The biggest obstacle to effective thinking

November 23, 2022 | Mirta Fagundes dos Santos

Woman thinking

First, let’s define thinking.

Thinking is the ability to process and produce information.

Some people believe there are as many types of thinking as there are people in the world. And this may well be true. Especially if we consider the different combinations, and different ratios, of the seven generally agreed ways of thinking a person could adapt – creative, critical, concrete, convergent, divergent, abstract, and analytical.

But, at the end of the day, there is one thing that matters more than which thinking type you utilize; and that is how effective your thinking is.

Is your thinking effective?

Thinking effectiveness can only be determined in retrospect (unless we go as far as to identify lead measures of effective thinking and observe them throughout the thinking process).

The easiest way to figure out if our thinking is effective is to see whether it produced the desired result. So, if we are looking to solve a problem, and we take the time to think our situation through, and as a result of the thinking we end up with a solution that works; then our thinking has been effective. The purpose of the thinking, i.e. generation of a solution that works, has been fulfilled.

Given time, we can collect data to determine the average number of times our thinking is effective.

What is the biggest obstacle to effective thinking?

Whichever way of thinking we gravitate to, we are mostly limited by our knowledge.

The first use of knowledge categorization in thinking comes from the philosopher Ibn Yami who suggested the following four categories:

– known knowns

– known unknowns

– unknown knowns

– unknown unknowns

Let’s look into the impact of each of these categories on effective thinking:

The known knowns – this is the knowledge we hold, are aware of, and can access. The impact of these on our thinking could be moderate if we overvalue this knowledge and over-rely on it (especially if this means we forgo the research into the unknown).

The known unknowns – these are the assumptions we hold, that we are not aware of, but can access with some effort. The danger lies when we don’t surface the assumptions because we then limit our thinking massively and can draw erroneous conclusions.

The unknown knowns – these are the unconscious biases that drive our decisions. They are the most dangerous to our thinking because they skew our decisions without us being aware and they are hard to bring to awareness.

The unknown unknowns – This is actually the least dangerous category, contrary to popular belief. What are unknown unknowns to you, may be known unknowns to others. So, involving others in your thinking process minimizes the unknown unknowns. For the remaining unknown unknowns, the principle of “ignorance is bliss” applies. And assuming you, and others involved, have enough experience and intuition in the relevant subject area, most of the things in this category then become highly unpredictable events, with a low likelihood of occurrence.

To find out more about assumptions and biases check out some of our past blog posts and podcasts here.