Why We Can't Think Straight
Crawling out of Covid, has been made more difficult by the refusal of a significant percentage of the population to take the any of the available vaccines. With 20% of Canadians still reluctant, and 1 in 4 Americans saying “no”, the journey toward “herd immunity”, and true “back to normal” may forever be elusive, regardless of what a maskless gathering of people indoors might suggest (Boynton, 2021) (Brumfiel, 2021). But what is truly the cause of the reluctance, or indeed, refusal of people to become vaccinated?
In his article in The Atlantic, Derek Thomson summed up his research on how anti-vaxxers form their collective opinion in this way. He paraphrased the common refrain, “I trust my own cells more than I trust pharmaceutical goop; I trust my own mind more than I trust liberal elites.” (Thomson, 2021).
This, and countless examples bring me back to perhaps the single biggest impediment to our ability to think critically – trust. Especially trust in those who hold a different position or opinion…or motive, than ourselves. But governments, big business, financial institutions, politicians, and any entity of power, have historically provided us with ample reason to distrust. So how can we outright dismiss the distrust of anti-vaxxers, and call ourselves (those who have accepted the efficacy of the vaccine) superior critical thinkers?
If critical thinking, one of the 8 pillar competencies espoused in my book, “The Daily Undoing: Being Better at Being Human”, truly entails seeing both sides of an issue with equal and objective weight, then are “pro-vaxxers” any more neutral in their assessment than “anti-vaxxers”? As usual, in a world of diametrically opposed views, we point at those on the opposite side of an argument and say “you’re wrong”, “you’re paranoid”, or “you’re crazy”. We have allowed any number of biases to seep into our cognition, from within which there is almost no escape. Thus we too, the “logical ones” in a debate, allow our critical thinking to become compromised.
I saw a public service announcement on one of Canada’s television networks the other day which made me laugh. It was a government sponsored ad promoting Covid 19 vaccinations, which included a staged talking head testimonial from a medical doctor, as to the efficacy of vaccinations. It was the exact example of the kind of thing that reinforces distrust among those who disbelieve. Staged. Scripted. White lab coat. The whole nine yards. What the government should have done was locate a real everyday person, who had changed their mind from anti to pro, and have them freely riff on how they came to see the other side. The audience the government was trying to reach – anti-vaxxers – would have had far greater trust in one of their own, than some lab-coated quack reading from a teleprompter.
But we still haven’t resolved why people reject the opinions of those with whom we put into positions designed to produce trust – ie doctors, whether reading from a script or not. Psypost, “a psychology and neuroscience news website dedicated to reporting the latest research on human behaviour, cognition and society” recently posted an article as intriguing by its title if there ever was one: “New Study Indicates Conspiracy Theory Believers Have Less Developed Critical Thinking Skills” (Dolan, 2021) It was intriguing to me, because it was exactly what I wanted to believe. That conspiracy theorists, a convenient category in which I tend to lump anti-vaxxers, don’t, or can’t think straight. I caught myself in my own confirmation bias, which in turn, exposed my own critical thinking deficiency. Touche’.
At some point in the future, an advanced life form (likely some AI driven cyborg, but let’s not go there) will remark, “human beings were forever ensnared in a feedback loop, possessing both the ability and inability to be think critically – to be 100% objective.”
Until we become that, we must be humble enough, I think, to realize the built in biases we possess, and challenge them repeatedly as we strive to being better at being human. Here are 3 actions from my book to improve your critical thinking competency.
Reason: Argue the reason why you should or should not proceed in a preferred direction. Consider too, the passengers you are taking with you.
Conceptualize: Think beyond the obvious. Give a label to a situation in which you are involved, writing it in the centre of the page. Scatter all related inputs and outputs, in single words around it. Start seeing all the visible and hidden parts.
Detect: As you think through a sticky situation, seek to detect the underlying needs present for all people involved.
As with all 8 pillar competencies, and the central tenet of competency based living, those who choose to become more competent are committing to lifelong learning and constant improvement, grounded by the humility that they will never “perfect” any one competency. Rather, they acknowledge, and embrace a constant state of improvement. Of being better at being human. Again, until robots rule the world.
Boynton, S. (2021, June 18). Nearly 20% of Canadians still hesitant or refusing to get COVID-19 vaccine: poll. Retrieved from Global News: https://globalnews.ca/news/7960345/covid-canada-vaccine-hesitancy-poll/
Brumfiel, G. (2021, April 7). Vaccine Refusal May Put Herd Immunity At Risk, Researchers Warn. Retrieved from Shots: Health News From NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/04/07/984697573/vaccine-refusal-may-put-herd-immunity-at-risk-researchers-warn
Dolan, E. (2021, June 3). New study indicates conspiracy theory believers have less developed critical thinking abilities. Retrieved from Psypost: https://www.psypost.org/2021/07/new-study-indicates-conspiracy-theory-believers-have-less-developed-critical-thinking-ability-61347
Thomson, D. (2021, May 3). Millions Are Saying No to the Vaccines. What Are They Thinking? Retrieved from The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/05/the-people-who-wont-get-the-vaccine/618765/