What are the Higher-Order of Mental Processes?
Critical thinking, reasoning, and decision-making are considered higher-order mental processes compared to concept formation and problem solving. These mental processes are not to be considered separate entities. For example, one can employ critical thinking when forming concepts, or use decision-making when solving a problem. It is best to view higher-order mental processes as refinements of concept formation and problem solving. Using these higher-order mental processes, one can arrive at better-formed concepts and more effective solutions to problems. Let's explore them one by one.
Critical thinking is evaluating reflectively the focus or the topic. It can be likened to looking at yourself in front of the mirror; but this time, in different angles, lighting, and even different kinds of mirrors. This is because critical thinkers are not satisfied with what the average sees; they keep an open mind and try to adopt as many perspectives as they can. Once they've exhausted all the possible interpretations and explanations do they reach a conclusion, an evaluation, a verdict, or a critique on the subject's value, that is, if it is true or false, a worthy or an unworthy cause. According to Ellen Langer, critical thinking is similar to mindfulness - a mindful person has a heightened awareness of both himself or herself, the world, and the people around him or her. Contrast this to a mindless person entrapped in his or her own subjective perspective, refuses to acknowledge other possibilities, and thus resorts to automatic and inefficient behavior.
According to psychologists, there are specific activities that can actually facilitate critical thinking. These include analyzing, connecting and synthesizing ideas; influencing and creating new ideas; and criticizing, evaluating, and rethinking over these ideas. In contrast, critical thinking is not about simply reciting, stating, enlisting, defining, and describing concrete objects.
Critical thinking is obviously an important element in mastering academics, but would you be surprised that the current educational system often skip teaching this? In school, students are often taught to imitate or adopt their teacher's thinking style, and to learn to give out the correct single answer to all questions. For example, how many students have read Hamlet and grasped how the notions of power, greed and conflicting relationships propel the plot and develop the characters? Teachers don't let students generate their own ideas about it; instead, they teach the critiques made by established scholars, and that's it. After all, there are just too many things to teach right now; who has the time? Educator John Dewey has been advocating that teachers should teach their students to think critically and reflectively. Fortunately, Ann Brown and Joseph Campione founded "Fostering a Community of Learners" (FCL) to encourage critical thinking in schools by targeting inner-city elementary school children to engage in such activities as reflecting, discussing, questioning, making constructive comments, criticizing, and justifying opinions using supporting evidences and counter-examples. According to FCL, engaging students in these activities resulted to significant improvement in their reading, writing, and problem solving skills.
Reasoning is the process of synthesizing information to reach conclusions. Generally, reasoning can be categorized into two types - inductive and deductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning is drawing conclusions from a sample, whether the sample is significant or not. For example, suppose you move in to a different city, and you want to know how the people in this city behave. It is virtually impossible for you to examine all the city dwellers, but perhaps you'll have your own conclusions about the city dwellers once you spend around a week interacting with 20 people or so in the city. Conclusions derived from inductive reasoning are never certain though, since you only have manageable information at hand, but you know that the more time you spend in the city, and the more people you have the chance to interact with, the better you become in grasping the culture of the city dwellers. In fact, you may not notice that after a year of residing in the same city, you will then reflect a minute sample of the city dwellers. On the other hand, deductive reasoning is always certain. Instead of drawing conclusions from a sample, deductive reasoning draws conclusions about the sample from the population. For example, a certain furniture company manufactures mattresses using a special equipment that ensures 10 years of product life. Thus, if you buy one bed from this furniture company, you would know that it will definitely last 10 years.
Decision making is the process of choosing among available alternatives. Decision making would be easy if there are established rules on how to choose well. However, all decision making opportunities occur when there are no established rules, that is, the common notion, "You have to decide for yourself. (No one will tell you how.)" Besides the lack of established rules, there are other problems decision makers also face. It is difficult to make decisions when critical information are not even available, when there is no available knowledge about the consequences of potential choices, and when there is not enough confidence on information that is available. Generally, though, decision makers choose the option that brings out the highest expected value. For example, in a game show, you are asked to choose three boxes containing different sums of money. Box A is transparent, and you can readily see the amount; box B is translucent, and you can see a vague outline of the amount, but you are not confident about what you make out of it; lastly, box B is completely opaque, and you don't know what is contained inside. Essentially, the goal is to choose the box that contains the highest value, but the decision maker is faced with different kinds of dilemmas: (1) no established rules - no one has made a formula indicating the probability of risks for each choice; (2) missing information - no one knows what box C contains; (3) lack of confidence - unsure about the outline in box B; and, (4) lack of knowledge of the consequences - no one knows what the minimum and maximum amounts are, that is, it can range from zero to any amount.
The common mistakes decision makers commit are actually borne out of the above-outlined obstacles they face. Confirmation bias is the tendency to highlight supporting ideas rather than the dissenting views. This happens when we look for information that can validate predetermined conclusions, rather than refute them. Belief perseverance is the tendency to be stubbornly insistent on a belief despite established contradictory evidences. Overconfidence bias is the tendency to reach a decision when many evidences already support it, but that not all evidences are critically examined. For example, even if the entire panel of judges agree on one decision, it is still wise to exhaust all possible steps to strengthen the decision by mindfully and deliberately attacking and refuting it. Hindsight bias is the tendency to think that our decisions are stable, before and after we make them. It's the "I knew it!" moment. However, Demarkis showed in 1997 that people's predictions and conclusions before and after the verdict of O. J. Simpson actually did not match, even if most people still claimed that their initial prediction is the same as with their final conclusions. Availability heuristic is the tendency to tendency to decide for an option that is easy to recall and imagine. For example, whenever the media highlight a series of crimes in the news, more and more people would decide to be extra careful and cautious because they would think that their immediate environment is especially dangerous. Lastly, representativeness heuristic is the tendency to decide on something based on a known prototype or a common stereotype. For example, a person skilled at carpentry and wrestling, knowledgeable in repairing motorcycles, owns a pet snake, and holds a police record, matches the prototype of a motorcycle gang member more than that of a salesman, right? Yes and no. Around 1% of motorcycle gang members possess all these characteristics, compared to a measly 0.1% salesmen. However, there are significantly more salesmen than motorcycle gang members in the world. A closer examination of the data shows that roughly about 100 motorcycle gang members fit all the characteristics mentioned above, compared to a surprising 1000 salesmen. This means that there are currently more salesmen who fit the prototype than motorcycle gang members.