations of their own life in some way. To do this, they must, at least implicitly, make use of the eight elements of thought. If you can identify the elements of others' thinking, you can better understand where they are coming from.

You can assume all of the following:

By assuming that there is always a logic to what happens not only in the world but also in the mind of those who operate in the world, you are empowered in your pursuit of understanding. You therefore are led to question superficial explanations and seek deeper ones. You are led to question:

Strategic Idea

When you realize that there is a logic to everything, you can think through the logic of the situations in which you find yourself. You can apply this principle in a number of directions, depending on your precise goals and objectives. Consider the questioning "inner voice" of the activist thinker focused on understanding the logic of his or her own thinking or the logic of others' thinking:

  1. Questioning goals, purposes, and objectives. What is the central purpose of this person? This group? Myself? I realize that problems in thinking are often the result of a mistake at the level of basic purpose. I realize that I must develop skill in shifting my goals and purposes. I realize that I must be clear about my purposes, about others' purposes, about alternative purposes. I realize that I can always question my purposes, as well as the purposes of others.

  2. Questioning the way in which questions are framed, problems are posed, and issues are expressed. What issues have to be addressed in this situation? What is the key question I should raise? I realize that if the problem is misconceptualized, it will not be solved. If I have misconceived the question, I will not find the answer. Furthermore, I understand the value of sticking to the question at hand, of not wandering to other issues before effectively dealing with the question at issue. I want to be aware of situations in which others are failing to stick to the question at issue.

  3. Questioning information and sources of information. What information do I need to gather to figure out what is going on? Where can I get it? How can I test it? What information are others using? Is it accurate? Is it relevant to the issue at hand? I realize that if I lack the information I need to effectively deal with this issue, my reasoning will be impaired. I also understand the problems inherent in using incorrect information in reasoning.

  4. Questioning interpretations or conclusions. What interpretations, judgments, or conclusions are crucial to this situation? What conclusions am I coming to? What conclusions are others coming to? I understand that there is often more than one way to interpret situations. I value the ability to consider multiple ways to do so, weighing the pros and cons of each, before coming to a decision. I also want to be able to assess the quality of the conclusions that others are coming to.

  5. Questioning the assumptions being made. What is being taken for granted? Is this a reasonable assumption? What would be reasonable to assume in this situation? I recognize that, because assumptions usually are unconscious in thinking, it is often difficult to determine what is being taking for granted. I want to be able to identify and correct my faulty assumptions. I also want to be able to accurately assess the assumptions others are using.

  6. Questioning the concepts being used. What main ideas or concepts are being used? What implications follow from this idea? What main ideas, or concepts, are crucial to making sense of this situation? I understand that whenever we think, we use concepts, and the way we use them both determines and is determined by the way we think in situations. Therefore, I must continually raise my awareness of the way concepts are being used, both by myself and by others.

  7. Questioning the point(s) of view being considered. What point(s) of view have to be considered? Have I failed to take into account some point(s) of view that are relevant to understanding and thinking-through the issue? I realize that good reasoning often involves considering more than one way of looking at things. I therefore understand the value in being able to consider issues from multiple viewpoints. I recognize when others are unable or unwilling to see things from alternative viewpoints.

  8. Questioning implications. Given the reasoning I am doing, what are the likely implications, positive and negative? What are the implications if I reason to this conclusion versus that conclusion? I understand that, whenever I reason, implications follow from my reasoning. Thus, I need to think through the potential consequences of decisions I am considering. I also question the implications of others' thinking.

Just as we can seek to understand our own logic, we can seek to understand the logic of others. Perhaps an example will be helpful here. Imagine a person whose everyday life is based on the following thinking:

The simple pleasures are the key to happiness: sleeping, gardening, walking, nature, telling jokes, listening to music, reading books. Do not seek more power or money than is necessary to get by. Do not seek to change the world in significant ways because no matter what you do, nothing much will change. The people at the top will always be corrupt and they will always have the power to hurt you. The large masses of people are lazy and irresponsible and always will be. Do not get involved in the affairs of others. Avoid gossip. Don't worry about what other people have. Don't worry about injustice; those who do unjust acts will naturally suffer negative consequences. Take things as they come. Don't take yourself too seriously. Be ready to laugh at yourself. Avoid conflict. When you do a job, do it well. Value your friends and support them. They will help you when you need them.

It would be of no use to attempt to persuade this person to become active in any social, political, or moral cause. If you understand the basic logic of her thinking, you recognize that her response will always be the same: "You can't fight city hall. Don't worry about it. Those people will get their just deserts. Stay out of the battle. You can't do any good. And you probably will do yourself some harm."

The logic of this thinking has many implications, some positive, and some negative. On the positive side, this thinking leads this person to enjoy life far beyond that enjoyed by most people, as she is continually seeing ordinary events - which most people treat as unimportant and insignificant - as objects of pleasure and delight. For example, the simple act of looking out the window at a bird on a tree limb engenders inner warmth. On the other hand, she assumes no ethical responsibility for any action that is not directly within her immediate control. The logic of her thinking makes her indifferent to the fate of others not immediately connected to her. Though she is a reader, she reads only fiction and that only for distraction and amusement.

Now let us put our commentary into the logic of this thinking in such a way as to pin down the elements of the logic inherent in it:

  1. The main goal or purpose of this person is to enjoy life and to avoid involvement in any painful struggle. The first part of this purpose is fully justifiable because people have a right to enjoy life. The second part is questionable, and there is more than one way to evaluate it. Here is one reasonable way: On the one hand, insofar as this person would expect others to be concerned when injustice was done to her, she is obligated to help others who experience injustice. On the other hand, if she would not expect others to be at all concerned about any injustice she might experience, she is justified in not concerning herself with injustice being done to others.

  2. The main issue or question for this person is something like this: How can I arrange the affairs of my life in such a way as to maximally enjoy the simple things of life and avoid involvement in any problems beyond those experienced by my immediate family? In evaluating this question, the same reasoning would apply as that expressed in evaluating the purpose (in number 1 above).

  3. The main information this person used in pursuing her goals was information about immediate matters of daily life. Again, the use of this information is partially justified. It is justified in that this particular information enables the thinker to achieve her purpose. However, the thinker fails to use information in her thinking that would enable her to contribute to making the world more just (information about the large number of people who are acting every day to improve conditions in the world, information about the large numbers of people who could be helped through some basic acts of kindness, and so on).

  4. The main assumptions this person uses in thinking are: Simple pleasures are always available to everyone and are more important than socially praised possessions; in the world of power, nothing ever really changes; and only immediate family members have any moral claims on us. Again, the first assumption is justifiable for the reason stated in purpose (number 1 above). The second assumption is simply not true. Even though power structures are difficult to change, they certainly can be changed through dedication and hard work. Many examples can be cited to support this point. With respect to the third assumption, this person would most likely expect others, outside her immediate family, to help her if some injustice were being done to her. Therefore, a likely unconscious assumption in her thinking is: "If some injustice is being done to me, I expect others to help me out. After all, I have a right to justice."

  5. Some of the main concepts this person uses in thinking are these principles: The best way to live is to enjoy life's simple pleasures; no matter what you do, you can't change city hall; and people who behave in unethical ways will suffer the law of natural consequences. The first concept or principle, concerned with "simple pleasures," is being used justifiably because it helps this person enjoy the small pleasures in life, to appreciate all of the many simple everyday joys. The second principle, "you can't change city hall," is not logical because every day, through diligence and perseverance, people help bring about improvement within institutions. The third principle, involving "natural consequences," is also illogical because many people are behaving unethically each and every day and suffering not at all while they are causing suffering to innocent others. By using this idea in thinking, this person irrationally justifies her unwillingness to help make the world a more humane place.

  6. The main conclusion (inference) this person comes to is: I can best enjoy life by keeping to myself and to my immediate family, by surrounding myself with the things I like, by taking time every day to appreciate the small joys that life brings. Given the information this person uses in her thinking, her conclusions logically follow. Because she does not take into account information that would imply an ethical obligation to help reduce injustice, she concludes that she has no ethical obligations outside her immediate family.

  7. The points of view of this person are: seeing every day as uncomplicated and filled with simple delights; and seeing her ethical obligations as applying only to her immediate family. This person is concerned only with her own point of view, and those of her family members, but not of others.

  8. The main implications of this person's thinking are that she will appreciate the many small pleasures in life, but do nothing to contribute to the well-being of society. This person is concerned only with the implications that come with enjoying life. She is unconcerned about her doing nothing to help make the world a more just and humane place within which to live.

Test the Idea
Focusing on the Logic of Someone's Thinking

Think of someone that you know well - a spouse, parent, a child, an employer, or a friend. Try to figure out the logic of this person's thinking by focusing on the eight elements of his or her thought. Humans in many circumstances and contexts act with a hidden agenda. As a consequence, human behavior is often other than it seems to be. After figuring out the logic of this person's thinking, try to assess the thinking that he or she does within each element. Complete this template:

  1. The main purpose of this person is... I think this person is or is not justified in pursuing this purpose because...

  2. The main issue for this person, and its related question, is... I think this question is/is not worth pursuing because...

  3. The main information this person uses in pursuing his or her goals is... This information should/should not be used in this person's thinking because...

  4. The main assumptions this person uses in thinking are... These assumptions are/are not justifiable because...

  5. The main concepts this person uses in thinking are... These concepts are/are not being used justifiably because...

  6. The main conclusions this person comes to are... These conclusions are/are not logical because...

  7. The point of view of this person is... This person is/is not fully considering the relevant viewpoints of others because...

  8. The main implications of this person's thinking are... This person is/is not concerned about these implications because...

Key Idea #3: For Thinking to Be of High Quality, We Must Routinely Assess it

Consistently high-quality thinking routinely assesses itself for flaws and then improves itself by replacing low-quality thinking with higher-quality thinking. As rational persons strongly motivated to improve our thinking, we not only think, but we think about our thinking from a critical vantage point. We routinely apply universal intellectual standards to our thought. That is, we continually strive to think in a clear, precise, accurate, relevant, logical, broad, deep, significant, and defensible ways. We learn how to check our thinking regularly using these criteria.

Strategic Idea

As disciplined thinkers, we routinely apply intellectual standards to our thinking so as to assess and improve its quality. Consider the voice of a thinker focused on applying intellectual standards:

Test the Idea
Focusing on Intellectual Standards in Questioning

In order to improve your ability to ask important and relevant questions in everyday life situations, focus on one intellectual standard per week and try to ask as many questions as you can think of on a daily basis relevant to that standard. Focus on each of the categories of questions described above.

The idea is to ask these questions so often in that week that you begin to bring them explicitly into your thinking (so that asking them becomes more intuitive to you). By practicing asking them for a week, you will be more likely to ask them when they are relevant to the context you are in.

If, for example, you are focusing on clarity in thinking, you will ask the following kinds of questions:

Am I clear about my thinking? Can I state it precisely? Can I elaborate on it in detail? Can I give an example from my experience? Can I illustrate it with an analogy or a metaphor? What about the thinking being expressed to me? Should I ask for the main point? Do I need an elaboration? Do I need an example? An illustration?


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