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What Does Modern Day Psychology Emphasizes Critical Thinking

Socrates set the agenda for the tradition of critical thinking, namely, to reflectively question common beliefs and explanations, carefully distinguishing those beliefs that are reasonable and logical from those which — however appealing they may be to our native egocentrism, however much they serve our vested interests, however comfortable or comforting they may be — lack adequate evidence or rational foundation to warrant our belief.

Socrates’ practice was followed by the critical thinking of Plato (who recorded Socrates’ thought), Aristotle, and the Greek skeptics, all of whom emphasized that things are often very different from what they appear to be and that only the trained mind is prepared to see through the way things look to us on the surface (delusive appearances) to the way they really are beneath the surface (the deeper realities of life). From this ancient Greek tradition emerged the need, for anyone who aspired to understand the deeper realities, to think systematically, to trace implications broadly and deeply, for only thinking that is comprehensive, well-reasoned, and responsive to objections can take us beyond the surface.

In the Middle Ages, the tradition of systematic critical thinking was embodied in the writings and teachings of such thinkers as Thomas Aquinas (Sumna Theologica) who to ensure his thinking met the test of critical thought, always systematically stated, considered, and answered all criticisms of his ideas as a necessary stage in developing them. Aquinas heightened our awareness not only of the potential power of reasoning but also of the need for reasoning to be systematically cultivated and "cross-examined." Of course, Aquinas’ thinking also illustrates that those who think critically do not always reject established beliefs, only those beliefs that lack reasonable foundations.

In the Renaissance (15th and 16th Centuries), a flood of scholars in Europe began to think critically about religion, art, society, human nature, law, and freedom. They proceeded with the assumption that most of the domains of human life were in need of searching analysis and critique. Among these scholars were Colet, Erasmus, and Moore in England. They followed up on the insight of the ancients.

Francis Bacon, in England, was explicitly concerned with the way we misuse our minds in seeking knowledge. He recognized explicitly that the mind cannot safely be left to its natural tendencies. In his book The Advancement of Learning, he argued for the importance of studying the world empirically. He laid the foundation for modern science with his emphasis on the information-gathering processes. He also called attention to the fact that most people, if left to their own devices, develop bad habits of thought (which he called "idols") that lead them to believe what is false or misleading. He called attention to "Idols of the tribe" (the ways our mind naturally tends to trick itself), "Idols of the market-place" (the ways we misuse words), "Idols of the theater" (our tendency to become trapped in conventional systems of thought), and "Idols of the schools" (the problems in thinking when based on blind rules and poor instruction). His book could be considered one of the earliest texts in critical thinking, for his agenda was very much the traditional agenda of critical thinking.

Some fifty years later in France, Descartes wrote what might be called the second text in critical thinking, Rules For the Direction of the Mind. In it, Descartes argued for the need for a special systematic disciplining of the mind to guide it in thinking. He articulated and defended the need in thinking for clarity and precision. He developed a method of critical thought based on the principle of systematic doubt. He emphasized the need to base thinking on well-thought through foundational assumptions. Every part of thinking, he argued, should be questioned, doubted, and tested.

In the same time period, Sir Thomas Moore developed a model of a new social order, Utopia, in which every domain of the present world was subject to critique. His implicit thesis was that established social systems are in need of radical analysis and critique. The critical thinking of these Renaissance and post-Renaissance scholars opened the way for the emergence of science and for the development of democracy, human rights, and freedom for thought.

In the Italian Renaissance, Machiavelli’s The Prince critically assessed the politics of the day, and laid the foundation for modern critical political thought. He refused to assume that government functioned as those in power said it did. Rather, he critically analyzed how it did function and laid the foundation for political thinking that exposes both, on the one hand, the real agendas of politicians and, on the other hand, the many contradictions and inconsistencies of the hard, cruel, world of the politics of his day

Hobbes and Locke (in 16th and 17th Century England) displayed the same confidence in the critical mind of the thinker that we find in Machiavelli. Neither accepted the traditional picture of things dominant in the thinking of their day. Neither accepted as necessarily rational that which was considered "normal" in their culture. Both looked to the critical mind to open up new vistas of learning. Hobbes adopted a naturalistic view of the world in which everything was to be explained by evidence and reasoning. Locke defended a common sense analysis of everyday life and thought. He laid the theoretical foundation for critical thinking about basic human rights and the responsibilities of all governments to submit to the reasoned criticism of thoughtful citizens.

It was in this spirit of intellectual freedom and critical thought that people such as Robert Boyle (in the 17th Century) and Sir Isaac Newton (in the 17th and 18th Century) did their work. In his Sceptical Chymist, Boyle severely criticized the chemical theory that had preceded him. Newton, in turn, developed a far-reaching framework of thought which roundly criticized the traditionally accepted world view. He extended the critical thought of such minds as Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler. After Boyle and Newton, it was recognized by those who reflected seriously on the natural world that egocentric views of world must be abandoned in favor of views based entirely on carefully gathered evidence and sound reasoning.

Another significant contribution to critical thinking was made by the thinkers of the French Enlightenment: Bayle, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Diderot. They all began with the premise that the human mind, when disciplined by reason, is better able to figure out the nature of the social and political world. What is more, for these thinkers, reason must turn inward upon itself, in order to determine weaknesses and strengths of thought. They valued disciplined intellectual exchange, in which all views had to be submitted to serious analysis and critique. They believed that all authority must submit in one way or another to the scrutiny of reasonable critical questioning.

Eighteenth Century thinkers extended our conception of critical thought even further, developing our sense of the power of critical thought and of its tools. Applied to the problem of economics, it produced Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. In the same year, applied to the traditional concept of loyalty to the king, it produced the Declaration of Independence. Applied to reason itself, it produced Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

In the 19th Century, critical thought was extended even further into the domain of human social life by Comte and Spencer. Applied to the problems of capitalism, it produced the searching social and economic critique of Karl Marx. Applied to the history of human culture and the basis of biological life, it led to Darwin’s Descent of Man. Applied to the unconscious mind, it is reflected in the works of Sigmund Freud. Applied to cultures, it led to the establishment of the field of Anthropological studies. Applied to language, it led to the field of Linguistics and to many deep probings of the functions of symbols and language in human life.

In the 20th Century, our understanding of the power and nature of critical thinking has emerged in increasingly more explicit formulations. In 1906, William Graham Sumner published a land-breaking study of the foundations of sociology and anthropology,Folkways, in which he documented the tendency of the human mind to think sociocentrically and the parallel tendency for schools to serve the (uncritical) function of social indoctrination :

"Schools make persons all on one pattern, orthodoxy. School education, unless it is regulated by the best knowledge and good sense, will produce men and women who are all of one pattern, as if turned in a lathe. An orthodoxy is produced in regard to all the great doctrines of life. It consists of the most worn and commonplace opinions which are common in the masses. The popular opinions always contain broad fallacies, half-truths, and glib generalizations (p. 630).

At the same time, Sumner recognized the deep need for critical thinking in life and in education:

"Criticism is the examination and test of propositions of any kind which are offered for acceptance, in order to find out whether they correspond to reality or not. The critical faculty is a product of education and training. It is a mental habit and power. It is a prime condition of human welfare that men and women should be trained in it. It is our only guarantee against delusion, deception, superstition, and misapprehension of ourselves and our earthly circumstances. Education is good just so far as it produces well-developed critical faculty. A teacher of any subject who insists on accuracy and a rational control of all processes and methods, and who holds everything open to unlimited verification and revision, is cultivating that method as a habit in the pupils. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded. They are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence. They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices. Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens” (pp. 632, 633).

John Dewey agreed. From his work, we have increased our sense of the pragmatic basis of human thought (its instrumental nature), and especially its grounding in actual human purposes, goals, and objectives. From the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein we have increased our awareness not only of the importance of concepts in human thought, but also of the need to analyze concepts and assess their power and limitations. From the work of Piaget, we have increased our awareness of the egocentric and sociocentric tendencies of human thought and of the special need to develop critical thought which is able to reason within multiple standpoints, and to be raised to the level of "conscious realization." From the massive contribution of all the "hard" sciences, we have learned the power of information and the importance of gathering information with great care and precision, and with sensitivity to its potential inaccuracy, distortion, or misuse. From the contribution of depth-psychology, we have learned how easily the human mind is self-deceived, how easily it unconsciously constructs illusions and delusions, how easily it rationalizes and stereotypes, projects and scapegoats.

To sum up, the tools and resources of the critical thinker have been vastly increased in virtue of the history of critical thought. Hundreds of thinkers have contributed to its development. Each major discipline has made some contribution to critical thought. Yet for most educational purposes, it is the summing up of base-line common denominators for critical thinking that is most important. Let us consider now that summation.

The Common Denominators of Critical Thinking Are the Most Important By-products of the History of Critical Thinking

We now recognize that critical thinking, by its very nature, requires, for example, the systematic monitoring of thought; that thinking, to be critical, must not be accepted at face value but must be analyzed and assessed for its clarity, accuracy, relevance, depth, breadth, and logicalness. We now recognize that critical thinking, by its very nature, requires, for example, the recognition that all reasoning occurs within points of view and frames of reference; that all reasoning proceeds from some goals and objectives, has an informational base; that all data when used in reasoning must be interpreted, that interpretation involves concepts; that concepts entail assumptions, and that all basic inferences in thought have implications. We now recognize that each of these dimensions of thinking need to be monitored and that problems of thinking can occur in any of them.

The result of the collective contribution of the history of critical thought is that the basic questions of Socrates can now be much more powerfully and focally framed and used. In every domain of human thought, and within every use of reasoning within any domain, it is now possible to question:

  • ends and objectives,
  • the status and wording of questions,
  • the sources of information and fact,
  • the method and quality of information collection,
  • the mode of judgment and reasoning used,
  • the concepts that make that reasoning possible,
  • the assumptions that underlie concepts in use,
  • the implications that follow from their use, and
  • the point of view or frame of reference within which reasoning takes place.

In other words, questioning that focuses on these fundamentals of thought and reasoning are now baseline in critical thinking. It is beyond question that intellectual errors or mistakes can occur in any of these dimensions, and that students need to be fluent in talking about these structures and standards.

Independent of the subject studied, students need to be able to articulate thinking about thinking that reflects basic command of the intellectual dimensions of thought:  "Let’s see, what is the most fundamental issue here? From what point of view should I approach this problem? Does it make sense for me to assume this? From these data may I infer this? What is implied in this graph? What is the fundamental concept here? Is this consistent with that? What makes this question complex? How could I check the accuracy of these data? If this is so, what else is implied? Is this a credible source of information? Etc." (For more information on the basic elements of thought and basic intellectual criteria and standards, see Appendices C and D).

With intellectual language such as this in the foreground, students can now be taught at least minimal critical thinking moves within any subject field. What is more, there is no reason in principle that students cannot take the basic tools of critical thought which they learn in one domain of study and extend it (with appropriate adjustments) to all the other domains and subjects which they study. For example, having questioned the wording of a problem in math, I am more likely to question the wording of a problem in the other subjects I study.

As a result of the fact that students can learn these generalizable critical thinking moves, they need not be taught history simply as a body of facts to memorize; they can now be taught history as historical reasoning. Classes can be designed so that students learn to think historically and develop skills and abilities essential to historical thought. Math can be taught so that the emphasis is on mathematical reasoning. Students can learn to think geographically, economically, biologically, chemically, in courses within these disciplines. In principle, then, all students can be taught so that they learn how to bring the basic tools of disciplined reasoning into every subject they study. Unfortunately, it is apparent, given the results of this study, that we are very far from this ideal state of affairs. We now turn to the fundamental concepts and principles tested in standardized critical thinking tests.

{ Taken from the California Teacher Preparation for Instruction in Critical Thinking: Research Findings and Policy Recommendations: State of California, California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, Sacramento, CA, March 1997. Principal authors: Richard Paul, Linda Elder, and Ted Bartell }

The Science of Psychology

The Big Picture: Chapter Overview

Psychology is a science dedicated to the study of behavior and mental processes. In this chapter you are introduced to the history of this science, the types of research that are used in psychology, a variety of contemporary perspectives in psychology, and an explanation of the benefits of studying psychology.

There are three concepts important to the definition of psychology: science, behavior, and mental processes. Psychologists use scientific methods to observe, describe, predict, and explain behaviors and mental processes. Behaviors are actions that can be directly observed, while mental processes are experiences that cannot be observed directly, such as thoughts and feelings.

The history of psychology is rooted in philosophy, biology, and physiology. Charles Darwin strongly influenced the origins of psychology by proposing that humans are part of an evolutionary process he termed natural selection. This view led psychologists to consider the role of the environment and adaptation in psychology. In 1879, Wilhelm Wundt developed the first psychology laboratory. Wundt's approach, emphasized the importance of conscious thought and classification of the mind's structures. While Wundt and his adherents focused inside the mind, William James emphasized the functions of the mind in adapting to the environment.

Psychology is a science; therefore, it relies upon scientific research to study behaviors and mental processes. In comparison to personal observations and experiences, scientific research is systematic and usually requires collaboration among researchers. The scientific approach is characterized by four ideals: curiosity, skepticism, objectivity, and critical thinking. Embracing these attitudes or ideals increases the likelihood that psychological research will result in reliable and objective scientific findings.

Research in psychology is based on the scientific method and involves conceptualizing a problem, collecting data, analyzing the data, and drawing conclusions. In the process of conceptualizing the problem, the researcher chooses the research method that will better address the research topic. Psychologists rely on three basic types of research methods to perform their studies of behaviors and mental processes: descriptive, correlational, and experimental.

Descriptive methods involve systematic observations and recording of behaviors. The four types of descriptive methods discussed in Chapter One are observations, surveys and interviews, standardized tests, and case studies. Observations can take placed in natural settings or in laboratories. In naturalistic observation, the psychologist observes behavior in real-world settings and makes no attempt to manipulate or control the situation. However, many of the observations that take place in psychology occur in the laboratory, which gives the psychologist control over factors; for this reason, there are several drawbacks to this method, such as the unnatural behaviors that result from people knowing that they are being observed. An interview involves asking people questions to find out about their experiences and attitudes. One problem of interviewing people is the concern of participants to tell the interviewer what they think is socially acceptable or desirable. Surveys or questionnaires require subjects to read questions and mark their answers. Some psychologists observe behavior and mental processes by administering standardized tests. Standardized tests allow the researcher to measure some aspect of the participant's behaviors and/or mental processes, and compare each individual's outcome to others that have also performed the same test. The last descriptive method discussed in Chapter One is the case study, which provides an in-depth examination of a single individual, from which the results may not be easily generalized to other people.

The correlational method is basically a statistical procedure that allows the researcher to describe how strongly two or more events or characteristics are related. The correlation coefficient is a measure of the strength and direction of the relationship between the two factors. It is important to note that correlation does not equal causation, but can allow us to make predictions.

Unlike the correlational method, the experimental method allows psychologists to determine the causes of behaviors and mental processes. In an experiment, one or more factors are manipulated and all other factors held constant. The factor that is manipulated is called the independent variable. The behavior or mental process that is observed and measured in the experiment is called the dependent variable. In general terms, the goal of an experiment is to determine the extent to which the independent variable influences and causes the dependent variable. In experiments, researchers usually expose a number of participants to one level of the independent variable and others to another level. The group of participants whose experience is being manipulated is the known as the experimental group, while the comparison group is called the control group. In experimental research, participants are randomly assigned to experimental and control groups. One concern involves the experimenter's own bias influencing the outcome of the research; this is called experimenter bias. On the other hand, research may also be influenced by participant bias, where the research participants have beliefs about how they are expected to behave and behave according to their expectations. To control for these expectations, an experiment may be designed as a double-blind experiment, where neither the participant nor the experimenter know in which condition is the participant.

Contemporary psychologists approach the scientific study of behaviors and mental processes from a variety of perspectives and each perspective offers an important piece of the psychology puzzle. As we study these perspectives, we should keep in mind that all the approaches are valid and each has advantages and disadvantages.

Contemporary psychology perspectives can be classified into seven approaches:

  1. Behavioral Approach:
    1. Behaviorism. The leaders of this perspective, which dominated psychology during the first half of the 20th century, were John Watson and B. F. Skinner. The focus is on observable responses and environmental determinants.
    2. Social Cognitive Theory. A more recent development of the behaviorist approach, researched by Albert Bandura, integrates the role of environmental factors and mental processes in understanding behaviors.
  1. Psychodynamic Approach. Sigmund Freud developed this perspective that focuses on the role of unconscious influences on how we think and act. Early life experiences are considered important determinants of adult psychology in this approach.
  2. Cognitive Approach. The focus here is on mental processes with an emphasis on attention, perception, memory, thinking, and solving problems.
  3. Behavioral Neuroscience Approach. This approach studies the biological basis of behavior and mental process, specifically focusing on the role of the nervous system.
  4. Evolutionary Psychology Approach. This perspective focuses on the adaptive aspects of our psychology, how adapting to the demands of our environment has shaped our repertoire of behaviors and mental processes.
  5. Sociocultural Approach. This perspective recognizes that social and cultural contexts influence our psychology, this is, how we act, think, and feel.
  6. Humanistic Movement and Positive Psychology. The humanistic approach was proposed in the middle of the 20th century. This movement was led by Maslow and Rogers. They emphasized the free will of people and their capacity for understanding and solving their own challenges. The positive psychology movement emerged at the beginning of the 21st century and attempts to promote the study of positive psychological phenomena such as creativity, optimism, and effective social relations.

Studying psychology can help you become a wise consumer of information about psychology. The process of thinking reflectively and productively and then evaluating the evidence is called critical thinking. Critical thinkers are open-minded, intellectually curious and careful, and look for multiple explanations. People who learn about psychological research through the media also need to distinguish between group results and individual needs. Wise consumers of psychological information also avoid generalizing from a small sample and look for answers beyond a single study. You should also avoid attributing cause where none has been found, and consider the source of psychological information.

Getting the most out of this course will strongly depend on the studying strategies that you use. Based on psychological research, here are some strategies that make studying more effective. Chart monthly, weekly, and daily the class-related tasks, such as tests, and schedule the time that will be dedicated to studying. Distribute your study sessions across time--learning takes time. Minimize distractions while studying. Get an overall idea of the content of a chapter before you start reading the specifics (it would be a good idea to read this section, The Big Picture: Chapter Overview in the Study Guide, before you start reading each chapter in the textbook). Make an effort to apply the reading material to your personal experience, as these associations will increase the chances that you will remember the material in the future. Finally, review! Use alternative methods to revisit the material, such as doing the exercises at the end of the chapter, visiting the online resources that accompany the textbook, and testing yourself with the Study Guide exercises.

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