The news has been rough: the terrorists’ massacre at Charlie Hedbo’s; a bomb going off outside the NAACP in Colorado Springs – heaven forbid we bring up Ferguson or the cop killings in New York. To add to these stories, I also read a news story about a Florida man throwing his five-year-old daughter off a bridge. After the initial feeling of mortification, I read some of the readers’ comments. I was even more mortified by those. They were obviously not comments by people exercising critical thinking. All comments initially centered around how terrible the man was, how he should be killed, etc.
Let me start off by saying, “I don’t know what happened, nor would I claim to.” Many things could have happened. When you read the article (which is one perspective), it’s unclear whether the girl was alive or not when she was thrown off the bridge (although, by the time you read this post the autopsy may be available). So one scenario could be that the girl’s mother killed her, and in an effort to protect the mother, the dad threw his daughter off the bridge hoping to conceal the evidence. Maybe. Maybe not. The point is, so often we jump to a conclusion before there is enough information to hop, let alone leap. That’s the case with many of the stories in the news lately: there are significant gaps in information. And yet, someone always prematurely takes the leap, and mob mentality takes over. One massive group-think orgy.
Why do I bring this up? Because jumping to conclusions isn’t limited to news stories. It’s prevalent throughout all areas of our lives.
Jumping to Conclusions
The phrase “jump to conclusions” has become a very prevalent colloquialism in our society, but do we stop to think about what it means, whether or not we do it, and what the result may be?
What is it? It seems straightforward, and yet so many people are guilty of it that it’s worth discussing. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, jumping to conclusions is “to guess the facts about a situation without having enough information.” Clear enough, right? You read a handful of news articles; you don’t have enough information to know the facts, but you draw a conclusion anyway.
Do you do it? Yes, yes you do. We all do. Some of us do it more than others. You might say I’m ironically jumping to conclusions right now, but it’s impossible that a person never does it because we never have complete information in every situation. Making a jump from the data you have to a conclusion is sometimes necessary. The technical term is inference. Based on the information I have, what can I infer from it? It’s how big the jump is that becomes the issue. Some of us read a headline (or an e-mail subject line), and we have already concluded something in our minds. That’s an issue. Some of us listen to the news or overhear a conversation and conclude we have the entire picture. That’s an issue. Some of us believe we are omniscient. That’s a big issue.
What’s the result? Rarely anything good.
It creates frustration.
It creates discord.
It creates division.
In business we have issues and crises (whether real or artificial) arise daily. How much time do we waste? How many bad relationships do we create? How ineffective are we because we don’t take the time to get the full picture before we react?
The first thing you should do when you get news, whether within your workplace (being told layoffs are imminent), from the TV (the latest political scandal), or from a friend (do you know where your husband was last night?), is withhold your emotions and your judgment. As soon as you emotionally react, your body moves into fight-or-flight mode and starts directing blood away from your brain to your muscles. This inhibits your ability to think critically. So when something happens, stay calm and work to get more information.
Ask some basic critical thinking questions:
Whose perspective am I hearing this information from? What other perspectives are there? Understanding the perspective in question is important, and taking the time to understand what motivations could be driving the perspective is important as well. Within business many things could be motivating a person, from self-preservation to self-promotion.
What details seem to be missing? What data would I need to increase my surety in the conclusion? Look for gaps in information. I love the movie Twelve Angry Men. As the story unfolds and Henry Fonda’s character starts asking questions, the other jurors realize information is missing; the picture isn’t complete.
What assumptions am I making? What assumptions do I think others are making? Assumptions are commonplace and necessary. We assume things everyday. Do you stop to test a chair before you sit in it? Not normally. I bet you usually just sit down, assuming it will hold you. When you are evaluating information, though, it’s important to thinking about what assumptions are being made. This allows you to evaluate whether the assumptions are correct, or if they are questionable assumptions.
Who would I need to talk to in order to have a well-rounded perspective? Get information from other sources. There is a reason in school you are required to have more than once source in a research or opinion paper. Don’t just take one perspective. Seek out opposite perspectives. Hearing multiple perspectives allows us to properly frame the situation and ensure we are asking the right questions.
What external factors should I be taking into account? Sometimes there are other forces that are impacting the situation. This could be anything from drugs to political unrest. Understand what external pressures are influencing the situation.
Finally, keep yourself grounded in the big picture. Determine if it will matter in one year, ten years, fifty years, or eternity. Sometimes it does matter. Sometimes it only seems to matter in the moment. Your behavior should be in line with the significance of the information.
Now you hopefully have more information and a better perspective to be able to come to the best conclusion you can with the information available to you. Remember to always be on the lookout for new information and be willing to change your opinion if better information comes to light. When we are bull-headed and rigid in our opinions, we are setting ourselves up for failure. Business is full of stories about people unwilling to change and driving the company out of business (think Kodac and film, or Blackberry and smartphones).
If more time was spent thinking critically, there would be a lot less relationship causalities. Withholding judgment and our emotional response allows us to develop a clearer perspective and have a more appropriate reaction in a situation. How can you apply critical thinking in your life? Leave me a comment!
Jana Axline is Chief Project Officer at Project Genetics and the author of Becoming You. Through her leadership musings, she inspires audiences to grow as leaders and ultimately achieve who they were created to be. For more information visit Project Genetics.