Perhaps the second most frequently asked question about critical thinking – after “What is it?” – is “How, exactly, do you practice critical thinking?” Although there is no magical formula. I concluded, after a lot of reading and writing on the subject. That one should follow a simple critical thinking process if he wants his decisions to suck less.
Here’s how smart folks define critical thinking:
“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”1
If that doesn’t seem like anything meaningful. Don’t worry. It’s not you. It’s just the normal way intellectuals arrange words.
Here’s a simpler explanation:
Critical thinking is the act of NOT blindly agreeing with anything you were told by a college professor or any other “intellectual”.
And to expand on the latter: Special care must always be taken to avoid being influenced by inaccurate information, your own biases, conspiracy theories, and groupthink – one of the major critical thinking barriers.
Since we are constantly solving problems – how to provide for our families; how to get from point A to point B in one piece; how to discreetly explain to our boss that he needs to pay us more money. And problems require thinking. We need good thinking to advance.
So, if it’s still not clear. Critical thinking is an essential component every person needs to survive in the rapidly changing world.
But how to actually use it in your everyday life?
Commonly, you’ll find the following critical thinking steps online that will supposedly lead you to sound judgments:
- Identify the problem.
- Analyze the arguments.
- Discover the facts.
- Challenge your biases.
- Decide on significance.
- Draw conclusions.
On paper, it sounds so, so simple.
That is, of course, until you actually try to implement the process in a real-life situation.
The problem with long-winded explanations and definitions in relation to critical thinking – and not only – is twofold: Firstly, few people actually remember the whole process. And secondly, when you actually try the steps, you get lost in the complexity.
To actually practice critical thinking. Especially today, in the modern age, where we want everything to be effortless.
We need a simpler and more user-friendly critical thinking process that can be first, stored in the brain (remembered) and then diligently applied.
What Is The Purpose of Critical Thinking?
A bit of background before we get to the meaty stuff – what is a usable critical thinking process and how you can apply it?
Let’s figure out first what is the purpose of critical thinking.
In short, the purpose of this thinking type is to prevent you from inviting the neatly dressed guys in your house who go from door to door preaching almighty power, so you can not enroll in a cult and after that not involve yourself in a mass suicide.
Or more realistically, to improve the quality of your thoughts, so you can do fewer stupid decisions and more smart ones.
What Is The Principle of Critical Thinking?
If we can, once again, astray for a moment from the long-winded explanations by scientists – but still considering what they are saying.2
My personal definition of the main principle of critical thinking can be concentrated in one word: doubt.
Foremost, you doubt yourself. Even if you consider yourself madly-wise.
Well, there is a huge chance that your deeply rooted biases and impulsive emotions will negatively influence your decision/reaction.
Secondly, you doubt the source. Is this person/source really worth listening to? If yes, what part is a solid fact, and what is just an opinion?
And thirdly, you doubt the common solutions to the problem you’re facing. Yes! We can consider what was done in the past and what actually worked in the past. But the future evolves at such a rapid pace that old solutions (unless heavily altered) rarely work for newly arising problems.
What Are The Main Components of Critical Thinking?
So what are the main ingredients to create a potion that will turn you into an extraordinarily smart person?
There are a few based on scientific papers:3
- Ask questions and be willing to wonder.
- The ability to define problems clearly.
- Examine evidence.
- Analyze assumptions and biases.
- The skill to avoid emotional reasoning.
- Avoid oversimplification.
- Consider alternative interpretations.
- Tolerate uncertainty.
There are other valid and useful components in the critical-thinking “pie.” But according to – yes! scientists – the eight mentioned elements have proven to be a good number that can fit in the working memory of a human being and be practiced.
However, I tend to disagree with the latter.
Remembering and applying eight steps might seem like a walk in the park for an academic, but for the regular unwise person – me, for instance? It’s a sure way towards quickly forgetting about the whole topic and moving along with my life – i.e., continue to frustrate my wife, lose money by investing in questionable stocks, etc.
Basically, the challenge I was facing when researching the topic was the following: How can you take all of these ambitions and interesting insights by smart folks and place them in an easy to remember critical thinking approach that one can actually remember and apply in his life?
What I came up with is the following simple critical thinking process:
Uncomplicated Critical Thinking Process For The Everyday Life:
Here’s the uncomplicated critical thinking process I patched after reading a bunch of scientific papers (found in the footnotes section) that you can apply when:
- Your boss asks you to make a quick analysis of a set of data.
- A charming salesperson is trying to sell you stuff you don’t actually need.
- Your spouse is having a hard day and he/she is intentionally (or not) verbally attacking you.
- You are walking towards a door where it says pull but your brain thinks about pushing (or vice versa).4
- Or basically any time you need to think before you act.
As simple as it might sound, pausing – i.e., not acting impulsively. Is the most important and hard-to-apply step to practice critical thinking.
And secondly, if you say something stupid: “Boss, it seems like our sales are increasing. Yeah!” – while they are actually not. Even if you correct your statement after that, you already made a bad impression.
Or worse, if you lash out with anger when your spouse makes a comment about the way you are trying to change a flat tire. Apologizing after that won’t make things better. The damage was already done.
Therefore, before you do something/say something when the situation is more complicated. Pausing is the most appropriate first step.
During the pause. You don’t just spill the first thing that forms in your head and then order a mojito and scroll through your Instagram feed.
As mentioned above, you should doubt your first reaction to situations.
In the physical world, it will look like this: You grab the situation with your hands. Then, you clutch the first thought that forms in your head with your foot. And finally, you observe them both. Are they a good fit? Probably not.
You start to doubt your initial reply/reaction and continue with the following: You think!
You interpret what is happening – exactly? In your head, you raise questions that aim to provoke deeper reflection and force you to form ideas and new interpretations.
One great example I found in the Knowledge Project Podcast #144 is the following:
A police officer is stuck in traffic with his partner. The officer looks ahead and sees a brand-new BMW. Nothing unusual. But he just keeps looking. What he sees is that the driver takes a deep drag on his cigarette and then flicks the ashes. The police officer then thinks: “Who flicks the ashes in a brand-new BMW? That doesn’t make sense.” It turned out, that it was a stolen car.
A common interpretation of the event from an untrained eye would probably be that this person is too rich to care, or perhaps this “spill” of ashes was by accident.
There was no other evidence announcing that it was a stolen car. What the police officer saw was simply an action of flicking the ashes which didn’t make sense to him.
Lastly, we need to:
- Get 100% clarity – or as close as possible to 100% based on the gathered evidence.
- Precisely define the current problem.
- Come to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions.
- Possibly test their potential outcome.
- Take action based on what we consider the most adequate response.
Say we have the following scenario:
Your spouse announces that he/she donated a not that big, but still substantial sum of money to a charity organization. Your initial reaction – if you, on the other hand, consider your financial situation unhealthy – might be to get angry, irritated. Not only that he/she didn’t consult with you, first. But you also doubt the trustworthiness of the organization. How do you respond?
If you follow the critical thinking process proposed here you can…
Pause. Doubt your initial reaction. And gain clarity.
Therefore, you might avoid ruining the whole evening – and probably your whole relationship. By concluding something like this:
That your spouse might be feeling like his/her work is not meaningful enough. Helpful enough for society. You can even remember that you were recently watching a campaign on TV where a family was looking for donations for the operation of their newborn and your spouse was pretty upset about it. All of these factors probably convinced your partner to act in the way he/she did.
So, instead of blaming him/her which will surely lead to nowhere – arguments and tears. You can support his/her choice and after that ask him/her about the reasoning behind the decision.
All of this can steer the conversation towards something more productive – finding a better occupation for your spouse and another organization where you can donate funds.
Some Closing Thoughts
Keeping a critical thinking process close by – the one above, hopefully. Will prevent you from jumping to quick conclusions that can undermine your work and relationships. Encourage you to be vigilant for insights, thoughtful to make connections between ideas, and ensure that you’ll figure out solutions to complex problems.
I hope that the guideline above will prompt you to look beyond the first, obvious solution for a situation. Beyond the first reply to a question that morphs in your head. And the ability to recognize that “the facts” do not automatically resolve issues.
There is surely a lot more on the topic of systematic processes for critical thinking. But based on experience, I found that having a long list of steps rarely leads to action and behavior change – in our case, thinking better. It only leads to confusion and it keeps you grounded in the same position – i.e., still thinking foolishly.
“The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.” Christopher Hitchens
Add to your critical thinking knowledge by reading the following:
- 7 Powerful Critical Thinking Quotes – Deconstructed
- Critical Thinking and Problem Solving in the Modern Age
- Thought-Provoking Examples of Critical Thinking In The Workplace
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- Michael Scriven & Richard Paul, Critical Thinking as Defined by the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, 1987. On the web: https://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/defining-critical-thinking/766
- University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving – Pedagogical Strategies and Techniques. On the web: https://www.utc.edu/academic-affairs/walker-center-for-teaching-and-learning/teaching-resources/pedagogical-strategies-and-techniques/ct-ps
- Wade, C. (1995). Using writing to develop and assess critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 24–28. On the web: https://doi.org/10.1207/s15328023top2201_8
- Apperently these doors are called Norman doors – there is a great video made by Vox Media which you can watch here.