Drawing a Line Between Critical Thinking and Behavior

Blue LineCritical thinking is vital for progress. It really doesn’t matter whether the goal is overcoming obesity, COVID, or economic hardship. Rigorous, objective analysis allows us to recognize the truth of the situation we’re dealing with and then find solutions. But that’s not the end of the story, because the behavior that flows from critical thinking can bring social cohesion and constructive action. Or it can bring endless bickering and paralysis.

Right now, it feels like we’re getting more of the latter. Our tools and skills for finding faults are sharper than they are for building solutions. Social cohesion is at risk, says the World Economic Forum in a new report.

A Global Threat to Stability

In its Global Risks Report 2022, the Forum tells us that erosion of social cohesion is a big problem. In fact, it lies at the root of an inability to act effectively on any number of issues. Writing for Fast Company, Connie Lin explains:

“Social cohesion worsens upon rising divisions and polarization in society—as income inequalities are exacerbated by the pandemic’s lopsided recovery, for example, with 51 million people projected to live in extreme poverty by 2030 while billionaires grow richer than ever. Erosion also lurks in the fissures created by opposing viewpoints on vaccines and face-mask mandates, and in the rallying cries for long-awaited racial justice in historically oppressed communities.”

In simple terms, we are losing the skill for pulling together to solve big problems.

Coming Apart at the Seams

We are falling apart at the seams, writes David Brooks in the New York Times:

“Over the past several years, and over a wide range of different behaviors, Americans have been acting in fewer pro-social and relational ways and in more antisocial and self-destructive ways.”

Somehow, we have gotten really good at spotting what we don’t like and responding with hostility. Working in any kind of public or customer service has become hellish because of antisocial behavior.

The pandemic has people who don’t like masks or vaccines screaming at policymakers who want to promote them. It comes full circle when people who resist masks or vaccines get sick. They rouse the ire of people who might otherwise fancy themselves to be compassionate.

Dialing Down the Anger

All this anger is not getting us very far. Harold Pollack is a scholar of health policy and politics at the University of Chicago. He suggests this is an opportunity to learn from people with very different views:

“If we each take seriously why our counterparts are so incensed, we might at least use this pandemic to embrace our common humanity. We have the chance to recognize defects in our own worldviews. We can embrace the need for personal responsibility, even as we honor the need for restraint and forbearance when our fragile fellow citizens fall short of our own exacting standards.”

So yes, critical thinking is helpful for spotting problems, but when the behavior that flows from it becomes caustic, it gets in the way. In addition to thinking critically, we need to work on acting constructively.

Click here for the WEF Global Risks Report, here for more from David Brooks, and here for more from Harold Pollack.

Blue Line, painting by Georgia O’Keeffe / WikiArt

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January 16, 2022