September 27


Have Crystal-Clear Critical Thinking By Avoiding These Traps

By Scott Kraus

by Scott Kraus, Dr. G’s Brainworks

Human Beings tend to think they are very smart. Aren’t we the pinnacle of intelligent life?

It turns out that being human has its share of problems when it comes to clarity of thought.

We have evolved over time to respond to certain things in a certain way, and that can often get in the way when it comes to thinking clearly and critically.

Here are four tendencies all of us naturally have, what they mean for you, and how to overcome them.

#4 – Action Bias: Why We Struggle To Sit Down And Think

Critical thinking can never take place if you don’t take the time to think. I know, I can’t believe I wrote that sentence either, but the problem is rooted much deeper than you may realize.

Action Bias describes the phenomenon where a quick, decisive course of action is held in higher esteem than inaction, even when the action taken place has a net negative effect on the desired outcome.

Think of action bias as your primordial instinct running amok in a modern world. In the early days of human development, your instinct was all you had. So running away from a wild tiger worked best when the caveman didn’t have to think about it.

Fast-forward to today and we have built a society where thought and deliberation lead to the best outcomes.

However, our action bias, that instinct, is still there. So we shoot first and ask questions later as a default rather than an emergency, leading to many poor decisions that could have been avoided with earnest reflection.

Avoiding Action bias

Action bias runs mostly on reflex or panic. Doing something will always feel better than doing nothing. However, just because it feels better does not mean it is better.

If you want to avoid the action bias in your day-to-day thinking, follow these steps:

  • Decide where you want to spend time and energy weighing your options. After all, we can’t all stop and ponder for an hour whenever your barista wants to know if you’d like cream or sugar.
  • Ask yourself what the consequences of delaying a decision will be. Delaying the start of a large project by a day could give you much needed insight and change how you’ll approach it. If you can spare time, the rule is to spare it.

#3 – Confirmation Bias: Why We Always Think We’re Right

Warren Buffet said it best. “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”

In other words, we tend to look at new information to confirm our theories rather than to test them. And when something happens that disproves our theories, we tend to ignore it.

It’s silly when you think about it. But confirmation bias happens everywhere, to everyone, no matter their station. After all, it’s much easier to keep your world view intact rather than have it shatter every time you step outside. So, for the most part, we function fine with this.

However, critical thinking relies on the accurate processing of new and existing information to provide an answer to the current question. So confirmation bias can easily sneak up and disrupt your thinking if you’re not careful.

Avoiding Confirmation Bias

Luckily, the tendency to look for confirmation will become very apparent once you know to look for it. A great critical thinker would go one step further and purposely attempt to dismantle their own thoughts simply to compensate for the natural tendency to support them.

Here are some examples of ways you could compensate for confirmation bias:

  • Spend your time disproving your theories rather than looking for proof. Odds are, you’ll naturally find supporting evidence for your theories anyway.
  • When attempting a puzzle, never assume an approach is correct when another approach is possible. Your confirmation bias will lead you down a myopic path towards frustration if you picked the wrong approach.

Scramble Squares has only one correct arrangement out of (4^9 * 9!)=95,126,814,720 possibilities. Odds are, your random choice isn’t as valid as you’d think.

#2 – Association Bias: Why You Swear That Pair Of Socks Is Lucky

Association, which is fundamental to how humans discover new information, can also lead to muddled thinking when used in error.

Think of rain dancing. A man dances, then a day later it rains. The man’s dance clearly brought the rain, right? Of course not.

This misconception doesn’t seem like a big deal. After all, eventually this man will dance and it won’t rain. But when you pair it with the confirmation bias, you’ll ignore these non-events.

To take things to another level, consider a related, bonus, bias: the survivorship bias.

Timothy wants to be a rock star. He notices rock stars love to drink Jack Daniel’s. Therefore, he should drink Jack Daniel’s. Clearly, this is poor thinking. But since Timothy doesn’t see all the failed musicians who also drink Jack Daniel’s, he associates the drink with rock star success.

Avoiding Association Bias

Avoiding association bias can be difficult. After all, association is a primary way we take the world in and make sense of it. So how do we avoid letting this bias cloud our thinking?

  • When solving a problem, try not to attach yourself to methods or solutions that aren’t directly related to the problem. For instance, solving our Meffert’s Gear Ball isn’t easy, but I solved it once by picking it up and giving a few random spins. So should I approach every puzzle by just tumbling through them? You decide.
  • Look at seemingly related events with a skeptical eye. What, exactly, makes them related? Can you find out? Or is somebody just dancing for rain?

#1 – The Sunk-Cost Bias: Why You Horde, Cling, And Otherwise Waste Your Time & Money

Would you leave a theater in the middle of a movie if you couldn’t get a refund? What if it was terrible? You have an hour left of this terrible movie and nobody is stopping you. You could get up right now and leave, sparing yourself the inevitably-terrible ending to this particularly-terrible movie.

If you said no and cited the twenty to forty dollars you spent on tickets and popcorn, you may be suffering from your sunk-cost bias.

You see, the sunk-cost bias works on a very simple principle. You can’t spend money, or time, that is already gone. It’s not your choice anymore. So staying at a terrible movie that you are not enjoying because you want to justify your forty dollars gone doesn’t make sense.

Your forty dollars won’t come back. Neither would that first hour. And by sitting through it, you’re simply wasting your time sitting on your wasted money.

Of course, it wouldn’t be human nature if we didn’t amplify this problem to an international scale. Government programs and corporate policies often contain spending in areas that are proven not to be effective.

Avoiding Sunk-Cost Bias

Avoiding our sunk-cost bias involves knowing the difference between a slow-burning goodie and a definite dud, then acting on this knowledge immediately. After all, once you discover something to be a sunk-cost, by the definition of sunk-cost, it is sunk.

Stop throwing resources at it.

The tendency that you may have to think in these ways can be very strong. Now that you understand what these thought patterns are and how to avoid them, however, you should be able to solve complex problems with more clarity.  And there is no end to the situations where this might come in handy!

This article was previously published on Dr. G’s Brainworks, and is reprinted with permission.


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About the author

Scott works for Dr. G’s BrainWorks: The Brain Fitness Store & More, based in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. He writes about everything to do with cognitive wellness. You can see more of his writing at or by signing up for the newsletter.

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