Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines

Volume 31, Issue 2, Summer 2016

Izaak L Williams
Pages 37-46

Critical Thinking Anxiety
Neurobiology of Pain and Cognitive Avoidance in Ethics

The goal of this paper is to understand how common aversions to critical thinking, and, in particular, critical thinking related to deliberation about ethics, is arguably akin to math anxiety (MA). However, unlike ethical-critical thinking anxiety (ECTA), MA has a body of literature and neuroscientific findings supporting it and correlating thoughts about math with neurobiology of pain and fear activation. The crux of the paper lies in the answer to the following question: how is ECTA like and unlike MA? Is there a history—educational and otherwise—similar to MA—that leads to ECTA? In this paper, I argue that there are myriad factors contributing to ECTA but that, ultimately, the result is likely the same: a neurobiology of fear/pain response that inhibits ethical thought and judgment, largely given its dependence on critical thinking. My thesis statement, therefore, is that critical thinking engenders the angst engendered by MA and for similar reasons, and I surmise that current models of teaching applied clinical ethics to health care practitioners would benefit from approaches framing the lack of ethical thinking in our field of health and human services as an ego-defense mechanism or neurobiological constraint. This leads to the question of how workshops aimed at teaching ethics take into account the realities of avoidance, promote critical thinking, and avoid the pitfalls of ECTA.