Photo: IDEO Postcards
Every day, I’m amazed at the amount of information I consume; I listen to the news on my morning run, scan the papers while I’m eating breakfast, check my social media accounts throughout the day, and watch some TV before I go to bed, all while getting constant updates via email and Twitter. That’s pretty overwhelming on its own, but things get really interesting when some of that information is biased, inaccurate, or just plain made up. It makes it hard to know what to believe. But even with all the competing sources and opinions out there, getting the truth — or at least close to it — matters. What you believe affects what you buy, what you do, who you vote for, and even how you feel. In other words, it virtually dictates how you live your life.
So how can you sort the wheat from the chaff? Well, one clear way is by learning to think more critically. Critical thinking is as simple as it sounds — it’s just a way of thinking that helps you get a little closer to the best answer. So the next time you have a problem to solve, a decision to make or a claim to evaluate, you can decide whether it’s likely to be true — and if you should do anything about it. Here’s how. (See also: How to Improve Your Memory (and Even Get a Little Smarter))
1. Don’t Take Anything at Face Value
The first step to thinking critically is to learn to evaluate what you hear, what you read, and what you decide to do. So, rather than doing something because it’s what you’ve always done or accepting what you’ve heard as the truth, spend some time just thinking. What’s the problem? What are the possible solutions? What are the pros and cons of each? Of course, you still have to decide what to believe and what to do, but if you really evaluate things, you’re likely to make a better, more reasoned choice.
2. Consider Motive
We recently got a call from our cellular service provider about changing our very old, very cheap cell phone plan. They claimed they could give us a new plan that would provide better value. But why, my partner asked, would the company be interested in pursuing us so that we could pay less? Aren’t companies generally interested in making more money? Good question, right? And the reason we were asking it is because we questioned the cellular phone company’s motives. What they said just didn’t make sense.
Where information is coming from is a key part of thinking critically about it. Everyone has a motive and a bias. Sometimes, like the cellular phone company, it’s pretty obvious; other times, it’s a lot harder to detect. Just know that where any information comes from should affect how you evaluate it — and whether you decide to act on it.
3. Do Your Research
All the information that gets thrown at us on a daily basis can be overwhelming, but if you decide to take matters into your own hands, it can also be a very powerful tool. If you have a problem to solve, a decision to make, or a perspective to evaluate, get onto Google and start reading about it. The more information you have, the better prepared you’ll be to think things through and come up with a reasonable answer to your query.
4. Ask Questions
I sometimes find myself shying away from questions. They can make me feel like a bit of a dummy, especially when whoever’s fielding them isn’t receptive. But mostly, I can’t help myself. I just need to know! And once you go down that rabbit hole, you not only learn more, but often discover whole new ways of thinking about things. I think those other perspectives can also help you get closer to thinking through a problem or uncovering what’s what, which brings me to my next point ...
5. Don’t Assume You’re Right
I know it’s hard. I struggle with the hard-headed desire to be right as much as the next person. Because being right feels awesome. It’s an ego trip almost everyone aims to take at some time or another. But assuming you’re right will often put you on the wrong track when it comes to thinking critically. Because if you don’t take in other perspectives and points of view, and think them over, and compare them to your own, you really aren’t doing much thinking at all — and certainly not the critical kind.
6. Break It Down
Being able to see the big picture is often touted as a great quality, but I’d wager that being able to see that picture for all its components is even better. After all, most problems are too big to solve all at once, but they can be broken down into smaller parts. The smaller the parts, the easier it’ll be to evaluate them individually and arrive at a solution. This is essentially what scientists do; before they can figure out how a bigger system — such as our bodies or an ecosystem — works, they have to understand all the parts of that system, how they work, and how they relate to each other.
7. Keep It Simple
In the scientific community, a line of reasoning called Occam’s razor is often used to decide which hypothesis is most likely to be true. This means finding the simplest explanation that fits all facts. This is what you would call the most obvious explanation, and the one that should be preferred, at least until it’s proven wrong. Often, Occam’s razor is just plain common sense. Sure, it’s possible that the high-priced skin cream on TV will make you look 20 years younger — even though you’ve never heard of it, and neither has anyone else. What’s more likely is that the model shown in the ad really is 20 years old.
Critical thinking isn’t easy. It involves letting go of what we want to believe and embracing a whole bunch of new information. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s also interesting. And when you do your research and finally lay out what you believe to be the facts, you’ll probably be surprised by what you uncover. It might not be what you were expecting, but chances are it’ll be closer to the truth.
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What is Critical Thinking?
Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally, understanding the logical connection between ideas. Critical thinking has been the subject of much debate and thought since the time of early Greek philosophers such as Plato and Socrates and has continued to be a subject of discussion into the modern age.
Critical thinking might be described as the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking.
In essence, critical thinking requires you to use your ability to reason. It is about being an active learner rather than a passive recipient of information.
Critical thinkers rigorously question ideas and assumptions rather than accepting them at face value. They will always seek to determine whether the ideas, arguments and findings represent the entire picture and are open to finding that they do not.
Critical thinkers will identify, analyse and solve problems systematically rather than by intuition or instinct.
Someone with critical thinking skills can:
- Understand the links between ideas.
- Determine the importance and relevance of arguments and ideas.
- Recognise, build and appraise arguments.
- Identify inconsistencies and errors in reasoning.
- Approach problems in a consistent and systematic way.
- Reflect on the justification of their own assumptions, beliefs and values.
Critical thinking is thinking about things in certain ways so as to arrive at the best possible solution in the circumstances that the thinker is aware of. In more everyday language, it is a way of thinking about whatever is presently occupying your mind so that you come to the best possible conclusion.
Critical Thinking is:
A way of thinking about particular things at a particular time; it is not the accumulation of facts and knowledge or something that you can learn once and then use in that form forever, such as the nine times table you learn and use in school.
The Skills We Need for Critical Thinking
The skills that we need in order to be able to think critically are varied and include observation, analysis, interpretation, reflection, evaluation, inference, explanation, problem solving, and decision making. Specifically we need to be able to:
- Think about a topic or issue in an objective and critical way.
- Identify the different arguments there are in relation to a particular issue.
- Evaluate a point of view to determine how strong or valid it is.
- Recognise any weaknesses or negative points that there are in the evidence or argument.
- Notice what implications there might be behind a statement or argument.
- Provide structured reasoning and support for an argument that we wish to make.
The Critical Thinking Process
You should be aware that none of us think critically all the time.
Sometimes we think in almost any way but critically, for example when our self-control is affected by anger, grief or joy or when we are feeling just plain ‘bloody minded’.
On the other hand, the good news is that, since our critical thinking ability varies according to our current mindset, most of the time we can learn to improve our critical thinking ability by developing certain routine activities and applying them to all problems that present themselves.
Once you understand the theory of critical thinking, improving your critical thinking skills takes persistence and practice.
Try this simple exercise to help you to start thinking critically.
Think of something that someone has recently told you. Then ask yourself the following questions:
Who said it?
Someone you know? Someone in a position of authority or power? Does it matter who told you this?
What did they say?
Did they give facts or opinions? Did they provide all the facts? Did they leave anything out?
Where did they say it?
Was it in public or in private? Did other people have a chance to respond an provide an alternative account?
When did they say it?
Was it before, during or after an important event? Is timing important?
Why did they say it?
Did they explain the reasoning behind their opinion? Were they trying to make someone look good or bad?
How did they say it?
Were they happy or sad, angry or indifferent? Did they write it or say it? Could you understand what was said?
What are you Aiming to Achieve?
One of the most important aspects of critical thinking is to decide what you are aiming to achieve and then make a decision based on a range of possibilities.
Once you have clarified that aim for yourself you should use it as the starting point in all future situations requiring thought and, possibly, further decision making. Where needed, make your workmates, family or those around you aware of your intention to pursue this goal. You must then discipline yourself to keep on track until changing circumstances mean you have to revisit the start of the decision making process.
However, there are things that get in the way of simple decision making. We all carry with us a range of likes and dislikes, learnt behaviours and personal preferences developed throughout our lives; they are the hallmarks of being human. A major contribution to ensuring we think critically is to be aware of these personal characteristics, preferences and biases and make allowance for them when considering possible next steps, whether they are at the pre-action consideration stage or as part of a rethink caused by unexpected or unforeseen impediments to continued progress.
The more clearly we are aware of ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses, the more likely our critical thinking will be productive.
The Benefit of Foresight
Perhaps the most important element of thinking critically is foresight.
Almost all decisions we make and implement don’t prove disastrous if we find reasons to abandon them. However, our decision making will be infinitely better and more likely to lead to success if, when we reach a tentative conclusion, we pause and consider the impact on the people and activities around us.
The elements needing consideration are generally numerous and varied. In many cases, consideration of one element from a different perspective will reveal potential dangers in pursuing our decision.
For instance, moving a business activity to a new location may improve potential output considerably but it may also lead to the loss of skilled workers if the distance moved is too great. Which of these is the more important consideration? Is there some way of lessening the conflict?
These are the sort of problems that may arise from incomplete critical thinking, a demonstration perhaps of the critical importance of good critical thinking.
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- Critical thinking is aimed at achieving the best possible outcomes in any situation. In order to achieve this it must involve gathering and evaluating information from as many different sources possible.
- Critical thinking requires a clear, often uncomfortable, assessment of your personal strengths, weaknesses and preferences and their possible impact on decisions you may make.
- Critical thinking requires the development and use of foresight as far as this is possible. As Doris Day sang, “the future’s not ours to see”.
- Implementing the decisions made arising from critical thinking must take into account an assessment of possible outcomes and ways of avoiding potentially negative outcomes, or at least lessening their impact.
- Critical thinking involves reviewing the results of the application of decisions made and implementing change where possible.
It might be thought that we are overextending our demands on critical thinking in expecting that it can help to construct focused meaning rather than examining the information given and the knowledge we have acquired to see if we can, if necessary, construct a meaning that will be acceptable and useful.
After all, almost no information we have available to us, either externally or internally, carries any guarantee of its life or appropriateness. Neat step-by-step instructions may provide some sort of trellis on which our basic understanding of critical thinking can blossom but it doesn’t and cannot provide any assurance of certainty, utility or longevity.