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Illogical Thinking And Critical Thinking


From Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, Winter, 1996. Vol. XVI, No. 2.

by Linda Elder

Emotional intelligence is a topic that is attracting a considerable amount of popular attention. Some of the discussion is, in my view, superficial and misleading. In this paper, I shall focus on the problems inherent in the manner in which the idea of emotional intelligence is being conceptualized and presented. The main questions I am concerned with are: Does it make sense to speak of emotions as being intelligent or not? If so, is there such a thing as "emotional intelligence?" And if so, how does it relate to critical thinking?

I shall argue that it does make sense to speak of emotions as being, in some given context or other, "intelligent" or not, and, consequently, that it does make sense to speak of emotional intelligence. However, I will also suggest that the way the concept of emotional intelligence is now being popularized — by psychologist Daniel Goleman (1995), in his book Emotional Intelligence — is fundamentally flawed.

Once some preliminary distinctions are set out, I will focus on a conceptualization of the mind, its functions, and primary motivators, including a brief analysis of the relationship between thoughts, emotions and desires.
I will then develop a critical analysis of the primary theoretical views of Goleman.

Some Preliminary Distinctions

What is intelligence? In Standard English usage ’intelligence’ is understood as "the ability to learn or understand from experience or to respond successfully to new experiences"; "the ability to acquire and retain knowledge (Webster’s New World Dictionary)." Its possession implies the use of reason or intellect in solving problems and directing conduct.

What is emotion or feeling? In standard usage, the term ’emotion’ is used to designate "a state of consciousness having to do with the arousal of feelings (Webster’s New World Dictionary)." It is "distinguished from other mental states, from cognition, volition, and awareness of physical sensation." Feeling refers to "any of the subjective reactions, pleasant or unpleasant" that one may experience in a situation.

Given these understandings, how might "emotional intelligence" be provisionally conceptualized? Most simply, emotional intelligence can reasonably be conceived as a measure of the degree to which a person successfully (or unsuccessfully) applies sound judgment and reasoning to situations in the process of determining emotional or feeling responses to those situations. It would entail, then, the bringing of (cognitive) intelligence to bear upon emotions. It would encompass both positive and negative emotions. It would be a measure of the extent to which our affective responses were "rationally" based. A person with a high degree of emotional intelligence would be one who responded to situations with feeling states that "made good sense," given what was going on in those situations. Appropriately generated feeling states would serve as a motivation to pursue reasonable behavior or action. Emerging naturally out of "rational" emotions would be "rational" desires and "rational" behavior.

Now let us consider how critical thinking fits into this picture. What is critical thinking and how might it relate to "the bringing of intelligence to bear on emotions?" If we provisionally understand critical thinking as Robert Ennis defines it, namely, as "rational reflective thinking concerned with what to do or believe," then it clearly implicitly implies the capacity to bring reason to bear on emotions, if for no other reason than that our emotions and feelings are deeply inter involved with our beliefs and actions. For example, if I FEEL fear, it is because I BELIEVE that I am being threatened. Therefore I am likely to attack or flee. More on this point later.

I shall argue that critical thinking cannot successfully direct our beliefs and actions unless it continually assesses not simply our cognitive abilities, but also our feeling or emotion states, as well as our implicit and explicit drives and agendas.

I shall argue, in other words, that critical thinking provides the crucial link between intelligence and emotions in the "emotionally intelligent" person. Critical thinking, I believe, is the only plausible vehicle by means of which we could bring intelligence to bear upon our emotional life. It is critical thinking I shall argue, and critical thinking alone, which enables us to take active command of not only our thoughts, but our feelings, emotions, and desires as well. It is critical thinking which provides us with the mental tools needed to explicitly understand how reasoning works, and how those tools can be used to take command of what we think, feel, desire, and do.

Through critical thinking, as I understand it, we acquire a means of assessing and upgrading our ability to judge well. In enables us to go into virtually any situation and to figure out the logic of whatever is happening in that situation. It provides a way for us to learn from new experiences through the process of continual self-assessment. Critical thinking, then, enables us to form sound beliefs and judgments, and in doing so, provides us with a basis for a "rational and reasonable" emotional life.

When searching for the ingredients necessary for a highly rational life, it is therefore crucial not to underestimate the role of the affective dimension of mind. To engage in high quality reasoning, one must have not only the cognitive ability to do so, but the drive to do so as well. One must feel the importance of doing so, and thus be driven to acquire command of the art of high quality reasoning. What is more, it is evident that to learn to solve problems effectively, one must have the desire to do so. One must be committed to it. Thus the affective dimension, comprised of feelings and volition, is a necessary condition and component of high quality reasoning and problem solving. Every "defect" in emotion and drive creates a "defect" in thought and reason. Intelligence on this view, then, presupposes and requires command of the affective dimension of mind. In short, the truly intelligent person is not a disembodied intellect functioning in an emotional wasteland, but a deeply committed mindful person, full of passion and high values, engaged in effective reasoning, sound judgment, and wise conduct.

A Practical Theory of Mind

Given these foundational understandings, I will now provide a brief outline of my understanding of the mind and its functions. Before I do so, I want to point out that this theory of mind, as I conceive it, is an intellectual one, serving an intellectual agenda, and is not intended to compete with a psychological theory of mind serving a psychological agenda or with any other theory of mind serving some alternative agenda. I am ultimately concerned with developing a theory of mind that enables "ordinary" persons to effectively take charge of their thinking, intellectually speaking, and by that means to take charge of the quality of their lives.

The human mind, as I understand it, is comprised, at minimum, of three basic functions: cognition, feelings, and volition. The cognitive component of the mind includes mental actions we traditionally link with "thinking" such as analyzing, comparing, assuming, inferring, questioning, contrasting, evaluating, etc. The cognitive function is concerned with conceptualizing, reasoning, and figuring things out.

The feeling (or emotional) function is that part of the mind which is our internal monitor, which informs us of how we are doing in any given situation or set of circumstances. It is our gauge for telling us whether we are doing well or poorly. Because we are emotionally complex, humans experience a broad array of emotions from happiness to sadness, from enthusiasm to depression, from joy to sorrow, from satisfaction to frustration, and so on.

The third function of the mind, our ultimate driving force, is the formation of volition or will. Within this function lie our agendas, purposes, goals, values, desires, drives, motivations and commitments. This is the mind’s engine, which revs us up and moves us forward toward some action, slows us down, or leads us to back away from some action. As our driving force, desires, volition, and play a key role in determining our behavior.

These three basic mental functions, albeit theoretically distinct, operate in a dynamic relationship to each other, ever influencing one another in mutual and reciprocal ways. Thus, although they serve different roles, they are concomitant. They function so intimately in our experience that it is only theoretically that we can regard them distinctively. Wherever there is thinking, some related drive and feeling exist. Wherever there is feeling, some related thinking and drive can be found. Wherever there is drive, thinking and feeling are present in some form.

Despite the fact that cognition, feeling and volition are equally important functions of the mind, it is cognition, or thinking, which is the key to the other two. If we want to change a feeling, we must identify the thinking that ultimately leads to the feeling. If we want to change a desire, again it is the thinking underlying the drive that must be identified and altered--if our behavior is to alter.

It is our thinking that, in the last analysis, leads us toward or away from some action, and in the last analysis sets us up for some given emotional evaluation of the situation. For example, if I THINK that the class structure I have designed for my students will enable them to thoroughly grasp the key concepts in the course, I will then experience an emotional evaluation of some kind when I try the structure out on my students. If it works, I will FEEL satisfied. If it doesn’t I may feel disappointed. Furthermore, I will be MOTIVATED toward or away from some action based on the thinking that I do in the situation. If my classroom structure fails to lead to the thinking that I want students to be doing, I may be MOTIVATED to improve the structure so that it works better to achieve my original purpose. Such motivation is based on my THINKING that classroom structures can always be improved and that to develop as a teacher involves continually reevaluating my class plans.

On the other hand, if I THINK that students are generally lazy, and that nothing I can do will improve their ability to learn, I will be content with my old classroom structures (and not be MOTIVATED to improve them), and I will FEEL satisfied with my teaching methods.

Two Contrary Tendencies of the Human Mind

While the human mind inherently includes cognition, feelings, and drives as basic inter-influencing functions, the triad itself can be under the sway of two contrary tendencies of the human mind, the tendency of the mind to gravitate toward egocentrism, or the tendency of the mind to take into account a more comprehensive, and more "rational" view. What do I mean by this? Let me explain.
Every human being enters the world with an initial motivation to have its way and to get what it wants, and thus "naturally" sees the world as designed to cater to its desires. This fact is apparent when we observe the behavior of young children. Their unfailing motto: "It’s mine!" As we grow older, we learn methods for getting our way, which are much less blatant and thus less obvious to the untrained eye. These methods can be quite sophisticated, but are often still fundamentally egocentric or self-serving. Throughout our lives, our own desires and narrow interests are typically in the foreground of our thinking.

As we mature, we learn multiple ways to manipulate others, to influence or control others to get what we want. We even learn how to deceive ourselves as to the egocentrism of our behavior. We have no difficulty coming to conceptualize ourselves as fair-minded, empathetic, kind, generous, thoughtful, and considerate, as concerned, in short, with other persons. We recognize that it is socially unacceptable to be blatantly egocentric. Nevertheless, that outward appearance of concern for others is often just that, an outward posture that enables us to think well of ourselves as we, in fact, pursue narrow selfish interests.

Nevertheless, however egocentric we may in fact become, we have, in addition, a capacity to go beyond it. For example, we unfailingly recognize the destructiveness of the egocentrism of others when in their selfish pursuits they violate our rights or needs. We can all therefore conceive of the considerate, the fair-minded, the "rational" person. We all approve of non-egocentric thinking in others.

The result is a kind of dualism in us: our selfish, egocentric side, on the one hand, and our capacity to recognize higher values on the other. These two sides each can have a role in influencing our thoughts, feelings, and desires. What is more, because we become facile self-deceivers, it is often not clear to us when we are acting in an egocentric manner.

Think of the husband who controls his wife through threat of physical force, and who deceives himself into believing that such physical punishment is "for her own good." Think of the wife who manipulates her husband to get what she wants, while deceiving herself into believing that "what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him." Think of the politician who claims to believe in one thing, but after being elected, behaves according to an opposing belief (who in the first instance deceives himself into believing that whatever half-truths he tells during the election campaign are of no consequence, that they are simply necessary evils for getting elected). Think of the student more interested in “getting an A” than in learning, who deceives herself into believing that getting A’s in her courses is more important than learning. All of these are examples of egocentric thinking, thinking which is fundamentally driven by our selfish, self-validating desires.

In the pursuit of self-preservation and self-interest, egocentric thinking has certain identifiable hallmarks. It is often marked by rigid, inflexible habits of thought. Moreover, seeing the world in a self-serving way, it routinely distorts information and ignores relevant information when working through a problem or issue. In other words it relates to the world according to an inherently self-validating structure, recognizing that which it wants to recognize and ignoring that which it finds "uncomfortable."

Certain predictable emotional reactions are typically a product of egocentric thinking. Emotions that are commonly egocentric include defensiveness, irritability, arrogance, anger, apathy, indifference, alienation, resentment, and depression. Of course, to determine whether a particular emotion is irrational or rational, one must look closely at the thinking that ultimately drives that emotion, not at the emotion in-and-of itself.

Tendencies Toward Rationality

Although we often approach the world through irrational, egocentric tendencies, we are also capable, as I have suggested, of developing a "higher" sense of identity. We are capable of becoming non-egocentric people, both intellectually and "morally." Science itself exists only because of the capacity of humans thinking in a non-egocentric fashion--intellectually speaking. Moral concepts, in turn, exist, only because of the human capacity to conceive of responsibilities that by their very nature presuppose a transcendence of a narrow moral egocentrism.

At a minimum, then, I envision the human mind as utilizing its three basic functions (thought, feeling, and desire) as tools of either egocentric or non-egocentric tendencies, both intellectually and morally. If I am correct, then, the human mind is easily "split" into contrary drives. However, the contrary drives that exist in people are not best understood as social stereotype often has it, between the "emotional" and the "intellectual." Rather, the contrary drives occur between egocentric and non-egocentric tendencies of mind.

Contradicting the Standard Stereotypes

As you can see, the theory of mind I have been focused on is inconsistent with certain stereotypes and common misconceptions about the relationship between cognition and affect. For example, it is common for people to say things that imply:

  • that their emotions and reason are often in conflict with each other,
  • that emotion and reason function independently of each other,
  • that it is possible to be an emotional person (and hence do little reasoning),
  • that it is possible to be a rational person (and hence experience little emotion)
  • that rational persons are cold, mechanical, and lack such desirable traits as compassion and sympathy,
  • that emotional persons are lively, energetic, and colorful (though they are poor reasoners or do not follow their reasoning when making decisions),
  • In this view one must give up the possibility of a rich emotional life if one decides to become a rational person,
  • Likewise, one must give up rationality if one is to live life as a passionate, highly motivated person would.

These ways of talking do not, in my view, make sense of who and what we are. Rather they support a myth that is an albatross on all our thinking about who and what we are. They lead us away from realizing that there is thinking that underlies our emotions and the emotions that drive our thinking. They lead us to think of thought and emotion as if they were oil and water, rather than inseparable constituents of human cognition. They lead us to think that there is nothing we can do to control our emotional life, when in fact there is much we can do. I shall spell out my conception of that "control" as I critique Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman.

Critical Analysis of Emotional Intelligence

At this point let us turn to Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence. My overview of the book is that it provides a useful reminder of the importance of emotions in human life and of the fact that our emotions are intimately connected with cognitive matters, with thinking, in short. However, it is also my view that in his rush to make sense of the results of the data of brain research, Goleman inadvertently often becomes the unwitting perpetuator of social stereotypes about the relationship between emotion and reason.

To begin, Goleman’s book is that of the popularizer, not that of the theoretician. He writes in a style that is zippy, catchy, and appealing. His book is written in the style of an experience journalist. On a casual first read, one might come away with the impression that it is well integrated and internally consistent. Unfortunately, however, it is not.

Despite his frequent appeal to "brain research," the bulk of his book is interpretative rather than "factual." Or to put it another way, he blends his own interpretations so much with data from empirical research that one is apt to think that his interpretations of the data implicit in the studies he quotes are equivalent to data themselves. Nowhere does he call to our attention that he is doing much more than simply reporting. Nowhere does he call attention to the fact that he is continually construing what he is reporting in a direction.

Before I go further, however, let me emphasize that there are genuine insights in his work. First, he is keenly sensitive to the important role that emotions play in our lives. Secondly, he recognizes, and rightly so, that there is an "emotional" dimension to intelligence. Thirdly, he articulates a number of useful strategies for improving our emotional lives, suggestions gleaned from the research he has canvassed.

The Problem of Translating From Brain to Mind

Goleman is concerned to help us achieve insights into human emotions and their relationship to the intellectual dimension of human functioning. He is concerned to give us insights into our minds. However, the basis for his conclusions about how the human functions is almost entirely that of a variety of studies that could loosely be called "brain" research. At the outset, we should question the move from data and interpretations based on research into the brain to conclusions about the mind.
In the first place, we have almost an unlimited source of data about the human mind available to us--from the multiple products that the human mind has produced.

What am I thinking of? For one, all the human disciplines are constructs of human minds: biology, chemistry, geology, physics, mathematics, history, anthropology, linguistics, etc. Anything we can say about the human mind must be consistent with its being able to create such monumental constructs.

Secondly, the human mind creates such diverse things as poems, novels, plays, dances, paintings, religions, social systems, families, cultures, and traditions--a truly amazing array of constructs.

Thirdly, human minds routinely interpret, experience, plan, question, formulate agendas, laugh, argue, guess, assess, assume, clarify, make inferences, judge, project, create models, form theories--to mention a few of the myriad things that human minds routinely do. Furthermore, the role of the affective dimension, of feelings and desires, in forming these mental constructs cannot be underestimated.
Fourthly, insights into the relationship between cognition and affect can be gleaned from intellectual fields such as sociology, anthropology and psychology, as well as from fields such as literature, through the great works of authors such as Jane Austin, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, to name but a few.

Recognizing something of this full range of things that human minds can do is essential before we come to conclusions about the human mind based on data from brain research alone. Or, to put the point another way, we should remember that however we translate from brain research data to functioning of the mind, the interpretation we come to must be consistent with everything we already know about the mind and its multiple modes of functioning and creating. This is precisely where Goleman fails. He talks about the mind as if brain research were somehow our best source of information about it. In fact, he states “the place of feeling in mental life has been surprisingly slighted by research over the years…now science is finally able to speak with authority...to map with some precision the human heart (p. xi).” Goleman shows no awareness of the massive quantity of information and knowledge already existing that is implicit in the existent products of minds.

"Critical thinking is a desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; and hatred for every kind of imposture." - Francis Bacon (1605)

As parents, we are tasked with instilling a plethora of different values into our children. While some parents in the world choose to instill a lack of values in their kids, those of us that don't want our children growing up to be criminals and various misfits try a bit harder. Values and morality are one piece of the pie. These are important things to mold into a child's mind, but there are also other items in life to focus on as well. It starts with looking both ways to cross the street and either progresses from there, or stops.

If you stopped explaining the world to your children after they learned to cross the street, then perhaps you should stop reading and go back to surfing for funny pictures of cats. I may use some larger words that you might not understand, making you angry and causing you to leave troll-like comments full of bad grammar and moronic thought processes. However, if you looked at the crossing the street issue as I did – as a logical problem with cause and effect and a probable solution – then carry on. You are my target audience.

Or perhaps the opposite is true, as the former are the people that could benefit from letting some critical thinking into their lives. So what exactly is critical thinking? This bit by Linda Elder in a paper on CriticalThinking.org pretty much sums it up:

Through critical thinking, as I understand it, we acquire a means of assessing and upgrading our ability to judge well. It enables us to go into virtually any situation and to figure out the logic of whatever is happening in that situation. It provides a way for us to learn from new experiences through the process of continual self-assessment. Critical thinking, then, enables us to form sound beliefs and judgments, and in doing so, provides us with a basis for a 'rational and reasonable' emotional life. — Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, Winter, 1996. Vol. XVI, No. 2.

The rationality of the world is what is at risk. Too many people are taken advantage of because of their lack of critical thinking, logic and deductive reasoning. These same people are raising children without these same skills, creating a whole new generation of clueless people.

To wit, a personal tale of deductive reasoning:

Recently I needed a new transmission for the family van. The warranty on the power train covers the transmission up to 100,000 miles. The van has around 68,000 miles on it. Therefore, even the logic-less dimwit could easily figure that the transmission was covered. Well, this was true until the dealership told me that it wasn't, stating that because we didn't get the scheduled transmission service (which is basically a fluid change) at 30,000 and 60,000 miles the warranty was no longer valid. Now, there are many people that would argue this point, but many more that would shrug, panic, and accept the full cost of repairs.

I read the warranty book. I had a receipt that said the fluid was checked at 60,000 but not replaced. A friend on Twitter pointed out the fact that they were using 100,000 mile transmission fluid. So logically, the fluid would not have to be replaced under 100,000 miles if it wasn't needed, right? So why the stipulation that it needed to be replaced at 60,000 and the loose assumption that not doing that would void the warranty? So I asked the warranty guy to show me in the book where the two items are related. Where it explicitly says that if you don't get the service, the transmission isn't covered. There were portions where it said the service was recommended, but never connecting to actual repairs. Finally the warranty guy shrugged, admitted I was right and said the service was covered.

In this case, valid logic equaled truth and a sound argument. I used very simple reasoning and logic to determine that I was being inadvertently screwed. I say "inadvertently" because I truly believe based on their behavior that they were not intentionally trying to screw me. They believed the two items were related, they had had this argument many times before and were not prepared to be questioned. While both the service manager and the warranty guy seemed at least junior college educated, proving my argument to them took longer than it should have between three adults.

However, valid logic does not always guarantee truth or a sound argument. This is where it gets a little funky. Valid logic is when the structure of logic is correct in the way of syntax and semantics rather than truth. Truth comes from deductive reasoning of said logic. For example:

All transmissions are covered parts. All covered parts are free. Therefore, all transmissions are free. This logic is technically valid, and if the premises are true, then of course the conclusion must be true. You can see here however that it's not always true, though in some situations it could be. While the logic is valid, not all transmissions are free, only those covered by the warranty. So based on that, saying all transmissions are free is not sound logic.

To take it one step further:

All Daleks are brown. Some brown things are Cylons. Therefore, some Daleks are Cylons. Sci-fi fan or not, you probably know that this is not true. The basic lesson here is that, while the logic above might seem valid because of the structure of the statement, it takes a further understanding to figure out why it's not necessarily true: That is, based on the first two statements it's possible that some Daleks are Cylons, but it's not logically concludable. That's where deductive reasoning comes on top of the logic. The underlying lesson here is not to immediately assume everything you read or are told is true, something all children need to and should learn.

This is the direct lesson that needs to be passed on to our children: that of not accepting the immediately visible logic. While not all problems are complex enough to require the scientific method, some of them need some deduction to determine if they are true. Take the example above — how many kids would immediately be satisfied with the false conclusion? Sure, it's a bit geeky with the examples, but switch out bears for Daleks and puppies for Cylons. That makes it easier, and takes the actual research out of it (to find out what Daleks and Cylons are respectively) but many people would just accept that in fact some bears are puppies, if presented with this problem in the context of a textbook or word problem.

Maybe I'm being paranoid or thinking too doomsday, whatever, but I think this is an epidemic. Children are becoming lazier and not as self sufficient because their parents have a problem with watching a three year old cry after they tell her to remove her own jeans, or ask her to put away her own toys (yes, organizational logic falls under the main topic). These are the same parents who do their kid's science project while the kid is playing video games. These kids grow up lacking the simple problem solving skills that make navigating life much easier. Remember when you were growing up and you had the plastic stacking toys? Well, instead of toys for early development like that, parents are just plopping their kids down in front of the television. While there is some educational type programming on television, it's just not the same as hands-on experience.

My father is an engineer, and he taught me logic and reasoning by making me solve simple, then complex, problems on my own. Or at least giving me the opportunity to solve them on my own. This helped develop critical thinking and problem solving skills, something a lot of children lack these days. Too often I see children that are not allowed to solve problems on their own; instead their parents simply do it for them without argument or discussion. Hell, I am surrounded by adults every day that are unable to solve simple problems, instead choosing to immediately ask me at which point I have to fill the role that their parents never did and – knowing the solution – tell them to solve it themselves, or at least try first.

One of the things I like to work on with my kids is math. There is nothing that teaches deductive reasoning and logic better than math word problems. They are at the age where basic algebra can come into play, which sharpens their reasoning skills because they start to view real world issues with algebraic solutions. Another thing is logic puzzles, crossword puzzles and first person shooters. Actually, not that last one. That's just the reward.

Since I weeded out the folks that don't teach their kids logic in the first two paragraphs, as representatives of the real world it's up to the rest of us to spread the knowledge. It won't be easy. The best thing we can do is teach these thought processes to our children, so that they may look at other children with looks of bewilderment when other children are unable to solve simple tasks. Hopefully, they will not simply do the task for them, but teach them to think. I'm not saying we need to build a whole new generation of project managers and analysts, but it would be better than a generation of task-oriented mindless office drones with untied shoelaces, shoving on a door at the Midvale School for the Gifted.

h/t to @aubreygirl22 for the logical conversation.
Image: Flickr user William Notowidagdo. Used under Creative Commons License.