What Is... Psychology Series

What Is… Critical Thinking

The critical thinking process

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 the Ancient Greek times and the teachings of Socrates, but its role in modern education was influenced by American philosopher John Dewey in the early 1900s.

What’s involved

Dewey identified 5 processes involved in critical thinking:

  • identifying possibilities
  • intellectualizing the issue into a problem to be solved
  • 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

Critical thinking is 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

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 who’s paranoid (in a non-delusional sense) might be unwilling to believe information unless it’s from specific trusted sources that may be based on personal beliefs, whereas in critical thinking, evaluation of reliability would involve a relatively more objective 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 in to 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.

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 and 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 thinking? If so, how might we be able to foster that?

Sources

Psychology resources: What Is insights into psychology series and psychological tests

The what is… series directory contains all of the terms that have been covered in the series thus far.

You can also find a collection of scientifically psychological tests here.

43 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. I remember in college, our teacher told us that commercials saying, “Supplies are limited” are sillly, because everything’s limited. We don’t have unlimited resserves of anything at all.

    I think the same teacher told us we’d be graded on a curve, with the top five of us getting A’s, the second five getting B’s, down to the lower five (out of 25 students) getting F’s. I remember thinking, “Yeah, right, do I look stupid to him? He can’t give the lower ten students D’s and F’s if they do the work like everyone else.” [Eyeroll.]

    Then, on campus, I was walking and I almost collided with the logic teacher, and he yelled, “You should go left at this juncture! I had the right of way.” (But the problem might’ve been that I didn’t learn to drive until I was 25, so he sort of lost me with his logic.)

    Sometimes I’m aware of a certain haziness or lack of thought inside my head. Everything seems suspicious to me when it’s reported in the news or especially politics. Like, if someone has an angle (like a certain political leaning), I don’t feel any news source can be wholly trusted, regardless of which side it’s on. This is separate entirely from my personal political beliefs.

    The power went out at midnight, and I tried to figure out if it was our house’s electrical system or a neighborhood outage. (My dad was asleep.) Then–oh, this is good. Well, I couldn’t figure that out, but I needed some matches to light the lanterns, right? So I searched in the dark near my dad’s cigars and found none. (He told me this morning he keeps them in his room, and I wasn’t about to look there, because he sleeps in the nude. Gross, just gross.) And then, after about ten or fifteen minutes, I got the brilliant idea to look in his car, because he sometimes smokes while driving somewhere. I found some!! Go me. I was able to light my lanterns. That might be more problem solving. I think I have great problem solving skills–critical thinking, I’m not so sure. [Shrug.] Very interesting!!

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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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