What does "critical thinking" mean?

A simple definition

According to Oxford Languages, Critical thinking (CT) is "the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment."  And according to Google, "Oxford’s English dictionaries are widely regarded as the world’s most authoritative sources on current English."

OK, there you go.  That's the answer.  You can close the browser window now.

...But not a simple meaning

You're still here?  You must be genuinely interested in critical thinking.  Keep going, then, and you will get to know the real meaning of the phrase "critical thinking."

To start, let's analyze the root.  "Critical" comes from the same root as "critic," both of which derive from the ancient Greek κρίνειν (krínein), meaning to judge or to decide.  So it's clear that CT involves judgment, just as Oxford told us.  In fact, this is the most basic and obvious part of the phrase.  So then, we just make sure our judgment is based on objective analysis and evaluation and we're there, right?

The Oxford people did a great job of paring down this broadly-used term to a narrow definition.  But there's no way a one-line definition can capture the real-world meaning of this phrase.  To really answer this question, we'll need to get meta and apply critical thinking to the concept of "critical thinking."I did something similar with the very relevant Six Hats framework developed by Edward De Bono et al.

Why it's critical to understand what critical thinking is

Before we get into the finer points, let's consider an extreme example.  Critical thinking has become a buzzphrase that can even be used to mean the opposite ("doublespeak").  In his piece Let’s stop trying to teach students critical thinking, Dennis Hayes opined,

“Critical thinking” means indoctrination. When teachers talk about the need to be “critical” they often mean instead that students must “conform”. It is often actually teaching students to be “critical” of their unacceptable ideas and adopt the right ones. Having to support multiculturalism and diversity are the most common of the “correct ideas” that everyone has to adopt. Professional programmes in education, nursing, social work and others often promote this sort of “criticism”. It used to be called “indoctrination”.

If we fail to critically analyze the phrase itself, we risk letting others use it against us.

The Skillsyouneed.com Critical Thinking Skills page acknowledges, "Critical thinking has been the subject of much debate and thought since the time of early Greek philosophers such as Plato and Socrates."  The author also points out, "None of us think critically all the time."  This is an important point.  No one can become a master of CT because we are not capable of exercising critical thought every moment of our lives. But there are great benefits to learning more about CT and putting into practice what we learn.

I'm indebted to the author of an article at Small Pond Science, who wrote

Once you start looking at the measurement of critical thinking, [...] you’ve got to specify what critical thinking actually is. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus, except that sometimes experts get together and form a consensus among themselves, but that turns out to not be a consensus.

Embedded in that paragraph is a link to a paper that turns out to be very useful for answering this very question, that is, just what is critical thinking?  According to the author Martin Davies, professor at the University of Melbourne, it depends on who you ask.  But he doesn't stop there. 

Davies created a framework to classify the views of various experts on the subject.Davies, M. (2014). A Model of Critical Thinking in Higher Education. In Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research (pp. 41–92). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-12835-1_2  Through it, we can gain a unified, high-level understanding.  Next time someone speaks about critical thinking, we'll have a much easier time determining what they mean.

An idea that expands and contracts

Davies studied the views of experts in the field and categorized them by how broad or narrow their views are.  Then he illustrated this with a series of concentric circles.  

The core circle is labeled Individuals. As the circles expand outward they are labeled Individuals And Dispositions; Individuals And Others; Individuals, Others, Social Relations; and finally Individuals, Others, Social Relations And Creativity.  Then he places the expert theories each within the smallest circle that can describe all features of the theory.  Inside the Individuals circle is another circle, the smallest.  It is labeled Cognitive skills (Argumentation) and the Individuals circle also shares the label Cognitive skills (Argumentation and judgments).

The center circle is labeled Individuals. As the circles expand outward they are labeled Individuals And Dispositions; Individuals And Others; Individuals, Others, Social Relations; and finally Individuals, Others, Social Relations And Creativity.

Davies' analysis is complex and, for our purposes, it isn't necessary to fully understand everything he considers in order to create his framework.  A few points are useful, though:

  • In its narrowest and most basic form, CT refers to cognitive skills, argumentation, and reflection.
  • CT can involve skills (like a tool that is used when needed) and propensities (a person habitually applies it).
  • Some view CT as an important tool for social change (“critical pedagogy”).
  • A hybrid of these views is known as "criticality." Proponents of this view advocate trying to adopt CT in all aspects of one's life, including knowledge, self-reflection, and action.Dunne, G. (2015). Beyond critical thinking to critical being: Criticality in higher education and life. International Journal of Educational Research, 71, 86–99. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijer.2015.03.003 

A few examples

Let's start making sense of the diagram above.

The inner circles 

Davies cites Robert H. Ennis as the foremost example of the thinkers he places in the smallest circle, those who define CT narrowly as "Cognitive skills (Argumentation)," although he notes that Ennis and colleagues are also sympathetic to the dispositional approach.  I'll be considering this topic further in this series.If you want to learn more about Ennis you may want to start with the paper Ennis, R.H. (1985). A Logical Basis for Measuring Critical Thinking Skills. Educational Leadership, 43, 44-48.

Davies uses Matthew Lipman as an example of a thinker in the slightly larger "Cognitive skills (Argumentation and judgments)" circle that still falls within those who think of CT as a primarily individual activity.A seminal work authored by Lipman is Lipman, M. (1987). Critical ThinkingWhat Can It Be? Analytic Teaching, 8.

Davies places Richard Paul solidly on the border between an individual-centered and a social view of CT.  He was the founder of The Foundation for Critical Thinking, which foundation's website seems to come up at the top of the search results for pretty much anything involving the keyphrase.  Interestingly, the foundation now uses the following as their definition:

Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking.

This sounds entirely individual-oriented to me.  Pending a deeper investigation, I'm inclined to conclude that the foundation has become more individualistic in its thinking.A seminal work of Paul is Paul, R. (1992). Critical thinking: What, why, and how. New Directions for Community Colleges, 1992, 3-24. 

Socially-oriented critical thinking

Barnett and Johnston appear in Davies' next outer circle as representatives of the “criticality” movement circle. They are committed to educating others to participate in the world as critical, engaged citizens.  He is careful to note that these thinkers neither want to fully adopt a radical politico-social agenda (as those in the outer circle do), nor to reduce CT to argumentation, judgments and disposition, as inner circle thinkers are inclined.

In the next outer circle he places "the social pedagogues, Friere, Grioux, McLaren and others," adding, "They are firmly located in the circle that commits to social relations being an essential part of radical critical thinking."  To them, CT only exists in a wider, social context and individual application is less important.

What about creativity?

Is creativity an integral part of CT?  According to Davies, Nicholas Burbules and Rupert Berk would think so.  But Davies asserts, "This account of critical thinking in higher education, however, is highly speculative and undeveloped at this point."

How does your current understanding of creative thinking match up with the concentric circle concept above?  Have you pictured CT as a narrow, individual-centered activity, or have you mostly encountered it in a group setting?  In either case, you would likely find one of the experts above who shares your views.

What it is, what it is not, and what it does

It should be obvious by now that there can be as many definitions of the phrase as there are experts.  Should we despair of ever being able to truly wrap our minds around the concept?  I don't believe so.  The most popular definitions among the experts tend to have certain commonalities.

I won't subject you to a long analysis of the various academic definitions of CT.  Instead, I've done it for you, and I'll share the terms that are common among them.  

What definitions of critical thinking include

Of course, "judgment" is commonly used, as the etymology of the phrase attests.  Other common nouns used to describe CT include:

  • Attitude
  • Skill
  • Analysis
  • Standards

That last one surprised me a bit but it shouldn't have.  Anything that strives for higher quality, as CT does, must have standards.

Other nouns that often appear in such definitions are knowledge, evaluation, intellectual capacity, pattern, decision, rationality, and logic.  Adjectives used include reflective, novel, self-directed, and effective.

What critical thinking is not

With such broad meaning, it's often easier to say what it is not rather than what it is.  Davies masterfully illustrated this by comparing CT to similar concepts.  I've separated these concepts into categories to help us keep track of them.  We'll look at contrasting concepts; closely connected, but not identical concepts; concepts with an asymmetrical relationship with "critical thinking"; and elements that are broader or narrower in scope.

Contrasting concepts

CT is not purposeless thinking, random thinking, accidental or unintentional thinking, or any kind of thinking in which you simply accept all arguments and conclusions you are exposed to.

Asymmetrically related concepts

Good thinking and independent thinking may include CT, but they are not the same.  Likewise, rational thinking is not the same as critical thinking. although CT is a facet of what it means to be “rational.”  Problem-solving and CT often occur together but neither is intrinsic to the other.  Likewise with decision making.

Broader scope

Higher-order thinking is an even broader, more vaguely defined term.  While it clearly includes CT, the two should not be confused.

Narrower scope

Logical, reflective, or metacognitive thinking are all components of creative thinking.  A part, obviously, does not equal the whole.

Similar concepts

As discussed above, some experts, but not most, consider creative thinking to be integral to CT.  However, creativity involves generating ideas, while CT is associated with analyzing and appraising those ideas.

Finally, Davies cites ‘Intuitive’ thinking as another example of an ambiguous term that is not the same as critical thinking. 

What it does

To round out our consideration of the facts of creative thinking, here are some things that experts describe as the results:

Creative thinking allows people to logically process sophisticated information while viewing an issue from many sides.  It enables conclusions that are more solidly based.  The thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking.  In the minds of some, CT is a cornerstone of individual civic engagement and economic success.

To be continued 

Now you are as well-equipped as an expert to discuss the height and depth and breadth of creative thinking.  But in order to really benefit from this knowledge, we'll need to answer a couple more questions.

Future blog posts will consider the questions:

What is a fixed mindset?

It took me many years to discover that being labeled "talented and gifted" was more of a curse than a blessing.  This contributed to my developing a fixed mindset.

Definition of a fixed mindset

Carol Dweck popularized this phrase in her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success:

In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that's that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb.

Many people tend to think of certain people as being innately talented or gifted.  We hear phrases all the time such as:

  • "He's a born leader."
  • "She's a genius."
  • "I'm not a math person."
  • "I'll never be good at that."

Statements like these indicate a belief that certain talents are innate.  We either have them or we don't.  

Individuals manifest a fixed mindset in response to challenges, obstacles, setbacks, and failure.  It is a set of beliefs that affect how the person views effort, feedback, personal success, and the successes of others.  Let's examine these further.

What characteristics indicate a fixed mindset?

Challenges

People with a fixed mindset tend to think of themselves as superior to others.  This idea is confirmed every time they do better than someone else.  But when other people do better it has the opposite effect, so such individuals tend to avoid situations that challenge their superiority. 

On the other hand, individuals who believe in their ability to learn (a "growth mindset") view challenges as opportunities for growth.  They gravitate toward people who are more skilled than they are because they can learn more from them.

Obstacles

People who think talent is innate tend to give up more quickly than those with a growth mindset.  Thus obstacles become insurmountable walls.

Setbacks and failure

Failure is highly undesirable to people who think they are born with talent because it clashes with their view of themselves as skilled and successful.  They personalize failure.  Instead of thinking, "I failed, so I should try again," they think, "I'm a failure."  They shouldn't fail because they are talented.

This belief encourages constant evaluation of oneself and others.  If the individual is self-focused, their self-worth will suffer.  If they are other-focused, they will constantly blame others for their failures.

Having a fixed mindset is like thinking you will always look like you did in your high school graduation photo.

People with a growth mindset believe they can overcome failure with the right amount of time and effort.

Effort

Talented people are successful.  Success is effortless for them, according to a fixed mindset mentality.  So effort is undesirable because it means you’re not smart or talented.

A person with a growth mindset realizes that success requires effort.  They understand that succeeding at more difficult challenges requires more effort.

Feedback

A 2011 study found evidence that individuals with a growth mindset are receptive to corrective feedback.Moser, J. S., Schroder, H. S., Heeter, C., Moran, T. P., & Lee, Y.-H. (2011). Mind Your Errors. Psychological Science, 22(12), 1484–1489. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797611419520 Twenty-five student subjects were asked to click a mouse to identify letters that were quickly flashed on a computer screen. Using electroencephalography (EEG), a procedure that measures the electrical activity of the brain over time using electrodes placed on the scalp, the authors measured the response in each student's brain after receiving information about errors they made. This data was compared to their responses (agree/disagree) to statements such as, “You have a certain amount of intelligence and you really cannot do much to change it.”

The results provide evidence that the students with a fixed mindset tended to tune out information that could help them learn and improve.Those with a growth mindset showed a higher Pe (error positivity) waveform response, which is correlated with a heightened awareness of and attention to mistakes.Ng, B. (2018). The Neuroscience of Growth Mindset and Intrinsic Motivation. Brain Sciences, 8(2), 20. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci8020020 The authors wrote, "For individuals with a fixed mind-set, who believe intelligence is a stable characteristic, mistakes indicate lack of ability."  They weren't interested in learning the right answer after they got the question wrong because to them, it was a failure, and the thought of failure is unpleasant.

Process

A person with a fixed mindset is concerned with finishing a project, reaching a goal, rather than the process involved.  A person with a growth mindset learns to enjoy the process and is more likely to set smaller goals and persevere despite unexpected setbacks.

Success

With a fixed mindset, success means proving you’re smart or talented, validating yourself as superior.

Success of others

A person with a fixed mindset feels threatened by the success of others.  With a growth mindset, the success of others is inspiring.  We identify with the successful person because we realize that if they can do it, we could too.  

Self-worth

A fixed mindset is detrimental to healthy self-esteem.  According to Dweck,

In the face of similar outcomes, a fixed mindset creates a meaning system in which a negative judgment is forever and people act accordingly. A growth mindset, regardless of current difficulties, leaves open the possibility of a brighter future and motivates people to work for it.

What beliefs are associated with a fixed mindset?

"I'm too old to learn"

if we are alive, we can still learn.  Sure we won't learn as fast as we did when we were younger.  But just because we may never be as good at something as someone else was who started learning it earlier, is not a reason for not starting.  What if everyone in the world had to be the best at what they did?  We'd quickly run out of qualified people.

I'm going to fail, so there's no point in trying

The growth mindset is similar to weight lifting.  Weight training "to failure" is very helpful for maximum muscle growth.

The fixed mindset says, I'm going to fail. The idea being, I'll fail every time I try.

The growth mindset says, I might fail. But I'll get further than if I didn't try. I might fail most of the time, but each time I'll get better. Then I'll get to the point that I can succeed every time. And I'll be more successful because it was hard. Fewer people will be able to get to the point where I'll be.

This reminds me of public speaking. Learning how to speak publicly was nerve wracking. Giving a 5-minute speech was hard, but once I got to the point of giving a 1/2-hour talk, a 5-minute speech didn't seem hard at all. Then I starting giving speeches in Chinese. That was super hard, but once I got to the point of giving 1/2 hour talks in Chinese, giving a 1/2 hour speech in English seemed quite easy. None of this would have happened if I had a fixed mindset.

I already know everything I need to know

Everyone is learning. But someone with a growth mindset is more likely to realize they are learning. Someone with a fixed mindset tends to assume they've always known what they currently know. They also tend to assume they'll never change their mind.

A drawing showing two brains back to back with circles below them contrasting the qualities of a fixed mindset vs a growth mindset

Do I have a fixed mindset?

Ask yourself the following:

  • How do I feel when I face challenges? Do I generally tend to avoid them?
  • Do I feel defeated or incompetent when I fail at something?
  • Do I look for excuse?
  • Do I become defensive, angry, or crushed when I receive critical feedback?
  • How do I feel about the successes of others around me? 

How to improve your mindset

Dweck points out that the kind of encouragement teachers provide students has an effect on their mindset.  Telling students they are smart encourages a fixed mindset.  On the other hand, appreciating their efforts ("You worked hard on this") promotes a growth mindset.

Be willing to fail. Recognize that the road to success is paved with failures.

Embrace the belief that growth happens through small, incremental steps, rather than big overnight victories.

Recognize the true power of beliefs 

I'll end with a quote from Dweck:

People’s beliefs are a fundamental part of their personality and motivation, although this is often unrecognized. People’s foundational beliefs about themselves, others, and the world can powerfully shape their goals, the vigor and effectiveness of their goal pursuit, their recurrent patterns of behavior, and, in the end, their well-being.From The Psychology of Thinking about the Future

Some people say, "If you believe in yourself, you can do anything."  I don't agree, but I'm hoping this article has impressed you with the importance of taking a regular, close look at our beliefs.  They really do have the power to enable us or limit us.

A bright outlook for humanity?

For kicks, I googled "How is the human race doing?" and I got a Wikipedia article on human extinction as my first search result. 

Thanks a lot, Google. 😨

Here at Bright Outlook, we're not about that life.  Sure, a lot of scientists may be predicting an eventual end to life, the universe, and everything in it.  Sometimes smart people make good predictions.  But most of the time, the results are laughable, even when the time frame is only a few years or decades.  Do I trust scientists to tell me what the next million years will be like?  No, thank you.

But I still want to know: 

How is the human race doing, really?

If I want to know how well a stock is doing, I can type the ticker symbol into my browser bar and immediately see a number.  How about my health?  There are numbers that tell me how I'm doing.  How's my A1C?  My blood pressure?  Weight?  Resting heart rate?  Give a doctor a few numbers and they can quickly come to a conclusion about the overall health of the patient.

Is there some kind of number to tell us how we are doing as a species?

I went to Google again: Countries by...  As always, Google is very helpful and suggests queries. "Countries by GDP,"Gross domestic product (GDP) is a monetary measure of the market value of all the final goods and services produced in a specific time period. "Countries by population," "Countries by GDP per capita."  These are common measures of how things are going in various parts of the world.  But these numbers are a little like my height, or my waist size, or maybe like the shortest time I can run a mile.  They may give a basic idea of my health, but they don't really show my state of health.  Take the example of Jim Fixx, who wrote a best-selling book on running and then died at age 52.  Some of his numbers were great, but not the ones that really mattered.

Similarly, the AIDS pandemic has taken a big toll in Botswana in recent years.  Diamond sales were barely affected, meaning the GDP stayed the same while the population plummeted.  During this period the GDP per capita went up as a result of the shrinking denominator.  Did GDP per capita represent an increase in well-being in Botswana?  Just the opposite!

How can we measure what really matters?

People have devised many measures to determine the state of human progress, but until recently, none of them came close to showing the whole picture.  Recently some groups have developed indexes or other measures of human prosperity.  Here are some of the factors they include:

  • Life expectancy
  • Health
  • Education
  • Ecological footprint
  • (In)equality
  • Wealth
  • Life satisfaction (happiness)

This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of these measures.  It is intended to represent the most useful, thus far, in helping individuals and policy makers determine the health of countries and regions of the world in these and similar areas.There are other popular measures, such as GPI, but as far as I know all of them are overly complicated or problematic for other reasons.

Human Development Index

This may be the oldest useful indicator of human progress.  The report began to be published in 1990.  In 2010 the formula was adjusted.  Since 2010 this index has measured:

  • Life expectancy at birth
  • An education index, based on mean years of schooling and expected years of schooling
  • A measure of standard of living, similar to GDP per capita
 UN logo

If you want to know exactly how the index is calculated, you can learn more at Wikipedia. To see a map of countries based on the 2018 HDI, click hereThis site provides lots of interactive maps and charts, making the data easy to understand.  Some of the data goes back well over 100 years.

In 2010 the Human Development Index introduced the Inequality-adjusted HDI, providing a more realistic picture.  Go here for an interactive visualization of countries represented by circles.  The size of the circle represents its population.  The x-axis indicates HDI score, and the y-axis represents the change in ranking based on inequality.  Finally, Wikipedia offers a recent list of countries ranked by IHDI.

Happy Planet Index

The New Economics Foundation introduced the Happy Planet Index (HPI) in 2006. It is based on:

  • Life satisfaction
  • Life expectancy
  • Inequality
  • Ecological footprint
Happy Planet Index logo 

The emphasis here is on planet, that is, this index measures the ecological efficiency supporting well-being in various places, not the happiness per se.  Unlike other measures, this one doesn't include an economic indicator.  It assumes that happiness can come from non-economic factors.  This index appears to support sustainable development more than others, but unfortunately the name is confusing.

Happy Planet Index has a useful website with an interactive map and colorful graphics.

A graphic illustrating the formula for calculating HPICosta Rica currently enjoys the top spot on the index, based on life expectancy of 79.1 years, subjective well-being 7.3 / 10, 15% inequality, and 2.8 global hectares per person.  Despite Costa Rica's top score, there is room for improvement:

Income inequality in Costa Rica is particularly high - in part because Costa Rica’s tax system does not effectively redistribute wealth across the population. And while Costa Rica’s commitment to environmental sustainability is impressive, its Ecological Footprint isn’t yet small enough to be completely sustainable.

No one said progress would be easy.

Better Life Index

In May 2011, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development created the OECD Better Life Index.  It is based on the following:

  • Housing
  • Income
  • Jobs
  • Community
  • Education
  • Environment
  • Civic engagement
  • Health
  • Life satisfaction
  • Safety
  • Work-life balance
OECD Better Life Index logo

This measure seems to be tailor-made for someone who's looking to move to a part of the world that fits them better.  The home page is the best place to start exploring this treasure trove of data.  Interactive maps and sliders help you either find a country that suits you best or discover what's most important to people interviewed in various countries.  For example, if work-life balance is the most important thing in your life, you might find Australia a great place to live.

World Happiness Report

Just months after the creation of the OECD Better Life Index, in July 2011, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution inviting their member countries to measure the happiness of their people and to use the data to help guide public policy. Since then, the World Happiness Report has been released nine times. The experts who produced the reports believe well-being is a useful measurement of the progress of nations.

Thomas Jefferson, who said, "The care of human life and happiness... is the sole legitimate object of good government," would likely agree. The focus of the WHR is on subjective well-being alone as a measure of happiness.  However in 2021 the report introduced WELLBYs (Well-Being-Adjusted Life-Years) as a measure than incorporates both well-being and life expectancy.

The WHR official website is https://worldhappiness.report/. I couldn't find any maps or charts on the site, but I did find some interesting information on the results of the Covid pandemic so far.  You can find an interactive map using this data here, and summaries and links to non-interactive maps based on the first eight versions of the report are on this site.

Years of Good Life (YoGL)

The data above are useful if you can interpret them correctly.  The reason I provided links to maps and charts is because that's the only way to easily make sense of the data.  An index is usually in a decimal format, somewhere between 0 and 1, and thus a computer can make sense of it but for most of us the numbers themselves are meaningless.

Not just a number

What if there was a measure that would be easily comprehensible to the average person, even without graphs and charts?  That's the idea that Wolfgang Lutz and his associates came up with.  Lutz is Founding Director of the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital. He and his team carefully analyzed the indexes I highlighted above and found problems with each of them.  For example, The 2012 HPI report showed that Costa Rica is the top happiest country, but the HDI ranked Costa Rica 62nd in human development. Lutz asked:

How can we explain that countries which are less progressing in human development actually show better results in managing their energy consumption and act more sustainable to their environment, compared to countries that show a tremendous progress in improving their population in education, health and awareness to their environment?Lutz W, Lijadi AA, Striessnig E, Dimitrova A & Caldeira Brant de Souza Lima M (2018) Years of Good Life (YoGL): A New Indicator for Assessing Sustainable Progress. IIASA Working Paper WP-18-007. Laxenburg, Austria: International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA).

How do you measure progress toward 17 goals, all at once?

In 2015 the UN and member states adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at its core. The SDGs can be found here. According to the 2018 Lutz paper quoted above, the goal of his group was to establish a new measurement system that would make it much easier to track progress toward meeting those ambitious goals.

I took the 17 SDGs and categorized them the following way:

  • Survival of humans in general and of each individual: 5 goals
  • Elimination of poverty: 3 goals
  • Promoting physical and cognitive health: 3 goals
  • Improving subjective well-being: 3 goals
  • Promoting sustainability: 3 goals

The making of a useful measure

Lutz and associates set out to create a measure of human progress, which they call Years of Good Life (YoGL), that fits the following criteria:

  1. It should apply equally easily to a small population or a large population.
  2. The number should have the same meaning regardless of whether the population it describes is large or small.
  3. It should measure/describe something that everyone in all cultures considers desirable.
  4. It should be a measure of the essentials and not try to measure everything all at once.
  5. It needs to be the end measure (such as life satisfaction) rather than a measure of means (such as income).
  6. It should be easy to understand how the number relates to real life.

For input to this calculation, they chose the five dimensions "that are considered most essential for well-being at any point in time and for any population or sub-population." They determined these five factors to be:

  • Life expectancy
  • Being out of poverty
  • Having no serious physical disabilities
  • Being cognitively enabled
  • Subjective life satisfactionYoGL are basically WELLBYs with adjustments for health and poverty.

No measure is perfect

Comparing my categorization of the 17 SDGs with the five dimensions of the Lutz measure, I see obvious similarities.  The obvious difference is the lack of a direct measurement of ecological impact.  The Lutz paper addresses this omission by saying the YoGL indicator was designed to judge sustainability, "where developments are considered as “sustainable” if they do not lead to a decline in YoGL for any population or sub-population of interest in the longer-term future." In other words, if people aren't doing anything that results in increased poverty or reduced health or well-being, it must be sustainable.

I'm not convinced, but I'm glad they considered it.The latest update to this effort was published in March 2021: Lutz, W., Striessnig, E., Dimitrova, A., Ghislandi, W., Lijadi, A., Reiter, C., Spitzer, S., Yildiz, D. (2021). Years of Good Life (YoGL) is a well-being indicator designed to serve research on sustainability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) [DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1907351](https://www.pnas.org/content/118/12/e1907351118)  You can read their latest arguments about this point here.

Graphic showing expected YoGL in 14 countries, separately for men and women. Life expectancy is indicated by dots.  Vertical bars beneath indicate average YoGL.

What the number means

Lutz and his team may not have formulated the perfect measure of our progress as a species, but I think it's a step in the right direction.  After all, unlike other measures which require a chart (and sometimes a magnifying glass) to make sense of, YoGL is expressed in simple terms: Take the percentage of people in a certain part of the world who live out of poverty, without serious cognitive or physical impairment, and consider themselves happy, and then multiply that fraction by the average life expectancy in that part of the world.  You get exactly what the name suggests: A measure of the average of Years of Good Life in that part of the world.

Our new indicator, the YoGL gives an easy interpretation of the index. YoGL of 75 at birth means that the person has a chance of 75 years of good life: Out of poverty, able to read and write, in a good mental and physical shape, and overall satisfied with his or her life.

Graphic comparing the YoGL score and its factors in three countries from 1995-2015

While in most developed countries, 20-year-old women can expect to have more than 50 years of good life left (with a record of 58 years in Sweden), women in the least developed countries can expect less than 15 years (with a record low of 10 years for women in Yemen). While life expectancy is higher for women than for men in every country, female Years of Good Life are lower than those of males in most developing countries. This reveals a significant gender inequality in objective living conditions and subjective life satisfaction in most of these countries.

Putting it all together

I'd be lying if I said the future of the human race looks bright right now.  But there's no need to give up and put our heads in the sand.  There are things we can all do, individually and collectively, to make a difference.  I'll be touching on some of those things in the future, because sometimes we need our high beams to see ahead of us.

Having one indicator to measure everything would be ideal, but it's not realistic to expect to find one.  Just as we don't have one measurement that can say everything about the health of an individual, we don't have just one measure to tell us everything about the health of our species or of the world in general.  But the efforts of these groups are bringing us closer than before to being able to understand the challenges that we need to face.

Rather than end on that somber note, how about some good news?  According to World Happiness Report, from 2006-08 to 2017-19, life expectancy worldwide increased by 3.7 years.  That's huge.  Life expectancy in Sub-Saharan Africa went up by 7 percent during that period.  While the Covid19 pandemic in the last year has reversed some of those gains, we're still ahead.

Let's keep our heads up and stay on the watch for a bright future.  But let's not forget to check the meters on the dashboard from time to time.

Time preference: What is it?

Picture this: You've found a fantastic new app that lets you know when those hard-to-find items are in stock.  It's not free, but the price looks like it's worth paying.  You have one decision to make: Would you prefer to pay $100 for a year of service (an average of $8.33 per month) or $10/month?

Maybe you've had to make a decision like this (or many of them) in the recent past.  I know I have.  What comes to your mind when you are deciding which one to choose?

You want to know if you'll be using this service a year from now.  If you think you will be, that $20 savings looks pretty good.  But if you're not sure, why spend up to $90 that you don't have to spend?

Really, we make decisions like that all the time without being aware of it.  Should I eat that cookie or stay on my diet?  Should I increase the amount going into my retirement fund (or start a retirement fund, for many people), or should I treat myself to a well-deserved vacation this year?

We're not speaking hyperbolically here

Scientists have been studying this phenomenon for decades.  They have concluded that our brains use a type of equation to determine how much weight to give to a reward based on the delay between the time to choose and the time of the expected reward.  The equation is the same as the equation of a hyperbola.  Hence they call this "hyperbolic discounting."If you're into math, the formula for hyperbolic discounting is V=A/(1+kD).  V is the perceived value, A is the face value of the reward, and D is the delay. k describes the rate of discounting.

The graph of a hyperbola

This phenomenon has been studied so thoroughly that it has been detected in eye movements and other actions in humans and primates.Haith, A. M., Reppert, T. R., & Shadmehr, R. (2012). Evidence for Hyperbolic Temporal Discounting of Reward in Control of Movements. Journal of Neuroscience, 32(34), 11727–11736. https://doi.org/10.1523/jneurosci.0424-12.2012  In other words, if my brain thinks there's something rewarding in my field of view it will direct my gaze there more readily if it anticipates a quick reward rather than a delayed one.

Don't take your hands off the wheel

Hyperbolic discounting is also known as time preference or present bias.  Basically, it's an automatic evaluation in our brains of the cost/benefit ratio between present and future rewards.  It's kind of a rule of thumb that automatically helps you decide whether something is worth it based on the likelihood that you'll get it.  Because the longer the delay, the more chances there are that something will prevent you from getting the reward.

But as with any other automatic process, it works best if you supervise it.  Think of a horse without a rider, a car without a driver, or a nuclear power plant without operators, and you get the idea.  The same goes for the processes in our brains.  We need to stay in charge, or we'll suffer the consequences.

The consequences

Besides undersaving for retirement or trouble sticking to a diet, as mentioned above, there are other problems that arise when we don't keep our hands on the wheel.  We live in a buy now, pay later economy.  This is because it's much easier to rationalize a purchase that will bring rewards now, even though the merchant offering the deal knows they'll make more money from us by delaying the payment than they would otherwise.

Have you ever bought a product with a mail-in rebate?  How can a company afford to offer a rebate that's so generous they're practically giving the product away?  They know that many people who buy their product won't bother to main in the rebate coupon.  That's because people are much more likely to do work for a future reward than for a past one.  You've already received the benefit of using the product.  Now you have to go to a lot of work to mail in a coupon that will result in a $3 check being mailed to you in three weeks?  Your brain tells you it just isn't worth the effort.  If it feels like your brain is in collusion with the merchant to swindle you, you're probably right.

What hope is there?

Three hyperbolas on a graph showing differences between age groups

This graph shows the results of a study comparing the relative value of a reward worth $1000 offered to three age groups, by plotting the value that each participant assigned the reward after a specified delay.  The y-axis (vertical) indicates dollar amounts and the x-axis indicates months of expected delay in receiving the promised reward.

Purple = 12-year-olds

Blue = 20-year-olds

Red = adults, median age 68

 

Here's an example showing how the graph works:

  • The sixth graders surveyed, on average, would prefer $200 now over $1000 in 5 years (60 months).
  • The young adults, in contrast, would be willing to wait 5 years if the current reward was less than $300.
  • The older adults would be willing to wait 10 years for $1000 if the current reward was less than $500.

(The gray circle on the left shows an intersection where two age groups both considered $150 now to be as desirable as $1000 in 10 years.)

As we get older, we get wiser.  At least, that's one conclusion that can be drawn from studies comparing the willingness of participants to wait for rewards, based on age.  The above graph was generated from the results of a 1994 study on this subject.Green, L., Fry, A. F., & Myerson, J. (1994). Discounting of Delayed Rewards: A Life-Span Comparison. Psychological Science, 5(1), 33–36. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.1994.tb00610.x  The results seem to indicate that older adults are more willing to wait for a reward than younger people are.

On the other hand, this may not always be the case.   Another study noted, "Lower-income older adults discount rewards more steeply than upper-income older and younger adults."Eppinger, B., Nystrom, L. E., & Cohen, J. D. (2012). Reduced Sensitivity to Immediate Reward during Decision-Making in Older than Younger Adults. PLoS ONE, 7(5), e36953. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0036953  What can we conclude?  I surmise that the higher-income older adults may have achieved that status in part because they learned how to get control of their brain's reward system. 

Science still needs to research this question more fully, but in the meantime, there are things you and I can do to stack the deck in our favor.

How to tame your brain's hyperbolic tendencies

Have compassion for your future self

As I've already mentioned in another blog post, having a bright outlook for the future is a big help.  Remember, the discounting curve is based on the diminishing likelihood that you'll be able to experience the awaited reward.  If you think your future self will be similar to your present self, if you have a vivid image of your future life, think of your future self in positive terms, or even if you have a positive view of elderly people in general, you're more likely to value future rewards.  This means you'll make more choices to enrich your future life.

While you're at it, you may as well sit down and write a nice card to your future self to attach to the gift you're giving yourself.  Address it, "with love."  And then write yourself a thank you card.  After all, your future self will want to write one to you but the only way you'll be able to read it is if you write it now.  By the way, in researching this article I learned a new word.  The opposite of procrastination is preproperation, the act of doing something too soon.  Who knew?

There are other tips in the other blog post that I won't repeat here.  I suggest taking a closer look at a proven method that works better than the brain's built-in method. However, there's one more that I didn't go into detail about there so I'll mention it here:

Make a pre-commitment

You can raise the cost to your future self of not following through on your intention.  Here are possible ways to do this:

  1. Find someone who already does what you are intending to do and make a promise to join them.  If you back out, you'll let them down.Weigh this carefully against the value of your relationship with the person.  Only do this if you are sure the pain of not following through will be worse than the pain of letting your friends down.
  2. Announce your intention publicly.  The threat of public shame might be enough to keep you on track. (Again, weigh this carefully.)
  3. Use a "commitment device" to make it more painful to cop-out than it will be to follow through on your intention.  Daniel Reeves, Cofounder of Beeminder, has collected a list of more than 40 ideas.

Personally, I think self-persuasion, a technique I describe in the blog post referred to above, is a better method than using commitment devices.  After all, if I'm so sure that my future self will need to be threatened with something to follow through, why would I put myself through it?  A good litmus test is, would I be willing to do this right now if I could?

Don't discount this information

Temporal discounting, by any name, tends to create a rift between our present and future selves.  It's an automatic process that's good for some situations but bad for others.  Learning how and when to take charge of this process can make us healthy, wealthy, and wise, whether or not we wake up early too.

 

Is curiosity good or bad?

"Curiosity killed the cat."

"Mind your own business."

Curiosity gets a bad rap these days.  "My curiosity is getting the better of me," someone might say.  And the exhortation to mind our own business reminds us that there are times we need to curb our curiosity. 

What about the saying, "Curiosity killed the cat"?  Apparently, this saying didn't originate from a real-life story of a cat getting into trouble for being too curious.  According to Phrases.org.uk, the original expression was "Care killed the cat."  This expression can be traced all the way back to 1598, and it also appeared in one of Shakespeare's plays.  Interestingly, the word "care" as used here refers, not to concern for others, but to sorrow or anxiety.  And here we find the paradox.

Care vs. curiosity

A 1965 study found a negative relationship between curiosity and anxiety.Penney, R. K. (1965). _Reactive Curiosity and Manifest Anxiety in Children. Child Development, 36(3), 697._ doi:10.2307/1126915   Apparently care/anxiety and curiosity are polar opposites.  Not only does this flip the original meaning of the cat phrase on its head, but it gives us a clue as to the relationship of curiosity to one's well-being.

Disadvantages of curiosity

A more recent study observed, unsurprisingly, that unsatisfied curiosity can be disappointing.  They told two groups of people what they would expect to learn.  One group would get the answer quickly and the other had to wait.Noordewier, M. K., & van Dijk, E. (2015). Curiosity and time: from not knowing to almost knowing. Cognition and Emotion, 31(3), 411–421. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2015.1122577   The study confirmed that people who have to wait longer to have their curiosity satisfied feel worse about it at first, but as they get closer to finding the answers they feel more positive about the situation.  So curiosity can put us in suspense.  It appears that people with strong curiosity are better able to handle the negative feelings that come from not knowing.

Unbridled curiosity has definite downsides.  Being too nosy can ruin relationships.  Not being able to bridle our curiosity can waste a lot of time.  In fact, media providers recognize the power of curiosity and make good use of it to keep us from changing the channel or to keep us scrolling social media posts.  The term "rabbit hole" is enough to remind us that sometimes our curiosity leads us much further than we would have intended.

Advantages of curiosity

I'll jump straight to my favorite reason: Curiosity is essential for a bright outlook on life.  A truly bright outlook, as I've pointed out before, is firmly based on reality.  Curiosity helps us develop a closer relationship with reality as it urges us to understand the people and the world around us.  Putting forth the effort to harness curiosity in positive ways can increase life satisfaction and make a person more well-rounded.  Constructive outlets for curiosity include learning about other cultures, learning a new language, learning to play a musical instrument, or virtually any other hobby that requires sustained attention.

The U.S. Department of Labor designated "lifelong learning" as one of their "personal effectiveness competencies" that are essential for all life roles.  Lifelong learning certainly requires curiosity.  In today's economy, this trait is becoming more and more important.

Experts in self-esteem list curiosity as one of the key ways to identify a person with healthy self-esteem.

Judson Brewer, a behavior change researcher, has helped people overcome anxiety by harnessing the power of curiosity.  By learning to express curiosity about the feelings and sensations associated with anxiety, his patients have been able to overcome their fears.

Along with IQ and emotional intelligence, curiosity has been linked with higher success academically and otherwise.Reactive curiosity has been defined as (1) a tendency to approach and explore relatively new stimulus situations, (2) a tendency to approach and explore incongruous, complex stimuli, and (3) a tendency to vary stimulation in the presence of frequently experienced stimulation - Harty, H., & Beall, D. (1984). _Toward the development of a children’s science curiosity measure. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 21(4), 425–436._ doi:10.1002/tea.3660210410

How to be more curious

As with anything, we need to be persuaded that an experience will be positive before we'll be motivated.  So take the time to think about yourself enjoying the benefits:

  1. A brighter outlook
  2. Greater satisfaction in life
  3. A better understanding of the world
  4. Becoming more versatile, more well-rounded
  5. Learning skills that will enrich your life
  6. Increasing your self-esteem
  7. Combating anxiety
  8. Being successful in life

Now, visualize yourself enjoying these benefits.  Then write it down where your future self can see it and be persuaded to value curiosity.

B. F. Skinner, American psychologist, once said, “When you run into something interesting, drop everything else and study it.”  Well, maybe not "everything" else, but if you drop passive, mindless activities that aren't contributing positively to your life, you won't regret it.  Curiosity gains momentum when you see the benefit of what you are learning.

Curiosity about others can be beneficial, especially if you express it in the right way.  Juicy gossip may be interesting, but if you begin to view each person as a treasure trove of stories and experiences, the gossip will have less appeal.  When you meet someone new, or even when you talk to someone you've known your whole life, ask them some questions about themselves, for example:

  • If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
  • What's something that really bugs you?
  • What would your ideal day look like?
  • Have you ever met someone who is famous?

Non-threatening questions such as these can teach us amazing things about other people.  We might discover something both have in common that we would have never imagined.

Curiosity also means being willing to admit we don't have all the answers.  Having the humility to ask questions can reap big dividends.

Let mysteries intrigue you

As the 2015 study referenced above points out, we often feel irritated if we have to wait to know something we've been promised to learn.  But this feeling can be overcome.  Interestingly, sometimes experiences are better if we have to wait for them.  Daniel Gilbert, whom I've quoted before, did a study involving showing people a movie.  Some people got to see the whole movie, but others didn't get to see the ending.  Which group would you expect to like the movie more?

But what we discovered was people who didn't see the end of the movie liked it more, thought about it for longer, were still engaged in it and still enjoying it, even hours or days later. They didn't see what happened to the last - the main character in the end, and so they kept wondering. Gosh, I wonder if he went to college or he became a football player. What an interesting thing to be thinking about and enjoying.Interview, NPR show Hidden Brain episode You vs. Future You; Or Why We're Bad At Predicting Our Own Happiness 

I can attest to this.  Years ago I was watching the movie Sky High with my kids at a drive-in theater.  At the climax of the movie, the school is falling out of the sky.  Just as it was about to hit the ground, something went wrong with the projector and we didn't get to see the rest that night.  (We got a voucher for another movie, so it wasn't really a loss.)  I ended up not seeing the end of the movie until it came out on DVD.  Guess what?  I liked the movie more before I got to see the ending, just like Daniel Gilbert would have predicted.

Curiosity knows no bounds

While there are some things it's better not to know, such as what it feels like to fall out of a building or to eat laundry detergent, in general, all of us can increase our curiosity.  Whether it's curiosity about our physical world, our emotions, our relationships, or our future, there are mysteries right below the surface, waiting to enrich our lives.