Every day we are presented with many opportunities to sharpen our critical thinking skills, but every four years we get a unique opportunity during the Presidential Election. During the Presidential Debates, we are presented with tons of statistics, interpretations, assumptions, political rhetoric, appeal to emotion, and spin. There is also no shortage of political ads, pundits, and analysts that try to sway the opinion of potential voters.
Whether you’ve already decided who you will vote for this year or you are one of the undecided voters, here are some tips for exercising your critical thinking skills during this election season:
- Decide what issues are important to you. Instead of voting along party lines or based on which candidate is taller, consider evaluating which candidate can influence issues that you support. You could create a decision matrix to help you formally evaluate which candidate meets the majority of your key issues. Start by listing all of the issues that are important to you. Then rank those issues from most to least important. Next, research all of the candidates’ positions on those issues. By the end of the decision matrix evaluation, you should be able to objectively determine which candidate is the right choice for you.
- Educate yourself. Presidential candidates often talk about what they plan to do when they take office, but the reality is much more complex. The executive branch is only one of 3 political branches in the government, and a President (though it is the most powerful position in the United States) does have limited power. Get to know the power of the Presidency by researching more about the role the President holds in comparison to the Legislative and Judicial branches (as well as local government).
- Perform your own fact check. When you hear or read a piece of information that could influence your vote, double check that information. Can you verify it? Google can be your best friend during the election. According to a recent survey, 64% of persuadable voters fact check the claims made by politicians online.
- Evaluate the source. When you are conducting your own fact check, be sure to also evaluate the credibility of the source. Examine who wrote the news article or blog post. Are they partisan or simply reporting the facts? You might want to Google the source to see what other content he/she has written in the past as well.
- Avoid the Statistics trap. During every Presidential and Vice Presidential debate, it seems as if the candidates are competing to see who can use the most statistics to support their arguments. Remember that statistics are often used because they sound credible and powerful, but they are often used incorrectly. When you hear a statistic, you must investigate further to fairly interpret that information. How was the data collected? Who collected the data? Is the sample used in the study a fair representation of reality?
- Beware of spin and oversimplification. Each candidate is on a mission to spin his/her record in their favor. In addition, each candidate will try to oversimplify the other candidate’s position. For example, one candidate could state that Medicare needs to be reformed, and the other candidate could spin that into “This candidate doesn’t care about the elderly.”
- To predict the future, look to the past. Elections and promises go hand-in-hand. Every candidate makes big promises that may or may not be possible for a variety of reasons. It is difficult to evaluate the likelihood of a politician following through with a promise, but what you can do is research the candidate’s history. The reason why employers perform reference checks is because past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. How has the candidate voted in the past? What has he/she supported/endorsed?
- Check your emotions. Are you feeling passionate about something? There’s nothing wrong with that. Just make sure that your emotions aren’t running wild while your brain is in neutral. Remember that politicians are experts at appealing to your emotions. They want you to like them. They want you to experience feelings like hope and fear because those are powerful emotions. Political ads often exploit our biggest insecurities for that exact reason. They want you to think that the other candidate doesn’t have your best interests in mind. However, when your emotions are strong, you are susceptible to Confirmation Bias (where you only seek out information that supports your own position and dismiss evidence to the contrary).
- Check for logical fallacies. It would be interesting if someone watched a political debate and charted the number of logical fallacies were made by the candidates. Here are a few examples of common logical fallacies you may see in a persuasive argument:
- Appeal to probability- The individual tries to convince you that because it is possible that something could happen, that it inevitably will happen.
- Slippery Slope- The individual claims that if we take action on a certain issue then a series of other actions will likely be taken. This is done without providing any reasoning for why this is a likely occurrence.
- Straw man- This occurs when an individual refutes the other person’s argument by dramatizing, oversimplifying, or mis-representing the person’s argument.
- Red Herring- A Red Herring is a purposeful attempt to redirect attention or divert the argument on a specific issue.
- Hindsight bias- A candidate might make it seem as though a past event was clearly predictable. Hence the term “hindsight is 20/20.”
- Dig deeper. Check out CriticalVoter.com for some great critical thinking resources related to the 2012 election. At this site, there are phenomenal podcasts and even lesson plans for teachers. The author has created some fantastic content using the 2012 Presidential Election as a case study to learn critical thinking skills.
What other tips would you suggest for exercising your critical thinking skills during the election?
Learn more about critical thinking by downloading the Think About It! eBook.
Editor’s Note: Breanne Harris is the Solutions Architect for Pearson TalentLens. She works with customers to design selection and development plans that incorporate critical thinking assessments and training. She has a Master’s degree in Organizational Psychology and has experience in recruiting, training, and HR consulting. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter for more of her thoughts.