Actively Open-minded Thinking

by Jonathan Baron

Colleges can improve students' thinking. We may be able to do this more effectively if we have a better idea of what we are doing. "We" means students and faculty: students apply standards of thinking to each other, just as faculty apply them to students and to other faculty. In early universities, the standards came from Aristotle. Logic was an essential part of the curriculum. We still sometimes criticize each other for begging the question, non sequitur, and other Aristotelian fallacies. Recent scholarship has given us a clearer idea of what good thinking is, where thinking goes wrong, and how education can help.

Thinking concerns the resolution of doubt about what to do, what to believe, or what to value. It consists of search and inference. (Logic concerns inference only.) When we think, we search for possibilities, which are ways of resolving the doubt; for evidence, which bears on the merit of the possibilities; and for relevant values, which allow us to evaluate the possibilities in the light of the evidence. In buying a car, the possibilities are cars (and perhaps other options such as the train), the evidence is about quality, safety, price, etc., and the values are what we care about, from avoiding hassle to minimizing pollution. During and after our search, we make inferences from what we have found. Possibilities strengthen and weaken, sometimes getting rejected or adopted.

In good thinking:

  1. search is sufficiently thorough for the question;

  2. search and inference are fair to all possibilities under consideration; and

  3. confidence is appropriate to the amount of search that has been done and the quality of the inferences made.

People often depart from good thinking by:

  1. searching too little when the issue is important (or too much when it is unimportant);

  2. searching and making inferences in a way that favors possibilities that are already strong or that the thinker wishes were adopted;

  3. having high confidence when this is not warranted by the search and inference that have been done.

Examples of these shortcomings are easy to find. Irving Janis, for example, has shown how just this sort of thinking has led to such fiascos as the Bay of Pigs invasion. Tom Gilovich has written a nice little book about overconfidence. Lots of psychology experiments show these kinds of problems, and some experiments show that they can be remedied, at least in the short term. Other studies show that undergraduate and graduate education have lasting effects on how people think, as well as on what they know.

Education can help by insisting on thorough and fair search, fair inference, and appropriate confidence. I call this actively open-minded thinking because we must work actively against wishful thinking and bias toward pet possibilities. Because good thinking involves competition among possibilities, evidence, and values, it is almost always quantitative, in the sense of weighing things against each other. When we pit safety against price, we must ask how much safety for how much price, and how much we care about each. Sometimes it may help to make the quantitative aspects explicit.

Actively open-minded thinking is fundamental to academic inquiry. When I submit a paper to a journal, the criticisms I get concern my failure to search--e.g., for opposing views in the literature or for alternative interpretations of my result--and they concern biased inference, such as dismissing discrepant results. We criticize students this way too.

In some of my classes, I explicitly try to encourage actively open- minded thinking. For example, I assign a reflective essay with the following suggested outline:

  1. Explain your question and why it is important.

  2. Present the most obvious answer or answers.

  3. . Consider less obvious alternatives, or objections to the obvious answers.

  4. Rebut the criticisms, or explain how the original answers can be modified to deal with them.

Many students have trouble with this, although some, not otherwise the best students, take to it easily. Good thinking is encouraged in other ways, e.g., by encouraging discussion in which alternative points of view are requested and debated. Even in grading exams, we can give credit for bringing up an alternative or a criticism. Most importantly, we can help students learn to think by telling them explicitly what our standards are and then acting consistently with these standards both in the classroom and when assigning grades.

Further reading

Baron, J. (1994). Thinking and deciding (2nd edition). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gilovich, T. (1991). How we know what isn't so: The fallibility of human reason in everyday life. New York: Free Press.

Janis, I. L. (1982). Groupthink: Psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascos. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Nisbett, R. E., Fong, G. T., Lehman, D. R., and Cheng, P. W. (1987). Teaching reasoning. Science, 238, 625--631.

The Talk About Teaching series was developed by the Lindback Society and the College of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Baron is a professor of psychology.


March 19, 1996
Volume 42 Number 24

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