The Role of Emotions in Critical Thinking

Guest post by Dr. Judy Chartrand

Have you ever jumped to a decision just to get it over with…. to relieve the frustration or tension you were feeling?  For most of us, the unfortunate answer is yes.   Feelings certainly impact our thinking and our actions.

I facilitate critical thinking training sessions, and invariably this question comes up: “What role do emotions play in critical thinking?”  This question keeps popping up because many people have a stereotyped view of critical thinking as a completely logical process.  They conjure up an image of Mr. Spock engaged in a detached analysis, completely devoid of emotion.   Some models of critical thinking reinforce this stereotype by focusing exclusively on impersonal analysis of information and logical evidenced based decision making.  In reality, those models are limited because people are just not wired that way.

Thinking and Feelings are intertwined, and in the best critical thinking scenario, one helps the other.  So, to engage in good critical thinking it is important to know how to recognize and harness your Feelings because they impact your Thinking.

Here is how it works. Feelings serve as cues, helping you pay attention to certain information or increasing your focus in certain areas.  Historically, this response has been very adaptive.  For example, when our ancestors were faced with danger, they experienced fear and reacted quickly by heading for safety.   A fast emotional response was ideal.  Although times have certainly changed, we are still wired the same way, with quick trigger emotional responses.  These emotional reactions help you recognize that something is up, but the cues are often vague and sometimes misguided.  This is where Thinking comes into play.

Let’s go back to the example of jumping to a decision.  Picture yourself experiencing an uneasy tension that comes when you perceive pressure to make a decision, maybe because people are waiting on your response.  You don’t want to be the bottleneck; you don’t want to let anyone down.  So, you rush through the information and reach a conclusion.  Presto, the pressure is gone, but what about the quality of the process?

Let’s rewind and insert critical thinking into the process.  Those uncomfortable feelings are cues, which could be read as a need for urgency or an opportunity to shift over to your Thinking mode.  Specifically, you could Stop and Think: What am I trying to accomplish?  Is the situation urgent?  Why am I feeling pressured?

In the Stop and Think step you are testing the validity of your feelings.  Maybe the situation is urgent and you do need to move quickly.  Maybe it is not urgent and you can develop a strategy that matches the reality of the situation.  Once you set up your strategy you are in a better position to move through the remaining critical thinking steps with a more attentive and balance approach. You are less likely to rush the process.

Feelings can impact how we view a situation, what we see (or don’t see) and how we interpret information.   At each point, inserting thinking skills into the process will help you evaluate the accuracy of those feelings.  You will become adept at knowing when Feelings are leading you astray and when they are signaling an important cue worth noting.

How have you used the power of emotions to make your critical thinking better?

Learn more about the RED Model of Critical Thinking here.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Judy Chartrand is a recognized thought leader in the areas of critical thinking and career development. Chartrand works as a consulting Chief Scientist with Pearson TalentLens. As a psychologist, Chartrand has helped hundreds of clients increase their personal and career satisfaction. She frequently speaks at national and international conferences and has published more than 50 articles and books including Now You’re Thinking!

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