What’s Appreciative Thinking?

Ben Casnocha asks what I mean by appreciative thinking. A good question, since I invented the phrase. 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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. Did the authors show good taste in their choice of problem? Is this a problem both important and possibly solvable?
  4. 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?
  5. 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.

34 Responses to “What’s Appreciative Thinking?”

  1. JIm N Says:

    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 you are conflating the two meanings. When someone says that a Melville course emphasizes critical thinking, they are not saying it’s a course where we figure out what’s wrong with Moby Dick.

  2. Darrin Thompson Says:

    The opposite of critical thinking is lean thinking. Lean is identifying value _first_, then removing waste that impedes the value stream. Learning to think lean is often described as “learning to see.” It has been around for decades and needs no inventing.

  3. Ben Casnocha Says:

    Thanks for clarifying, Seth! It seems one way to paraphrase your definition is: “To to learn to appreciate the positive aspects or lessons to be had from something.”

  4. seth Says:

    Jim, you’re right. I haven’t spoken to any English professors about this. When someone says that a Melville course emphasizes critical thinking, what do they mean by critical thinking?

  5. Stephen M (Ethesis) Says:

    This is a great post, it has gotten me thinking.

    For me “appreciative thinking” means to extrapolate and cross-link from the concepts presented. It is important to succeeding with derivative approaches and analysis.

  6. Anthony Says:

    Philosophy departments are similar – presentations are followed by a barrage of critical questions attempting to find what’s wrong with the paper. Rarely do people ask questions or make comments with the intent of finding or focusing on what’s right with it (except that what remains, implicitly, might be right).

    I think this behavior probably stems in part from attempts to increase status …

  7. Glen Davis Says:

    Too few academics can say: “the research is good but not perfect” – too many instinctively say, “the research is not perfect and is thus bad.”

    After reading your post I stumbled across an example of appreciative criticism from the middle of the last century. I offer it to you in case you should ever need an example. At the end of a book review T. W. Manson observed “While it must be said that Mr. Lund has overdriven his thesis in many directions, it must still be admitted that he has a thesis. There are clear cases of the kind of arrangement he describes.” (from T. W. Manson’s review article of Nils Lund’s Chiasmus in the Journal of Theological Studies, 45 (1944), page 85. It’s available online at http://jts.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/os-XLV/177-178/85-b if your institution has a subscription. You can also see the Manson passage quoted at the top of http://books.google.com/books?id=mmz1Wm3XlvcC&pg=PA47&lpg=PA47&source=web&ots=Au9gaIs7iH&sig=zIg-S8WojxpmPQKl47Fr7WuQmpk&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result, which is where I found it)

  8. Andrew Gelman Says:

    There’s a balance: we’re highly appreciative of our own work and highly critical of everybody else’s!

  9. Evelyn Says:

    It sounds like you haven’t heard of Appreciative Inquiry:


    I agree it’s easy to forget to look at the good. It’s probably a side effect of the decision making bias that we feel losses twice as much as gains.

  10. Paddy Carter Says:


    This is an idea very close to my own heart. In my experience, the best academics are good appreciative thinkers. I expect you have no inclination to do so, but I wrote something along these lines a while back called ‘the fallacy of clever objections’ which was about people being so busy picking holes they don’t stop to appreciate what’s there, which you might like to read.

  11. jack Says:

    You’re being pretty critical of critical thinking…

  12. RSaunders Says:

    Ah, somebody beat me to the appreciative inquiry idea. This seems like a big deal in human/community/organizational development and coaching/counseling/consulting psych. I think it captures much of what you’re after.

  13. Mandolin Says:

    A term that has already been coined on this subject is “value finding”. I first heard about it in the personal development sphere. Appreciative thinking sounds like another way of saying the same thing.

    Get this. I’ve read and agree that people tend to view things as on a continuum from -10 or so to positive 10. So they can see something as being a -2 or so on a scale. Not good. Pretty bad actually. (See I’m being critical). When actually, many of these things being measured can not go below a 0 in value. There is always some degree of value or thing worth appreciating there. One can apply this shift in the value continuum to many facets of life.

    On a side note, I found the last sentence to be somewhat ironic because the word “poorly” is critical! Caught in your own game, admit it! One could shift this to an appreciative statement by saying perhaps, “Learning critical thinking is one aspect of appreciative thinking so in order to fully develop their logical analytical skills graduate students will have to build on the groundwork already paved by their critical thinking professors.” Or something like that.

    I appreciate that you are thinking about this with regards to academics because similar discussions have cropped up recently with regards to job performance and personal development. It’s killing me that I can’t remember the book I read about it in. Here is a resource you might find entertaining. http://philosophersnotes.com
    He is offering free yearly access to 25 philosophersnotes.
    (I’m don’t work for them, I just think you may “appreciate” this)

  14. Etl World News | Assorted links Says:

    […] 1. Appreciative thinking […]

  15. Peter Boettke Says:


    In Nelson and Winter’s Evolutionary Economics (Harvard, 1981), they distinguish between “appreciative theory” and “formal theory”. While not identical to your notion of “appreciative thinking”, it is attempting to get at something similar but at the level of the scholar himself/herself and our enterprise in general.


  16. Adam Forni Says:

    Great post Seth. Academia is not the only realm affected by over-negativity, in my opinion. It’s popular to “bash” these days. Critical thinking is essential, but we should also be able to extract some kernel of worthwhile information from every single life experience.

  17. JIm N Says:

    Seth, I think that the meaning of “critical thinking” in an English Lit course is what you are describing as “appreciative thinking”. It’s a way of saying that students will be expected to say more about the subject than “awesome” or “it sucked”. They will be expected to recognize it as an artifact of a time, an author, and a culture. What’s Melville doing when he spends dozens of pages on detail of whale butchering? Is it meant to be taken literally, or is he saying something else, and if the latter, was he successful? That’s critical thinking, in the Western academic school of thought.

    There are different schools of criticism, though, within and without academia, and some works are more or less suited to one or the other.

  18. Evelyn Says:

    And here’s another example of appreciative thinking:


    As seen in the NYTimes ideas article this week. Look for how excellent people act, and emulate them.

  19. Sean Murphy Says:

    Seth: Evelyn has already suggested two good frameworks for appreciative thinking, let me suggest one reference for each that are useful for employing them in a problem solving context.

    The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry

    The “Positive Deviant” article by Ed Dorsey in the November 2000 Fast Company has a clear codification of Sternin’s approach

    In one of those weird synchronicities I had blogged about this here

    One other thing I started to do about three years ago was to count my blessings by posting endorsements on LinkedIn for folks that I had worked with in the past and either had a shared success with or come away impressed from our interactions. It’s another way to encourage yourself to appreciate people’s strengths and contribution to your own successes.

    I very much enjoy your blog and your disciplined approach to self-experimentation.

    “Knowledge comes by taking things apart: analysis. But wisdom comes by putting things together.” John A. Morrison

  20. Mickey Schafer Says:

    Hi, Seth.

    I entered into my MA program very much in the hard-nosed tradition of critical thinking. The school I was attending, The School for International Training, was a very different place. One of the profs recommended that I read Peter Elbow’s “The Believing Game”, an essay published in 1972 in the appendix of his wildly popular book “Writing without Teachers”. This essay was instrumental for me as a social scientist and teacher. Here is an updated version, a 2008 essay in which Elbow has re-cast his concept as “Methodological Believing” — it’s very much like what you’re advocating in Appreciative Thinking; I hope you find it useful! http://works.bepress.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1019&context=peter_elbow

  21. Levi Stahl Says:

    This reminds me of baseball writer Bill James, from whom I learned a lot about critical thinking when I was young–but who also went out of his way to emphasize that even a player who is bad in some aspect of the game might still offer value in other areas that is sufficient to make him a good player. It’s a good principle to keep in mind in a lot of areas of life.

  22. Floyd B. Pishko Says:

    Seth, I totally agree. I went to grad school in international development economics, and one big reason why I’m not working in the field is because I have partially lost the ability to have optimism in development initiatives. Grad school taught me to be so critical of every idea that it’s hard for me to see what might work and think that 95% of efforts are wasted. Help, please!

  23. q Says:

    nice post — i just added your blog to my RSS because of it.

    i’d posit that most creativity is because of mistakes. most people are focused on learning from their own mistakes but it’s considerably less painful to learn from others’ mistakes.

    academia and business have an obnoxiously strong ethic about covering up failed work. can you publish a paper which shows all the approaches you tried but did not get a result? can you even publish a paper which shows the approaches that tried and failed only to succeed on the 20th try? no, you omit the mistakes. i think that’s unfortunate.

  24. Tyler S Says:

    Well done!

    I think you’re touching on a deeper point. It’s very easy to I.D. problems, yet exponentially tougher to solve them. WHY you like (or dislike) some piece of work takes actual thought. Thinking is hard work.

  25. caveat bettor Says:

    This reminds me a bit of DeBono’s Six Thinking Hats, of which the Yellow Hat represents appreciative thinking and the Black Hat with finding fault. DeBono’s thesis is that undue influence of the Socratic/Platonic/Aristotelian methods that ideas and values are too easily made extinct in the darwinian nature of competing ideas, arguments, etc.

  26. Sid Says:

    In the 60’s Richard Niebuhr, younger brother of Reinhold, encouraged a version of appreciative thinking to his grad students at Yale. His advice was to pay more attention to a comment that sees value, less to one that sees only fault. I think his point was that fault finding is more about scoring, less about discovery.

  27. anotherpanacea :: Appreciative Thinking Says:

    […] I’ve been having a debate on a friend’s Facebook page about the value of Martha Nussbaum (I’m a fan) and serendipitously I found this post on “appreciative thinking” via Tyler Cowen. It’s a kind of inverted critical thinking, from Seth Roberts: When it comes to scientific papers, to teach appreciative thinking means to help students see such aspects of a paper as: […]

  28. Rafe Champion Says:

    Appreciative writing is a useful task for second and third hand dealers in ideas when major figures have become forgotten or neglected because they were out of step with the fashions of their time or have been benched for various reasons. Like changes in fashion and failure to do the academic and entrepreneurial networking that is required to keep their ideas alive (see Selgin on the failures of Menger and Bohm Bawerk and Ian Jarvie on Popper).

    Other examples of neglected major figures are:

    Ian D Suttie (1889-1935) who could have radically changed the course of psychoanalysis in a more scientific and humanistic direction.
    Jacques Barzun (1907 – ) a towering figure in education, cultural studies and the history of ideas.
    Rene Wellek (1903- 1995) arguable the leading figure in literary scholarhip of the 20th century.
    Yvor Winters (1900-1968) who explored the many and various ways that irrationalism is promoted by defective theories of literataure with particular reference to American novelists and poets.
    Karl Buhler (1879-1963), a pivotal figure in psychology and linguistic studies, driven out of Austria in 1938 into academic obscurity in the US and scandalously written out of the history of psychology by academic rivals.

    Profiles of the above figures (and others such as Bill Hutt and Peter Baur who were marginalised until picked up by the Austrians) can be found in the four editions of the Revivalist series.


  29. Thomas Robinson Says:

    Whether you criticise or praise a paper, to do the job well you have to start by taking it seriously.

    This means assuming the content is true and trying to imagine what are some of the implications. If the implications are absurd or contradictory then your approach will be considered critical. If they are novel and interesting then you will be considered appreciative.

    But it’s basically the same process either way. And either way you do honour to the paper.

  30. Michael Nielsen » Biweekly links for 12/25/2009 Says:

    […] Seth’s blog » Blog Archive » What’s Appreciative Thinking? […]

  31. Simon Bostock Says:

    Great post. I have my own version of this called Benign Gullibility (“Hey, this new idea looks spiffing! I wonder what happens if I base my life on it?” – for a few moments or so) but I like yours better and might steal it.

    Three things:

    1. The first two comments made me so cross, I wrote a post criticising them.
    2. The rest of the comments more than made up for them.
    3. Just in case, I strongly recommending following all of Sean Murphy’s reading recommendations. Ace.

    I wonder if you could develop your Appreciative Thinking by working on developing an ability in and an awareness of the Semantic Pause?

  32. Josh Joseph Says:

    Seth, agree with so many here — this is a great post and also ages well. I had a prof in grad school who understood this and was able to get it across very effectively. Will share it on the chance it may be helpful to others.

    The prof was editor of a leading psych journal and taught a course in reviewing. Students were given papers that had been previously submitted to the journal and on which editorial decisions had already been made…only we didn’t know the results. Our job was to read, critique/appreciate and then decide whether to accept or reject each submission. Needless to say, we were all good at finding flaws in everything. But the real lesson came when we had to say “in or out.” Although we could find faults and flaws in literally everything, we saw that the litmus test for acceptance was whether the paper made a meaningful contribution to the field..warts and all. That really stuck with me. Recently came across George Box’s quote “All models are wrong, some are useful,” which is even more succinct. — jj

  33. seth Says:

    Josh, that’s a good way to teach it. I’m amused that it was called a course in reviewing. That’s like calling a course in arithmetic “how to add 5 and 6”. The skills are far more useful than just making you a better reviewer. An editor would be more likely than the rest of us to teach such a course because of the access to rejected manuscripts.

  34. In einem Wort « Erich sieht Says:

    […] In einem Wort Appreciative Thinking […]