Parenting Issues: Can You Teach Critical Thinking Skills?

Posted on Wed, Jan 18, 2012 @ 11:33 AM

marshmallow test

Image by Mark S

Economists, educators and policy makers like to ask a basic question that parents should also be concerned about in terms of their children: What makes some people more susceptible than others to biases of judgment?

Perhaps you've heard of a famous experiment in which four-year-olds were given a choice between a small reward "now" or a larger reward "later," intended to  test their self-control? If so, you also know that the researchers kept tabs on the children. Ten or fifteen years later, those who had resisted temptation were not only less likely to take drugs, but they also had better executive control in cognitive tasks and attention, and they scored higher on intelligence tests. In other words, they had a higher capacity for critical thinking.

Why is self-control so closely connected to the ability to think critically? According to Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his research in decision making, one of the reasons is that critical thinking requires the ability to resist the "easy" or "intuitive" answer. Like the children who resisted the "easy" reward, people with good critical thinking skills are deliberate and thoughtful in their approach. They are willing to invest the effort to check their first instincts. Kahneman refers to them as more "engaged," and explains that "they are more alert, more intellectually active, less willing to be satisfied with superficially attractive answers, more skeptical about their intuitions."

In other words, they have the self-control to stop and think about how they think. Where did they get this self-control? Research suggests there are some genetic influences, but the same body of research also points to the importance of parenting techniques. 

Of course, even though we, as parents, may want to pass down strengths like self-control, critical thinking, and good decision making, the task will be nearly impossible if we don't possess these skills ourselves.

Just for fun, you may want to try the simple puzzle Kahneman includes in his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. "Do not try to solve it, " he instructs, "but listen to your intuition":

A bat and ball cost $1.10.

The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

A number came to your mind. The number, of course, is 10: 10₵. The distinctive mark of this easy puzzle is that it evokes an answer that is intuitive, appealing, and wrong. Do the math, and you will see. If the ball costs 10₵, then the total cost will be $1.20 (10₵ for the ball and $1.10 for the bat), not $1.10. The correct answer is 5₵. It is safe to assume that the intuitive answer also came to the mind of those who ended up with the correct number—they somehow managed to resist the intuition (Kahneman, 2011, p. 44).

Interestingly, many thousands of university students have answered the bat-and-ball puzzle in research experiments and the majority give the intuitive, though incorrect, answer. Depending on the selectivity of the university, the rate of failure to check intuition was between 50% and 80%.

"Many people," Kahneman concludes, "are overconfident, prone to place too much faith in their intuitions. They apparently find cognitive effort at least mildly unpleasant and avoid it as much as possible." 

As tempting as it is to believe he's overstating the case, perhaps this is a good time to test your ability to resist temptation. The truth of the matter is that, even as we hope to teach our children the self-control required to resist thier intuition and become good decision makers, it's highly likely we have room for improvement in these areas ourselves.

More on this topic:

Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo: Teaching Chidlren Decision-Making Skills
Self Regulation: Teaching Children the Art of Self-Control

Tags: family relationships, parenting issues, critical thinking