CRITICAL THINKING AND NEURO-SEMANTICS- L. Michael Hall Ph.D Founder of Neuro Semantics.

If “the map is not the territory” then your mental mapping is only as good as it corresponds, structurally to the territory.  This is obvious when we are trying to navigate the geographical territory.  If my map is that New York City is west of Chicago and so I set out westward from Chicago to find NYC, because this mental map does not correspond to reality, when I go west I will not find NYC.  People will say, “The other way, go back the other way.”  And I will argue with them, “No, it’s this way.  Come join me to go to NYC.”  And they will say, “No, it’s not that way, turn around, go east young man!”  If our map puts NCY to the left of Chicago on our map to represent west, the problem is simple: the map is wrong.  It does fit with the territory.

Mental maps about how to love and to be loved, to create a business, to be healthy and fit, to enjoy one’s work, to patiently listen to a child, etc. can also be wrong.  The mental maps can be erroneous, distorted, contorted, convoluted, and so on.  Where we “learned” whatever we learned can be the source of that error.  Our thinking patterns and the maturity of our thinking can be the source of that error.  So can our cognitive biases to distort things.  There are many factors which can contribute to us ending up with a distorted map that will not take us where we want to go.  So, what’s a human being to do?

In NLP and Neuro-Semantics we begin with embracing “the map is not the territory” premise so that we stop over-trusting our maps.  Whatever model we have in our head about things is just that- a model, an idea that we are using as a map to navigate our way through reality.  No matter how real the map feels, it is just a map.  Those who do not know and appreciate this will over-trust their map.  And because they do, they will not question it or explore it or even test it.  Here is a fundamental cognitive bias- deferring to our mental maps as if they are real.

I say “fundamental cognitive bias” because we all seemed wired to do this- to confuse map with territory, to think our thoughts, ideas, feelings, etc. are “real.”  When children go through this stage, we call it the magical thinking stage.  They give so much power and reality to their thoughts. They are convinced that by thinking something, that makes it so.  As a cognitive bias, they have to learn how to do the critical thinking of distinguishing map and territory.  When they do, they leave the primitive world of world-magic.  And yet many adults still live there.  Maybe not in eveyr aspect of life, but some aspects.  So they are superstitious, or hold to childish “magic thinking” ideas like the so-called “law of attraction,” or various new age ideas or even traditional religious ideas that are nothing more than the same.

Critical thinking starts by distinguishing map and territory, thought and reality, mental mapping of understanding and believing from what’s actual. Critical thinking looks for relationships between one thing and another, “How does this X lead to or trigger this Y?  What mechanism is involved in this?  How does the process work?”  This is the Meta-Model distinction of cause-effect and the questions that explore it.  Critical thinking then moves to precision and specificity as we identify in see-hear-feel terms (empirical) the referents.  “What specifically are you referring to?”

Assuming that words are real is the mistake, that’s the cognitive bias here. They are not.  Words are symbols.  We use a word to stand for something else.  And if a word stands for, and represents something else, then it is not the thing it refers to.

For me, all of this highlights and reveals the power of the NLP Meta-Model of Language for developing, training, and refining critical thinking skills. I wrote about this in Communication Magic (1997/ 2001) many years ago.  At that time I said that when I discovered this, it was so amazing that my sense was that it put into my hands a more powerful tool than everything I learned at University for my Masters Degree in Clinical counseling.  With the Meta-Model of Language, I could discover and understand another person’s
model of the world and help the other change it if they wanted to.

And yet I had more.  Not only did I have a process for challenging erroneous maps and facilitating changing maps that were inadequate, my own and those of others- the process was developing within me true critical thinking skills.

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CRITICAL THINKING AND COGNITIVE BIASES

How does it set with you to realize that you, like all of the rest of us, have numerous cognitive biases which are built into the way your brain and body works?  How does it settle to know that there are numerous experiences in which you are more likely than not to distort information and come away from the experience with false ideas and erroneous understandings?

Personally, I don’t like it.  Yet it is a fact about our mind-body system. Distortion is one of the modeling processes along with generalization and deletion which is inherent in how we make our mental maps.  And so I accept it and I also work to, first, be aware of the operational cognitive biases that are operational in us as human beings and then, second, take them into
account as best I can in those situations where they are most likely to be activated.

There’s something else that I also don’t like.  I don’t like how many cognitive biases there are!  There are a lot of them!  There are dozens and dozens, maybe even hundreds.  When Colin Cox began studying this subject, I asked him at one time regarding how many of the cognitive biases that he catalogued.  I was hoping we could reduce them to a list of 10 or 20.  But no.  There were scores and scores of them.  That fact alone makes it really challenging to know them all, be conscious of them, and not let them get the best of us.

What then are some of the central ones, the most common ones?  What cognitive biases can you count on that you have and most of the people around you fall for on a regular basis?

Confirmation Bias
This is the bias to confirm what you already know and believe.  The more you know it, the more familiar it is to you, and so the stronger you believe it. The more you believe it, the more you will find even more confirming evidence for it.  Talk about a Catch-22!  No wonder it is so difficult to talk, and worse yet, argue, someone out of a belief.

The Patternicity Bias
This is the bias to find and invent patterns.  We are biased that way. Our brains are most essentially pattern-detection machines.  We think anecdotally, not statistically and so one or more incidents can convince us of a pattern when there is none!  This creates all sorts of weird beliefs and understandings that can undermine a person’s effectiveness in dealing
with the real world.

Hindsight Bias
Have you noticed how things are so clear to you after the event?  It is amazing! In hindsight, we clearly see all of the clues that should have forewarned us about things.  We see so clearly what went wrong with other people and scratch our heads wondering, “What’s wrong with them?  Are they blind?  All the evidence was right there in front of them?”  In sports we
call this Monday Morning Quarterbacking.  In psychology we talk about someone being an arm-chair psychologist.  An arm-chair expert in any of these things, sports, profiling people, businesses, politics, etc. we are so incredibly insightful about things afterwards!  We know how the game should have been played and what we would have done if we were the coach!

Self-Justification Bias
Ah, here is the bias of biases!  We all come with this one-a bias to justify ourselves.  We want to be right, and by God, we’re going to be right even if we have to twist the facts a bit, or a lot.  Little children who are not capable of truly being “response-able” almost automatically will “explain” why they hit their brother or didn’t do his homework.  Being wrong is hard.  It is easier and more “natural” to tell you why I am right and you are wrong. 🙂

Attribution Bias
Like the previous one, in this one we demonstrate our built-in bias to attribute goodness to ourselves as we interpret our problems being due to the circumstances of life while we attribute character flaws to others when they have the same problems.  In our case, the mistake is due to the situation, in theirs it is due to their disposition and character.  We are
good, just blocked.  They are bad to the bone!

Sunk-Cost Bias
This is a bias that gets us to pay far, far too much than what is realistic or needed.  The bias is that once we have invested something (money, time, effort, reputation, etc.) into something, then we are biased to keep investing even though we “know” better.  After all, we have sunk so much into it already!  So we can’t just stop and let it go.  Or can we?

Status Quo Bias
Think of this one as also the Risk Averse bias.  Here we are biased to keep things the same and avoid risk in situations where there is a strong possibility of loss.  Because security is so important for us as human beings, the status quo is very satisfying in that it gives us comfort, familiar, and the known.

Anchoring Bias
This bias occurs because once something has been mentioned it tends to “anchor” our thinking and calculations thereafter.  Mention an irrelevant number, even this will have an anchoring effect.  This is the bias of first-impressions.  It is what we do in priming.

Availability Bias
This is the bias is described by the proverb, “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.”  We tend to think, process information, and calculate according to what we have available to us, information that’s available, memory that’s available, etc.

Representation Bias
When faced with uncertainty, we are biased to make snap decisions based on various shortcuts that we use.  We use these shortcuts by using whatever “rules of thumb” (heuristics) that we have developed.  This reduces things to make them more simple (for us) as we judge probability.  “An event is judged probable to the extent that it represents the essential features of its parent population or generation process” (Amos Tversky, Daniel Kahneman).  So what and how we represent these heuristics biases us.

Inattention Blindness Bias
When we are intensely focused on one thing, we are biased to be “blind” to other things.  This explains how people can not see a Gorilla in the middle of a basketball game.

Expectation Bias
We are also biased to see what we expect to see!  When we expect something, we tend to notice it, look for it, and then … lo and behold, we find it. As a meta-level, our expectations set a frame which then affects our perceptual filters.

Authority Bias
In contexts where we are new or uncertain, we tend to default to those in authority and to uncritically believe them and value their opinions. Obviously, this is a dangerous one as it actually encourages people to not think for themselves and to be too naively trusting.

Group Bias
This is our bias for valuing and believing what our group values and believes, also known as the “bandwagon effect.”  Because we are social beings and our social relationships mean a lot to us, most people find it extremely difficult to not deferent to whatever biases their referent group holds.  In highly cohesive groups this can lead to groupthink.

Consistency Bias
We have a bias to be consistent.  This is good.  Except when the bias is so strong we cannot tolerate inconsistency.  Then when we experience dissonance, our inner psychology will work to reduce the cognitive dissonance.  If our beliefs and behaviors are inconsistent with each other, there will be a natural inner bias to distort our perceptions about such
and/or to change the belief or the behavior.

Not-Invented Here Bias
When a group of people are highly cohesive or simply having been together for a long time, they will develop the tendency to discount information or ideas that do not come from the preferred group or source.  What comes from outside and is “not invented here” will seem foreign and therefore wrong.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Bias
finally we are biased to set in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy based on our beliefs.  When we believe something, our belief becomes a meta-level frame that then governs perceptions and actions.  Then because we are a system, our whole system becomes organized to conform as best as it can to our beliefs.

If you have any questions about the importance of critical thinking skills- then take this short list of cognitive biases with you for a week and begin to notice them.  I think you will be stunned to discover just how much we all distort our sense of reality and how much we all need to keep learning and updating our critical thinking skills.

L. Michael Hall Ph.D-Founder of Neuro Semantics.

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