What 3 priests can teach us about Critical Thinking

Updated: Oct 21, 2021

Psychologists like Kahneman & Tversky (the first, a Nobel prize winner in economics) draw our attention to the important role that heuristics-and-biases play in our judgement and information-processing. It seems that we’re not quite as rational as we may think and this ‘bounded rationality’ (Simon) has serious implications for evidence- & risk-based decision-making.

Let’s consider how our minds work (or don’t) with the help of some of priests in the ‘Fr. Ted’ series. If you’re not a fan, comparative fictional characters are suggested below, also comedic. Humour after all is a useful cognitive tool to debias our thinking and deal with complexity and ambiguity. It can highlight contradictions implicit in our assumptions and provides a safe place to explore rather than dismiss these.

Fr. Jack’s rules for life

The brain is described as ‘cognitively lazy’ as it processes information on a ‘good enough’ principle. ‘Lazy’ can still be useful however. As Bertrand Russell told us – “organised people are just too lazy to look for things”. However, Fr. Jack who is a bit like “the Dude” Lebowski in character, takes his ‘satisficing’ seriously. His exertions are calculated as precisely as Occam’s razor to enable him sitting in a chair, stupefied, with a beatific smile on his face for as long as possible each day. His brain applies just two basic decision rules. These ‘heuristics’ steer him to respond to particular stimuli i.e. - 1. “DRINK!” by getting his paws on it asap and 2. “GIRLS” to escape them as quickly as he can on his wheelchair.

Even smart professionals can think a bit like Jack at times. Many of our best-loved thinking tools have embedded heuristics yet we too are change-averse. We often apply tools reflexively, not because we’ve determined beforehand that they’re fit-for-purpose but simply because we’re confident in their use and/or just assume that they're the most suitable.

Fr. Jack has a ‘pet’ brick that he keeps on a rope. He can use this like a hammer in his pursuit of drink. Our ‘hammers’ include specific Lean and software tools e.g. FMEA or Minitab. Unless we choose to consider our selection of thinking tools carefully and vary these sufficiently, all our problems start to look like nails too. If so, we can find ourselves. like Fr. Jack Hackett, in real danger of damaging our own health or, worse, that of others. As Russell warns - “most people would die sooner than think—in fact, they often do”.

Fr. Ted’s bevy of biases

Biases are the time-critical mental simplifiers (or short-cuts) that we all rely on daily. Yet certain combinations result in cognitive distortions that give us a skewed take on reality. Fr. Ted, in contrast to Fr. Jack, enjoys female company and delights in the spotlight e.g. hosting a ‘Lovely Girls’ competition. On himself winning the long yearned-for “Golden Cleric” aware, however, Ted acts a lot like Ron Burgundy in ‘Anchorman’ i.e. now ‘kind of a big deal’. During his acceptance speech, Ted quickly reveals his equally low self-esteem and a multitude of biases. In the classic tragic-comedy scene, Ted uses his speech to vindicate himself, rattling off a long list of all the people who weren’t nice to him or didn’t believe he could become “a top priest”.

When our work-lives are not going not to plan, we too are prone to the same ‘attribution error’ such as putting our own failures down to negative personalitt traits of others (or ‘liars’ as Ted calls them). We all can tend to blame others’ actions on internal factors but our own failings, we largely put down to external factors i.e. situational ones that are outside of our control.

Of course, much of Ted’s confidence is also newly acquired and largely down to ‘hindsight bias’. Although now apparently convinced he’d win all along ('hindsight bias'), the reality is that Ted actually consistently lacks faith in his own ability. He suffers hugely from anxiety, 'imposter syndrome' and regularly self-sabotages e.g. throwing himself down stairs and out windows to avoid challenging situations.

Similarly, we can be mistaken in congratulating ourselves for reaching the right conclusions based based on the wrong evidence or, just as likely, considering the right evidence but arriving at erroneous conclusions. Like Ted, we persevere on hopeless schemes not because they will producee useful outcomes but because we don’t want to have our prior efforts go to waste i.e. ‘sunk-cost fallacy’. Even wearing a lovely shiny jacket, Ted’s ‘My Lovely Horse’ Eurosong entry was never really in the running as it lacked integrity from the beginning and ultimately scored ‘null points’. As humans like Ted, we need to consider that we’re just as cognitively challenged. We apply ‘fast-and-frugal heuristics’ and have a tendency to see what we believe ('confirmation bias’) as much as to believe what we see.

Fr. Dougal – 'oh, for a simple life'

Fr. Dougal is the “Forrest Gump” character of the series. His endearing, childlike wonder at the world is refreshingly free of dogma - although he is worryingly agnostic given his profession. Dougal gives us an insight into how quite simple ‘mental models’ work like frameworks to underpin how we make sense of world. These influence our perception and interpretation of stimuli but largely unbeknownst to ourselves. They are also largely inherited e.g. such as our work ethic. Dougals ‘schema’s’ are strikingly under-developed, however, lacking any of the sophistication necessary to for him to live/work independently and certainly not to grasp more ‘ecumenical matters’.

One of Dougals biggest problems is his inability to make key distinctions. For example, one day gazing out onto the green fields of Craggy Island, Ted realises that Dougal does not understand the concept of perspective. Dougal confuses a toy cow with a real one that is far away. However, our ‘bounded rationality’ also catches us out regularly. We might distinguish ‘faraway’ from ‘small’ but what about ‘opposites’ and ‘negative’s’? Take a second to ask yourself - ‘is hot the opposite of cold?’ and in answering this, you'll discover how easy it is to mistake these. Cold and hot are simply differences in degrees of temperature.

Every day, like Dougal, we’re challenged to apply logic e.g. not to believe in false claims e.g. of‘spider babies’ and to repeating lines that sound convincing but we don’t fully understand. Unlike Dougal, we must engage in ‘metacognition’ i.e. become more aware of our reasoning styles in order to avoid confusion and black-and-white thinking.

A sad ending....

If you’ve read this far (and thanks for that), it may be that you’re vulnerable (like us all) to ‘narrative bias’. Stories are also tools that help us deal with complexity in allowing us to combine established facts with ambiguous (or less well-understood) information. So strong is the draw of a good narrative that it can lure us into jumping to conclusions, ones that tend to endure a long in our shared memories.

The loss of Dermot Morgan, the fine man, writer and actor who played Fr. Ted is still deeply-felt. Another author and a former trader and chess grandmaster, Adam Robinson, has described the Internet as “one big ‘confirmation bias’, engineered to give us the information we expect”. He highlights that with more data, we have “limitless parameters at our disposal to argue any point we want”. But perhaps that’s actually the secret: we simply need to be willing to listen to other stories (even ones we don’t want to hear) and not just go along with the narrative, trend or tide. As Mrs. Doyle, Fr. Ted’s housekeeper, might say - “go on, go on, go on, go on, go on….”. To this end,

we deliver critical thinking & de-biassing programmes for STEM professionals & help diversify reasoning in the face of greater complexity. Email to enquire.


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