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 the 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

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

References

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.

Ashley L. Peterson

BScPharm BSN MPN

Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

40 thoughts on “What Is… Critical Thinking”

  1. 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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