It is one’s ability to think objectively without the influence of one’s own biases, prejudices, personal feelings, or opinions and come to a conclusion solely on factual, objective information.
A critical thinker is someone who can draw logical connections between actions and reactions, troubleshoot and systematically solve problems, and detect common mistakes in the reasoning of arguments – including their own.
The critical thinker is a person who is more easily able to understand themselves and their motivations for feeling and believing the things that they do.
They are also willing and able to entertain and understand multiple perspectives of an argument before making their own decisions.
Many people mistake critical thinking for the collection of knowledge. A degree does not necessarily mean that the person is a good critical thinker, though many people credit college education with developing their critical thinking skills.
A critical thinker is more agile. They tend to use the knowledge they possess to identify weaknesses in their reasoning and seek out new information that will allow them to make a more informed decision.
They are typically not afraid to ask questions or change their opinions when presented with new information.
Another common misconception is that critical thinking means to be overly skeptical or critical of what other people are saying or doing. Though it can be used to tear through weak arguments or bad reasoning, it can also be used to help persuade and build in a more positive direction.
Critical thinking is a valuable tool for personal or professional success because it helps us make sounder decisions from a rational place rather than acting on how we feel.
There are those – often artists and creative types – who feel deeply that placing rules and restrictions on one’s thinking limits their ability to be creative. That isn’t necessarily so.
In fact, critical thinking pairs well with creative thinking when trying to build a large or long-term project. If it is not well ordered and organized, a project or idea can be broken to pieces from the stress when it finally reaches a real world application.
The guidelines and rules of critical thinking can serve to guide our thoughts. If we know, by virtue of the knowledge that we have, that some facet of a project won’t work out, we can deduce that we need a better solution rather than relying on what we know or seeking a shortcut.
That leads a creator down different roads that they may not have previously considered before.
The Basic Process Of Critical Thinking
People perceive and think of the world in different ways. The following steps present the basic process of critical thinking, but should really only be used as a guideline and a place to start developing or improving on those skills.
Analysis and problem solving is best done in a methodical way, so you can develop a habit to build on and hone further.
It can also help you identify any weaker points in your thinking so you can work on developing those further too.
1. Identification and clarification.
Identification and clarification of the problem or subject gives us our place to start. You can’t solve a problem or scrutinize information unless you identify what you are trying to accomplish.
Examples of identification and clarification may include:
– Is this news headline or article biased? The news and media, particularly opinion-editorials, will often be written from a perspective that is not neutral.
– Is this factoid presented in a way that is meant to evoke emotion? Advertisers and influencers may write or speak in such a way as to evoke an emotional reaction to influence the way you think about what you are viewing.
– Is this social media meme honestly representing the subject matter? Almost everything shared around on social media will have some emotional bias to it, often purposefully put there to play on fear or anger.
– Is this problem that I’m looking at the actual problem or is it something else? The problem in front of you isn’t always the actual problem. The low morale in a workplace may not be because the job is bad, but because management is bad. Things aren’t always what they seem on the surface.
2. Investigation and research.
Once you’ve identified what you’re actually looking for, it’s time to research and investigate the components of the thing that you are scrutinizing. How do you go about that?
– Identify the source. Ideally, you want to track the piece of information back to where it came from to see how it originated.
Is it just a problem that developed? Is it a piece of information that’s been carefully crafted by a think-tank or marketing firm with an agenda? Does anyone stand to gain anything by you or other people believing it?
In regard to personal interactions, it’s always worthwhile to double-check on their claims. Trust, but verify.
– Look for third-party information on the claim. Ideally, you want to look for neutral, unbiased third-party information about the claim.
Where can you find that? Articles from the Associated Press, Reuters, and the BBC are a good start. Websites that are from .gov and .edu domains are usually valid.
The blogs of attorneys and doctors can be valuable as well, because reputation is so important in their respective fields so they tend to scrutinize what represents them well.
Legitimate online journals and Google Scholar can be used to find studies for further information.
Any language that includes emotional appeals in the writing or material is not likely to be a good source.
3. Identify bias, either personal or external.
Identifying outside bias is much easier than identifying personal bias.
A person really needs to be in tune with who they are, what they believe, and why they believe it to be able to identify their own bias in their perceptions of a piece of information or a problem.
Again, we come back to emotions. How do you feel about the piece of information or problem? Does it invoke anger? Sadness? Excitement? Hopefulness? Why does it invoke those emotions? And are those emotions causing you to not see the other angles of the situation?
Emotion is a quick, easy way to tell that you may be influenced by your own beliefs rather than objective facts.
Of course, there are some things that we are so raw about that it is impossible to be completely objective, and that’s okay.
Just being aware of the bias and striving to not use it as a basis of your examination, judgment, and decision making will give you a much greater edge in your critical thinking.
4. Inference and conclusion.
Data and information does not always come with a clean, foregone conclusion attached to it. Most of the time, you will need to draw your own conclusions from the information that is available.
The more valid information you can gather before drawing your conclusion, the more likely it is that your conclusion will land in the general area of correct. Particular details may change the overall perspective of a piece of data.
As an example, let’s say a business produces 1,000 widgets in the course of a production run. You can’t infer if that is a lot of widgets or not.
Maybe they need to produce a million for their order, in which case it’s not that many widgets. Maybe they had machinery that broke down where they were only able to produce half of their widget capacity for the production run.
It may be a lot, it may not be. New factual information and details will change your perspective on the business’s widget production.
5. Determining relevance of information.
There is a lot of information out there. The internet is packed with over 1 billion websites where you can find a plethora of information on just about everything.
Too much information can be a serious problem. The internet is also polluted with a lot of biased and misinformation.
Even if your information is factually correct, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is relevant to whatever data, information, or situation you are trying to analyze. It may turn out that there are only a handful of data points that are important to the situation.
Let’s build a bit more on the widget example. Is 1,000 widgets an efficient production run for the company? The business has 30 employees. But wait, how many employees are actually responsible for producing the widgets?
What about management? Accounting? Marketing? Research and Development? It doesn’t matter if the company has 30 employees if only 5 of them are producing the necessary widgets.
The number of total employees is irrelevant information, though factually correct, while the quantity that are producing the widgets is relevant.
1. Ask more relevant questions. Far too often we force ourselves into a narrow path of thinking based on the information that is given to us.
However, there are times when that path would be much broader if we only had a greater perspective of the overall situation.
Asking more relevant questions allows you to gather more information, discern what is important and not, and allows you to make more informed decisions.
2. Question your basic assumptions. Do you just know a certain thing to be true? What do you believe in as an adamant truth? Something you believe in wholeheartedly?
Question it. Look into the counterarguments from experts and other people about those assumptions.
Can you adequately justify what you believe past how you feel or what you believe? Can you shore up those adamant beliefs with facts and truth?
3. Identify your personal biases and prejudices. What do you hate? What upsets you? What makes you angry, sad, or afraid?
Identifying these emotional points in yourself can help you when you are confronted with those situations, because sometimes our emotions do not line up with the reality that we are perceiving. This is particularly true with opinion-editorials, social media, and the news.
4. Examine other conclusions. There are a lot of people in the world who have already blazed trails that you may be trying to walk down. You don’t need to blaze the trail again if you have a goal you are pursuing and need to find your way.
By all means, incorporate your own ideas and pick your own path, but do research about how other people accomplished similar goals.
It can provide additional inspiration thanks to an outside perspective that you may not have otherwise considered. Also, be certain to explore how they reached their ultimate conclusion and destination.
5. Understand that no one can think critically all of the time. Even the most stalwart of critical thinkers is going to have momentary lapses of judgment or understanding.
You’re not going to maintain a veneer of perfection in your critical thinking. No one does or can. It’s just impossible.
That’s why it is always a good idea to not only double check your own sources, but those of other people, even if they are someone you admire for their perspective or critical thinking skills.
Mistakes happen. Trust, but verify.
6. Don’t lose yourself in the research and thoughts of others. In doing your research, you do want to make sure that you are thinking for yourself.
If something seems off or doesn’t line up with your own experience, it’s worth making a note of it and exploring it further. You may find that you have knowledge of your own that changes context or perspective that can give you additional clarity.
Don’t get so caught up in the work that you forget about your own knowledge and experience.
7. Practice continued curiosity in more things. Curiosity is a fundamental part of critical thinking. It’s the reason we examine the ‘why’ of a bit of knowledge or experience.
Make curiosity and wonder a regular part of your existence. If something seems interesting to you, do some research on it.
Better yet, even if something doesn’t seem interesting to you, do some additional research on it. That will help you build a broad perspective and body of knowledge to draw from.
8. Never assume you’re right. In assuming that you are right about a particular thing, you miss out on the opportunity to learn something new from someone who might have a different perspective or information you have not considered.
It’s okay to be confident in what you know, but it is worthwhile to listen to additional perspectives for more facts and context that you may not possess.
People who assume they are right rarely take the time to really listen to other people, instead defaulting to what they think they know and closing themselves off.
Critical Thinking And Social Media
Social media is a pervasive part of the everyday lives of many people. Nearly 3 billion people around the world are using social media as a means to connect, share information and news, and exchange ideas every day.
The problem with that is that people with similar ideas tend to flock together. The algorithms that social media websites utilize look at your interests, what you are commenting about, what you are liking and sharing, and serve you up more information about the things that you like.
That can be good in finding things that are relevant to your interest, but it can be bad if all you’re doing is shouting into an echo chamber.
You can very quickly find yourself being presented with news and information that is crafted and tailored specifically to people with your interests and perspectives.
On the one hand, it can be a good thing to be around other people with similar interests. On the other, it can reinforce negative and incorrect perceptions about the world, fanning the flames of ignorance, anxiety, fear, and anger.
Social media is a fantastic tool for keeping in touch and seeking out new information, but one must be careful to treat everything they read with skepticism.
People with an agenda may craft emotional appeals or create content that is slanted to evoke an impulsive emotional reaction out of the viewer.
Misinformation spreads like wildfire because it’s often emotional speculation, which resonates with people and causes them to hit those like and share buttons.
A good rule of thumb is to check the veracity and accuracy of any story or claim that evokes an emotional reaction out of you.
Angry? Disgusted? Scared? Research it. Someone with an agenda likely crafted it that way to capitalize on your emotions and use them against you.
The critical examination of these feelings and their sources can bring a lot more peace and calmness to your life.
Critical Thinking And The Mainstream Media
The internet, blogging, and social media has forced mainstream media into a questionable place.
The internet and social media move at a tremendous pace. Old school mainstream media and news sources did not.
It used to be that there were only one or two new bulletins a day. It gave the news plenty of time to research stories, dig up the truth, eliminate fabrications or misconceptions, and present a fairly unbiased story.
Now, the mainstream media needs to compete with the instant gratification for information that the internet provides. Consumers of news information are going to go where they can access it immediately.
As a result, you have social media or comment sections on news sites blowing up about events that have happened, or that are currently in progress, before anyone has had any time to actually confirm what the truth is.
Many news organizations have also introduced entertainment factors into their shows, particularly with pundits and personality hosts who are able to generate an audience and draw a crowd.
Far too many people are equating the skewed opinions of their favorite hosts or pundits with what is factual, because they rely on emotional appeal to connect and maintain a relationship with their audience.
None of it should be taken at face value because it’s impossible to know just how truthful and honest that source of information is without taking the time to research their claims. Instead, use their information to guide your own research and reading.
A good indicator that you’re being influenced is the use of weasel words and speculative questioning. “Could this be happening…?" “What exactly is going on here…?" “This circumstance may be occurring…" “What don’t they want you to know?"
Good news reporting is direct, factual, and unemotional.
Critical Thinking And Improving Mental Health
Improving one’s critical thinking can serve as an effective tool to help improve one’s emotional and mental health.
There are many mental health issues that stem from emotions that are either allowed to run uncontrolled or are running out of control on their own.
This is not to suggest that all emotions are controllable or that a person can just think themselves to mental wellness. That’s not how it usually works.
However, there are times when a person can lessen the effects of mental or emotional unwellness with the help of critical thinking.
Consider a person with anxiety. The news and social media are chock full of fearful information, often that is written or presented in such a way to capitalize on the emotion of the consumer.
That person with anxiety may make their own anxiety worse by constantly keeping themselves embroiled in the drama and half-truths that are rife throughout media sources.
There’s always something to be fearful of, because fear and insecurity keeps people tuning in for more information about things that may or may not affect them.
In a similar way, there are many people with depression who find solace in dark humor, sad music, or depression related memes and content.
The more depressing and sad things a person exposes themselves to, the more it is going to drag down their own mood and perceptions of the world, which in turn fuels and makes the depression worse.