Good decision-making: critical thinking in action

We have become used to seeing critical thinking described as an essential skill, a core skill, the most important skill, and so on. This is a very good thing, but critical thinking needs not only to be seen as core and essential, but also to be these things. In other words, we must move beyond talking about its value, and try to ensure that it is applied in a thoroughgoing way.

 

Critical Thinking Toolkit

As part of this widespread application, it must be remembered that, though critical thinking should have a central role in education (both in helping students to learn and in improving their performance), it should also have a central role beyond this. One area that fits especially with this central role is decision-making, whatever the context. This role can be approached by looking at what critical thinking brings to decision-making (what can be described as ‘the critical thinking toolkit’) and what decision-making needs (what tools are required).

When one looks at the critical thinking toolkit, we not only find powerful cognitive tools (problem-solving, analysis, creative thinking, interpretation, evaluation, and reasoning) but also a powerful set of attributes including being open-minded, flexible, fair-minded, willing to reconsider, focused in inquiry, and persistent in achieving results. When one looks at decision-making, one finds a large number of issues that serve to affect it in a negative way. The challenge is to use the critical thinking toolkit to reduce the chance of these issues having this effect.

A widely-quoted article on decision-making is ‘The Hidden Traps in Decision Making’ by Hammond, Keeney, and Raiffa (Harvard Business Review, Jan 2006). In this, the various traps are described and strategies for avoiding them are described.

 

The Anchoring Trap

One of these is the anchoring trap, in which we give a disproportionate weight to the first information (for example, estimate, data, and image) we receive. From a critical thinking point of view, this anchoring offends against the need to be open-minded, to evaluate the possible significance of claims that have been made, to be flexible, to be willing to reconsider, to look for more information, and so on. In other words, the anchoring trap is a vulnerability for those not applying critical thinking in their decision-making.

 

The Status Quo Trap

Another trap is that of the status quo. This works by encouraging us to make decisions that fit with the status quo, decisions that are thereby seen as requiring less thought and provide the comfort of the perception of low risk. But, from a critical thinking perspective, the status quo is no more than one set of information. Judging a decision based only on this is a problem for the skills and dispositions in the toolkit: being flexible, looking at assumptions being made about the status quo, considering other possibilities by being open-minded, being willing to reconsider, and so on. As with the anchoring trap, being trapped by the status quo is a failure to use critical thinking.

 

Being Uncritical of Evidence

The critical thinking toolkit will also apply to other traps in decision-making. The confirming-evidence trap is another good example in which critical thinking can ensure that the decision-maker does not fall into it, as is the selective-recall trap. In both cases, the evidence used in making the decision is not interrogated in the way in which critical thinking requires. The seeking out and use only of evidence that supports our position is a familiar problem, but it is one which critical thinking can offer a corrective to, by encouraging the examination of counter-positions, by requiring that we evaluate evidence for adequacy, by being persistent in seeking other evidence (and possible explanations), by being prudent in making judgements, and so on. The same points apply to our selective recalling of evidence: making a decision based only on, say, a few memorable examples of poor/very good economic performance fails to use the evaluative skill of judging the adequacy of this evidence and the critical thinking dispositions of being prudent in making judgements, and wanting to find all relevant information (given a willingness to see that existing information might not be sufficient).

 

Critical Thinking and Framing

Critical thinking will also enable us to avoid the framing trap (in which the decision is affected by how one frames the question or problem). A frame can be based on a limited perception of the question: ‘How much should we invest in this proposed product?’ is a very different question to ‘How does this product fit into our existing range?’ which in turn is a different question to ‘Does our existing range need more products?’ These questions could also be reframed into versions such as ‘Who in the company are the best judges of whether this proposed product is needed?’ and ‘What problems could arise in the delivery of the product?’ critical thinking will encourage (indeed, require) that reframing is an active process in order to get a wider (and thus more productive) perspective.

 

Lego: A Framing Problem and Solution

An example of using a limited frame in decision-making is that of Lego in the late 1990s. With the expiration of the patent on its brick-design, it framed the problem in terms of expansion through innovation. The number of unique bricks was doubled between 1997 and 2004; the company moved into computer games, children’s clothes, and theme parks. Problems quickly emerged. For example, the most popular sets of Lego were often out-of-stock as a result of only one brick not being available for sets of more than 500 bricks. Retailers and customers were often frustrated by delays in shipping stock from one country to another. In other words, framing the issue in terms of innovation and expansion created problems in production, supply, and management. Fortunately, in 2004, Lego acted soon enough to deal with the threat of bankruptcy by reducing complexity (including reducing the number of unique bricks, selling off the theme parks, and standardising its supply chain).

 

Framing, Sustainability, and Critical Thinking

Another article in the Harvard Business Review (Elkington ‘The 6 Ways Business Leaders Talk About Sustainability’, 17 October 2017) considers framing as a big issue in environmental decision-making. ‘To change our frames is to change the way we perceive, prioritize, and invest time, effort and money.’ In this article, the author considers the different ways that businesses approach the issue of sustainability. There is, for example, the resources frame. This focuses decision-making on waste-reduction and technological innovation. But is this enough? Not perhaps when one looks at the time frame. Can one make decisions that fit with the UN Sustainable Development Goals which refer to 2030? And what about the value frame? Is sustainability an issue of cost or about opportunity (or both)? Frames like these (and others) have to be considered in critical thinking terms such as ‘What assumptions are being made?’ ‘What possible unintended consequences could there be?’ ‘What reasoning is being used?’ ‘How could we connect things in a new way?’ And, of course, there is the big reframing question: ‘How can we redefine the issue so as to see it in a new way?’

This short consideration of issues in decision-making has highlighted that, in a fundamental way, we are looking at issues that benefit from the application of critical thinking. Good decision-making is good critical thinking. The logic follows in a simple way:

(A) If it is true that good critical thinking produces good decision-making, then (B) the more we use critical thinking, the better will be our decision-making.

(A) is true, so (B) is true. A rare sight: a valid and sound argument.