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What Is… Critical Thinking

Critical thinking process, elements, and relevant skills & abilities

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is critical thinking.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that, while there are various different definitions, the basic underlying idea is “careful thinking directed to a goal.” Wikipedia describes critical thinking as “the analysis of facts to form a judgment,” involving “rational, skeptical, unbiased analysis, or evaluation of factual evidence.”

The concept has been around since Ancient Greek times and the teachings of Socrates, but American philosopher John Dewey was a major influence in bringing it into modern education in the early 1900s.

What critical thinking is

Dewey identified 5 processes involved in critical thinking:

  • identifying possibilities
  • intellectualizing the issue into a problem to solve
  • selecting a hypothesis to guide collection of information
  • applying reasoning
  • testing the hypothesis

It’s kind of like applying the scientific method on a personal level to dealing with problems, in the sense that it involves questioning and testing things out before making an evaluation.

Critical thinking isn’t a single thought process. It involves a number of specific mental acts, including:

  • observation
  • feeling
  • inferring
  • drawing on stored knowledge
  • experimenting
  • consulting
  • judging
  • deciding

Thinking critically comes from a mix of natural predisposition and skills developed over time. Attitudes that can help include self-confidence, open-mindedness, attentiveness, and truth-seeking. Helpful skills include problem-solving, decision-making, rationality, and metacognition (being aware of one’s own thinking processes).


Skepticism is conducive to critical thinking, but that’s not the same as being unwilling to believe. Someone we might think of as a vaccine skeptic probably wouldn’t be willing to entertain information that’s inconsistent with their beliefs, but someone taking a critical thinking approach would explore and evaluate the individual merits and weaknesses of different pieces of information and their sources.

Similarly, someone with paranoia (in a non-delusional sense) might only be willing to believe information unless from specific sources that are trusted based on personal beliefs, while a critical thinker would evaluate the reliability of sources based on an evaluation of merits and weaknesses.

Applying critical thinking

Critical thinking is an important part of media literacy. We’re bombarded with all kinds of messaging, and the explosion of available information online isn’t that helpful without an effective way to separate the useful from the crap. For all that critical thinking is supposed to be taught in schools, it doesn’t seem like that’s translating into practical world application.

A 2018 article by the Provost at the University of Washington said that “Democracies live and die by the ability of their people to access information and engage in robust discussions based upon facts.” He argued that teaching critical thinking, including skills in accessing and questioning data, is essential for the future of democracy. Granted, that’s coming through his filter as an educator, but the point’s still valid.

Speaking of filters, everything that we’re presented with comes through some sort of filter, whether that’s bias stemming from the source or from the medium. Bias isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but failure to recognize it can be a problem. For example, it’s one thing to choose to watch Fox News and recognize that it’s coming through a filter with a certain bias, and it’s a whole other can of tuna to assume that messaging is unbiased. I watch a couple of late night comedy shows that I’m well aware are biased to the left, and acknowledging that bias is helpful in contextualizing the information they present in terms of the bigger picture.

Are you a critical thinker?

I’m logically minded to begin with, and the schooling I’ve done has had a huge impact on how I evaluate new information. I’ve certainly got my own biased filter, but I have confidence in my ability to look things up, plus I trust my BS detector.

Monash University has a 3-question quiz to tell you if you’re a critical thinker or not. It’s not enough to tell you much of anything about anything, but it calls me a “critical maestro.”

Do you think our society could use more critical thought? If so, how might we be able to foster that?

Useful resources

  • CRAAP test: how to evaluate relevance based on currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose
  • MediaSmarts: Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy
  • Medical Library Association: tips on finding good health information
  • NAMLE: National Association for Media Literacy Education
  • Office for Science and Society: the aim of this group at McGill University is “separating sense from nonsense”
  • Pew Research Fact Tank: nonpartisan public opinion research and analysis
  • Quackwatch.org: maintained by Stephen Barrett MD, with an extensive range of articles on quacky practices
  • Verification Handbook: this free book designed for journalists is a guide to detecting inauthentic and manipulated content online


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

41 thoughts on “What Is… Critical Thinking”

  1. It’s the critical thinking part that many people struggle with, isn’t it. They may not know how to do it, or want to do it. And, the social media bombardment is, often, such forgettable drivel.

  2. An excellent post with great information. I was fascinated by your thoughts on critical thinking and filters.
    We do filter what we see do, hear and understand and sometimes don’t even notice it.
    Ashley, I have shared this post on Pinterest with the following comment:
    [A beautifully researched and written article on psychological terms by Ashley Peterson💖]
    Really well done, as usual. Thanks you!

  3. In the US, we are in danger of many things. Among them, fewer and fewer people becoming educated. Let’s hope it doesn’t go that way… it’s pretty disconcerting though to see so many people no longer emphasizing education (or, maybe they never did).

    1. I think it also needs to be emphasized at home. Even if people don’t pursue any higher education, if the seeds of critical thinking are planted young, that could go a long way.

  4. Do you think our society could use more critical thinking? Yes. It’s (apparently) in very very short supply right now.
    If so, how might we be able to foster that? I have no idea, but you’d have to overcome the massive sense of entitlement and the overwhelming ennui in society to accomplish it. In my opinion.

  5. ” skills in accessing and questioning data, is essential for the future of democracy. ”
    This was one of the major reasons that I became an educator.

  6. I think critical thinking is healthy and key to not just be accepting of all you hear but to be proactive in enquiring and doing your own research.

  7. I got the same score you did, though with only three rather pointed questions, it was hardly conclusive. I’d be interested in seeing what some of the other options were, since everything disappeared quickly after “spinning the wheel.”

    I don’t know if you timed this one with respect to the coming election; but if so, good timing. Maybe somebody will think twice.

  8. Critical thinking is something that students need to be taught so they just don’t swallow everything they see on the internet hook, line, and sinker. It’s sorely missing in many people.

  9. This is such an important and missing topic. As always, I appreciate your posts and, too, believe this is a skill foundational in a society. Critical thinking is needed and should be fostered in beginning education as part of of learning based curriculums and in teaching young parents to support developmental curiosity. I know this would make a long-term difference in changing what we are witnessing today.

  10. Like most other commenters Ashley, I think it ought to be taught in schools from a young age, as some of their parent don’t have the knowledge of inclination to learn more about what’s happening in our world today.

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