When Critical Thinking Doesn’t Help: Why It Fails and How to Make It Happen
Millard J. Melnyk
Against the deceptive draw of manipulative situations for many individuals, critical thinking is a kind of “if only” remedy: If only they’d think critically, they wouldn’t get taken advantage of. Admittedly, encouraging critical thinking is a tall order, but why?
In a nutshell: Critical thinking’s evaluative, challenging, objectively detached orientation conflicts with the imaginative, validation- and connection-seeking interests of people attracted to societal fringes. As we try to “talk sense” to them, fringe-group recruits feel these conflicts that hamper our efforts. To encourage critical thinking, we need to understand these implicit cognitive conflicts and avoid letting them become explicit interpersonal conflicts.
These conflicts result from basic disparities between the respective values and priorities, sense of responsibility, and intention for engagement of those involved. We don’t intend or consciously precipitate the conflicts, but too often they shift the engagement from friendly to adversarial—an avoidable shift. Friendly, supportive relationships with recruits are key to the trust necessary for us to influence them toward sounder thinking, even if sound thinking seems to suffer temporarily along the way.
I'll refer to new religious movements, closed high-demand groups, and the like as fringe groups or simply groups. These ideas apply even to groups of several or just two, such as manipulative or abusive families or couples.
Discussions about critical thinking suffer from vagueness of the term. Usage and definitions vary, each source assuming that its choices are correct. So I'll use an intentionally broad definition to cover the broadness of actual usage: Critical thinking is analytical thinking that evaluates credibility and merit of beliefs. These aspects are pertinent and pivotal in interactions with people attracted to fringe groups.
I'll focus on both potential recruits who aren’t yet members and newly recruited group members who aren’t yet seriously enmeshed under the term recruits. The discussion applies to established members, too; but extracting someone from group entrenchment is far more problematic than influencing those just getting involved. So for clarity’s sake I’ll stick to the simpler case.
Conflicts of Interest in Values and Priorities
The best medicine in the world is useless if it triggers severe, unavoidable allergic reactions. Similarly, in a very real way, at intuitive, even instinctive levels, recruits attracted to fringe groups balk at critical thinking when it is openly advocated.
Critical thinking is a method of critique prized in cultures that stress analytical, objective thinking over synthesis-focused, subjective thinking. This emphasis poses basic conflicts of interest to recruits who, typically, are synthetically and subjectively oriented. Critical thinking presupposes and requires an independence of perspective and judgment that is off-putting or even threatening to recruits seeking the benefits of inclusion, belonging, and validation from those they hold as authorities. We’d like them to think for themselves when they, in effect, have decided they want others to think for them—a keystone of authoritarianism. Presuming to rival or challenge that authority, which they already have consciously or unconsciously granted to another, directly creates an authoritarian duel, with us as pots calling the kettle black.
People attracted to fringe groups typically want ways to synthetically put the pieces of life together, not analytically take them apart. They don't see critical thinking as a solution but rather as a hurdle to their synthetic intentions, and they interpret the advocates of critical thinking as interfering with their pursuit of something wonderful. Asking them to analyze, evaluate, and challenge the very beliefs that promise their hopes will be realized readily signals threat, and rightly so. They want to affirm, appreciate, and celebrate precisely what critical thinking brings under scrutiny.
Group beliefs, theories, doctrines—the typical targets of many anticult programs—play their roles in hooking recruits, but only as part of an attractive experiential gestalt that redefines the very basis for the recruits’ thinking. To engage them, we need to think in cognitive terms—i.e., in terms of how their brains function rather than with reference to externalized abstractions such as theories or doctrines—and to focus on how they feel about issues important to them as considered from their points of view. Shifting the engagement to a different basis hamstrings our influence and, as we know if we’ve tried, gets met with resistance.
Recruits aim to increase cognitive consonance that results from the meaning, structure, belonging, security, and potential for goal realization the group offers. Critical thinking does the opposite: It increases cognitive dissonance over those same issues. These are believers. Urging them to critically reassess their involvement implies the ironic presumption that they lacked good reason to believe what they in fact found ample reason to believe. Before they’ll consider the questions that critical thinking poses, they need to recognize its validity and, more importantly, feel a need for it. Rather than assume it’s needed and impose it on them (however nicely), we need to find ways to raise the issue as a question of mutual concern.
Mental functions involved in analytical activities are quite different from those involved in synthetic activities. In fact, to a degree, they preclude each other.1 For example, here’s a smattering of pairs of analytical (on the left) vs. synthetic (on the right) activities and attitudes:
- critique vs. creativity
- skepticism vs. trust
- testing vs. hope fulfillment
- detachment vs. connection
These are not strict opposites, and in practice they complement and enhance each other; but cognitively, experientially, in the moment, engaging in one side involves a degree of suspension of the other—i.e., significant activation of mental functions for one and deactivation of the functions that correspond to the other. This difference can be felt. Recruits focused on synthetic pursuits can interpret the tension arising from our efforts to refocus them on the analytical side as a step toward conflict, or even as an adversarial move.
These conflicts of interest in priorities rest on deeper disparities between respective basic values. Proponents of critical thinking tend to emphasize thought process and overlook or minimize the fact that fringe-group involvement often results from rejection of primary conventional premises—even those on which critical thinking’s value rests. In a very real sense, recruits reject critical thinking because it represents values that they abandoned as they sought alternatives; to them, it is not a solution, but an avenue to reintroducing the problem.
Conflict Over Responsibility
Conflict over responsibility is another important reason that recruits balk at others’ attempts to encourage critical thinking. Our implicit judgment that critical thinking is missing encroaches on an interpersonal boundary: We are taking on responsibility that properly belongs to the recruits. Again, they feel this imposition even if they can't articulate it. This results from our failing to raise questions jointly instead of unilaterally assuming the pertinence of questions that are important from our perspective, based on presumptions that
- we understand their beliefs;
- we are competent to critique their beliefs;
- they are unaware or misinformed; and
- the group’s beliefs and agenda are suspect.
By unilaterally assuming this role—i.e., usurping it, we diminish the recruits’ status, doing what adds up to adversarial from their point of view:
- disregarding and subordinating their perspective and agency;
- casting ourselves in superior, more knowledgeable roles; and
- externalizing and embodying in ourselves the cognitive dissonance evoked by critique.
Doing these things polarizes the engagement and transforms us from allies into enemies.
Ironically, we criticize fringe groups for similarly violating the personal boundaries of their members, and this irony is not lost on recruits. Critiquing involvement in a fringe group is simply not our responsibility, especially if the action is unsolicited. Even if recruits “ought” to think more critically, that fact doesn’t mitigate our usurping their responsibility for choosing whether or not to do so.
Instead, we need to unobtrusively encourage them toward self-initiated, self-directed critical thinking rather than urging or imposing it on them from without. So the trick is to prompt and get invited to participate with them in that process. This point brings us to the conflict that is both most important to recruits and most misunderstood by would-be helpers.
Conflict of Engagement Intent
Recruits have one primary intention for their interaction with us, while we have another. They want to affirm, promote, and gain recognition of the virtues of their group and its beliefs; but we want to bring those factors into question. They hope we’ll see the credibility and merits of their claims and agenda, but we hope to open these areas up to analysis and evaluation. Each side wants to change the other’s mind. Obviously, full-frontal, transparent confrontation won’t work.
I refer to this as engagement rather than relationship because relationships with recruits are nascent and vulnerable by nature, even if we’ve known the recruits all our lives. We’re now dealing with supposedly new persons. They report themselves as such, and we experience them that way, too. So the nature of our relationship is under redefinition.
Steven Pinker mentions three relationship types, the cross-connection of which can have unpredictable and often undesirable (or even comical) results:
Approaching a recruit in a relationship of dominance (such as parents might try with children attracted to a fringe group) rarely succeeds, partly because the dominance question has already been answered: The group is dominant. So dominance presumed by parents or authorities outside the group represents a challenge or threat to group authority and the recruit’s hopes. This reality often plays into the group’s agenda, strengthening typically adversarial us-vs.-them narratives and further coalescing recruits into “the fold.”
Approaching recruits on the basis of reciprocity is virtually impossible in practice if not in principle. Membership in the group is prerequisite for credibility, so genuine reciprocity with outsiders is out of the question. Our merely being outside automatically discounts or casts suspicion over everything we say.
Approaching recruits on the basis of communality is problematic since it’s typically reserved for group members. However, there’s an exception: potential recruits! Potential recruits aren’t given full access to the group’s internal information and workings, but enough access to enable them to build communal rapport with established recruits who are eager to see whether they can win over a new convert. And this exception brings us back to the basic issue.
How to Get Believers to Think Critically
How can we approach recruits in a way that makes them genuinely interested in thinking critically about their involvement in a group? In my experience, this happens only in relationships of communality, and taking on the role of a potential recruit is one way of introducing the concept.
Presenting ourselves as open to recruitment would be disingenuous if we were absolutely closed to it; but if we were, that would imply another irony. Critical thinking directs us to recognize true and valuable ideas wherever we find them. Before we can declare that truth and value can’t be found somewhere, we first need to actually look for them there with open minds. Even if we’re quite sure that the possibility is out of the question, intellectual integrity requires that we at least give it a chance. If we aren’t honestly willing to look, we have no right to advocate critical thinking.
In their typical proselytizing zeal, fringe-group recruits need little more than our openness to see us as candidates for recruitment. I'm amazed at how intimidating it can be to face this prospect in practice, but if it's too much of a stretch, consider that all but the most reclusively paranoid groups are amenable to us in a friends-of-the-group status—especially if we’re generous friends! So even knowing that we’ll never become a member, communality is still possible as a friend of the group.
To help recruits, we need to
- gain access to them that they deem credible, advantageous, and safe;
- foster friendships—i.e., relationships of communality;
- honor and defend keeping the responsibility for critical thinking and other evaluative activities firmly in their hands; and
- approach critical thinking in a palatable form.
I suggest that we take an indirect approach, insinuating critical thinking by modeling it as our own questions for our own sake, relying on recruits to answer and resolve those questions for us. To avoid their instinctive revulsion to critique, focus critique on ourselves, on our questions and perplexities as friendly, actively supportive, credibility-assuming, nonanalytical, nonevaluative friends who are relying on them for answers. This is a relationship model that they understand, and it’s not foreign to us, either. We instinctively approach our friends openly and supportively about their beloved pursuits. The more politic of us also approach them this way even when they engage in pursuits we find objectionable.
On the flip side, being friendly when we feel it’s risky poses a dilemma. We tend to retreat from the vulnerability and obligations of friendliness when we face risks to our safety, well-being, or status; but we tolerate those risks for friends, at least to a point, so we have precedents that serve as models. And curiously, avoiding the conflicts discussed above reduces our sense of risk and, more importantly, a fringe-group recruit’s sense of risk; this in turn makes it easier for us to develop and navigate friendships with them.
Here is just one way to use a friend approach with someone who is getting involved in a fringe group (and there are plenty more, I'm sure):
- Familiarize yourself with your friend’s new interest, appreciating her intentions and goals. Instead of implications of her involvement in the group, focus on your friend and her hopes. Even if you’re sure that she will be disappointed, identify with what she experiences. Doing this makes you an ally in the real purpose of group involvement: hope fulfillment.
- Participate with your friend. Meet her new friends. Expose yourself to her thinking and activities as much as you can, especially her unusual, distinctive ideas and practices. Noticing these shows that you “get it.” As things don't make sense to you, ask questions and pose problems as your own, and expect your friend to provide answers and solutions, leaving the onus on her. This approach increases her discomfort with the group’s beliefs and agenda without your taking a critical posture.
- Extrapolate: Carry the group’s claims to their logical conclusions, steering away from theory and doctrine except as they pertain to real-life outcomes. Leverage the same imaginative, synthetic thinking that she counterposes against critical thinking to stage a need for critical thinking. Imagine wonderful outcomes resulting from group involvement, with the images serving as goalposts by which to gauge progress toward hope fulfillment. Because the extrapolations endorse the group’s claims, she will likely accept them, even enthusiastically. Express that you can’t at this time believe that those results will materialize and explain why, albeit in sincere hope that you’re mistaken.
- If necessary, after giving your friend and the group a fair hearing and a sincere try, explain why you won’t continue to be involved. At this point your reasons will carry more weight, and she will be more sympathetic and receptive.
- Check in periodically to see how the recruit is, especially to see whether you—not she—might have been wrong. If she has new information, explore it. If she merely reiterates beautiful beliefs that her hopes will one day materialize, be supportive; but point out that time has passed (be specific—quantify it), and that she still speaks in future tense about hopes not yet realized. This isn’t criticism implying that something should have happened by now—just interested, supportive, concerned observation, a checkpoint. As time goes by and real outcomes remain “one day over the rainbow” (as they invariably do, year after year), you’re building a track record as you approach a tipping point, if any change of mind will ever come at all.
These steps outline a peer-oriented persuasion process similar to those we naturally use in ongoing friendships. This approach avoids the conflicts and violations mentioned above, endorses the dignity, integrity, value, and judgment of your friend and your commitment to the friendship, implying that your dignity, integrity, value, and judgment are worth affirming, too. Most importantly, it keeps the relationship from lapsing to an adversarial basis, ensuring that trust-based avenues of communication remain open. However you approach it, communality is an organic process, affirmative and responsive rather than directive, and it offers no guarantees.
Communality leverages some powerful, innate cognitive functions that engender trust, empathy, and attachment—the very functions that fringe groups exploit to attract recruits. It enables us to deal with the group’s influence on the cognitive levels where it actually occurs, while critical thinking implies a prerequisite change of venue into what recruits typically regard as a cold, abstract sidebar. Communality sympathetically aligns our efforts with a recruit’s intentions and motivations for getting involved in a fringe group, which might be a big reason that we shy away from it—it feels like we’re encouraging them! And in a real sense we are, except not toward group involvement, but toward the real point of group involvement: genuine hope fulfillment. However, communality avoids dictating what those hopes should be, who should evaluate them, and how.
People don’t normally get involved in fringe groups by disciplined processes of rational thought, but by experiencing attraction to the order and meaning, imaginative potential, hope fulfillment, and devoted support and belonging that a cohesive family surrogate offers. This can be condensed into a word: validation.
All religions and spiritual movements promise validation in one form or another. Some deliver, more or less, and many don’t—but all involve costs. Not only does the prospect of securing religiospiritual validation attract recruits, but the cost of securing it also attracts them, strangely enough—not unlike how, for many young recruits to military service, the cost of personal sacrifice enhances the attraction of becoming a competent, formidable soldier. These motivations are noble even if misguided. Even in sincere concern for fringe-group recruits’ welfare, if we minimize “what it’s all about” in favor of concerns that to them seem secondary or antipathetic to their aims, we’ll undermine our efforts to help them, the subversion being a naturally resulting consequence of the efforts themselves.
By taking analytical, evaluative approaches to fringe-group recruits, we run afoul of important cognitive functions that tend to bolster, not mitigate, their attraction to group involvement and, by the same token, discourage involvement with us. We also aggravate biases that make recruits prone to regard our approaches as judgmental, which triggers alarms. By engaging recruits in friendly, supportive ways, focused on their interests rather than on their problems, we introduce alternatives to group involvement that they feel favorably disposed toward, even attracted to. Friendly relationships evoke cognitive dissonance that arises from multiple angles as an integral function of recruits’ paradigms rather than as critique/criticism from without. Friendships can eventually serve as options to group involvement or even lifelines out of the group environment if recruits come to feel entrapped.
 A case in point is creative performing. Creative types know from experience, and fMRI studies are backing it up, that creative activity requires suspension of monitoring, evaluating, and correcting brain functions. This is known among performers as “getting out of your own way.” Athletes, artists, writers, and other creative types report similar experiences. One study of jazz musicians claims that “the innovative, internally motivated production of novel material… can apparently occur outside of conscious awareness and beyond volitional control,” and that brain functions that “are thought to provide a cognitive framework within which goal-directed behaviors are consciously monitored, evaluated and corrected”—i.e., analytical functions—were “deactivated during improvisation” [emphasis mine]. See Limb C. J., and Braun, A. R. (2008), “Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation,” PLoS ONE 3(2): e1679. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001679, available at http://www.plosone.org/article/
 See a delightful RSA Animate summary of Pinker's ideas at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-son3EJTrU
About the Author
Millard J. Melnyk got involved in the Jesus Movement in Southern California in the early 1970s. After several years in an informal “home fellowship,” he joined a movement then known as Smith’s Friends, now Brunstad Christian Church. He moved to Seattle, Washington in 1980, where he married and raised six boys. Educated as an information technology (IT) professional, he worked in various IT capacities in the health-care and aerospace industries, later ran a small construction business, and then consulted for small businesses in the Puget Sound, Washington area. In 1994 he was excommunicated by Smith’s Friends and lost his marriage in the ensuing fiasco, but retained custody of his six sons. As a single dad, he raised his sons until 2009 when they went to live nearby with their mother. He then decided to “stop cutting bait, and go fishing,” inaugurating his long-anticipated writing career with a short sabbatical to the west coast of Mexico. He has self-published three books, Bullshit: Common Methods and Practices (2008), Power (2010), and Traction (2011). He is drafting his fourth book with the working title Poor Man’s Mystic. He currently resides in Seattle, but plans to find some sunshine in the near future!