Critical thinking skills: the antidote to cognitive bias

White blocks with an image of a head in read transposed on top of them scattered on a pick background, representing critical thinking.

Key takeaways

  • In our hyper-digitalised world, the amount of information we have access to makes us more susceptible to cognitive biases, in particular, to availability bias.
  • The digital sources from which we access information also have the potential to be biased, or simply false!
  • Examples of common biases include: the framing effect, confirmation bias, and availability bias.
  • Critical thinking is one of the ways we can recognise, and prevent, cognitive biases.
  • Encouraging your team members to develop critical thinking skills can enhance business outcomes, such as better decision-making, improved creativity and innovation, and the establishment of a psychologically safe environment.

In today’s digital age, sifting through a sea of information to find the truth can feel like searching for a needle in a haystack, right? And let’s face it, our brains aren’t always the most reliable navigators – they tend to veer off course with cognitive biases, often leading to some less than sound decisions. In fact, studies show that managers make biased decisions more than 50% of the time. Scary, isn’t it? This can spell trouble for organisations, from promoting unfair practices to putting the brakes on innovation and creativity.

But fear not! There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. By championing critical thinking skills, you can empower your team to question assumptions and see past their own biases.

This blog is your guide to recognising the common biases your team might face, understanding why critical thinking is so crucial, and discovering practical ways to weave it into your learning strategy.

The power of critical thinking skills

Critical thinking skills are one of the most in-demand skills in the labour market sector and are predicted to be the most sought-after skill by 2025, according to the World Economic Forum. Despite this, critical thinking skills are declining worldwide, especially among the younger (Gen Z and millennial) workforce.  

Developing critical thinking is even more essential in today’s environment. With so many sources of information at our finger tips, it can be all too easy to search a question, and immediately accept the rapidly generated answer. Yet the myriad sources of information available to us can create a perfect storm for cognitive biases to take hold, and our connection to factual information to waver.  

Biases are a risk! Organisations that lack critical thinking skills are more prone to accepting false information and making potentially harmful assumptions based on cognitive biases. For businesses to stay agile in dynamic times, they need to build organisations that are led by proactive thinkers, able to evaluate information, and come up with well-researched and balanced judgements based on facts, rather than assumptions. 

But the first step on the journey towards achieving this is building awareness. Learning to recognise the traps of cognitive biases, means we are less likely to fall into them. 

What are heuristics?

You might have heard of cognitive biases, but have you heard of heuristics? Heuristics comes from the Greek word ‘to discover’ and was discovered in 1974, by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman.  

Heuristics are an adaptive mechanism used by our brain to cope with the huge amount of information it deals with on a day-to-day basis. They are mental shortcuts based on information stored and gathered by our brains, allowing us to make instant decisions, and reduce cognitive load. In this way, our brain cleverly delegates mental resources to other areas that might need more energy and time. 

Despite heuristics being a huge help to our brain, they can leave us susceptible to cognitive biases, a systematic error that can lead to us making false judgements or decisions based on non-factual information. 

Why are we more susceptible to cognitive biases than ever before?

In a hyper-digitalised world, we’re more susceptible to bias than ever before. We generally start our day with a healthy dose of screen time. Perhaps you automatically look at your phone as soon as you wake up, or you log on to your laptop at 7am to check your emails.  

It’s inevitable that in a digital world our days are punctuated by screens. In fact, the average person spends a whopping 6 hours and 37 minutes of screen time per day, across different platforms and devices. This can leave us susceptible to numerous cognitive biases.

The 5 most common types of cognitive biases

Here are the five most common cognitive biases that your team are susceptible to:

  1. Availability bias 
  2. Media bias 
  3. The framing effect 
  4. AI bias
  5. Confirmation bias 

Let’s uncover how to recognise each one, and then dive in to some ways we can prevent them below.

1. Availability bias

Our numerous touchpoints to the digital world means we are more accessible to information than ever before. A breaking news story or even a simple piece of gossip can sweep our screens, leaving us susceptible to the availability bias. 

The availability bias is the mental shortcut our brains make when it uses information that is most easily available to us to make decisions. This may be a prominent or memorable recent event, a significant personal experience, or information fuelled by outside sources such as media or the news. 

Just think about all of the ways you glean information every day. Televisions, newspapers, phones, social media, radio, neighbours, friendship groups, the possibility is endless.  

The prevalence of the availability bias is heightened by this connection to our devices. Whilst 20 years ago, our information might have come from two main sources — perhaps a daily newspaper and the 6pm televised news broadcast, we are now more connected than ever before. The time we spend on our screens facilitates greater exposure to information and it increases its potential influence on us. 

But what if this information we consume across these platforms is in itself is biased — or, worse still, just plain false? As we’ve just learnt, new information now has the potential to be amplified on a massive scale even if it isn’t correct. Plus, when our confirmation bias latches on to this we can end up believing potentially damaging or false information. Even the term ‘fake news’-  increased in use by 365% between the years 2016-2017 alone, and a study found that 42.8% of people admit to sharing inaccurate news stories. 

2. Media bias 

Today’s news stories favour not only those with the loudest, most emotion-inducing headlines, but they are also often sensationalised to accentuate their emotional effect. Media bias refers to the bias that occurs when journalists and news producers show bias in how they report and cover news. 

Our papers are led by negative or sensational coverage, and while we may be led to believe this is an accurate coverage of events, in reality, it’s no more than a snapshot. 

In fact, the effects of selective reporting can be serious. This was highlighted in a study, which found that the public generally view their risk of certain cancers which are more represented in the news as higher than those which are less represented, leading to skewed beliefs about an individual’s relative risk. Worryingly, the study found this then influenced the person’s behaviour, and in turn how they managed their health. 

3. The framing effect

Framing describes how choices presented to us in different settings, situations and wordings affects our perception of the information.  

Framing is all around us, and unwittingly shapes our perceptions of others, and sometimes causing us to make harmful judgements or stereotypes.  

This bias may be apparent in the way media reports on certain groups, the associations they make between them, or the language they use. For example, youth groups are often described using words such as entitled, lazy, and irresponsible, leading society to have a negative perception of the younger generation. 

4. AI bias 

In a world where we’re becoming more reliant on AI, what happens when these digital workplace companions turn out to be biased? Yes, even AI, often thought of as impartial, can make us even more susceptible to bias!  

After all, programmes such as ChatGPT are only based on information and data that humans have themselves inputted. And if those humans have unknowingly inputted biased data, the chatbot amplifies the bias by reproducing the information again and again, tapping into our availability heuristic, so we inadvertently contribute to the spread of false information.  

Recent research has revealed that ChatGPT is  politically biased. Research from the University of East Anglia has revealed that it actually favours left-wing political views

5. Confirmation bias 

Let’s introduce our final bias, confirmation bias. You’re probably interacting with it every day without even knowing! Look straight at your social media ‘for you’ page and you’ll see it’s peppered with posts containing content that you know and love.  

But with the average person spending 143 minutes per day on social media, we are at risk of getting trapped in an echo chamber of our own making. And while an echo chamber of your favourite beauty product or puppy videos might not be too harmful, it turns more sinister when toxic viewpoints or news stories flood our media pages.  

Social media algorithms can amplify the idea, igniting the spark of an idea into a bombardment of content that reinforces the harmful concept. And with the amazing ability for social media to connect us with like-minded individuals across the world, it’s even easier to cement ourselves into an echo chamber as we meet people who share and confirm our views. 

In fact, confirmation bias has been shown to play a large part in shaping the outcome of elections. Left/right-wing supporters will engage with content that aligns with their political views, connect with individuals in similar parties, and the algorithm serves them a healthy dose of more of the same content, that serves to reinforce their views. Take this to the other end, and this can eventually lead to polarisation, and radicalisation. 

Developing critical thinking skills

Once we become aware of our susceptibility to cognitive biases, it can seem like we’re walking a tightrope, desperately trying to stay balanced on the line of objective judgement without falling back into our old ways of subjective thinking.  

Forming our own opinions can sometimes feel a lot like going against the tide, with waves of information desperate to pull us in different directions. Yet, there is a certain power in being able to take back control of our own judgements, and rediscover the skill of independent thinking. The secret to it all comes down to critical thinking. 

When we begin to form critical thinking skills, we take away the power of unconscious biases to shape our judgements and perspectives. Any scientist will be familiar with the process of critical appraisal — the methods of analysing and examining a conclusion to judge the accuracy and trustworthiness of the results. If we could take a magnifying glass to our mind, and similarly scrutinise our own judgements, we might be able to eliminate the effects of our biases. 

Shift your thinking from system 1 to system 2

Did you know you have two systems of thinking? 

Your system 1 thinking is your automatic mind. That fast, efficient system that we’re so familiar with from our heuristics explanation. Think about how you might subconsciously read text on an advertising billboard, or automatically tie your shoelaces. 

Your system 2 thinking is our slow, logical thought mode. It takes more mental effort and requires our constant attention. This is the camp critical thinking falls into. 

Organisations that encourage system 2 thinking will create more rational, analytical, and deliberate decision-making. It can even help boost creativity and promote innovation. 

So, where should we begin? 

5 steps to develop your critical thinking skills

1. Question 

Questioning is at the heart of critical thinking. 

Albert Einstein famously said: “The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has it’s own reason for existing.” 

Take a moment to question your opinions and judgements. Where have they come from? Is there any evidence to back them up? What factors may be influencing them?  Don’t muddle an assumption with a fact. Take time to assess which judgements may need re-evaluating.  

2. Evaluate   

Allow incoming information to go under the microscope- and have some key questions in the back of your mind. Is the source of this information reliable? Is there any voices missing? What’s an alternative way to look at the information? 

Like tentatively testing the ice before you place your full weight on it, give your information a full critique before forming any judgements or opinions. 

3. Remain open-minded 

This means processing information from multiple angles, sources, points of view and voices. Having as wide a variety of information as possible is key to forming a balanced judgement. 

4. Actively listen

Practice your active listening skills. Go into any conversation and leave your pre-made judgements and assumptions at the door. This will help you utilise as many opinions and diverse viewpoints as possible. 

5. Build awareness 

Start tuning in to the hum of your brain. Cognitive biases can form a background noise that we eventually tune out of. By building awareness of WHAT your biases are, you can then start to tackle them. The good news is, you’ve already started on the first step of this! 

4 practical exercises to develop your team’s critical thinking skills

Here are four practical exercises you can put in place: 

1. Collaboration 

Encourage weekly collaboration sessions into your team. Create a psychologically safe environment for discussion and idea sharing, and you’ll find you foster diverse conversations and viewpoints. 

2. Argument mapping 

Take the main assumption or argument being made. It could be something simple such as ‘our target audience is mainly 30 years old, and female’. Map out the assumptions, sources and supporting reasons for your argument. Evaluate its strength and validity, and revise and refine your assumption based on your evaluation. 

3. Socratic questioning 

This is a method designed by Greek philosopher Socrates. Socrates believed that true wisdom comes from recognising the limitations of our own knowledge and seeking out others viewpoints and perspectives. The method uses open-ended questions to challenge assumptions. Some examples of questions you could use are: 

  • Why do I believe this? 
  • What evidence supports my opinion? 
  • What would be an alternative to my opinion? 
  • What assumptions have I made? 
  • What are the effects of my judgement? 

4. Break free of echo chambers 

Diversify your news and social media feed to include a wide range of information stories. Some great places to start are: 

  • The happy news paper: This digital newspaper is designed to bring you positive news stories, celebrating the positive events taking place across the world. 
  • Humans of New York: This website tells the stories of thousands of people on the streets of New York, reminding us that everyone has a story to tell, and the importance of breaking down assumptions. 
  • Reuters: This is an unbiased news site, focused on fact-based coverage, from a wide variety of journalists around the world. They believe in the power of news and the importance of an informed public. 

Do you want to learn more about cognitive biases?

Our ‘Unconscious bias’ workshop allows participants to dig deep in to their unconscious biases, and reflect on where they might present themselves, and how to reduce the risk of these biases negatively impacting the workplace.

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