Referred to as “probably the most intelligent picture ever taken,” this photo was taken at the 1927 Fifth Solvay International Conference on Electrons and Photons, where the world’s most notable physicists met to discuss the newly formulated quantum theory. The leading figures were Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Max Planck. 17 of the 29 attendees were or became Nobel Prize winners, including Marie Skłodowska -Curie, who alone among them had won Nobel Prizes in two separate scientific disciplines. Image source: Pinterest
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To exercise critical thinking, one must first understand the human brain’s intricacies.
In the 1980s, James Flynn, a political scientist at the University of Otago in New Zealand, made a revolutionary discovery later pinpointed as the “Flynn effect.” He found that in every country in the developing world that had been recording intelligence-tests results, IQ test scores had remarkably risen from one generation to another. “Psychologists faced a paradox: either the people of today were far brighter than their parents or, at least in some circumstances, IQ tests were not good measures of intelligence,” noted Flynn.
The overall increase was of approximately 3 points every ten years, which would amount to 9 points in a generation. Today, in some countries, that has amounted to 30 points spread across 112 years (between 1900 and 2012).
Do boosting IQ scores mean that people are getting smarter?
That depends what you understand by smarter, says Flynn. The key to understanding this phenomenon lays in answering four questions:
- Do we have better genetically engineered brains than we did in 1900?
Well, no. Genes’ evolution is not that significant in only four generations. So, our brains have not yet developed to achieve greater milestones compared to the brains of our grandparents.
- Has our ability to tackle a broader range of conceptual problems improved?
To a large extent, yes. The average person can today do creative work that he or she was unable to do in 1900. So, from this perspective, we have indeed got smarter.
- Were people just as adapted to their circumstances in 1900 as they are today?
Undoubtedly. Otherwise, they would not have been able to transfer their genes to the next generations. But apart from that, although having an average IQ of 70, they were perfectly suited for their environment to hunt, work, adapt in society, and overcome any other impending challenges.
- Are people today mentally adapted to a far more complicated world?
Yes, by all means. The brain is like a muscle and, thus, is better developed in the areas most used by the bearer. While our ancestors might have had larger hippocampi (responsible for memory formation, processing, and storage), we might have expanded certain areas in our prefrontal lobes (in charge of planning complex cognitive behaviour, decision making, etc.) due to our contemporary lifestyle.
The matter itself is somewhat complicated and deserves an analysis of its own. What should be noted at this moment, though, is that the human brain’s capacity to be creative and adapt to the challenges of modern society has exponentially grown. A globalised world brings with it vast amounts of data that must be rapidly and comprehensively processed and assessed. Accordingly, in order to adapt, individuals are bound to find the best instruments and methodologies to ensure objective and unbiased information processing.
Fortunately, some tools and skills allow the wielder to logically and even-handedly scrutinise data and beliefs. We will now dive into one such tool, namely critical thinking.
In this article, we will answer several questions:
- WHAT are the essential elements of critical thinking?
- HOW are its methodology and tools to be applied?
- For WHOM is this skill and tool suited? Notwithstanding a variety of empirical applications, we will focus solely on the benefits critical thinking brings for lawyers.
2. WHAT – Essential Elements
When requested to pinpoint the most essential skill expected from their employees in the next five years in an increasingly globalised world, 400 senior HR professionals ranked critical thinking the highest, to the detriment of IT competencies and even innovation, announce Judy Chartrand, Ph.D., Heather Ishikawa, MA, & Scott Flander in their seminal report Critical Thinking Means Business: Learn to Apply and Develop the NEW #1 Workplace Skill. This answer proves once more that work processes and the correlative skills have gone through some radical changes in the past years.
Globalisation has increased the speed of business and the volume of information while, at the same time, reducing response widows. Companies’ roles matrix is continuously changing, and employees are accepting new jobs oftentimes lacking proper guidance. The employees must make key decisions rapidly and without expecting any direction from their seniors. The process of reaching the best decision entails following a set of preliminary steps: focusing on the most relevant information, asking the right questions, evaluating and separating valid facts from false assumptions, drawing the conclusion. It is the ability to understand a situation from multiple perspectives while unambiguously separating facts from opinions and assumptions that lays the ground for sound solutions. All these steps necessitate and presuppose critical thinking traits.
Critical thinking combines a set of component features such as logical analysis of arguments, making inferences using inductive or deductive reasoning, objective evaluation of facts, decision marking, and problem-solving. Critical thinkers rigorously challenge ideas, opinions, and assumptions rather than accept them at face value. To do that, they will methodically seek logical connections between concepts, analyse alternative interpretations and information, and evaluate the strength of the arguments. Background knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for genuine critical thinking. Essentially, critical thinking requires a well-trained ability to reason. For that, the subject must be more than a passive recipient of information.
3. HOW – Methodology and Tools
Critical thinking has different forms adapted depending on the circumstances. For example, if one wants to reach a specific conclusion based on a general rule, one can use deductive reasoning. Alternatively, if a general conclusion is to be determined from one particular case, inductive reasoning could be the go-to method. This latter is no stranger to legal professionals who often use inductive reasoning when analysing specific cases to develop a general rule.
Another variety of critical thinking is reasoning by analogy, which is based on the concept that similar facts, principles, or rules should lead to similar conclusions. This model is often utilised by lawyers to extrapolate and borrow relevant ground rules from situations similar to the case at hand. Likewise, lawyers seek distinctions in facts or laws for arguing that adverse circumstances do not apply for a specific case. Being capable of distinguishing between cases is equally important as making an analogy.
Regardless of the form, the skills needed to think critically are varied and include reflection, evaluation, explanation, observation, analysis, inference, problem-solving, and decision making. Pointedly, a critical thinker can:
- Analyse a topic, issue or problem in an objective and logical way;
- Identify different arguments that are or can be presented about a particular matter;
- Evaluate a point of view and assess its strength and validity;
- Assess the implications of a statement or argument;
- Provide structured reasoning and support for any argument.
Critical thinking skills do not always come naturally but can be acquired and improved through persistence and practice. That is why Pearson Education company has developed the RED Model (Recognise Assumptions, Evaluate Arguments, Draw Conclusions) as a method to evaluate and apply critical thinking principles when faced with a decision.
The RED Model has three main stages:
- Recognise assumptions – this step entails apprehension and the ability to separate facts from opinion. Properly determining when assumptions have been made is an essential part of this phase. What is more, the ability to critically consider the validity of these assumptions from multiple perspectives can help identify missing data or logical inconsistencies. Identifying and questioning assumptions aids in exposing information gaps and faulty logic.
- Evaluate arguments – this aptitude revolves around a systematic analysis of the evidence and arguments provided. Given that critical evaluation of assertions requires logic and objectivity, this step can be especially challenging when an argument is prone to have an emotional impact. It comes naturally to unconsciously look for information that confirms a preferred perspective rather than scrutinising the facts using critical thinking tools. Evaluating arguments necessitates an objective and accurate analysis of the information at hand, questioning the quality of supporting evidence and understanding how emotion influences ideas. There are specific barriers to this endeavour, such as confirmation bias (the tendency to seek and agree with information consistent with the observer’s point of view), anchoring bias (the propensity to be extremely influenced by the first piece of information that we come across) and so forth.
- Draw conclusions – the ability to gather a certain amount of information and arrive at a logical, evidence-based conclusion. An individual with strong critical thinking skills will be able to adjust his or her judgement in case subsequent evidence alters its original inference.
The process has an inherent natural fluidity, but, from a methodological standpoint, it is advisable to focus on each RED trait individually for better results.
So, the next time you are working your way through a problem, you might want to use the following decision matrix:
Recognise Assumptions – Separating fact from opinion.
- What critical issue/problem are you attempting to resolve?
- What information do you possess on this issue?
- What ideas and assumptions you have and use that support your strategy or plan?
- Are your assumptions based on substantial evidence? What gaps might your reasoning present?
- Who are the key stakeholders, and what are their viewpoints on this matter?
- What other ideas should be explored, and what else do you need to know? What other experts should you contact?
Evaluate Arguments – Analysing information objectively, accurately and logically, questioning the validity of supporting evidence, and understanding how and to what extent does emotion influences the assessment.
- What are the pros and cons of the solution that you are proposing?
- What are your biases? Is there someone who has a different opinion that could challenge yours?
- What repercussions will your decision have on others? How will you handle the consequences?
- What rationale supports the viewpoint of people opposing your solution or idea?
- What cardinal concepts, models, and/or perspectives do you need to consider as you evaluate the options?
- What effects will your decision have?
Draw Conclusions – Managing information to arrive at conclusions that logically follow from the available evidence.
- Once weighing all of the facts and aspects of the matter, what is the best possible conclusion?
- What is the specific evidence basing your conclusion?
- Could new evidence alter your decision? What is that evidence, and what are its repercussions?
Critical thinking is thus invaluable to any successful law firm by not only allowing the individual to practice law effectively and meaningfully but also by stimulating the business to develop in a lean manner.
In effect, critical thinking will enhance the following traits in any individual:
Logically, observation is one basic critical thinking skill we must acquire. Essentially, it entails collecting sensory data and documenting the information thus stored. Observation will build a thorough understanding of a matter which, in its turn, constitutes the basis of educated guesses and decisions to be made along the way.
Curiosity is a core trait for any successful professional, legal ones included. It ensures that the bearer will avoid taking everything at face value but instead try to understand the underlining principles and mechanisms behind a given concept or information.
Curiosity is a trait that must be nurtured regardless of age or position on the corporate ladder, for it is one key element that brings added value to the services performed as legal professionals.
This skill entails becoming an objective evaluator of oneself and of how others perceive us. Such is vital given that, as a critical thinker, you need to pay close attention to both your mind intricacies as well as to its biases. Psychologist Daniel Goleman proposed a popular definition of self-awareness in his book “Emotional Intelligence” as “knowing one’s internal states, preference, resources, and intuitions.” We covered self-awareness in our previous post, which you can find here.
- Analytical Thinking
The capacity to analyse information is of paramount importance for an effective thinker, and can be applied to all walks of legal life, be it related to substantial law, marketing & client relationship, or project management. This skill works better when applied to elements of an ensemble because it allows you to study them in isolation, identify, and then remedy the problem without being distracted by adjacent elements. For example, increasing the project management capabilities of the firm as a whole could greatly benefit from analysing each part: is the team leader properly trained? Do the members know their responsibilities? Does the team use adequate tech tools? Has the group devised a plan in case things do not go as planned?
- Compassion and Empathy
These two traits should not have a negative impact on decision making if used adequately for objective and logical analysis. Any aspect of human society, especially the legal world, is based on social interaction, and this process cannot be successfully performed without considering people’s subjectivities. Scientific research has shown that “our decisions can be unconsciously primed” and that the decisions are made seconds before we are even aware of them. While some of these processes might be triggered by outside stimuli, others are deeply rooted in people’s fillings and emotions. That is why the best critical thinkers always consider the subjective element in their decision-making process.
- Effective communicators and Active Listening
Every attorney is trained to be an effective communicator. Critical thinking and effective communication are actually intertwined: critical thinking entails collecting information and making educated decisions, while the latter helps to express them. But the prospect of communicating the ideas could and should influence the process of thinking critically in the sense that analysing data and designing solutions should always be made in a manner that could be effectively transmitted to the interested parties.
As an active listener, the lawyer should ask the relevant open-ended questions that would help him or her separate facts from assumptions, gain insight into a matter, and evaluate arguments.
- Creativity and Adaptable problem-solving
As a creative lawyer, you are always expected to contribute new ideas to improve products or processes, solve conflicts within the team, motivate your peers, and reach the result requested by the client. Seeking alternative solutions or multiple options is also recommended, for it broadens the perspective and increases neuroplasticity. Creativity greatly benefits from external feedback (by testing and improving hypotheses) and can make use of both youngsters’ enthusiasm and seniors’ experience. Improving your ability to think outside the box will place you at (or even help you create) the cutting edge of legal innovation.
Proficient problem-solvers are invaluable assets to the clients and the firm. But training their adaptability by focusing on not only flexibility of mind (to cope with challenges) but also on shifting perspectives (to devise comprehensive solutions) will help create a new breed of resourceful, trust-worthy professionals.
Discerning critical thinking skills through a resume or during a job interview is challenging and error-prone. As a result, many companies seek assessments and verified tests to evaluate candidates and even team members. One widely used such evaluation of critical thinking abilities is Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal, from Pearson TalentLens. This evaluation tool is suitable for individuals in professional and managerial positions, for job, university, and business school applications as well as for self-assessment. You can take the test here. The appraisal revolves around the RED Model and evaluates the candidate’s critical thinking competencies in five main areas: inferences, assumptions, deductions, interpretations, and evaluation of arguments.
4. For WHOM – Use for Lawyers
Independent research has concluded that the higher up the corporate ladder a role is, the more important critical thinking becomes. It has been long established in industrial psychology that cognitive ability is directly related to performance in job settings. In general, critical thinking entails challenging assumed vision. In law, one can exercise critical thinking on multiple levels to understand how and why must a simple rule be applied to a given case.
- First, the contingencies of law must be thoroughly analysed if one wants to understand the underlying principles of an act or decision. For example, it was the influence of Protestant ethics that helped shape Common Law rules, especially labour, property, and contracts, and it was Catholic rules that influenced family relations in Civil law countries. By having such landmarks in mind, the lawyer can understand and discern the rationale of the rule and anticipate its implementation.
- Another manner of critically thinking the law is by analysing the legislative background. For example, when analysing a contract, one must think of not only the primary set of rules applicable to the said contract (say, agency rules) but also of underlining and adjacent rules (for example, consumer protection, data privacy, food security, tax arrangements, etc.). Essentially, this could make or break a lawyer’s legal advice.
As a lawyer, being a critical thinker brings about some certain benefits:
- Comprehensive approach – critical thinking allows the individual to use different methodologies when solving a problem and consider various aspects of the matter. Rather than blindly following a standard, unchallenged problem-solving method, try and reflect critically on different, more appropriate approaches. This will surely boost your success rate.
- Efficiency and Time management – a critical thinker will know how to sieve through information and choose only the facts that are relevant for the decision he or she has to make. You cannot profess critical judgement without being strict on prioritising time, energy, and resources.
- Tolerance and appreciation of different perspectives – lawyers are anecdotally considered to be somehow inflexible and unyielding in their opinions. While this is mostly a prejudice, we must admit that compromise is not our strongest weapon. 😊 Critical thinking can help loosen mental strings and assist lawyers in seeing across various disciplines and beyond cultural barriers. Treating your mind as a blank canvas, ready to be redesigned with each new interaction, trains one’s brain and, at the same time, nourishes human relationships. Empathy and appreciative nature play a key role in effective teamwork and leadership.
- Streamlining communication – axiomatically, business communication is more straightforward if no uncontrollable emotional vectors are associated with the message. By separating logic and facts from emotions, critical thinking is actually a booster of effective communication. After all, relevant ideas supporting an argument are essential in putting your message forward, which, in essence, stands to benefit all stakeholders.
- Decision-making and logical problem solving – Critical thinking provides some order in the decision-making process by ensuring a clear methodology that, among others, places appropriate checks and feedback loops at critical stages. This will transform you into a more stable problem solver and, at the same time, ensure cohesion at organisation level by basing all material aspects on logical, fact-based grounds.
- PR and Marketing – as a highly prized skill itself, critical thinking will give you a head start and help you stand out from the crowd regardless of your employment status. Given the benefits listed above, one can easily see why.
Going back to the average IQ increase over the last century, multiple authors and relevant studies have shown that higher intelligence does not necessarily mean increased rationality. While IQ correlates with skills such as numeracy, rationality and critical thinking comport different traits. Higher IQ will not protect you from framing biases (classical “95% fat-free” sounding healthier than “5% fat”), confirmation biases (our propensity to only consider information supporting our pre-existing biases while ignoring facts that contradict our opinions), the availability heuristic (the tendency to approximate the probability of something happening based on how many examples readily come to mind) and so forth.
Your general cognitive ability is undisputedly vital for your performance as a whole. However, it will be critical thinking – bestowing you with the capacity to challenge the assumptions, identify information gaps, and search for alternative explanations before drawing conclusions – that will provide you with a measurable competitive advantage in this increasingly globalised and intricate world.
Do you agree with the points discussed above? Looking forward to your thoughts. Thanks for reading! 😊
Want to deepen or improve your critical thinking skills but don’t quite know where to start? I recommend checking out these online courses on Coursera (offered by the University of Michigan), Iversity, Skillshare, and Khan Academy. Happy exploring! 😊
 Schmidt, F. L. and Hunter, J. E. (1998). The validity and utility of selection methods in personnel psychology: Practical and theoretical implications of 85 years of research findings. Psychological Bulletin, 124 (2), 262-274.
This post is a part of the series called #FutureProofLegal in which we describe the skills and roles/jobs that future legal professionals (lawyers and beyond) shall acquire.To learn more or read other articles in the series go to our #FutureProofLegal page.