Is Asking A Substitute For Thinking?

Roderick Ioerger wrote an interesting post for Marketing Pilgrim a few days ago, where he asked is social media an impediment to problem solving? The basic argument is the idea that the convenience of having others readily available to answer your questions inhibits finding the solution yourself and thus leads to less critical thinking. It’s a valid argument, but I don’t agree with the conclusion.

From the post:

Social media is enabling people to abandon their searching, critical thinking, and problem solving skills in favor of allowing their peers to assist them.

I won’t argue against that, but I will say there’s a big difference between enabling something and automatically leading to that something. A home gym enables me to tone and grow muscle. My waistline is proof that it’s not a forgone conclusion.

You could make the argument that searching isn’t critical thinking either. After all searching is really about asking a question and having someone else answer it for you. The critical thinking component comes into play when deciding which answer is the one you trust and in the queries you devise to find that information.

As I said in a comment on Roderick’s post:

There will always be some who prefer to find information themselves and there will always be some who ask others for the information. In the end we all still have to make our own decisions on what we think is right and wrong.

The same people who turn to social media as a way to avoid thinking for themselves would find a way to avoid thinking regardless of the existence of social media. Sure a wealth of sources can help facilitate a lack of critical thinking for some people, but it’s not the cause of their lack of critical thinking. Those same people likely view one and only one search result. They likely ask the person sitting next to them prior to searching.

Some people avoid thought at all costs. There always have been and there always will be tools to enable that. The tools are not to blame, though.

A few months back I posted how critiquing someone else’s writing can improve your own. You can choose to follow the advice or not. In the end it’s a tool and it’s up to you to decide what to do with that tool. You can choose to think critically about writing or you can avoid the issue completely. In both cases the responsibility or blame is yours.

Social media is also a tool. It’s up to you to use it in a way that helps you grow or not.

Unless you’re reinventing the wheel, it could be argued that anything you do is avoiding thinking for yourself. When my car has a problem I take it to a mechanic to solve that problem. It doesn’t mean I’m losing the ability to solve problems. It simply means I don’t want to apply my problem solving skills to that specific problem.

How Social Media Fosters Critical Thinking

Social media is about community and conversation. If you genuinely participate with social sites you’re engaging in the discussion and debate going on. Debate is about critical thinking. Someone raises a question and it challenges you to think to prove your point. Your point challenges the next person in line to think harder in order to prove their point.

If you go to any forum the majority of questions could have been answered with a little bit of searching either on or off the forum. But that doesn’t mean the forum impedes critical thinking. There are many threads devoted to the back and forth debate. Ultimately the forum and social media are tools that can be used in positive ways and negative ways. Either can make it easy for someone to avoid critical thought as well as making it easy for someone to engage in critical thought.

We live in an age of information. In fact we’re all on information overload. There’s so much information available that any of us could walk through life without ever having to think. At the same time all of us can take that same information and think about it, make our own decisions about it, and add our own thoughts to the conversation.

Many problems cross our lives our lives daily. We can seek aid in solving them from others without losing our ability to solve problems. You might say that getting an easy answer through a social site can help critical thinking by allowing you to focus on those problems you wish to solve without letting other problems distract you from your task.

Roderick’s post derived from a post by Jeremy Zawodney. Jeremy pulled a comment from one of his previous posts that said in part:

I find that the people who work for me will, if I’m available, use asking me something as a substitute for thinking

Again it does happen. But is asking someone a question an automatic substitute for thinking? I don’t think so. Isn’t that the whole point of society. None of us can specialize in everything so we rely on each other to answer questions in their areas of expertise while we focus on getting better in our area of expertise.

Problem solving is a general skill. Solving a problem is a specific skill. You can ask someone for a solution to a problem without losing your problem solving skills. You can also ask someone to solve your problem as a way to avoid developing problem solving skills. The choice is yours.

What do you think? Does social media lead to a loss in critical thinking? Does it inhibit problem solving any more or less than anything else?

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  1. I agree. Every advance is built upon the previous accumulation of knowledge by others. Einstein could do his work because Newton had already invented calculus. Without the constant ongoing interchange of information and ideas we would still be hunting and gathering to survive – at best.

  2. Social media doesn’t kill critical thinking. Instead of wasting your time searching things for yourself, you get the expertise of a wide range of people.

    That’s smart.

    You save time for the more important things. And you’re more likely to make better and more informed decisions than simply relying on search engine results. I know that’s slightly blasphemous or whatever, but I don’t care.

    Besides, search will be trending this way. Just the other night, my husband and I texted ChaCha to find out if our favorite TV shows were back on that evening or not. We were able to enjoy each other’s conversation while ChaCha searched and texted us back. It was a much better use of our date night than searching Google on his iPhone.

  3. @David – No reason to reinvent the wheel. The whole point of society is to work together so one can benefit from the knowledge of others.

    @Nathania – I agree. I think some can use the knowledge of others as a crutch, but it’s not something that has to happen. I don’t think your comment about search engines as blasphemy either. I’ve been finding myself going to them less often in recent months.

    Sounds like the right way to search on date night. What do you think of ChaCha? I haven’t used it myself, since I’ve assumed I could find what I wanted on my own, but the service is interesting. I originally assumed the people who used it would be no search savvy, but now I can see another use. You have them search while you do other things.

  4. As a marketing professional I love social media because it allows me to ask questions of my target buying group. I can talk to them directly, instead of trying to guess what they want.

    I don’t think asking questions in a social media setting is a substitute for thinking though. I still have to figure out what to do with the answers I get, and have to think about the situation enough to form a question in the first place. Social media just gives an added dimension to the answers I get and some more options for solving whatever issue I’m addressing.

  5. Being able to ask customers questions and engaging them in the conversation is great isn’t it?

    I see social media as an added dimension too. That’s a good point about having to still form the questions and decide what to do with the answers. Again some people will avoid the thinking and just ask. But those same people will do the same thing in other places too. Social media is just another place for them to avoid thinking, but it’s by no means an automatic. It really comes down to the person.

  6. First of all let me say I love the conversation. Everything of course comes in context if you read my post in its entirety you will see the following statement made:

    “But it seems like as the list of people I follow grows, more and more I am seeing requests for superfluous information that could quickly be ascertained on their own in the same amount of time it would take someone else to twit back.

    So the real question is with all this accessibility to others with knowledge, are people slowly losing the desire to solve their own problems? And does this loss of desire lead to a future lack of critical thinking when it does come to solving the more challenging questions?”

    If you address this part of my post I believe it becomes a very different conversation. None-the-less I am thrilled to see the conversation continuing.


  7. I dont think anything has really changed. In the age of the information superhighway we have truly come to expect answers and directions when we need it, which is usual right away.

    Like some have mentioned before, in the past before social networks, before the internet, you called someone who knew. Before that, you ask your dad or the local elder.

    If anything these websites have introduced more people to answers quicker. I think it has leveled the paying field to a point.

  8. @Roderick – Thanks for stopping by and continuing the conversation. I think it’s an interesting one too as you can tell and I enjoyed your post. I can see your point about seeing more requests for ‘superfluous information,’ but I’ll stick with my point and see if I convince you.

    It’s possible you see more of those requests simply because you see more people. I can’t offer proof about specific numbers, but I would think in any population there will be a percentage of people who choose to think for themselves and a percentage of people who choose not to. The population goes up so do the number of thinkers and non-thinkers. You may notice the non-thinkers more, but are you sure their percentage is going up?

    Now I will agree that social media enables people to avoid thinking, but I do think enabling is different than automatically leading to. People are a resource so why not take advantage of that resource. If I happen to have Twitter open why not ask the question instead of searching for it. From my perspective I’m already at Twitter so I simply go there first. It doesn’t mean I’m losing the ability or the desire to find out the answer without asking. It just means I’m choosing not to at the moment and in that circumstance.

    I know that’s not true of everyone and there are people asking questions to avoid the thinking, but I suspect those people would still avoid thinking even if social media didn’t exist. I think this is less to do with the tool (social media in this case) than it is to do with the person.

    Does the desire to solve problems decrease? Hmm? Speaking for myself I’d again say no. I enjoy problem solving. It’s among my favorite things to do, but I’m not everyone. I still think the people we’re talking about didn’t have the desire to solve their problems in the first place and they just happen to be using social media.

    Maybe the question should be if social media didn’t exist would those people be forced to solve their own problems, thus increasing their ability out of necessity? That’s a trickier one for me to disagree with, but I still suspect those people would avoid thinking for themselves.

  9. @Jaan – I think you and I are seeing this the same way. Social media might be the current means, but there were other means before and there will be other means after.

    I agree that before the internet we still would have been asking. It would have been a person in front of us and we couldn’t get our answer as quickly. But we were still asking.

    I guess the question is was the longer delay between question and answer in the past something that forced us to solve problems for ourselves more in the interim. If I knew I wasn’t going to see the family elder for awhile would I just go ahead and work out the problem for myself. Maybe, maybe not.

    If there has been a change, though I think it happened long before the internet entered the equation. We could look at the telephone as the way we got quick answers. I might try to solve a problem if I couldn’t ask you for two days, but I’d probably wait 2 minutes to dial the phone and have you answer.

  10. Hi Steven,

    I am not sure you have convinced me with your most recent point, especially since I believe I had addressed it in my initial post. I am seeing more people which is true, but it is a very specific subset of people. Nearly my entire twitter stream is people involved in Internet marketing and generally I see these people as motivated problem solvers.

    “Many of the new Social Media websites seem to encourage this type of behavior. More specifically I am starting to see this type of behavior a lot on Twitter. I am not sure whether or not it is the law of averages or maybe even just the company I keep on the service? Maybe I interact with too many online marketers.”

  11. I had a feeling I wouldn’t convince you, but it was worth a shot. Even if neither of us convinces the other we’re hopefully showing both sides and providing fodder for anyone reading to make up their own minds.

    I still think social media is just the tool and it’s the individual who decides how to use it. You can argue that every advance in technology that’s ever been has led in some ways to a loss in some skill across society. Maybe in some cases it does happen, but I think it usually opens up another area where we can gain skill.

    Search engines in a sense do the same thing. We ask the search engine a question and hopefully get an answer in the form of good results. Most people still click on the top few results, which would suggest they aren’t thinking critically.

    Of course you can apply critical thinking to search in the way you phrase your query and which results you choose to accept as the best. I think the same can be applied to social media. Perhaps you haven’t solved the problem yourself by asking someone and getting an answer in return, but you still have to think about which answers to accept and which social site is the right one to ask your question.

    It might not be the same critical thinking and problem solving that goes on in the absence of social media, but there can still still thinking and problem solving involved.

    I still think in the end there will be those people who will always be problem solvers and while they may seek a quick response on one particular question they aren’t losing either the skill or desire to think critically. At the same time there will always be those people who will avoid thinking under any circumstances. Social media may make it easier for them to avoid thinking, but so does search and so does any human contact.

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