Appreciative thinking

I’m a fan of appreciative rather than critical thinking. I think too often in the pursuit of knowledge, critical thinking approaches end up so deconstructing what is being studied that the result isn’t insight or knowledge but cynicism and disillusionment. It’s a more hopeful disposition, and I think a more practical one for approaching life.

Appreciative thinking has been my approach for most of my life, but I didn’t have the phrase to describe it until I encountered Seth Roberts’s thinking through Ben Casnocha at some point in the past few years. Seth Roberts died last April while on a hike near Berkeley, but his perspective on appreciative thinking will stay with me. So mostly because I’m not sure what might become of his site in the future, I’ll excerpt liberally from his post on appreciative thinking:

To learn appreciative thinking is to learn to appreciate, to learn to see the value of things. More or less the opposite of critical thinking.

That I had to make up a phrase shows the problem. I have complained many times about an overemphasis on critical thinking at universities. Sometimes I’d say, “Have you ever heard the term appreciative thinking? No? How many times have you heard the term critical thinking?”

When it comes to scientific papers, to teach appreciative thinking means to help students see such aspects of a paper as:

  • What can we learn from it? What new ideas does it suggest? What already-existing plausible ideas does it make more plausible or less plausible?
  • How is it an improvement over previous work? Does it use new methods? Does it use old methods in a new way? Does it show a better way to do something?
  • Did the authors show good taste in their choice of problem? Is this a problem both important and possibly solvable?
  • Are details done well? Is it well-written? Is the context of the work made clear? Are the data well-analyzed? Does it make good use of graphs? Is the discussion imaginative rather than formulaic?
  • What’s interesting or enjoyable about it?

That sort of thing. In my experience few papers are worthless. But I’ve heard lots of papers called worthless.

The overemphasis — the total emphasis — on critical thinking has big and harmful consequences on graduate students. At Berkeley, in a weekly seminar called Animal Behavior Lunch, we would discuss a recent animal behavior paper. The dozen-odd graduate students could only find fault. Out of hundreds and hundreds of comments, I cannot remember a single positive one from a graduate student. Sometimes a faculty member would intervene: “Let’s not be too negative. . . . ” But week after week it kept happening. Relentless negativity caused trouble for the graduate students because every plan of their own that they thought of, they placed too much emphasis on what was wrong with it. Trying to overcome the problems, their research became too big and complicated. For example, they ran control groups before obtaining the basic effect. They had been very poorly taught — by all those professors who taught critical thinking.

A commenter on Seth’s post makes this point: “The word “critical” has two meanings. In the phrase ‘critical thinking’ it means ‘with careful examination’, whereas the popular meaning of ‘critical’ is more along the lines of ‘finding fault’.” I think the problem is that “critical thinking” has been corroded so much that most would conflate both meanings into one framework of essentially tearing something down to its pieces.

A spirit of craftsmanship, an inclination for seeing beauty as redeeming ugliness, the pursuit of happiness, etc. These are approaches to life that each require “careful examination” and measured thinking, but I don’t think any of them are sustained without the sort of passion that comes from an essential love. And love starts with an appreciative disposition.

So I favor appreciative thinking because I think it’s the best approach for sustained success. For making an impact.


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