The Bear in the Woods

an extended metaphor about critical thinking

Critical thinking is like meeting a bear at night in the woods. Decision time! What do you do?

Suppose you are walking through the woods at night, in an area you know is safe, when you come around a bend in the path and you see this:

bear in woods night

Looks a lot like a bear. On the other hand, it could be just a bunch of bushes and branches. It isn’t moving, no sound of breathing, no growls, no claws digging at the ground. And you know it’s pretty unusual for a bear to be in the area. You have two options that in themselves harbor additional possibilities:

Bear or bush?

You decide it’s a bear.

Do I approach? Or avoid?

Avoid.

Bear or bush?

You decide it’s a bush.

Approach? Or avoid?

Approach.

You can decide it’s a bush and move forward, or you can decide it is a bear and retreat. If you decide to move forward, and it is a bush, no problem. It doesn’t matter whether you approach or back away. The stakes in this case don’t make any difference. After all, it’s just a bush. But if you decide to approach and it is a bear, your life will undergo big changes very quickly. One situation manifesting two wildly different possible outcomes. The stakes involved suddenly become extremely relevant.

How could a situation like this crop up in ‘real life?’ Once, I was attacked by a cat that I was carrying to the car so I could get it to the vet to be vaccinated for rabies. On the way to the car, the cat totally freaked, bit deep into my thumb several times giving me six or seven gushing puncture wounds and with its back claws shredded my forearms into a bloody spaghetti. At that point, I concluded that it would be a good idea to let go of the cat. It disappeared into a field never to be seen again, and I went to the doctor.

To make a long story short, it was decided that I had to have rabies shots. I thought this was an over-reaction (the damn cat didn’t have rabies, I provoked the attack, more or less) so I asked a friend of mine who was in medical school at the time. He had just finished a unit on rabies. He agreed that it was highly unlikely that the cat was rabid, “But,” he said, “if you’re wrong, it’s the last time you’ll ever be wrong. And it won’t be pretty.” Here, probability was heavily in my favor (the cat probably was not rabid as far as I could tell), but the stakes were so high (rabies kills without rabies shots, so my life was at stake) that I wasn’t taking the risk.

Yes, the rabies vaccination is a painful series of shots over the course of several weeks (or it was at the time—treatment may have changed since then). I couldn’t help feeling like I was being punished, a victim of cosmic justice, in that I was the one getting vaccinated and not the cat. Strictly speaking, I wasn’t being logical about this. But there is more to decision-making than simple logic. There is always an emotional component. If I had based my decision on logic alone (the odds were with me) I might have said, “No shots, no thanks.”

And I might have lived. But the threat of death looms large over logic. Now a value judgment is involved, as it should be. You want to check the value of what’s at stake. Any emotional appeals will be tied to that—and you’ll have to decide whether the appeal to emotion is a legitimate one. Is the emotional component directly related to and arising from the issue, or has it been introduced to create confusion or fear? There are plenty of things to be afraid of in this world; you just want to be sure you’re afraid of the right things. Fear coupled with high stakes easily can distort the decision-making process for individuals as well as organizations.

Author: Craig Butcher

Craig Butcher is an award-winning educator who has taught critical thinking skills for more than two decades. In addition, He has worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional aide and has been a top-rated broadcaster.