Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking.
Someone with critical thinking skills is able to do the following :
- Understand the logical connections between ideas
- Identify, construct and evaluate arguments
- Detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning
- Solve problems systematically
- Identify the relevance and importance of ideas
- Reflect on the justification of one’s own beliefs and values
Critical thinking is not a matter of accumulating information. A person with a good memory and who knows a lot of facts is not necessarily good at critical thinking. A critical thinker is able to deduce consequences from what he knows, and he knows how to make use of information to solve problems, and to seek relevant sources of information to inform himself.
Critical thinking should not be confused with being argumentative or being critical of other people. Although critical thinking skills can be used in exposing fallacies and bad reasoning, critical thinking can also play an important role in cooperative reasoning and constructive tasks. Critical thinking can help us acquire knowledge, improve our theories, and strengthen arguments. We can use critical thinking to enhance work processes and improve social institutions.
Some people believe that critical thinking hinders creativity because it requires following the rules of logic and rationality, but creativity might require breaking rules. This is a misconception. Critical thinking is quite compatible with thinking “out-of-the-box”, challenging consensus and pursuing less popular approaches. If anything, critical thinking is an essential part of creativity because we need critical thinking to evaluate and improve our creative ideas.
Importance of Critical Thinking
In a world where we are constantly bombarded with information, the importance of developing the skills needed to separate the valid and useful information from fallacious and manipulative data is essential if we want to make informed decisions. Regardless of your political leaning, the 2016 US Presidential campaign and election brought to light the massive scale and how insidious this misinformation can be.
The ability to think clearly and rationally is important whatever we choose to do. If you work in education, research, finance, management or the legal profession, then critical thinking is obviously important. But critical thinking skills are not restricted to a particular subject area. Being able to think well and solve problems systematically is an asset for any career and will further your Work being done to improve yourself. The beauty of critical thinking is in it’s flexibility to be applied to all aspects of your life and Work.
Critical thinking is crucial for self-reflection and ethical thinking. In order to live a meaningful life and to structure our lives accordingly, we need to justify and reflect on our values and decisions. Critical thinking provides the tools for this process of self-evaluation. To overcome biases and prejudice, one must think critically about social and other issues to inform one’s judgments.
Ignorance thrives where critical thinking is lacking, both in ourselves and our society.
How to Develop Critical Thinking Skills
The key to critical thinking is in developing a set of tools and the habit of applying them as needed. As with mindfulness (which in itself is a valuable skill to aid in critical thinking), it is best to consider it a lifestyle and discipline rather than as a skill. This is something you want to naturally incorporate into your life – to actively use as your parse through the constant stream of information that fills your environment.
Below are some of the ways to improve your critical thinking skills. Be sure to look over the links at the end of this section for further information.
Keep it Simple and Ask Basic Questions
Sometimes an explanation becomes so complex due to over thinking that the basic, original questions get lost. To avoid this, continually go back to the basic questions you asked when you set out to solve the problem. What do you already know? How do you know that? What are you trying to prove, disprove, demonstrated, critique, etc.?
Some of the most profound solutions to problems are astounding not because of their complexity, but because of their elegant simplicity. Seek the simple solution first.
Question Basic Assumptions
Ever find yourself trying to justify something only to discover it unraveling as you spoke? We often jump to conclusions before solidifying our reasoning and justification. As the saying goes, “When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.” It’s quite easy to make an ass of yourself simply by failing to question your basic assumptions.
Some of the greatest innovators in human history were those who simply looked up for a moment and wondered if one of everyone’s general assumptions was wrong. Questioning assumptions is where innovation happens.
We can all benefit from questioning our assumptions. So many of our perceived limitations and roadblocks in life often find their strength not in reality but in our assumptions they they have that power. For years I wished I could speak another language and play a musical instrument but my assumption that I was too old robbed me of an earlier start. How many times have we talked ourselves out of opportunities because we assumed we would fail or were in some way not worthy?
How much more could we Become if we just questioned our assumptions and critically evaluated our beliefs about what’s prudent, appropriate, or possible?
Be Aware of Your Mental Processes
The Ancient Greek aphorism know thyself was written on the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and western philosophers have expounded on it ever since.
Human thought is amazing, but the speed and automation with which it happens can be a disadvantage when we’re trying to think critically. Our brains naturally use heuristics (mental shortcuts) to explain what’s happening around us, filtering out many of the details in the process. This was beneficial to humans when we were hunting large game and fighting off wild animals, but it can be disastrous when we try to decide who to vote for.
A critical thinker is aware of his or her cognitive biases and personal prejudices and how they influence seemingly “objective” decisions and solutions. All of us have biases in our thinking – it’s awareness of them that makes thought critical.
Try Reversing Things
A great way to get “unstuck” on a difficult problem is to try reversing things. It may seem obvious that X causes Y, but what if Y caused X?
The old “chicken and egg problem” is a classic example of this methodology. At first, it seems obvious that the chicken had to come first. The chicken lays the egg, after all. But then you quickly realize that the chicken had to come from somewhere, and since chickens come from eggs, the egg must have come first. Or did it?
Admittedly, this process can be a bit confusing, but reversing things helps you question your assumptions, and at the very least, see things from a fresh perspective.
Evaluate the Evidence
When you’re trying to solve a problem, it’s always helpful to look at other work that has been done in the same area. However, It’s important to evaluate this information critically, or else you can easily reach the wrong conclusion.
Here are some questions one can use when dealing with evidence you encounter:
How was it Gathered, by Whom, and Why?
Consider a study showing the health benefits of a sugary cereal. On paper, the study sounds pretty convincing, but then you learn that the study was funded by the same company that produces the cereal in question.
You can’t automatically assume that this invalidates the studies results, but you should certainly question them when a conflict of interests is so apparent. You see such examples more that you may think. Social media is full of “sponsored” content such as how to pick the best flashlight from a company that makes flashlights, or the benefits of vaping over smoking sponsored by a service selling vaping products. In the United States, pharmaceutical companies are notorious for inventing new medical conditions on which to use their products – a practice illegal and unheard of in many other countries!
Remember to Think for Yourself
In keeping informed, don’t get so bogged down in research and reading that you forget to think for yourself. There are times when one’s gut and personal knowledge can be your most powerful tools.
Avoid overconfidence, but recognize that thinking for yourself is essential to answering tough questions. Ultimately you are developing critical thing to come to your own, educated decisions, not to be sold by the arguments of others.
Accept that No One Thinks Critically 100% of the Time
Critical thinking is an important discipline and as you continue to hone your skills it will become more readily available to you when you need it to make important decisions or solve difficult problems. However, we are human, and our capacity for such thought will vary widely at any given moment. Thus, even in important matters, you will at times experience lapses in your reasoning.
Don’t beat yourself up over it. What matters is that you recognize these lapses and try to avoid them in the future.
Where to Go from Here?
Critical thinking is not easy, and as with any skill, it will only improve if you apply it in practice. Next time you are reading articles on you social media feeds, take advantage of that content to apply some of the the above questions. Train your eyes to notice the sponsored content tucked in among random posts. What is their intent?
Finally, explore more resources on the topic. Below are some great links to get you started. As with any craftsman or artist, you will slowly develop your own set of tools that work well for you as you hone your skills. The important thing is to practice so that the skills are more readily available to you when you need them.
- How to Train Your Mind to Think Critically and Form Your Own Opinions
- 21 Signs That Story You’re About To Share Is Secretly B.S.
- The Normalization Trap
- 32 Animated Videos by Wireless Philosophy Teach You the Essentials of Critical Thinking
- The Critical Thinking Community (great resource)