Critical Thinking – Helping Consumers Prioritize the Facts

Critical Thinking – Helping Consumers Prioritize the Facts

February 27, 2019
Shari Steinbach

By Shari Steinbach, MS RDN, RDBA Contributing Editor

Retail Dietitians often face consumers who believe anything but the facts when it comes to food and nutrition and this may be due in part to a lack of critical thinking skills.  According to Jason Riis, PhD, Senior Fellow, The Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, understanding critical thinking and the reasons people fail to objectively analyze facts, is the first step toward helping fact-based information get the priority it deserves.  He suggests that effective critical thinking involves three types of activities, which are listed below, along with suggested strategies to improve communications:

1 - Diligent Clarification to make sure that claims of facts are true.

  • Reasons for failure – Individuals may stretch the facts and cherry pick the facts to find those that support their personal beliefs. We know that false news travels fast and many people may believe negative stories about food because they simply don’t understand food production practices. 
  • Communication strategies - Remind people to think about what they are reading and if it may really be true. Complete the truth for individuals and talk about the relative risk vs. absolute risk when it comes to topics such as pesticide residues.  

2 – Slow Thinking to truly look at the evidence before making judgements.

  • Reasons for failure – Consumers may jump to conclusions, use poor logic and not understand that correlation is not causation. Also, people may focus on their values, not on the evidence, to form judgements. 
  • Communication strategies – Improve your ability to talk about evidence and encourage people not respond to their immediate emotions. Consumers need to understand that there is no zero-risk. Frame the evidence and risk when possible, for example, talking about parts per million and pesticide residue risk. You can also remind consumers that absolutes are typically value judgements vs. science.  

3 - Humble Self-Reflection to honestly clarify what you may not know.

  • Reasons for failure – Consumers may have “knowledge illusion” and over-certainty. Believing they know something when they don’t, and confusing what others know with what they know. For example, extreme opponents of GMO foods often know the least but think they know the most.
  • Communication strategies - Get good at talking about mechanisms regarding food production and processing. Remind people that they may be uncertain about certain topics, but it’s impossible to make decisions on issues if they don’t know the true process. 

Battling misinformation can be frustrating and there is no easy fix in today’s world where false news is rampant. Practice developing better communication skills with your team by discussing responses to real life consumer issues such as red meat consumption or gene editing and earn consumer trust by really listening to their concerns so you can determine individual experiences more clearly while encouraging critical thinking.

Recommended reading on this topic:
The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, by Michael Lewis
The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, by Steven Sloman
Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman