Improving the Quality of Beliefs, Judgments and Decisions


In the last episode we talked about how one of the primary goals of critical thinking is to improve the quality of our beliefs, judgments and decisions.

In this episode we're going to look more closely at each of these concepts, and explore their significance for critical thinking.


Let's start out with beliefs. One of the goals of critical thinking is to improve the quality of our beliefs. But what is a “belief"?

In philosophy and psychology there's a long tradition of defining a belief in terms of a certain kind of psychological attitude that we have toward a claim or a proposition.

What's the attitude? It's the attitude of taking something to be the case or regarding it as true. So to say that I believe that it's going to rain today is to say that I have a certain attitude toward the truth status of this claim. One way of talking about this is to say that I have a certain degree of confidence that the claim is true.

Now, because the strength of one's confidence comes in degrees, this implies that belief attitudes can come in degrees; I can be more or less confident that it'll rain today, which means that I believe, more or less strongly, that it'll rain today.

This automatically gives us one suggestion for judging the quality of a belief. How does my degree of confidence that it will rain today compare with the actual chances of it raining today? All other things being equal, the closer your degree of confidence is to the actual likelihood of rain, the better your belief is.

And this, indeed, is one of the most important measures of belief quality. In some cases, degrees of belief and objective probabilities can be quantified and compared, and in many cases they can't, but the general notion, of belief coming in degrees, and comparing our subjective degrees of belief against our knowledge of the states of affairs in the world that those beliefs represent, is still a very powerful and useful tool.


Now, let's swing over to the other side and talk about decisions, or choices.

Decisions are different from beliefs.

A decision is a cognitive process of some kind that leads to a course of action. I decide to wear my black t-shirt today, I decide to go to the movies after dinner, I decide to vote for this candidate over that candidate.

Decisions don't have to involve bodily actions, they can also involve changes in cognitive attitudes. I can decide to accept your argument or reject it. I can decide to forgive you for some wrong you've done me. Some people talk about deciding to be happy or unhappy, though admittedly these are tougher cases to analyze.

Another important point is that, in everyday language we associate decision-making with human agency. We also grant that our decisions can vary in how much conscious deliberation is actually involved. I'm not consciously aware of many of the decisions I'm making when I'm driving a car, a lot of that is controlled by automatic, subconscious processes. But I still want to say that I'm driving the car, that I'm controlling how the car is being driven, even if I'm not consciously aware of the all processes going on that make that possible. So these are important elements of our ordinary understanding of what a decision is.

How do we evaluate the quality of decisions? What does it mean for a decision to be good or bad?

Not surprisingly, there's more than one way to answer this question.

The easiest cases to think about are ones where there's a clear goal or intended outcome. If I want to get an A on that test next Friday then I can think in terms of decisions that are conducive to that goal and decisions that aren't conducive to that goal. Maybe waiting until Thursday night to start studying isn't a smart decision, given that goal.

Decisions often require that we make make choices even when we don't know how events will turn out, so there's a certain amount of gambling and risk involved. In those cases, we're looking for decisions that maximize the chances of the best outcome, given the uncertainties as we understand them.

There's a whole branch of formal reasoning called "decision theory" that develops models of rational choice under different conditions like this.

These models are, admittedly, often unrealistic and there's some debate about how much we can learn from them or how relevant they are for everyday decision-making. But I think some basic literacy about how rational decision making is modeled in different fields, can be very helpful for critical thinking purposes, because they can help us to think of ways of analyzing problems, or gain insight into why a decision succeeded or failed.

This was certainly the case for me. After taking a graduate course in rational choice theory, it really changed the way I think about ordinary decision problems, and I know that other people have the same experience.

It's a bit like formal logic in this regard. There aren't many situations where a sophisticated knowledge of formal logic is going to be instrumental to solving a critical thinking issue, but some background in formal logic does make you see the issues from a perspective that other people don't, and sometimes that can be really helpful.

On the other hand, what psychologists have learned over the past forty years about how people actually make decisions, is extremely important for helping us make better decision. I'll come back to this a bit later.


Now, what about this term in the middle. What's a “judgment"?

We use the word when we want to draw attention to the reasoning processes that issue in a belief or a decision.

I might believe that a certain person is guilty of a crime, but to say that I judge the person to be guilty is to imply that this belief is the conclusion of some process of reasoning.

Now, we don't want to restrict judgments to conscious, deliberative reasoning processes, because that excludes most of the ordinary cognitive processing that is actually going on when we make decisions. We make judgments all the time, based on reasoning processes that we don't have conscious access to.

I might judge a person to be trustworthy and reliable, based on only a brief exposure to them, because I'm subconsciously picking up on cues that our brains use to make quick judgments about such things. We're constantly making unconscious judgments like this, it's a fundamental feature of how human beings interact with the world.

So when we talk about the quality of our judgments, our reasoning processes, we need to consider both the quality of our conscious, deliberative reasoning processes that we're all familiar with, like when we're weighing the pros and cons of two competing job offers; and the quality of our spontaneous, unconscious reasoning processes that actually dominate most of our decision-making. These are open to evaluation too -- they can be more or less accurate, more or less effective.

Now, with what we've said so far, we can actually make a number of claims about what critical thinking is and isn't. I've chosen to frame them in terms of common misconceptions or myths about critical thinking.

So in the next two episodes we're going to explore what are, in my view, the most important myths, or misconceptions, about critical thinking.