Barriers to Critical Thinking

light bulb Ideas

Preconceived ideas are ideas that decisively influence our thinking, but which we have not critically reflected upon. Not all preconceived ideas are fallacious (based on false assumptions). However, we must constantly consider our preconceived ideas critically to test their validity. In critical reflection we ask about the grounds for holding a belief. Do these grounds withstand rational scrutiny? Is there sufficient evidence to support the belief? Is the belief appropriate in its context? What weight should we give to counterarguments and counterexamples? And so on.

There are two main obstacles to clear thinking: preconceived ideas and fallacies. Preconceived ideas could be broadened to include social conditioning, labeling, and stereotypes. The section below will give you the opportunity to learn to recognize these obstacles to clear thinking.

Try your luck with this riddle

“A man and his son are driving together on a stormy night. They have an accident in which the father is killed and his son badly injured. The boy is taken to the local hospital and requires urgent surgery. He is prepared for the operation and wheeled into the operating room. The surgeon arrives, looks at the boy and says, “I cannot operate on my own son”.

How is this possible?

  1. The man is the boy’s ________________
  2. The boy is the surgeon’s ________________
  3. The surgeon is the boy’s ________________

Ask a few friends, colleagues or family. See how they fare with the same riddle.

Answer: To many people the story presents a riddle. But the answer is obvious. The surgeon is the boy’s mother. The story is a riddle only if we have a preconceived idea which associates being a surgeon with being male. There is no good reason to hold this idea.

Now we will explore how preconceived ideas such as social conditioning, labeling and stereotyping affect our capacity for critical reasoning. The topic of preconceived ideas is an interesting field and it is worth exploring the various forms they take ranging from racial and gender stereotypes to the inability to see ourselves clearly.


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Critical Thinking in Academic Research Copyright © 2022 by Cindy Gruwell and Robin Ewing is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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