Can You Apply Too Much Critical Thought? PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Jeff Wagg   

pressurecookerReaders of this site, by and large, already accept the idea that applying critical thought is good for you. But can you apply too much?

Consider the purchase of an automobile. You have a long commute, so you want the most fuel-efficient car possible. The dealer in the area has a model that gets 40mpg, and meets all your criteria. He has two of these cars on the lot. One of them is white, and the other is black. Which car do you pick?

Actually, the proper question is: how do you decide which car you’ll pick? A skeptic might make a list of pros and cons over the colors. White cars have a higher resale value and hide dirt and blemishes better. Given those facts, it seems the obvious choice is white.

A friend of mine answered this by saying “I’d never buy a white car. I think they’re ugly. Only the black one could work for me.”

Was she exercising critical thinking in her decision? I may surprise you by saying yes, she was.

Critical thinking is the removal of emotion from analysis to the greatest degree possible, but that should not be confused by weighing the emotional impact of a decision. My friend knew that if she bought the white car, the color would make her unhappy, despite all its advantages. And isn’t that the actual goal of this exercise: to get the largest amount of happiness from the purchase decision?

For her, the amount of unhappiness the loss of resale value and dirtiness add is less than the amount of unhappiness the color would have added. The correct analysis is: buy the black car.

The reason I bring this example up is that I have, on occasion, eschewed the emotional impact of personal decisions for practical concerns. When all I consider is practical matters, I can easily come to a decision. But forgetting the emotional impact of those decisions leaves out data that should also be considered.

So, to answer my own question, no, you can’t apply too much critical thought. As humans, we’re emotional, and there’s no reason to ignore that. It’s just more data that needs to be considered.

Here’s another example:

After World War 2, pressure cookers were an increasingly popular way to cook. They cooked faster than traditional methods by applying high amounts of pressure as well as heat to foods. There was a problem though… sometimes a poorly-attended pot would explode, presenting a hazard to anyone nearby.

Concerned manufacturers built in pressure release valves to solve this problem, and happily advertised their “new and improved” design. They figured that it’s only logical that people would want to buy the safer design, and looked forward to increased sales.

In fact, sales plummeted. Despite the fact that the new cookers were undoubtedly safer, the general public wasn’t aware that they could explode at all.  The advertisements for the “non-exploding” pressure cookers actually informed people of this, and they stopped using them altogether. This was an emotional reaction, but one that should have been considered by the advertisers. And though this reaction was unwarranted, in the minds of the consumers, they were just playing it safe. Why should they believe the manufacturers when they say the new designs won’t explode? They didn’t tell us they could explode at all!” And as the general public isn’t very well educated in chemistry or physics, that was also a logical decision to make.

Emotions are a data point, just like anything else. Failing to consider them is a failure of critical thinking. When we look at the anti-vax movement for example, we see a lot of emotion and not enough attention being paid to the data. But as critical thinkers, we need to consider the emotions to try to correct this problem.

Perhaps lambasting folks like Jenny McCarthy isn’t the best approach. Perhaps it would be more effective to understand the emotions of a young parent with a poor science education, whose only desire is to do what’s best for her child’s health.