The Pros and Cons of Identifying Critical Thinking with System 2 Processing

Abstract

The dual-process model of cognition but most especially its reflective component, system 2 processing, shows strong conceptual links with critical thinking. In fact, the salient characteristics of system 2 processing are so strikingly close to that of critical thinking, that it is tempting to claim that critical thinking is system 2 processing, no more and no less. In this article, I consider the two sides of that claim: Does critical thinking always require system 2 processing? And does system 2 processing always result in critical thinking? I argue that it is plausible and helpful to consider that critical thinking requires system 2 processing. In particular, this assumption can provide interesting insights and benchmarks for critical thinking education. On the other hand, I show that system 2 processing can result in a range of outcomes which are either contradictory with critical thinking, or of debatable social desirability—which suggests that there is more to critical thinking than mere system 2 processing, and more to system 2 processing than just critical thinking.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    In the same spirit, the positive effects of group discussions on critical thinking must be benchmarked against the simple exposure to the conclusions of others. People can easily adopt the output of others’ critical thinking, without engaging in critical thinking themselves (Rahwan et al. 2014). In other words, the fact that group discussions promote responses that match the output of critical thinking does not mean that they promoted critical thinking in he first place.

  2. 2.

    There are not hard data that I know of on the relative proportions of system 2 processing that go into sustained inhibition or biased rationalization. In some fields, such as deductive or probabilistic reasoning, psychologists seem to consider that biased rationalization is less frequent than sustained inhibition (Evans and Ball 2010), probably because reasoners do not have a personal stake in these problems. In other fields (such as moral reasoning), some authors famously and controversially argued that all that is not intuition is reducible to biased rationalization (e.g., Haidt 2001).

  3. 3.

    That is not to say that people who say it is morally acceptable to kill one person to save several lives are motivated by utilitarian ethics (Kahane et al. 2015). But I will continue to use the ‘utilitarian’ label in this article, so that my terminology is consistent with that of the articles I will summarize.

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Acknowledgments

Support through the ANR-Labex IAST is gratefully acknowledged.

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Correspondence to Jean-François Bonnefon.

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Bonnefon, JF. The Pros and Cons of Identifying Critical Thinking with System 2 Processing. Topoi 37, 113–119 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11245-016-9375-2

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Keywords

  • Critical thinking
  • Dual-process
  • Debiasing
  • Rationalization
  • Morality