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Tools for Getting Real with Your Giving Part 3: Critical Thinking

Sep 29, 2022

The Quality of Your Reasoning Process As a Donor Really Matters!

In the first two posts in this series we looked at systems thinking and root cause analysis as powerful ways for donors to unravel the complexity of real world challenges.  In this post we turn to critical thinking as a vital tool to better understand yourself, your perspective, your identity, and your own role in the deeper systems and structures you are seeking to change through your giving.


So What is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is about analyzing and evaluating the world around you from an objective perspective in order to form accurate conclusions. As Linda Elder, President of the Foundation for Critical Thinking, puts it:

“Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way…. [Critical thinkers] realize that no matter how skilled they are as thinkers, they can always improve their reasoning abilities and they will at times fall prey to mistakes in reasoning, human irrationality, prejudices, biases, distortions, uncritically accepted social rules and taboos, self-interest, and vested interest.

The more you are drawn to address complex social challenges in your giving, the more critical thinking becomes key. Critical thinking can be particularly valuable when you apply it to yourself as a donor. Ask yourself, “What are my blind spots, filters, and cognitive biases, and how can I work around the limits of my own perspective in order to maximize my impact? It is an essential tool for unpacking issues of power, identity, and race, particularly if you are a member of a historically dominant cultural group. For example, it’s hard to fully evaluate the concept of “whiteness” in a thoughtful, non-ideological way without drawing on the tools of critical thinking.

So, what does critical thinking entail on a practical basis? How do we implement it as part of our tool kit for getting real? A relatively straightforward way to get at this is through the PERC framework presented below. This approach breaks critical thinking down into four basic components: Purpose, Evidence, Reasoning, and Conclusions. 

The PERC Framework for Critical Thinking

1. Purpose: You begin by explicitly stating the objective of the critical thinking process. What is it you are seeking to achieve through the application of critical thinking? What question are you seeking to answer, and what issue are you trying to understand?

2. Evidence: The next step is to seek out and organize the evidence that relates to the question at hand. As you determine what to consider in your reasoning process, it is vital to distinguish between two distinct types of decision-making inputs:  

    • Objective evidence: Facts and information that can be independently evaluated and empirically proven. You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.
    • Subjective opinion: Preconceptions, assumptions, beliefs, and biases that the thinker is bringing to the table. These must be either accepted or rejected as a matter of opinion—they cannot be empirically proven.

At first, it might seem like critical thinking is about setting aside subjective opinion and drawing solely on objective evidence. However, a truly sophisticated critical thinker does not focus only on immediately verifiable, empirical facts. For one thing, doing so may not sufficiently account for the emotionally driven reactions of others within a complex system. Great critical thinkers must necessarily consider subjective opinion in themselves and others. Your goal is to figure out how the feelings, beliefs, biases, and habitual mental shortcuts of all those involved influence the matter at hand. Sometimes, it’s even possible to gather objective evidence about subjective feelings. We see this with polling, focus groups, and other opinion research techniques. 

3. Reasoning Process: Now we come to the part of the process where you are assembling the evidence as pieces of a puzzle. Let’s stick with this metaphor for a moment. When you are putting together puzzles, it’s common practice to look for the edge pieces first. This creates the frame in which all the other pieces must fit. The illustration on the box of the puzzle is an even more powerful frame. It tells you what the big picture actually looks like after you have successfully  fit all the pieces together. Frames are very powerful devices when it comes to our reasoning process. They can lead us to profound insight, but they can also lead us astray. Imagine trying to do a puzzle after someone switched up the cover picture on you. This leads us to several key elements of the reasoning process:   

  • State your framing of the situation explicitly and identify at least two alternative ways you could frame the same context. For example:

1. “The glass is half full.” 

2. The glass is half empty.”

3. The atmospheric conditions here allow for liquid at room temperature.”

  • Critically evaluate your choice of frames. Consider which aspects of the situation your framing emphasizes and which it de-emphasizes. Does the medical treatment under consideration save 80% of patients or does it fail to save 20% of patients? An 80% survival rate and a 20% mortality rate are logically equivalent, but the framing is quite different. Framing may also contain subtle clues about the previous context. For example, “The glass is half full,” might suggest it was less full previously, whereas, “The glass is half empty,” might suggest it was more full before15.
  • Use inference (step-by-step, logical reasoning) to connect the relevant, objective information in a logical way in order to make the best possible educated guess with the available information.
  • Step back and ask yourself how your subjective opinions and perspective might influence your reasoning.
  • Make sure you have sufficiently accounted for the subjective opinion of others and any of their known, mental processes in your own reasoning. Are you overly reliant on assumptions that the behavior of others will be shaped by rational, objective factors 

4. Conclusions: Once your reasoning produces a conclusion (e.g. your best possible educated guess), it’s vital to critically evaluate this conclusion itself. Ask yourself, “So what?” Just because you have produced an insight through a logical reasoning process, that doesn’t necessarily mean it has bearing on the original question you set out to answer. If you forget this step, you may find yourself getting distracted by irrelevant logic chains. For example, let’s say my original purpose for engaging in critical thinking is to figure out why my car won’t start. First, I diligently review the evidence: little mouse droppings, rips in my upholstery, and that tail I briefly glimpsed disappearing behind the dashboard. Then, I engage in my reasoning process, concluding that I’ve got a pernicious case of vehicular mice. This logical conclusion may be perfectly correct but without additional evidence, this is not necessarily the reason why my car won’t start. 

8 Keys to Improving Your Critical Thinking

At each step of the critical thinking process there is the potential for error. Strong critical thinkers are able to reduce the incidence of error at each of these levels by doing the following:

  1. Establish your purpose thoughtfully and explicitly. If you aren’t asking a question or examining an issue with the potential to inform the outcomes you really care about, you are already in trouble.
  2. Gather accurate information and facts. Work hard to supplement available facts when you start out with too little information to form reliable, informed conclusions.
  3. Be aware of and account for subjective preconceptions (conscious and unconscious). Identify and appropriately discount biases, assumptions, beliefs, opinions, heuristics (mental shortcuts), and other rules of thumb. It is crucial that you do not mistake your own subjective preconceptions for objective facts. Another hallmark of strong critical thinking is the capacity to appreciate and account for the role these preconceptions have in shaping the behavior of all those involved. Not every preconception is automatically wrong. Certain “rules of thumb” actually have lots of valid historical experience backing them up. They are highly functional shortcuts for our brains, and they work the vast majority of the time. Just because someone is not applying rigorous logical reasoning in the moment does not mean they are acting illogically. For example, think about looking both ways before crossing a street. Now, imagine that the street has been closed to all traffic for a street fair. It is a lot of work to switch on our critical thinking faculties and override our instinct to look both ways. Over millennia of evolution, we have been wired to take shortcuts whenever the error rate for doing so is acceptably low. That said, leaving our critical faculties switched off and letting our brains run on autopilot is also the source of some of our trickiest cognitive biases. 
  4. Be thoughtful and compassionate about how these preconceptions influence all of us. Logically sound reasoning accounts for the subjective, non-rational aspects of human behavior!
  5. Be intentional about your framing. Spot hidden frames and understand how framing fundamentally shapes your logical process and your conclusions. Try on different frames to see if they lead you to different conclusions.
  6. Be rigorous and methodical in inferential reasoning. Look for places in your logic chain where magical thinking is entering in. In other words, make sure you aren’t making unfounded assumptions or leaps in reasoning that aren’t supported by the available facts. Use Occam’s razor—more memorably stated as, “Keep it simple, stupid!”
  7. Be self-reflective about your conclusions. It is helpful to ask yourself, “...and how would I feel if I had reached the opposite conclusion? Is it possible that my feelings about this conclusion influenced the process I used to reach this conclusion? What other conclusions might I reach if I approached this issue from a different angle?”
  8. Engage in a post-reasoning relevance check. Reflect on why this actually matters regarding the issue you initially identified. If the conclusion you just reached is true, what difference does it make in the world? Beyond the immediate implications, what are the second and third order effects? This is an instance where systems thinking and root cause analysis can be really helpful.

Check out the video and download this worksheet to walk yourself through the critical thinking process on any issue where you really want to check the rigor of your reasoning.  And stay tuned for the final post in this series, where we'll look at design thinking as a key way to develop solutions that are most likely to stick because they are designed in partnership with those closest to the problem itself. 

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