Find out why critical thinking is such a valued and in-demand skill and how you can improve your own critical thinking abilities.
The ability to analyse arguments, evaluate evidence, and distinguish between fact and opinion is a valuable skill. As a result, critical thinking is a highly sought after ability that can benefit you at work and in your personal life. But what is critical thinking? And how do you think critically?
We explore some of the key concepts behind critical thinking, examine some examples, and outline how you can improve your own skills in this area. We’ll also highlight some useful courses and resources that can help you think critically.
What is critical thinking?
Let’s start things off with a critical thinking definition. Depending on where you look, you might find differences between definitions. First, we’ll rely on a simple definition: critical thinking is the analysis of factual evidence to form a judgement.
However, a closer inspection of the term and its meaning shows that there are many aspects to critical thinking. What’s more, studies have highlighted a broad range of definitions. A thorough way of defining critical thinking is made by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. They summarise the core concepts of critical thinking as the process of ‘careful goal-directed thinking.’
We can also turn to our open step on critical thinking at university, which features this definition:
“Good critical thinking includes recognising good arguments even when we disagree with them, and poor arguments even when these support our own point of view.”
The open step goes on to outline some of the critical thinking processes that tie into the definitions we’ve seen. These critical thinking skills include:
- Analysing and weighing up arguments
- Evaluating evidence that has been presented
- Distinguishing between fact and opinion
- Reviewing the research methods used (how the data has been gathered)
- Considering the potential for bias
- Analysing different interpretations, viewpoints and perspectives
- Reaching conclusions based on your own reasoning.
As you can see, the characteristics of critical thinking are numerous, and it’s a skill made up of many other abilities.
Thinking critically and creatively
Creative thinking is often contrasted with critical thinking. However, the two certainly have their overlaps. Thinking creatively often requires exploring new possibilities, finding unique angles, and using unconventional solutions.
Critical thinking is more focused on a logical and rational process of evaluating that which exists already. However, both types of thinking can be used to solve problems and make decisions, and a combination of the two is often helpful.
Why is critical thinking important?
So, in essence, critical thinking is about thinking in certain ways to make informed judgements. But why is this such a valuable skill? In a world where we’re provided with an almost constant stream of information and decisions to make, the ability to think critically can help us make the right choices and understand the world around us.
As highlighted in our course on logical and critical thinking, assessing the reasons we are given to do or believe things calls upon us to think critically and logically. We are constantly being told to believe things, such as to buy a product, support a cause, accept a job or judge someone innocent or guilty, and so on. Critical thinking helps us choose whether to believe these things.
Whether you’re working or in education, critical thinking is a desirable soft skill. The benefits of critical thinking are that it can help you:
- Question assumptions
- Make better decisions
- Exercise curiosity
- Create compelling arguments
- Reflect on yourself and your life.
What’s more, critical thinking and problem solving often go hand-in-hand. Employers are always looking for people who possess both skills.
Critical thinking examples
Examples of critical thinking are all around us. On a daily basis, we process information to determine its validity and whether we believe what’s being told to us. However, it’s useful to see the process of critical thinking in action.
In our open step on good and bad arguments, there are several such examples of critical reasoning. These examples follow a particular set of steps to evaluate whether or not an argument is valid and/or sound. This includes:
- Drawing a conclusion from the evidence
- Assessing whether the argument is deductive (has an absolute conclusion) or non-deductive (has a plausible, but not absolute, conclusion).
- Deciding whether the argument is valid (deciding if the premises are true, does that mean we must accept the conclusion).
- Exploring whether the argument is sound (deciding whether the premises are true).
This process can seem quite complex, but many of us do it without thinking. There are other practical examples of critical thinking we can highlight as well, for example:
- Choosing whether a piece of research for an assignment is accurate, valid, from a reliable source and supports your argument.
- Deciding which skills and experience are most relevant to a job application or interview.
- Creating a plan of action to achieve a goal based on a range of factors and variables.
Obstacles to thinking critically
So, critical thinking is a valuable skill and one that many of us practise on a daily basis. However, that doesn’t mean it’s something that we do all of the time. There are some common psychological obstacles and reasoning fallacies that trip even the smartest among us up.
According to our open step on critical and logical thinking, some of the most common obstacles to thinking critically include:
- Confirmation bias. This phenomenon is when we tend to only consider what we have already experienced before, confirming what we already know.
- Heuristics. These are the mental shortcuts we use to simplify decision making. Examples include things like the ‘rule of thumb’ or an ‘educated guess’.
- Framing. The framing effect can make us respond differently to identical circumstances by changing the framing of those circumstances. For example, the focus of our attention might be drawn to different aspects of the situation.
- Common fallacies. There are some common ways that people use reasoning that are not logical or critical. For example, someone might distort an opponent’s arguments or views and then attack the weakened version rather than the real argument (a strawman fallacy).
How to think critically
If you want to try and avoid some of the common obstacles to critical thinking, there are several methods you can use in developing critical thinking skills. Below, we’ve outlined some of the steps you can take to analyse arguments, evaluate evidence, and distinguish between fact and opinion.
Although the critical thinking process will differ between individuals, there are some useful steps:
- Identify the issue. When faced with a situation or problem, determine what has caused it.
- Analyse the arguments. There will usually be several sides to an argument, so it’s important to understand who is saying what and how valid each position is.
- Discover the facts. It’s essential to separate the facts from the opinions and assess how accurately the evidence is presented.
- Challenge your biases. Ask yourself whether or not you’re making assumptions, why you believe a certain point, and whether you’re letting confirmation bias, heuristics, framing or common fallacies impact your thinking.
- Decide on significance. It’s likely that each side of an argument will have supporting evidence. Deciding which information is most important, deductive, valid, and has a sound premise will help make a decision about the significance of each.
- Draw conclusions. The various steps above will lead you to decide which option or argument (if any) is the most accurate. You can also weigh up the strengths and weaknesses of all options.
How to improve critical thinking skills
The steps above seem simple enough, yet with the various obstacles and emotions involved in decision making, it can sometimes be hard to let your head rule above your heart. So how can you improve your critical thinking skills?
There are several ways that you can achieve the benefits of critical thinking, including:
Use scrutiny and scepticism
It requires little effort to accept things at face value and believe what you’re being told. However, doing so is not particularly helpful for critical thinking. Instead, you should question what’s in front of you, ask what the motivations are, and how accurate the information is.
Eliminate the less useful and unreliable information
It can be difficult to make effective decisions or draw informed conclusions when you’re surrounded by inaccurate information. Using your critical eye and scepticism, you can start to discount the bad arguments and biased claims.
Use reliable sources
When you’re researching a topic to make an informed decision, always pay attention to the source. Look at evidence-based information from reliable outlets and be careful of how statistics are presented to you. Try and explore past the surface-level claims of studies to find out what they’re actually telling you, and whether there is enough of a sample size to make a conclusion.
Active listening is a technique that ensures the listener concentrates, understands, responds to, and remembers what’s being said. It’s also about observing behaviour and body language. This type of active listening can help you fully understand what’s being said and why, and what the pros and cons of the argument are.
Being able to put yourself in the shoes of another person allows you to understand their point of view, motivations, and aspirations. In doing so, you’re better able to appreciate why they hold a particular belief or think in a certain way.
So, critical thinking is a valuable skill that can help us make better decisions and judgements. However, all of us must overcome some thought-obstacles to be able to think critically and creatively. Thankfully, there are plenty of ways in which we can do so, as outlined in this post. If you’re interested in learning more about critical thinking, our logical and critical thinking course is a great place to start. You’ll learn more about how to think more critically and construct and evaluate arguments.