Moving Beyond Biases and Stereotypes

Excerpts from: University of Hong Kong, Philosophy Department, Open Courseware on Critical Thinking, Logic and Creativity

We have learned that we all stereotype people. We have maybe even extrapolated that we are a stereotype to others. We have also learned the we all have biases but that we typically only recognize bias in others, and that some people may be biased for or against us based on a stereotype. We've also seen that stereotyping and biases may be hardwired into our brains, and therefore unavoidable. You might now be thinking, "but I want to judge people rationally, and not based on some silly bias I developed as a child", or "I want to understand the real value of the person across the table from me, rather than some shallow stereotypical judgment". How can move beyond our own ingrained stereotypes and biases? We can do this by honing our critical thinking skills.

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking. Someone with critical thinking skills is able to do the following :

 

Other definitions of critical thinking have been proposed and argued throughout history.

Critical thinking is not a matter of accumulating information. A person with a good memory and who knows a lot of facts is not necessarily good at critical thinking. A critical thinker is able to deduce consequences from what he knows, and he knows how to make use of information to solve problems, and to seek relevant sources of information to inform himself.

Critical thinking should not be confused with being argumentative or being critical of other people. Although critical thinking skills can be used in exposing fallacies and bad reasoning, critical thinking can also play an important role in cooperative reasoning and constructive tasks. Critical thinking can help us acquire knowledge, improve our theories, and strengthen arguments. We can use critical thinking to enhance work processes and improve social institutions.

Good critical thinking might be seen as the foundation of science and a liberal democratic society. Science requires the critical use of reason in experimentation and theory confirmation. The proper functioning of a liberal democracy requires citizens who can think critically about social issues to inform their judgments about proper governance and to overcome biases and prejudice.

Why is Critical Thinking Important

Without thinking critically, you're only looking at the surface of things. When you come across a politician's statement in the media, do you accept it at face value? Do you accept some people's statements and not others'? The chances are you exercise at least some judgment, based on what you know about the particular person, and whether you generally agree with her or not.

Knowing whether or not you agree with someone is not necessarily the same as critical thinking, however. Your reaction may be based on emotion ("I hate that guy!"), or on the fact that this elected official supports programs that are in your interest, even though they may not be in the best interests of everyone else. What's important about critical thinking is that it helps you to sort out what's accurate and what's not, and to give you a solid, factual base for solving problems or addressing issues. Critical thinking helps you to move beyond the stereotypes and your own biases to judge individuals more accurately.

Some specific reasons for the importance of critical thinking:

It identifies bias. Critical thinking identifies both the bias in what it looks at (its object), and the biases you yourself bring to it. If you can address these honestly, and adjust your thinking accordingly, you'll be able to see the object in light of the way it's slanted, and to understand your own biases in your reaction to it.

A bias is not necessarily bad: it is simply a preferred way of looking at things. You can be racially biased, but you can also be biased toward looking at all humans as one family. You can be biased toward a liberal or conservative political point of view, or toward or against tolerance. Regardless of whether most of us would consider a particular bias good or bad, not seeing it can limit how we resolve a problem or issue.

It's oriented toward the problem, issue, or situation that you're addressing. Critical thinking focuses on analyzing and understanding its object. It eliminates, to the extent possible, emotional reactions, except where they become part of an approach or solution.

It's just about impossible to eliminate emotions, or to divorce them from your own deeply-held assumptions and beliefs. You can, however, try to understand that they're present, and to analyze your own emotional reactions and those of others in the situation.

There are different kinds of emotional reactions. If all the evidence points to something being true, your emotional reaction that it's not true isn't helpful, no matter how badly you want to believe it. On the other hand, if a proposed solution involves harming a particular group of people "for the good of the majority", an emotional reaction that says "we can't let this happen" may be necessary to change the situation so that its benefits can be realized without harm to anyone. Emotions that allow you to deny reality generally produce undesirable results; emotions that encourage you to explore alternatives based on principles of fairness and justice can produce very desirable results.

It gives you the whole picture. Critical thinking never considers anything in a vacuum. Its object has a history, a source, a context. Thinking critically allows you to bring these into play, thus getting more than just the outline of what you're examining, and making a realistic and effective solution to a problem more likely.

•It brings in other necessary factors. Some of the things that affect the object of critical thought -- previous situations, personal histories, general assumptions about an issue -- may need to be examined themselves. Critical thinking identifies them and questions them as well.

During the mid-90's debate in the United States over welfare reform, much fuss was made over the amount of federal money spent on welfare. Few people realized, however, that the whole entitlement program accounted for less than 2% of the annual federal budget. During the height of the debate, Americans surveyed estimated the amount of their taxes going to welfare at as much as 60%. Had they examined the general assumptions they were using, they might have thought differently about the issue.

•It considers both the simplicity and complexity of its object. A situation or issue may have a seemingly simple explanation or resolution, but it may rest on a complex combination of factors. Thinking critically unravels the relationships among these, and determines what level of complexity needs to be dealt with in order to reach a desired conclusion.

It gives you the most nearly accurate view of reality. The whole point of critical thinking is to construct the most objective view available. 100% objectivity may not be possible, but the closer you can get, the better.

Most important, for all the above reasons, it is most likely to help you get the results you want. The closer you are to dealing with things as they really are, the more likely you are to be able to address a problem or issue with some hope of success.

In more general terms, the real value of critical thinking is that it's been at the root of all human progress. The first ancestor of humans who said to himself, "We've always made bone tools, but they break awfully easily. I bet we could make tools out of something else. What if I tried this rock?" was using critical thinking. So were most of the social, artistic, and technological ground breakers who followed. You'd be hard pressed to find an advance in almost any area of humanity's development that didn't start with someone looking at the way things were and saying "It doesn't have to be that way. What if we looked at it from another angle?"

 

Let's watch a short video on critical thinking by QualiaSoup...

 

How to Develop the Critical Stance

From: The Community Tool Box

The Community Tool Box is a web site promoting community health and development by connecting people ideas and resources. The following information is written from their "community" perspective, but if we can recognize that our college is also a community and that the staff, faculty and students are the community member, then the advice below can be seen as a good fit from the perspective of our organization.

The critical stance is the generalized ability and disposition to apply critical thinking to whatever you encounter, recognizing assumptions -- your own and others' -- applying that recognition to questioning information and situations, and considering their context.

1. Recognize assumptions.

Each of us has a set of assumptions -- ideas or attitudes or "facts" we take for granted -- that underlies our thinking. Only when you're willing to look at these assumptions and realize how they color your conclusions can you examine situations, problems, or issues objectively.

Assumptions are based on a number of factors -- physical, environmental, psychological, and experiential -- that we automatically, and often unconsciously, bring to bear on anything we think about. One of the first steps in encouraging the critical stance is to try to make these factors conscious.

Sources of assumptions are numerous and overlapping, but the most important are:

Senses. The impact of the senses is so elemental that we sometimes react to it without realizing we're doing so. You may respond to a person based on smells you're barely aware of, for instance.

Experience. Each of us has a unique set of experiences, and they influence our responses to what we encounter. Ultimately, as critical thinkers, we have to understand both how past experience might limit our thinking in a situation, and how we can use it to see things more clearly.

Values. Values are deeply held beliefs -- often learned from families, schools, and peers -- about how the world should be. These "givens" may be difficult even to recognize, let alone reject. It further complicates matters that values usually concern the core issues of our lives: personal and sexual relationships, morality, gender and social roles, race, social class, and the organization of society, to name just a few.

Emotion. Recognizing our emotional reactions is vital to keeping them from influencing our conclusions. Anger at child abusers may get in the way of our understanding the issue clearly, for example. We can't control whether emotions come up, but we can understand how we react to them.

Self interest. Whether we like it or not, each of us sometimes injects what is best for ourselves into our decisions. We have to be aware when self interest gets in the way of reason, or of looking at the other interests in the situation.

Culture. The culture we grew up in, the culture we've adopted, the predominant culture in the society -- all have their effects on us, and push us into thinking in particular ways. Understanding how culture acts upon our and others' thinking makes it possible to look at a problem or issue in a different light.

History. Community history, the history of our organization or initiative, and our own history in dealing with particular problems and issues will all have an impact on the way we think about the current situation.

Religion. Our own religious backgrounds -- whether we still practice religion or not -- may be more powerful than we realize in influencing our thinking.

Biases. Very few of us, regardless of what we'd like to believe, are free of racial or ethnic prejudices of some sort, or of political, moral, and other biases that can come into play here.

Prior knowledge. What we know about a problem or issue, from personal experience, from secondhand accounts, or from theory, shapes our responses to it. We have to be sure, however, that what we "know" is in fact true, and relevant to the issue at hand.

Conventional wisdom. All of us have a large store of information "everybody knows" that we apply to new situations and problems. Unfortunately, the fact that everybody knows it doesn't make it right. Conventional wisdom is often too conventional: it usually reflects the simplest way of looking at things. We may need to step outside the conventions to look for new solutions.

 

This is often the case when people complain that "common sense" makes the solution to a problem obvious. Many people believe, for instance, that it is "common sense " that sex education courses for teens encourage them to have sex. The statistics show that, in fact, teens with adequate sexual information tend to be less sexually active than their uninformed counterparts.

 

2. Examine information for accuracy, assumptions, biases, or specific interests.

Some basic questions to examine information for accuracy, assumptions, biases or specific interests are:

•What's the source of the information? Knowing where information originates can tell you a lot about what it's meant to make you believe.

•Does the source generally produce accurate information?

•What are the source's assumptions about the problem or issue? Does the source have a particular interest or belong to a particular group that will allow you to understand what it believes about the issue the information refers to?

•Does the source have biases or purposes that would lead it to slant information in a particular way, or to lie outright? Politicians and political campaigns often "spin" information so that it seems to favor them and their positions. People in the community may do the same, or may "know" things that don't happen to be true.

•Does anyone in particular stand to benefit or lose if the information is accepted or rejected? To whose advantage is it if the information is taken at face value?

•Is the information complete? Are there important pieces missing? Does it tell you everything you need to know? Is it based on enough data to be accurate?

 

Making sure you have all the information can make a huge difference. Your information might be that a certain approach to this same issue worked well in a similar community. What you might not know or think to ask, however, is whether there's a reason that the same approach wouldn't work in this community. If you investigated, you might find it had been tried and failed for reasons that would doom it again. You'd need all the information before you could reasonably address the issue.

•Is the information logically consistent? Does it make sense? Do arguments actually prove what they pretend to prove? Learning how to sort out logical and powerful arguments from inconsistent or meaningless ones is perhaps the hardest task for learners. Some helpful strategies here might include mock debates, where participants have to devise arguments for the side they disagree with; analysis of TV news programs, particularly those like "Meet the Press," where political figures defend their positions; and after-the-fact discussions of community or personal situations.

Just about anyone can come up with an example that "proves" a particular point: There's a woman down the block who cheats on welfare, so it's obvious that most welfare recipients cheat. You can't trust members of that ethnic group, because one of them stole my wallet.

 

Neither of these examples "proves" anything, because it's based on only one instance, and there's no logical reason to assume it holds for a larger group. A former president was particularly fond of these kinds of "proofs", and as a result often proposed simplistic solutions to complex social problems. Without information that's logically consistent and at least close to complete, you can't draw conclusions that will help you effectively address an issue.

 

•Is the information clear? Do you understand what you're seeing?

•Is the information relevant to the current situation? Information may be accurate, complete, logically consistent, powerful...and useless, because it has nothing to do with what you're trying to deal with.

 

An AIDS prevention initiative, for instance, may find that a particular neighborhood has a large number of gay residents. However, if the HIV-positive rate in the gay community is nearly nonexistent, and the real AIDS problem in town is among IV drug users, the location of the gay community is irrelevant information.

 

•Most important, is the information true? Outright lies and made-up "facts" are not uncommon in politics, community work, employment applications and other situations. Knowing the source and its interests, understanding the situation, and being sensibly skeptical can help to protect learners from acting on false information.

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