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What Are Critical Thinking Skills and Why Are They Important?

Learn what critical thinking skills are, why they’re important, and how to develop and apply them in your workplace and everyday life.

[Featured Image]:  Project Manager, approaching  and analyzing the latest project with a team member,

We often use critical thinking skills without even realizing it. When you make a decision, such as which cereal to eat for breakfast, you're using critical thinking to determine the best option for you that day.

Critical thinking is like a muscle that can be exercised and built over time. It is a skill that can help propel your career to new heights. You'll be able to solve workplace issues, use trial and error to troubleshoot ideas, and more.

We'll take you through what it is and some examples so you can begin your journey in mastering this skill.

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is the ability to interpret, evaluate, and analyze facts and information that are available, to form a judgment or decide if something is right or wrong.

More than just being curious about the world around you, critical thinkers make connections between logical ideas to see the bigger picture. Building your critical thinking skills means being able to advocate your ideas and opinions, present them in a logical fashion, and make decisions for improvement.

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Why is critical thinking important?

Critical thinking is useful in many areas of your life, including your career. It makes you a well-rounded individual, one who has looked at all of their options and possible solutions before making a choice.

According to the University of the People in California, having critical thinking skills is important because they are [ 1 ]:

Crucial for the economy

Essential for improving language and presentation skills

Very helpful in promoting creativity

Important for self-reflection

The basis of science and democracy 

Critical thinking skills are used every day in a myriad of ways and can be applied to situations such as a CEO approaching a group project or a nurse deciding in which order to treat their patients.

Examples of common critical thinking skills

Critical thinking skills differ from individual to individual and are utilized in various ways. Examples of common critical thinking skills include:

Identification of biases: Identifying biases means knowing there are certain people or things that may have an unfair prejudice or influence on the situation at hand. Pointing out these biases helps to remove them from contention when it comes to solving the problem and allows you to see things from a different perspective.

Research: Researching details and facts allows you to be prepared when presenting your information to people. You’ll know exactly what you’re talking about due to the time you’ve spent with the subject material, and you’ll be well-spoken and know what questions to ask to gain more knowledge. When researching, always use credible sources and factual information.

Open-mindedness: Being open-minded when having a conversation or participating in a group activity is crucial to success. Dismissing someone else’s ideas before you’ve heard them will inhibit you from progressing to a solution, and will often create animosity. If you truly want to solve a problem, you need to be willing to hear everyone’s opinions and ideas if you want them to hear yours.

Analysis: Analyzing your research will lead to you having a better understanding of the things you’ve heard and read. As a true critical thinker, you’ll want to seek out the truth and get to the source of issues. It’s important to avoid taking things at face value and always dig deeper.

Problem-solving: Problem-solving is perhaps the most important skill that critical thinkers can possess. The ability to solve issues and bounce back from conflict is what helps you succeed, be a leader, and effect change. One way to properly solve problems is to first recognize there’s a problem that needs solving. By determining the issue at hand, you can then analyze it and come up with several potential solutions.

How to develop critical thinking skills

You can develop critical thinking skills every day if you approach problems in a logical manner. Here are a few ways you can start your path to improvement:

1. Ask questions.

Be inquisitive about everything. Maintain a neutral perspective and develop a natural curiosity, so you can ask questions that develop your understanding of the situation or task at hand. The more details, facts, and information you have, the better informed you are to make decisions.

2. Practice active listening.

Utilize active listening techniques, which are founded in empathy, to really listen to what the other person is saying. Critical thinking, in part, is the cognitive process of reading the situation: the words coming out of their mouth, their body language, their reactions to your own words. Then, you might paraphrase to clarify what they're saying, so both of you agree you're on the same page.

3. Develop your logic and reasoning.

This is perhaps a more abstract task that requires practice and long-term development. However, think of a schoolteacher assessing the classroom to determine how to energize the lesson. There's options such as playing a game, watching a video, or challenging the students with a reward system. Using logic, you might decide that the reward system will take up too much time and is not an immediate fix. A video is not exactly relevant at this time. So, the teacher decides to play a simple word association game.

Scenarios like this happen every day, so next time, you can be more aware of what will work and what won't. Over time, developing your logic and reasoning will strengthen your critical thinking skills.

Learn tips and tricks on how to become a better critical thinker and problem solver through online courses from notable educational institutions on Coursera. Start with Introduction to Logic and Critical Thinking from Duke University or Mindware: Critical Thinking for the Information Age from the University of Michigan.

Article sources

University of the People, “ Why is Critical Thinking Important?: A Survival Guide , https://www.uopeople.edu/blog/why-is-critical-thinking-important/.” Accessed May 18, 2023.

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  • What Is Critical Thinking? | Definition & Examples

What Is Critical Thinking? | Definition & Examples

Published on May 30, 2022 by Eoghan Ryan . Revised on May 31, 2023.

Critical thinking is the ability to effectively analyze information and form a judgment .

To think critically, you must be aware of your own biases and assumptions when encountering information, and apply consistent standards when evaluating sources .

Critical thinking skills help you to:

  • Identify credible sources
  • Evaluate and respond to arguments
  • Assess alternative viewpoints
  • Test hypotheses against relevant criteria

Table of contents

Why is critical thinking important, critical thinking examples, how to think critically, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about critical thinking.

Critical thinking is important for making judgments about sources of information and forming your own arguments. It emphasizes a rational, objective, and self-aware approach that can help you to identify credible sources and strengthen your conclusions.

Critical thinking is important in all disciplines and throughout all stages of the research process . The types of evidence used in the sciences and in the humanities may differ, but critical thinking skills are relevant to both.

In academic writing , critical thinking can help you to determine whether a source:

  • Is free from research bias
  • Provides evidence to support its research findings
  • Considers alternative viewpoints

Outside of academia, critical thinking goes hand in hand with information literacy to help you form opinions rationally and engage independently and critically with popular media.

Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.

Critical thinking can help you to identify reliable sources of information that you can cite in your research paper . It can also guide your own research methods and inform your own arguments.

Outside of academia, critical thinking can help you to be aware of both your own and others’ biases and assumptions.

Academic examples

However, when you compare the findings of the study with other current research, you determine that the results seem improbable. You analyze the paper again, consulting the sources it cites.

You notice that the research was funded by the pharmaceutical company that created the treatment. Because of this, you view its results skeptically and determine that more independent research is necessary to confirm or refute them. Example: Poor critical thinking in an academic context You’re researching a paper on the impact wireless technology has had on developing countries that previously did not have large-scale communications infrastructure. You read an article that seems to confirm your hypothesis: the impact is mainly positive. Rather than evaluating the research methodology, you accept the findings uncritically.

Nonacademic examples

However, you decide to compare this review article with consumer reviews on a different site. You find that these reviews are not as positive. Some customers have had problems installing the alarm, and some have noted that it activates for no apparent reason.

You revisit the original review article. You notice that the words “sponsored content” appear in small print under the article title. Based on this, you conclude that the review is advertising and is therefore not an unbiased source. Example: Poor critical thinking in a nonacademic context You support a candidate in an upcoming election. You visit an online news site affiliated with their political party and read an article that criticizes their opponent. The article claims that the opponent is inexperienced in politics. You accept this without evidence, because it fits your preconceptions about the opponent.

There is no single way to think critically. How you engage with information will depend on the type of source you’re using and the information you need.

However, you can engage with sources in a systematic and critical way by asking certain questions when you encounter information. Like the CRAAP test , these questions focus on the currency , relevance , authority , accuracy , and purpose of a source of information.

When encountering information, ask:

  • Who is the author? Are they an expert in their field?
  • What do they say? Is their argument clear? Can you summarize it?
  • When did they say this? Is the source current?
  • Where is the information published? Is it an academic article? Is it peer-reviewed ?
  • Why did the author publish it? What is their motivation?
  • How do they make their argument? Is it backed up by evidence? Does it rely on opinion, speculation, or appeals to emotion ? Do they address alternative arguments?

Critical thinking also involves being aware of your own biases, not only those of others. When you make an argument or draw your own conclusions, you can ask similar questions about your own writing:

  • Am I only considering evidence that supports my preconceptions?
  • Is my argument expressed clearly and backed up with credible sources?
  • Would I be convinced by this argument coming from someone else?

If you want to know more about ChatGPT, AI tools , citation , and plagiarism , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • ChatGPT vs human editor
  • ChatGPT citations
  • Is ChatGPT trustworthy?
  • Using ChatGPT for your studies
  • What is ChatGPT?
  • Chicago style
  • Paraphrasing


  • Types of plagiarism
  • Self-plagiarism
  • Avoiding plagiarism
  • Academic integrity
  • Consequences of plagiarism
  • Common knowledge

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what is the significance of critical thinking

Critical thinking refers to the ability to evaluate information and to be aware of biases or assumptions, including your own.

Like information literacy , it involves evaluating arguments, identifying and solving problems in an objective and systematic way, and clearly communicating your ideas.

Critical thinking skills include the ability to:

You can assess information and arguments critically by asking certain questions about the source. You can use the CRAAP test , focusing on the currency , relevance , authority , accuracy , and purpose of a source of information.

Ask questions such as:

  • Who is the author? Are they an expert?
  • How do they make their argument? Is it backed up by evidence?

A credible source should pass the CRAAP test  and follow these guidelines:

  • The information should be up to date and current.
  • The author and publication should be a trusted authority on the subject you are researching.
  • The sources the author cited should be easy to find, clear, and unbiased.
  • For a web source, the URL and layout should signify that it is trustworthy.

Information literacy refers to a broad range of skills, including the ability to find, evaluate, and use sources of information effectively.

Being information literate means that you:

  • Know how to find credible sources
  • Use relevant sources to inform your research
  • Understand what constitutes plagiarism
  • Know how to cite your sources correctly

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search, interpret, and recall information in a way that aligns with our pre-existing values, opinions, or beliefs. It refers to the ability to recollect information best when it amplifies what we already believe. Relatedly, we tend to forget information that contradicts our opinions.

Although selective recall is a component of confirmation bias, it should not be confused with recall bias.

On the other hand, recall bias refers to the differences in the ability between study participants to recall past events when self-reporting is used. This difference in accuracy or completeness of recollection is not related to beliefs or opinions. Rather, recall bias relates to other factors, such as the length of the recall period, age, and the characteristics of the disease under investigation.

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Why Is Critical Thinking Important? A Survival Guide


Why is critical thinking important? The decisions that you make affect your quality of life. And if you want to ensure that you live your best, most successful and happy life, you’re going to want to make conscious choices. That can be done with a simple thing known as critical thinking. Here’s how to improve your critical thinking skills and make decisions that you won’t regret.

What Is Critical Thinking?

You’ve surely heard of critical thinking, but you might not be entirely sure what it really means, and that’s because there are many definitions. For the most part, however, we think of critical thinking as the process of analyzing facts in order to form a judgment. Basically, it’s thinking about thinking.

How Has The Definition Evolved Over Time?

The first time critical thinking was documented is believed to be in the teachings of Socrates , recorded by Plato. But throughout history, the definition has changed.

Today it is best understood by philosophers and psychologists and it’s believed to be a highly complex concept. Some insightful modern-day critical thinking definitions include :

  • “Reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do.”
  • “Deciding what’s true and what you should do.”

The Importance Of Critical Thinking

Why is critical thinking important? Good question! Here are a few undeniable reasons why it’s crucial to have these skills.

1. Critical Thinking Is Universal

Critical thinking is a domain-general thinking skill. What does this mean? It means that no matter what path or profession you pursue, these skills will always be relevant and will always be beneficial to your success. They are not specific to any field.

2. Crucial For The Economy

Our future depends on technology, information, and innovation. Critical thinking is needed for our fast-growing economies, to solve problems as quickly and as effectively as possible.

3. Improves Language & Presentation Skills

In order to best express ourselves, we need to know how to think clearly and systematically — meaning practice critical thinking! Critical thinking also means knowing how to break down texts, and in turn, improve our ability to comprehend.

4. Promotes Creativity

By practicing critical thinking, we are allowing ourselves not only to solve problems but also to come up with new and creative ideas to do so. Critical thinking allows us to analyze these ideas and adjust them accordingly.

5. Important For Self-Reflection

Without critical thinking, how can we really live a meaningful life? We need this skill to self-reflect and justify our ways of life and opinions. Critical thinking provides us with the tools to evaluate ourselves in the way that we need to.

Woman deep into thought as she looks out the window, using her critical thinking skills to do some self-reflection.

6. The Basis Of Science & Democracy

In order to have a democracy and to prove scientific facts, we need critical thinking in the world. Theories must be backed up with knowledge. In order for a society to effectively function, its citizens need to establish opinions about what’s right and wrong (by using critical thinking!).

Benefits Of Critical Thinking

We know that critical thinking is good for society as a whole, but what are some benefits of critical thinking on an individual level? Why is critical thinking important for us?

1. Key For Career Success

Critical thinking is crucial for many career paths. Not just for scientists, but lawyers , doctors, reporters, engineers , accountants, and analysts (among many others) all have to use critical thinking in their positions. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum, critical thinking is one of the most desirable skills to have in the workforce, as it helps analyze information, think outside the box, solve problems with innovative solutions, and plan systematically.

2. Better Decision Making

There’s no doubt about it — critical thinkers make the best choices. Critical thinking helps us deal with everyday problems as they come our way, and very often this thought process is even done subconsciously. It helps us think independently and trust our gut feeling.

3. Can Make You Happier!

While this often goes unnoticed, being in touch with yourself and having a deep understanding of why you think the way you think can really make you happier. Critical thinking can help you better understand yourself, and in turn, help you avoid any kind of negative or limiting beliefs, and focus more on your strengths. Being able to share your thoughts can increase your quality of life.

4. Form Well-Informed Opinions

There is no shortage of information coming at us from all angles. And that’s exactly why we need to use our critical thinking skills and decide for ourselves what to believe. Critical thinking allows us to ensure that our opinions are based on the facts, and help us sort through all that extra noise.

5. Better Citizens

One of the most inspiring critical thinking quotes is by former US president Thomas Jefferson: “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” What Jefferson is stressing to us here is that critical thinkers make better citizens, as they are able to see the entire picture without getting sucked into biases and propaganda.

6. Improves Relationships

While you may be convinced that being a critical thinker is bound to cause you problems in relationships, this really couldn’t be less true! Being a critical thinker can allow you to better understand the perspective of others, and can help you become more open-minded towards different views.

7. Promotes Curiosity

Critical thinkers are constantly curious about all kinds of things in life, and tend to have a wide range of interests. Critical thinking means constantly asking questions and wanting to know more, about why, what, who, where, when, and everything else that can help them make sense of a situation or concept, never taking anything at face value.

8. Allows For Creativity

Critical thinkers are also highly creative thinkers, and see themselves as limitless when it comes to possibilities. They are constantly looking to take things further, which is crucial in the workforce.

9. Enhances Problem Solving Skills

Those with critical thinking skills tend to solve problems as part of their natural instinct. Critical thinkers are patient and committed to solving the problem, similar to Albert Einstein, one of the best critical thinking examples, who said “It’s not that I’m so smart; it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” Critical thinkers’ enhanced problem-solving skills makes them better at their jobs and better at solving the world’s biggest problems. Like Einstein, they have the potential to literally change the world.

10. An Activity For The Mind

Just like our muscles, in order for them to be strong, our mind also needs to be exercised and challenged. It’s safe to say that critical thinking is almost like an activity for the mind — and it needs to be practiced. Critical thinking encourages the development of many crucial skills such as logical thinking, decision making, and open-mindness.

11. Creates Independence

When we think critically, we think on our own as we trust ourselves more. Critical thinking is key to creating independence, and encouraging students to make their own decisions and form their own opinions.

12. Crucial Life Skill

Critical thinking is crucial not just for learning, but for life overall! Education isn’t just a way to prepare ourselves for life, but it’s pretty much life itself. Learning is a lifelong process that we go through each and every day.

How to Think Critically

Now that you know the benefits of thinking critically, how do you actually do it?

How To Improve Your Critical Thinking

  • Define Your Question: When it comes to critical thinking, it’s important to always keep your goal in mind. Know what you’re trying to achieve, and then figure out how to best get there.
  • Gather Reliable Information: Make sure that you’re using sources you can trust — biases aside. That’s how a real critical thinker operates!
  • Ask The Right Questions: We all know the importance of questions, but be sure that you’re asking the right questions that are going to get you to your answer.
  • Look Short & Long Term: When coming up with solutions, think about both the short- and long-term consequences. Both of them are significant in the equation.
  • Explore All Sides: There is never just one simple answer, and nothing is black or white. Explore all options and think outside of the box before you come to any conclusions.

How Is Critical Thinking Developed At School?

Critical thinking is developed in nearly everything we do. However, much of this important skill is encouraged to be practiced at school, and rightfully so! Critical thinking goes beyond just thinking clearly — it’s also about thinking for yourself.

When a teacher asks a question in class, students are given the chance to answer for themselves and think critically about what they learned and what they believe to be accurate. When students work in groups and are forced to engage in discussion, this is also a great chance to expand their thinking and use their critical thinking skills.

How Does Critical Thinking Apply To Your Career?

Once you’ve finished school and entered the workforce, your critical thinking journey only expands and grows from here!

Impress Your Employer

Employers value employees who are critical thinkers, ask questions, offer creative ideas, and are always ready to offer innovation against the competition. No matter what your position or role in a company may be, critical thinking will always give you the power to stand out and make a difference.

Careers That Require Critical Thinking

Some of many examples of careers that require critical thinking include:

  • Human resources specialist
  • Marketing associate
  • Business analyst

Truth be told however, it’s probably harder to come up with a professional field that doesn’t require any critical thinking!

Photo by  Oladimeji Ajegbile  from  Pexels

What is someone with critical thinking skills capable of doing.

Someone with critical thinking skills is able to think rationally and clearly about what they should or not believe. They are capable of engaging in their own thoughts, and doing some reflection in order to come to a well-informed conclusion.

A critical thinker understands the connections between ideas, and is able to construct arguments based on facts, as well as find mistakes in reasoning.

The Process Of Critical Thinking

The process of critical thinking is highly systematic.

What Are Your Goals?

Critical thinking starts by defining your goals, and knowing what you are ultimately trying to achieve.

Once you know what you are trying to conclude, you can foresee your solution to the problem and play it out in your head from all perspectives.

What Does The Future Of Critical Thinking Hold?

The future of critical thinking is the equivalent of the future of jobs. In 2020, critical thinking was ranked as the 2nd top skill (following complex problem solving) by the World Economic Forum .

We are dealing with constant unprecedented changes, and what success is today, might not be considered success tomorrow — making critical thinking a key skill for the future workforce.

Why Is Critical Thinking So Important?

Why is critical thinking important? Critical thinking is more than just important! It’s one of the most crucial cognitive skills one can develop.

By practicing well-thought-out thinking, both your thoughts and decisions can make a positive change in your life, on both a professional and personal level. You can hugely improve your life by working on your critical thinking skills as often as you can.

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Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is a widely accepted educational goal. Its definition is contested, but the competing definitions can be understood as differing conceptions of the same basic concept: careful thinking directed to a goal. Conceptions differ with respect to the scope of such thinking, the type of goal, the criteria and norms for thinking carefully, and the thinking components on which they focus. Its adoption as an educational goal has been recommended on the basis of respect for students’ autonomy and preparing students for success in life and for democratic citizenship. “Critical thinkers” have the dispositions and abilities that lead them to think critically when appropriate. The abilities can be identified directly; the dispositions indirectly, by considering what factors contribute to or impede exercise of the abilities. Standardized tests have been developed to assess the degree to which a person possesses such dispositions and abilities. Educational intervention has been shown experimentally to improve them, particularly when it includes dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring. Controversies have arisen over the generalizability of critical thinking across domains, over alleged bias in critical thinking theories and instruction, and over the relationship of critical thinking to other types of thinking.

2.1 Dewey’s Three Main Examples

2.2 dewey’s other examples, 2.3 further examples, 2.4 non-examples, 3. the definition of critical thinking, 4. its value, 5. the process of thinking critically, 6. components of the process, 7. contributory dispositions and abilities, 8.1 initiating dispositions, 8.2 internal dispositions, 9. critical thinking abilities, 10. required knowledge, 11. educational methods, 12.1 the generalizability of critical thinking, 12.2 bias in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, 12.3 relationship of critical thinking to other types of thinking, other internet resources, related entries.

Use of the term ‘critical thinking’ to describe an educational goal goes back to the American philosopher John Dewey (1910), who more commonly called it ‘reflective thinking’. He defined it as

active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends. (Dewey 1910: 6; 1933: 9)

and identified a habit of such consideration with a scientific attitude of mind. His lengthy quotations of Francis Bacon, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill indicate that he was not the first person to propose development of a scientific attitude of mind as an educational goal.

In the 1930s, many of the schools that participated in the Eight-Year Study of the Progressive Education Association (Aikin 1942) adopted critical thinking as an educational goal, for whose achievement the study’s Evaluation Staff developed tests (Smith, Tyler, & Evaluation Staff 1942). Glaser (1941) showed experimentally that it was possible to improve the critical thinking of high school students. Bloom’s influential taxonomy of cognitive educational objectives (Bloom et al. 1956) incorporated critical thinking abilities. Ennis (1962) proposed 12 aspects of critical thinking as a basis for research on the teaching and evaluation of critical thinking ability.

Since 1980, an annual international conference in California on critical thinking and educational reform has attracted tens of thousands of educators from all levels of education and from many parts of the world. Also since 1980, the state university system in California has required all undergraduate students to take a critical thinking course. Since 1983, the Association for Informal Logic and Critical Thinking has sponsored sessions in conjunction with the divisional meetings of the American Philosophical Association (APA). In 1987, the APA’s Committee on Pre-College Philosophy commissioned a consensus statement on critical thinking for purposes of educational assessment and instruction (Facione 1990a). Researchers have developed standardized tests of critical thinking abilities and dispositions; for details, see the Supplement on Assessment . Educational jurisdictions around the world now include critical thinking in guidelines for curriculum and assessment.

For details on this history, see the Supplement on History .

2. Examples and Non-Examples

Before considering the definition of critical thinking, it will be helpful to have in mind some examples of critical thinking, as well as some examples of kinds of thinking that would apparently not count as critical thinking.

Dewey (1910: 68–71; 1933: 91–94) takes as paradigms of reflective thinking three class papers of students in which they describe their thinking. The examples range from the everyday to the scientific.

Transit : “The other day, when I was down town on 16th Street, a clock caught my eye. I saw that the hands pointed to 12:20. This suggested that I had an engagement at 124th Street, at one o’clock. I reasoned that as it had taken me an hour to come down on a surface car, I should probably be twenty minutes late if I returned the same way. I might save twenty minutes by a subway express. But was there a station near? If not, I might lose more than twenty minutes in looking for one. Then I thought of the elevated, and I saw there was such a line within two blocks. But where was the station? If it were several blocks above or below the street I was on, I should lose time instead of gaining it. My mind went back to the subway express as quicker than the elevated; furthermore, I remembered that it went nearer than the elevated to the part of 124th Street I wished to reach, so that time would be saved at the end of the journey. I concluded in favor of the subway, and reached my destination by one o’clock.” (Dewey 1910: 68–69; 1933: 91–92)

Ferryboat : “Projecting nearly horizontally from the upper deck of the ferryboat on which I daily cross the river is a long white pole, having a gilded ball at its tip. It suggested a flagpole when I first saw it; its color, shape, and gilded ball agreed with this idea, and these reasons seemed to justify me in this belief. But soon difficulties presented themselves. The pole was nearly horizontal, an unusual position for a flagpole; in the next place, there was no pulley, ring, or cord by which to attach a flag; finally, there were elsewhere on the boat two vertical staffs from which flags were occasionally flown. It seemed probable that the pole was not there for flag-flying.

“I then tried to imagine all possible purposes of the pole, and to consider for which of these it was best suited: (a) Possibly it was an ornament. But as all the ferryboats and even the tugboats carried poles, this hypothesis was rejected. (b) Possibly it was the terminal of a wireless telegraph. But the same considerations made this improbable. Besides, the more natural place for such a terminal would be the highest part of the boat, on top of the pilot house. (c) Its purpose might be to point out the direction in which the boat is moving.

“In support of this conclusion, I discovered that the pole was lower than the pilot house, so that the steersman could easily see it. Moreover, the tip was enough higher than the base, so that, from the pilot’s position, it must appear to project far out in front of the boat. Moreover, the pilot being near the front of the boat, he would need some such guide as to its direction. Tugboats would also need poles for such a purpose. This hypothesis was so much more probable than the others that I accepted it. I formed the conclusion that the pole was set up for the purpose of showing the pilot the direction in which the boat pointed, to enable him to steer correctly.” (Dewey 1910: 69–70; 1933: 92–93)

Bubbles : “In washing tumblers in hot soapsuds and placing them mouth downward on a plate, bubbles appeared on the outside of the mouth of the tumblers and then went inside. Why? The presence of bubbles suggests air, which I note must come from inside the tumbler. I see that the soapy water on the plate prevents escape of the air save as it may be caught in bubbles. But why should air leave the tumbler? There was no substance entering to force it out. It must have expanded. It expands by increase of heat, or by decrease of pressure, or both. Could the air have become heated after the tumbler was taken from the hot suds? Clearly not the air that was already entangled in the water. If heated air was the cause, cold air must have entered in transferring the tumblers from the suds to the plate. I test to see if this supposition is true by taking several more tumblers out. Some I shake so as to make sure of entrapping cold air in them. Some I take out holding mouth downward in order to prevent cold air from entering. Bubbles appear on the outside of every one of the former and on none of the latter. I must be right in my inference. Air from the outside must have been expanded by the heat of the tumbler, which explains the appearance of the bubbles on the outside. But why do they then go inside? Cold contracts. The tumbler cooled and also the air inside it. Tension was removed, and hence bubbles appeared inside. To be sure of this, I test by placing a cup of ice on the tumbler while the bubbles are still forming outside. They soon reverse” (Dewey 1910: 70–71; 1933: 93–94).

Dewey (1910, 1933) sprinkles his book with other examples of critical thinking. We will refer to the following.

Weather : A man on a walk notices that it has suddenly become cool, thinks that it is probably going to rain, looks up and sees a dark cloud obscuring the sun, and quickens his steps (1910: 6–10; 1933: 9–13).

Disorder : A man finds his rooms on his return to them in disorder with his belongings thrown about, thinks at first of burglary as an explanation, then thinks of mischievous children as being an alternative explanation, then looks to see whether valuables are missing, and discovers that they are (1910: 82–83; 1933: 166–168).

Typhoid : A physician diagnosing a patient whose conspicuous symptoms suggest typhoid avoids drawing a conclusion until more data are gathered by questioning the patient and by making tests (1910: 85–86; 1933: 170).

Blur : A moving blur catches our eye in the distance, we ask ourselves whether it is a cloud of whirling dust or a tree moving its branches or a man signaling to us, we think of other traits that should be found on each of those possibilities, and we look and see if those traits are found (1910: 102, 108; 1933: 121, 133).

Suction pump : In thinking about the suction pump, the scientist first notes that it will draw water only to a maximum height of 33 feet at sea level and to a lesser maximum height at higher elevations, selects for attention the differing atmospheric pressure at these elevations, sets up experiments in which the air is removed from a vessel containing water (when suction no longer works) and in which the weight of air at various levels is calculated, compares the results of reasoning about the height to which a given weight of air will allow a suction pump to raise water with the observed maximum height at different elevations, and finally assimilates the suction pump to such apparently different phenomena as the siphon and the rising of a balloon (1910: 150–153; 1933: 195–198).

Diamond : A passenger in a car driving in a diamond lane reserved for vehicles with at least one passenger notices that the diamond marks on the pavement are far apart in some places and close together in others. Why? The driver suggests that the reason may be that the diamond marks are not needed where there is a solid double line separating the diamond lane from the adjoining lane, but are needed when there is a dotted single line permitting crossing into the diamond lane. Further observation confirms that the diamonds are close together when a dotted line separates the diamond lane from its neighbour, but otherwise far apart.

Rash : A woman suddenly develops a very itchy red rash on her throat and upper chest. She recently noticed a mark on the back of her right hand, but was not sure whether the mark was a rash or a scrape. She lies down in bed and thinks about what might be causing the rash and what to do about it. About two weeks before, she began taking blood pressure medication that contained a sulfa drug, and the pharmacist had warned her, in view of a previous allergic reaction to a medication containing a sulfa drug, to be on the alert for an allergic reaction; however, she had been taking the medication for two weeks with no such effect. The day before, she began using a new cream on her neck and upper chest; against the new cream as the cause was mark on the back of her hand, which had not been exposed to the cream. She began taking probiotics about a month before. She also recently started new eye drops, but she supposed that manufacturers of eye drops would be careful not to include allergy-causing components in the medication. The rash might be a heat rash, since she recently was sweating profusely from her upper body. Since she is about to go away on a short vacation, where she would not have access to her usual physician, she decides to keep taking the probiotics and using the new eye drops but to discontinue the blood pressure medication and to switch back to the old cream for her neck and upper chest. She forms a plan to consult her regular physician on her return about the blood pressure medication.

Candidate : Although Dewey included no examples of thinking directed at appraising the arguments of others, such thinking has come to be considered a kind of critical thinking. We find an example of such thinking in the performance task on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+), which its sponsoring organization describes as

a performance-based assessment that provides a measure of an institution’s contribution to the development of critical-thinking and written communication skills of its students. (Council for Aid to Education 2017)

A sample task posted on its website requires the test-taker to write a report for public distribution evaluating a fictional candidate’s policy proposals and their supporting arguments, using supplied background documents, with a recommendation on whether to endorse the candidate.

Immediate acceptance of an idea that suggests itself as a solution to a problem (e.g., a possible explanation of an event or phenomenon, an action that seems likely to produce a desired result) is “uncritical thinking, the minimum of reflection” (Dewey 1910: 13). On-going suspension of judgment in the light of doubt about a possible solution is not critical thinking (Dewey 1910: 108). Critique driven by a dogmatically held political or religious ideology is not critical thinking; thus Paulo Freire (1968 [1970]) is using the term (e.g., at 1970: 71, 81, 100, 146) in a more politically freighted sense that includes not only reflection but also revolutionary action against oppression. Derivation of a conclusion from given data using an algorithm is not critical thinking.

What is critical thinking? There are many definitions. Ennis (2016) lists 14 philosophically oriented scholarly definitions and three dictionary definitions. Following Rawls (1971), who distinguished his conception of justice from a utilitarian conception but regarded them as rival conceptions of the same concept, Ennis maintains that the 17 definitions are different conceptions of the same concept. Rawls articulated the shared concept of justice as

a characteristic set of principles for assigning basic rights and duties and for determining… the proper distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation. (Rawls 1971: 5)

Bailin et al. (1999b) claim that, if one considers what sorts of thinking an educator would take not to be critical thinking and what sorts to be critical thinking, one can conclude that educators typically understand critical thinking to have at least three features.

  • It is done for the purpose of making up one’s mind about what to believe or do.
  • The person engaging in the thinking is trying to fulfill standards of adequacy and accuracy appropriate to the thinking.
  • The thinking fulfills the relevant standards to some threshold level.

One could sum up the core concept that involves these three features by saying that critical thinking is careful goal-directed thinking. This core concept seems to apply to all the examples of critical thinking described in the previous section. As for the non-examples, their exclusion depends on construing careful thinking as excluding jumping immediately to conclusions, suspending judgment no matter how strong the evidence, reasoning from an unquestioned ideological or religious perspective, and routinely using an algorithm to answer a question.

If the core of critical thinking is careful goal-directed thinking, conceptions of it can vary according to its presumed scope, its presumed goal, one’s criteria and threshold for being careful, and the thinking component on which one focuses. As to its scope, some conceptions (e.g., Dewey 1910, 1933) restrict it to constructive thinking on the basis of one’s own observations and experiments, others (e.g., Ennis 1962; Fisher & Scriven 1997; Johnson 1992) to appraisal of the products of such thinking. Ennis (1991) and Bailin et al. (1999b) take it to cover both construction and appraisal. As to its goal, some conceptions restrict it to forming a judgment (Dewey 1910, 1933; Lipman 1987; Facione 1990a). Others allow for actions as well as beliefs as the end point of a process of critical thinking (Ennis 1991; Bailin et al. 1999b). As to the criteria and threshold for being careful, definitions vary in the term used to indicate that critical thinking satisfies certain norms: “intellectually disciplined” (Scriven & Paul 1987), “reasonable” (Ennis 1991), “skillful” (Lipman 1987), “skilled” (Fisher & Scriven 1997), “careful” (Bailin & Battersby 2009). Some definitions specify these norms, referring variously to “consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends” (Dewey 1910, 1933); “the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning” (Glaser 1941); “conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication” (Scriven & Paul 1987); the requirement that “it is sensitive to context, relies on criteria, and is self-correcting” (Lipman 1987); “evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations” (Facione 1990a); and “plus-minus considerations of the product in terms of appropriate standards (or criteria)” (Johnson 1992). Stanovich and Stanovich (2010) propose to ground the concept of critical thinking in the concept of rationality, which they understand as combining epistemic rationality (fitting one’s beliefs to the world) and instrumental rationality (optimizing goal fulfillment); a critical thinker, in their view, is someone with “a propensity to override suboptimal responses from the autonomous mind” (2010: 227). These variant specifications of norms for critical thinking are not necessarily incompatible with one another, and in any case presuppose the core notion of thinking carefully. As to the thinking component singled out, some definitions focus on suspension of judgment during the thinking (Dewey 1910; McPeck 1981), others on inquiry while judgment is suspended (Bailin & Battersby 2009, 2021), others on the resulting judgment (Facione 1990a), and still others on responsiveness to reasons (Siegel 1988). Kuhn (2019) takes critical thinking to be more a dialogic practice of advancing and responding to arguments than an individual ability.

In educational contexts, a definition of critical thinking is a “programmatic definition” (Scheffler 1960: 19). It expresses a practical program for achieving an educational goal. For this purpose, a one-sentence formulaic definition is much less useful than articulation of a critical thinking process, with criteria and standards for the kinds of thinking that the process may involve. The real educational goal is recognition, adoption and implementation by students of those criteria and standards. That adoption and implementation in turn consists in acquiring the knowledge, abilities and dispositions of a critical thinker.

Conceptions of critical thinking generally do not include moral integrity as part of the concept. Dewey, for example, took critical thinking to be the ultimate intellectual goal of education, but distinguished it from the development of social cooperation among school children, which he took to be the central moral goal. Ennis (1996, 2011) added to his previous list of critical thinking dispositions a group of dispositions to care about the dignity and worth of every person, which he described as a “correlative” (1996) disposition without which critical thinking would be less valuable and perhaps harmful. An educational program that aimed at developing critical thinking but not the correlative disposition to care about the dignity and worth of every person, he asserted, “would be deficient and perhaps dangerous” (Ennis 1996: 172).

Dewey thought that education for reflective thinking would be of value to both the individual and society; recognition in educational practice of the kinship to the scientific attitude of children’s native curiosity, fertile imagination and love of experimental inquiry “would make for individual happiness and the reduction of social waste” (Dewey 1910: iii). Schools participating in the Eight-Year Study took development of the habit of reflective thinking and skill in solving problems as a means to leading young people to understand, appreciate and live the democratic way of life characteristic of the United States (Aikin 1942: 17–18, 81). Harvey Siegel (1988: 55–61) has offered four considerations in support of adopting critical thinking as an educational ideal. (1) Respect for persons requires that schools and teachers honour students’ demands for reasons and explanations, deal with students honestly, and recognize the need to confront students’ independent judgment; these requirements concern the manner in which teachers treat students. (2) Education has the task of preparing children to be successful adults, a task that requires development of their self-sufficiency. (3) Education should initiate children into the rational traditions in such fields as history, science and mathematics. (4) Education should prepare children to become democratic citizens, which requires reasoned procedures and critical talents and attitudes. To supplement these considerations, Siegel (1988: 62–90) responds to two objections: the ideology objection that adoption of any educational ideal requires a prior ideological commitment and the indoctrination objection that cultivation of critical thinking cannot escape being a form of indoctrination.

Despite the diversity of our 11 examples, one can recognize a common pattern. Dewey analyzed it as consisting of five phases:

  • suggestions , in which the mind leaps forward to a possible solution;
  • an intellectualization of the difficulty or perplexity into a problem to be solved, a question for which the answer must be sought;
  • the use of one suggestion after another as a leading idea, or hypothesis , to initiate and guide observation and other operations in collection of factual material;
  • the mental elaboration of the idea or supposition as an idea or supposition ( reasoning , in the sense on which reasoning is a part, not the whole, of inference); and
  • testing the hypothesis by overt or imaginative action. (Dewey 1933: 106–107; italics in original)

The process of reflective thinking consisting of these phases would be preceded by a perplexed, troubled or confused situation and followed by a cleared-up, unified, resolved situation (Dewey 1933: 106). The term ‘phases’ replaced the term ‘steps’ (Dewey 1910: 72), thus removing the earlier suggestion of an invariant sequence. Variants of the above analysis appeared in (Dewey 1916: 177) and (Dewey 1938: 101–119).

The variant formulations indicate the difficulty of giving a single logical analysis of such a varied process. The process of critical thinking may have a spiral pattern, with the problem being redefined in the light of obstacles to solving it as originally formulated. For example, the person in Transit might have concluded that getting to the appointment at the scheduled time was impossible and have reformulated the problem as that of rescheduling the appointment for a mutually convenient time. Further, defining a problem does not always follow after or lead immediately to an idea of a suggested solution. Nor should it do so, as Dewey himself recognized in describing the physician in Typhoid as avoiding any strong preference for this or that conclusion before getting further information (Dewey 1910: 85; 1933: 170). People with a hypothesis in mind, even one to which they have a very weak commitment, have a so-called “confirmation bias” (Nickerson 1998): they are likely to pay attention to evidence that confirms the hypothesis and to ignore evidence that counts against it or for some competing hypothesis. Detectives, intelligence agencies, and investigators of airplane accidents are well advised to gather relevant evidence systematically and to postpone even tentative adoption of an explanatory hypothesis until the collected evidence rules out with the appropriate degree of certainty all but one explanation. Dewey’s analysis of the critical thinking process can be faulted as well for requiring acceptance or rejection of a possible solution to a defined problem, with no allowance for deciding in the light of the available evidence to suspend judgment. Further, given the great variety of kinds of problems for which reflection is appropriate, there is likely to be variation in its component events. Perhaps the best way to conceptualize the critical thinking process is as a checklist whose component events can occur in a variety of orders, selectively, and more than once. These component events might include (1) noticing a difficulty, (2) defining the problem, (3) dividing the problem into manageable sub-problems, (4) formulating a variety of possible solutions to the problem or sub-problem, (5) determining what evidence is relevant to deciding among possible solutions to the problem or sub-problem, (6) devising a plan of systematic observation or experiment that will uncover the relevant evidence, (7) carrying out the plan of systematic observation or experimentation, (8) noting the results of the systematic observation or experiment, (9) gathering relevant testimony and information from others, (10) judging the credibility of testimony and information gathered from others, (11) drawing conclusions from gathered evidence and accepted testimony, and (12) accepting a solution that the evidence adequately supports (cf. Hitchcock 2017: 485).

Checklist conceptions of the process of critical thinking are open to the objection that they are too mechanical and procedural to fit the multi-dimensional and emotionally charged issues for which critical thinking is urgently needed (Paul 1984). For such issues, a more dialectical process is advocated, in which competing relevant world views are identified, their implications explored, and some sort of creative synthesis attempted.

If one considers the critical thinking process illustrated by the 11 examples, one can identify distinct kinds of mental acts and mental states that form part of it. To distinguish, label and briefly characterize these components is a useful preliminary to identifying abilities, skills, dispositions, attitudes, habits and the like that contribute causally to thinking critically. Identifying such abilities and habits is in turn a useful preliminary to setting educational goals. Setting the goals is in its turn a useful preliminary to designing strategies for helping learners to achieve the goals and to designing ways of measuring the extent to which learners have done so. Such measures provide both feedback to learners on their achievement and a basis for experimental research on the effectiveness of various strategies for educating people to think critically. Let us begin, then, by distinguishing the kinds of mental acts and mental events that can occur in a critical thinking process.

  • Observing : One notices something in one’s immediate environment (sudden cooling of temperature in Weather , bubbles forming outside a glass and then going inside in Bubbles , a moving blur in the distance in Blur , a rash in Rash ). Or one notes the results of an experiment or systematic observation (valuables missing in Disorder , no suction without air pressure in Suction pump )
  • Feeling : One feels puzzled or uncertain about something (how to get to an appointment on time in Transit , why the diamonds vary in spacing in Diamond ). One wants to resolve this perplexity. One feels satisfaction once one has worked out an answer (to take the subway express in Transit , diamonds closer when needed as a warning in Diamond ).
  • Wondering : One formulates a question to be addressed (why bubbles form outside a tumbler taken from hot water in Bubbles , how suction pumps work in Suction pump , what caused the rash in Rash ).
  • Imagining : One thinks of possible answers (bus or subway or elevated in Transit , flagpole or ornament or wireless communication aid or direction indicator in Ferryboat , allergic reaction or heat rash in Rash ).
  • Inferring : One works out what would be the case if a possible answer were assumed (valuables missing if there has been a burglary in Disorder , earlier start to the rash if it is an allergic reaction to a sulfa drug in Rash ). Or one draws a conclusion once sufficient relevant evidence is gathered (take the subway in Transit , burglary in Disorder , discontinue blood pressure medication and new cream in Rash ).
  • Knowledge : One uses stored knowledge of the subject-matter to generate possible answers or to infer what would be expected on the assumption of a particular answer (knowledge of a city’s public transit system in Transit , of the requirements for a flagpole in Ferryboat , of Boyle’s law in Bubbles , of allergic reactions in Rash ).
  • Experimenting : One designs and carries out an experiment or a systematic observation to find out whether the results deduced from a possible answer will occur (looking at the location of the flagpole in relation to the pilot’s position in Ferryboat , putting an ice cube on top of a tumbler taken from hot water in Bubbles , measuring the height to which a suction pump will draw water at different elevations in Suction pump , noticing the spacing of diamonds when movement to or from a diamond lane is allowed in Diamond ).
  • Consulting : One finds a source of information, gets the information from the source, and makes a judgment on whether to accept it. None of our 11 examples include searching for sources of information. In this respect they are unrepresentative, since most people nowadays have almost instant access to information relevant to answering any question, including many of those illustrated by the examples. However, Candidate includes the activities of extracting information from sources and evaluating its credibility.
  • Identifying and analyzing arguments : One notices an argument and works out its structure and content as a preliminary to evaluating its strength. This activity is central to Candidate . It is an important part of a critical thinking process in which one surveys arguments for various positions on an issue.
  • Judging : One makes a judgment on the basis of accumulated evidence and reasoning, such as the judgment in Ferryboat that the purpose of the pole is to provide direction to the pilot.
  • Deciding : One makes a decision on what to do or on what policy to adopt, as in the decision in Transit to take the subway.

By definition, a person who does something voluntarily is both willing and able to do that thing at that time. Both the willingness and the ability contribute causally to the person’s action, in the sense that the voluntary action would not occur if either (or both) of these were lacking. For example, suppose that one is standing with one’s arms at one’s sides and one voluntarily lifts one’s right arm to an extended horizontal position. One would not do so if one were unable to lift one’s arm, if for example one’s right side was paralyzed as the result of a stroke. Nor would one do so if one were unwilling to lift one’s arm, if for example one were participating in a street demonstration at which a white supremacist was urging the crowd to lift their right arm in a Nazi salute and one were unwilling to express support in this way for the racist Nazi ideology. The same analysis applies to a voluntary mental process of thinking critically. It requires both willingness and ability to think critically, including willingness and ability to perform each of the mental acts that compose the process and to coordinate those acts in a sequence that is directed at resolving the initiating perplexity.

Consider willingness first. We can identify causal contributors to willingness to think critically by considering factors that would cause a person who was able to think critically about an issue nevertheless not to do so (Hamby 2014). For each factor, the opposite condition thus contributes causally to willingness to think critically on a particular occasion. For example, people who habitually jump to conclusions without considering alternatives will not think critically about issues that arise, even if they have the required abilities. The contrary condition of willingness to suspend judgment is thus a causal contributor to thinking critically.

Now consider ability. In contrast to the ability to move one’s arm, which can be completely absent because a stroke has left the arm paralyzed, the ability to think critically is a developed ability, whose absence is not a complete absence of ability to think but absence of ability to think well. We can identify the ability to think well directly, in terms of the norms and standards for good thinking. In general, to be able do well the thinking activities that can be components of a critical thinking process, one needs to know the concepts and principles that characterize their good performance, to recognize in particular cases that the concepts and principles apply, and to apply them. The knowledge, recognition and application may be procedural rather than declarative. It may be domain-specific rather than widely applicable, and in either case may need subject-matter knowledge, sometimes of a deep kind.

Reflections of the sort illustrated by the previous two paragraphs have led scholars to identify the knowledge, abilities and dispositions of a “critical thinker”, i.e., someone who thinks critically whenever it is appropriate to do so. We turn now to these three types of causal contributors to thinking critically. We start with dispositions, since arguably these are the most powerful contributors to being a critical thinker, can be fostered at an early stage of a child’s development, and are susceptible to general improvement (Glaser 1941: 175)

8. Critical Thinking Dispositions

Educational researchers use the term ‘dispositions’ broadly for the habits of mind and attitudes that contribute causally to being a critical thinker. Some writers (e.g., Paul & Elder 2006; Hamby 2014; Bailin & Battersby 2016a) propose to use the term ‘virtues’ for this dimension of a critical thinker. The virtues in question, although they are virtues of character, concern the person’s ways of thinking rather than the person’s ways of behaving towards others. They are not moral virtues but intellectual virtues, of the sort articulated by Zagzebski (1996) and discussed by Turri, Alfano, and Greco (2017).

On a realistic conception, thinking dispositions or intellectual virtues are real properties of thinkers. They are general tendencies, propensities, or inclinations to think in particular ways in particular circumstances, and can be genuinely explanatory (Siegel 1999). Sceptics argue that there is no evidence for a specific mental basis for the habits of mind that contribute to thinking critically, and that it is pedagogically misleading to posit such a basis (Bailin et al. 1999a). Whatever their status, critical thinking dispositions need motivation for their initial formation in a child—motivation that may be external or internal. As children develop, the force of habit will gradually become important in sustaining the disposition (Nieto & Valenzuela 2012). Mere force of habit, however, is unlikely to sustain critical thinking dispositions. Critical thinkers must value and enjoy using their knowledge and abilities to think things through for themselves. They must be committed to, and lovers of, inquiry.

A person may have a critical thinking disposition with respect to only some kinds of issues. For example, one could be open-minded about scientific issues but not about religious issues. Similarly, one could be confident in one’s ability to reason about the theological implications of the existence of evil in the world but not in one’s ability to reason about the best design for a guided ballistic missile.

Facione (1990a: 25) divides “affective dispositions” of critical thinking into approaches to life and living in general and approaches to specific issues, questions or problems. Adapting this distinction, one can usefully divide critical thinking dispositions into initiating dispositions (those that contribute causally to starting to think critically about an issue) and internal dispositions (those that contribute causally to doing a good job of thinking critically once one has started). The two categories are not mutually exclusive. For example, open-mindedness, in the sense of willingness to consider alternative points of view to one’s own, is both an initiating and an internal disposition.

Using the strategy of considering factors that would block people with the ability to think critically from doing so, we can identify as initiating dispositions for thinking critically attentiveness, a habit of inquiry, self-confidence, courage, open-mindedness, willingness to suspend judgment, trust in reason, wanting evidence for one’s beliefs, and seeking the truth. We consider briefly what each of these dispositions amounts to, in each case citing sources that acknowledge them.

  • Attentiveness : One will not think critically if one fails to recognize an issue that needs to be thought through. For example, the pedestrian in Weather would not have looked up if he had not noticed that the air was suddenly cooler. To be a critical thinker, then, one needs to be habitually attentive to one’s surroundings, noticing not only what one senses but also sources of perplexity in messages received and in one’s own beliefs and attitudes (Facione 1990a: 25; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001).
  • Habit of inquiry : Inquiry is effortful, and one needs an internal push to engage in it. For example, the student in Bubbles could easily have stopped at idle wondering about the cause of the bubbles rather than reasoning to a hypothesis, then designing and executing an experiment to test it. Thus willingness to think critically needs mental energy and initiative. What can supply that energy? Love of inquiry, or perhaps just a habit of inquiry. Hamby (2015) has argued that willingness to inquire is the central critical thinking virtue, one that encompasses all the others. It is recognized as a critical thinking disposition by Dewey (1910: 29; 1933: 35), Glaser (1941: 5), Ennis (1987: 12; 1991: 8), Facione (1990a: 25), Bailin et al. (1999b: 294), Halpern (1998: 452), and Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo (2001).
  • Self-confidence : Lack of confidence in one’s abilities can block critical thinking. For example, if the woman in Rash lacked confidence in her ability to figure things out for herself, she might just have assumed that the rash on her chest was the allergic reaction to her medication against which the pharmacist had warned her. Thus willingness to think critically requires confidence in one’s ability to inquire (Facione 1990a: 25; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001).
  • Courage : Fear of thinking for oneself can stop one from doing it. Thus willingness to think critically requires intellectual courage (Paul & Elder 2006: 16).
  • Open-mindedness : A dogmatic attitude will impede thinking critically. For example, a person who adheres rigidly to a “pro-choice” position on the issue of the legal status of induced abortion is likely to be unwilling to consider seriously the issue of when in its development an unborn child acquires a moral right to life. Thus willingness to think critically requires open-mindedness, in the sense of a willingness to examine questions to which one already accepts an answer but which further evidence or reasoning might cause one to answer differently (Dewey 1933; Facione 1990a; Ennis 1991; Bailin et al. 1999b; Halpern 1998, Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001). Paul (1981) emphasizes open-mindedness about alternative world-views, and recommends a dialectical approach to integrating such views as central to what he calls “strong sense” critical thinking. In three studies, Haran, Ritov, & Mellers (2013) found that actively open-minded thinking, including “the tendency to weigh new evidence against a favored belief, to spend sufficient time on a problem before giving up, and to consider carefully the opinions of others in forming one’s own”, led study participants to acquire information and thus to make accurate estimations.
  • Willingness to suspend judgment : Premature closure on an initial solution will block critical thinking. Thus willingness to think critically requires a willingness to suspend judgment while alternatives are explored (Facione 1990a; Ennis 1991; Halpern 1998).
  • Trust in reason : Since distrust in the processes of reasoned inquiry will dissuade one from engaging in it, trust in them is an initiating critical thinking disposition (Facione 1990a, 25; Bailin et al. 1999b: 294; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001; Paul & Elder 2006). In reaction to an allegedly exclusive emphasis on reason in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, Thayer-Bacon (2000) argues that intuition, imagination, and emotion have important roles to play in an adequate conception of critical thinking that she calls “constructive thinking”. From her point of view, critical thinking requires trust not only in reason but also in intuition, imagination, and emotion.
  • Seeking the truth : If one does not care about the truth but is content to stick with one’s initial bias on an issue, then one will not think critically about it. Seeking the truth is thus an initiating critical thinking disposition (Bailin et al. 1999b: 294; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001). A disposition to seek the truth is implicit in more specific critical thinking dispositions, such as trying to be well-informed, considering seriously points of view other than one’s own, looking for alternatives, suspending judgment when the evidence is insufficient, and adopting a position when the evidence supporting it is sufficient.

Some of the initiating dispositions, such as open-mindedness and willingness to suspend judgment, are also internal critical thinking dispositions, in the sense of mental habits or attitudes that contribute causally to doing a good job of critical thinking once one starts the process. But there are many other internal critical thinking dispositions. Some of them are parasitic on one’s conception of good thinking. For example, it is constitutive of good thinking about an issue to formulate the issue clearly and to maintain focus on it. For this purpose, one needs not only the corresponding ability but also the corresponding disposition. Ennis (1991: 8) describes it as the disposition “to determine and maintain focus on the conclusion or question”, Facione (1990a: 25) as “clarity in stating the question or concern”. Other internal dispositions are motivators to continue or adjust the critical thinking process, such as willingness to persist in a complex task and willingness to abandon nonproductive strategies in an attempt to self-correct (Halpern 1998: 452). For a list of identified internal critical thinking dispositions, see the Supplement on Internal Critical Thinking Dispositions .

Some theorists postulate skills, i.e., acquired abilities, as operative in critical thinking. It is not obvious, however, that a good mental act is the exercise of a generic acquired skill. Inferring an expected time of arrival, as in Transit , has some generic components but also uses non-generic subject-matter knowledge. Bailin et al. (1999a) argue against viewing critical thinking skills as generic and discrete, on the ground that skilled performance at a critical thinking task cannot be separated from knowledge of concepts and from domain-specific principles of good thinking. Talk of skills, they concede, is unproblematic if it means merely that a person with critical thinking skills is capable of intelligent performance.

Despite such scepticism, theorists of critical thinking have listed as general contributors to critical thinking what they variously call abilities (Glaser 1941; Ennis 1962, 1991), skills (Facione 1990a; Halpern 1998) or competencies (Fisher & Scriven 1997). Amalgamating these lists would produce a confusing and chaotic cornucopia of more than 50 possible educational objectives, with only partial overlap among them. It makes sense instead to try to understand the reasons for the multiplicity and diversity, and to make a selection according to one’s own reasons for singling out abilities to be developed in a critical thinking curriculum. Two reasons for diversity among lists of critical thinking abilities are the underlying conception of critical thinking and the envisaged educational level. Appraisal-only conceptions, for example, involve a different suite of abilities than constructive-only conceptions. Some lists, such as those in (Glaser 1941), are put forward as educational objectives for secondary school students, whereas others are proposed as objectives for college students (e.g., Facione 1990a).

The abilities described in the remaining paragraphs of this section emerge from reflection on the general abilities needed to do well the thinking activities identified in section 6 as components of the critical thinking process described in section 5 . The derivation of each collection of abilities is accompanied by citation of sources that list such abilities and of standardized tests that claim to test them.

Observational abilities : Careful and accurate observation sometimes requires specialist expertise and practice, as in the case of observing birds and observing accident scenes. However, there are general abilities of noticing what one’s senses are picking up from one’s environment and of being able to articulate clearly and accurately to oneself and others what one has observed. It helps in exercising them to be able to recognize and take into account factors that make one’s observation less trustworthy, such as prior framing of the situation, inadequate time, deficient senses, poor observation conditions, and the like. It helps as well to be skilled at taking steps to make one’s observation more trustworthy, such as moving closer to get a better look, measuring something three times and taking the average, and checking what one thinks one is observing with someone else who is in a good position to observe it. It also helps to be skilled at recognizing respects in which one’s report of one’s observation involves inference rather than direct observation, so that one can then consider whether the inference is justified. These abilities come into play as well when one thinks about whether and with what degree of confidence to accept an observation report, for example in the study of history or in a criminal investigation or in assessing news reports. Observational abilities show up in some lists of critical thinking abilities (Ennis 1962: 90; Facione 1990a: 16; Ennis 1991: 9). There are items testing a person’s ability to judge the credibility of observation reports in the Cornell Critical Thinking Tests, Levels X and Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005). Norris and King (1983, 1985, 1990a, 1990b) is a test of ability to appraise observation reports.

Emotional abilities : The emotions that drive a critical thinking process are perplexity or puzzlement, a wish to resolve it, and satisfaction at achieving the desired resolution. Children experience these emotions at an early age, without being trained to do so. Education that takes critical thinking as a goal needs only to channel these emotions and to make sure not to stifle them. Collaborative critical thinking benefits from ability to recognize one’s own and others’ emotional commitments and reactions.

Questioning abilities : A critical thinking process needs transformation of an inchoate sense of perplexity into a clear question. Formulating a question well requires not building in questionable assumptions, not prejudging the issue, and using language that in context is unambiguous and precise enough (Ennis 1962: 97; 1991: 9).

Imaginative abilities : Thinking directed at finding the correct causal explanation of a general phenomenon or particular event requires an ability to imagine possible explanations. Thinking about what policy or plan of action to adopt requires generation of options and consideration of possible consequences of each option. Domain knowledge is required for such creative activity, but a general ability to imagine alternatives is helpful and can be nurtured so as to become easier, quicker, more extensive, and deeper (Dewey 1910: 34–39; 1933: 40–47). Facione (1990a) and Halpern (1998) include the ability to imagine alternatives as a critical thinking ability.

Inferential abilities : The ability to draw conclusions from given information, and to recognize with what degree of certainty one’s own or others’ conclusions follow, is universally recognized as a general critical thinking ability. All 11 examples in section 2 of this article include inferences, some from hypotheses or options (as in Transit , Ferryboat and Disorder ), others from something observed (as in Weather and Rash ). None of these inferences is formally valid. Rather, they are licensed by general, sometimes qualified substantive rules of inference (Toulmin 1958) that rest on domain knowledge—that a bus trip takes about the same time in each direction, that the terminal of a wireless telegraph would be located on the highest possible place, that sudden cooling is often followed by rain, that an allergic reaction to a sulfa drug generally shows up soon after one starts taking it. It is a matter of controversy to what extent the specialized ability to deduce conclusions from premisses using formal rules of inference is needed for critical thinking. Dewey (1933) locates logical forms in setting out the products of reflection rather than in the process of reflection. Ennis (1981a), on the other hand, maintains that a liberally-educated person should have the following abilities: to translate natural-language statements into statements using the standard logical operators, to use appropriately the language of necessary and sufficient conditions, to deal with argument forms and arguments containing symbols, to determine whether in virtue of an argument’s form its conclusion follows necessarily from its premisses, to reason with logically complex propositions, and to apply the rules and procedures of deductive logic. Inferential abilities are recognized as critical thinking abilities by Glaser (1941: 6), Facione (1990a: 9), Ennis (1991: 9), Fisher & Scriven (1997: 99, 111), and Halpern (1998: 452). Items testing inferential abilities constitute two of the five subtests of the Watson Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (Watson & Glaser 1980a, 1980b, 1994), two of the four sections in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level X (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005), three of the seven sections in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005), 11 of the 34 items on Forms A and B of the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (Facione 1990b, 1992), and a high but variable proportion of the 25 selected-response questions in the Collegiate Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017).

Experimenting abilities : Knowing how to design and execute an experiment is important not just in scientific research but also in everyday life, as in Rash . Dewey devoted a whole chapter of his How We Think (1910: 145–156; 1933: 190–202) to the superiority of experimentation over observation in advancing knowledge. Experimenting abilities come into play at one remove in appraising reports of scientific studies. Skill in designing and executing experiments includes the acknowledged abilities to appraise evidence (Glaser 1941: 6), to carry out experiments and to apply appropriate statistical inference techniques (Facione 1990a: 9), to judge inductions to an explanatory hypothesis (Ennis 1991: 9), and to recognize the need for an adequately large sample size (Halpern 1998). The Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005) includes four items (out of 52) on experimental design. The Collegiate Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017) makes room for appraisal of study design in both its performance task and its selected-response questions.

Consulting abilities : Skill at consulting sources of information comes into play when one seeks information to help resolve a problem, as in Candidate . Ability to find and appraise information includes ability to gather and marshal pertinent information (Glaser 1941: 6), to judge whether a statement made by an alleged authority is acceptable (Ennis 1962: 84), to plan a search for desired information (Facione 1990a: 9), and to judge the credibility of a source (Ennis 1991: 9). Ability to judge the credibility of statements is tested by 24 items (out of 76) in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level X (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005) and by four items (out of 52) in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005). The College Learning Assessment’s performance task requires evaluation of whether information in documents is credible or unreliable (Council for Aid to Education 2017).

Argument analysis abilities : The ability to identify and analyze arguments contributes to the process of surveying arguments on an issue in order to form one’s own reasoned judgment, as in Candidate . The ability to detect and analyze arguments is recognized as a critical thinking skill by Facione (1990a: 7–8), Ennis (1991: 9) and Halpern (1998). Five items (out of 34) on the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (Facione 1990b, 1992) test skill at argument analysis. The College Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017) incorporates argument analysis in its selected-response tests of critical reading and evaluation and of critiquing an argument.

Judging skills and deciding skills : Skill at judging and deciding is skill at recognizing what judgment or decision the available evidence and argument supports, and with what degree of confidence. It is thus a component of the inferential skills already discussed.

Lists and tests of critical thinking abilities often include two more abilities: identifying assumptions and constructing and evaluating definitions.

In addition to dispositions and abilities, critical thinking needs knowledge: of critical thinking concepts, of critical thinking principles, and of the subject-matter of the thinking.

We can derive a short list of concepts whose understanding contributes to critical thinking from the critical thinking abilities described in the preceding section. Observational abilities require an understanding of the difference between observation and inference. Questioning abilities require an understanding of the concepts of ambiguity and vagueness. Inferential abilities require an understanding of the difference between conclusive and defeasible inference (traditionally, between deduction and induction), as well as of the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions. Experimenting abilities require an understanding of the concepts of hypothesis, null hypothesis, assumption and prediction, as well as of the concept of statistical significance and of its difference from importance. They also require an understanding of the difference between an experiment and an observational study, and in particular of the difference between a randomized controlled trial, a prospective correlational study and a retrospective (case-control) study. Argument analysis abilities require an understanding of the concepts of argument, premiss, assumption, conclusion and counter-consideration. Additional critical thinking concepts are proposed by Bailin et al. (1999b: 293), Fisher & Scriven (1997: 105–106), Black (2012), and Blair (2021).

According to Glaser (1941: 25), ability to think critically requires knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning. If we review the list of abilities in the preceding section, however, we can see that some of them can be acquired and exercised merely through practice, possibly guided in an educational setting, followed by feedback. Searching intelligently for a causal explanation of some phenomenon or event requires that one consider a full range of possible causal contributors, but it seems more important that one implements this principle in one’s practice than that one is able to articulate it. What is important is “operational knowledge” of the standards and principles of good thinking (Bailin et al. 1999b: 291–293). But the development of such critical thinking abilities as designing an experiment or constructing an operational definition can benefit from learning their underlying theory. Further, explicit knowledge of quirks of human thinking seems useful as a cautionary guide. Human memory is not just fallible about details, as people learn from their own experiences of misremembering, but is so malleable that a detailed, clear and vivid recollection of an event can be a total fabrication (Loftus 2017). People seek or interpret evidence in ways that are partial to their existing beliefs and expectations, often unconscious of their “confirmation bias” (Nickerson 1998). Not only are people subject to this and other cognitive biases (Kahneman 2011), of which they are typically unaware, but it may be counter-productive for one to make oneself aware of them and try consciously to counteract them or to counteract social biases such as racial or sexual stereotypes (Kenyon & Beaulac 2014). It is helpful to be aware of these facts and of the superior effectiveness of blocking the operation of biases—for example, by making an immediate record of one’s observations, refraining from forming a preliminary explanatory hypothesis, blind refereeing, double-blind randomized trials, and blind grading of students’ work. It is also helpful to be aware of the prevalence of “noise” (unwanted unsystematic variability of judgments), of how to detect noise (through a noise audit), and of how to reduce noise: make accuracy the goal, think statistically, break a process of arriving at a judgment into independent tasks, resist premature intuitions, in a group get independent judgments first, favour comparative judgments and scales (Kahneman, Sibony, & Sunstein 2021). It is helpful as well to be aware of the concept of “bounded rationality” in decision-making and of the related distinction between “satisficing” and optimizing (Simon 1956; Gigerenzer 2001).

Critical thinking about an issue requires substantive knowledge of the domain to which the issue belongs. Critical thinking abilities are not a magic elixir that can be applied to any issue whatever by somebody who has no knowledge of the facts relevant to exploring that issue. For example, the student in Bubbles needed to know that gases do not penetrate solid objects like a glass, that air expands when heated, that the volume of an enclosed gas varies directly with its temperature and inversely with its pressure, and that hot objects will spontaneously cool down to the ambient temperature of their surroundings unless kept hot by insulation or a source of heat. Critical thinkers thus need a rich fund of subject-matter knowledge relevant to the variety of situations they encounter. This fact is recognized in the inclusion among critical thinking dispositions of a concern to become and remain generally well informed.

Experimental educational interventions, with control groups, have shown that education can improve critical thinking skills and dispositions, as measured by standardized tests. For information about these tests, see the Supplement on Assessment .

What educational methods are most effective at developing the dispositions, abilities and knowledge of a critical thinker? In a comprehensive meta-analysis of experimental and quasi-experimental studies of strategies for teaching students to think critically, Abrami et al. (2015) found that dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring each increased the effectiveness of the educational intervention, and that they were most effective when combined. They also found that in these studies a combination of separate instruction in critical thinking with subject-matter instruction in which students are encouraged to think critically was more effective than either by itself. However, the difference was not statistically significant; that is, it might have arisen by chance.

Most of these studies lack the longitudinal follow-up required to determine whether the observed differential improvements in critical thinking abilities or dispositions continue over time, for example until high school or college graduation. For details on studies of methods of developing critical thinking skills and dispositions, see the Supplement on Educational Methods .

12. Controversies

Scholars have denied the generalizability of critical thinking abilities across subject domains, have alleged bias in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, and have investigated the relationship of critical thinking to other kinds of thinking.

McPeck (1981) attacked the thinking skills movement of the 1970s, including the critical thinking movement. He argued that there are no general thinking skills, since thinking is always thinking about some subject-matter. It is futile, he claimed, for schools and colleges to teach thinking as if it were a separate subject. Rather, teachers should lead their pupils to become autonomous thinkers by teaching school subjects in a way that brings out their cognitive structure and that encourages and rewards discussion and argument. As some of his critics (e.g., Paul 1985; Siegel 1985) pointed out, McPeck’s central argument needs elaboration, since it has obvious counter-examples in writing and speaking, for which (up to a certain level of complexity) there are teachable general abilities even though they are always about some subject-matter. To make his argument convincing, McPeck needs to explain how thinking differs from writing and speaking in a way that does not permit useful abstraction of its components from the subject-matters with which it deals. He has not done so. Nevertheless, his position that the dispositions and abilities of a critical thinker are best developed in the context of subject-matter instruction is shared by many theorists of critical thinking, including Dewey (1910, 1933), Glaser (1941), Passmore (1980), Weinstein (1990), Bailin et al. (1999b), and Willingham (2019).

McPeck’s challenge prompted reflection on the extent to which critical thinking is subject-specific. McPeck argued for a strong subject-specificity thesis, according to which it is a conceptual truth that all critical thinking abilities are specific to a subject. (He did not however extend his subject-specificity thesis to critical thinking dispositions. In particular, he took the disposition to suspend judgment in situations of cognitive dissonance to be a general disposition.) Conceptual subject-specificity is subject to obvious counter-examples, such as the general ability to recognize confusion of necessary and sufficient conditions. A more modest thesis, also endorsed by McPeck, is epistemological subject-specificity, according to which the norms of good thinking vary from one field to another. Epistemological subject-specificity clearly holds to a certain extent; for example, the principles in accordance with which one solves a differential equation are quite different from the principles in accordance with which one determines whether a painting is a genuine Picasso. But the thesis suffers, as Ennis (1989) points out, from vagueness of the concept of a field or subject and from the obvious existence of inter-field principles, however broadly the concept of a field is construed. For example, the principles of hypothetico-deductive reasoning hold for all the varied fields in which such reasoning occurs. A third kind of subject-specificity is empirical subject-specificity, according to which as a matter of empirically observable fact a person with the abilities and dispositions of a critical thinker in one area of investigation will not necessarily have them in another area of investigation.

The thesis of empirical subject-specificity raises the general problem of transfer. If critical thinking abilities and dispositions have to be developed independently in each school subject, how are they of any use in dealing with the problems of everyday life and the political and social issues of contemporary society, most of which do not fit into the framework of a traditional school subject? Proponents of empirical subject-specificity tend to argue that transfer is more likely to occur if there is critical thinking instruction in a variety of domains, with explicit attention to dispositions and abilities that cut across domains. But evidence for this claim is scanty. There is a need for well-designed empirical studies that investigate the conditions that make transfer more likely.

It is common ground in debates about the generality or subject-specificity of critical thinking dispositions and abilities that critical thinking about any topic requires background knowledge about the topic. For example, the most sophisticated understanding of the principles of hypothetico-deductive reasoning is of no help unless accompanied by some knowledge of what might be plausible explanations of some phenomenon under investigation.

Critics have objected to bias in the theory, pedagogy and practice of critical thinking. Commentators (e.g., Alston 1995; Ennis 1998) have noted that anyone who takes a position has a bias in the neutral sense of being inclined in one direction rather than others. The critics, however, are objecting to bias in the pejorative sense of an unjustified favoring of certain ways of knowing over others, frequently alleging that the unjustly favoured ways are those of a dominant sex or culture (Bailin 1995). These ways favour:

  • reinforcement of egocentric and sociocentric biases over dialectical engagement with opposing world-views (Paul 1981, 1984; Warren 1998)
  • distancing from the object of inquiry over closeness to it (Martin 1992; Thayer-Bacon 1992)
  • indifference to the situation of others over care for them (Martin 1992)
  • orientation to thought over orientation to action (Martin 1992)
  • being reasonable over caring to understand people’s ideas (Thayer-Bacon 1993)
  • being neutral and objective over being embodied and situated (Thayer-Bacon 1995a)
  • doubting over believing (Thayer-Bacon 1995b)
  • reason over emotion, imagination and intuition (Thayer-Bacon 2000)
  • solitary thinking over collaborative thinking (Thayer-Bacon 2000)
  • written and spoken assignments over other forms of expression (Alston 2001)
  • attention to written and spoken communications over attention to human problems (Alston 2001)
  • winning debates in the public sphere over making and understanding meaning (Alston 2001)

A common thread in this smorgasbord of accusations is dissatisfaction with focusing on the logical analysis and evaluation of reasoning and arguments. While these authors acknowledge that such analysis and evaluation is part of critical thinking and should be part of its conceptualization and pedagogy, they insist that it is only a part. Paul (1981), for example, bemoans the tendency of atomistic teaching of methods of analyzing and evaluating arguments to turn students into more able sophists, adept at finding fault with positions and arguments with which they disagree but even more entrenched in the egocentric and sociocentric biases with which they began. Martin (1992) and Thayer-Bacon (1992) cite with approval the self-reported intimacy with their subject-matter of leading researchers in biology and medicine, an intimacy that conflicts with the distancing allegedly recommended in standard conceptions and pedagogy of critical thinking. Thayer-Bacon (2000) contrasts the embodied and socially embedded learning of her elementary school students in a Montessori school, who used their imagination, intuition and emotions as well as their reason, with conceptions of critical thinking as

thinking that is used to critique arguments, offer justifications, and make judgments about what are the good reasons, or the right answers. (Thayer-Bacon 2000: 127–128)

Alston (2001) reports that her students in a women’s studies class were able to see the flaws in the Cinderella myth that pervades much romantic fiction but in their own romantic relationships still acted as if all failures were the woman’s fault and still accepted the notions of love at first sight and living happily ever after. Students, she writes, should

be able to connect their intellectual critique to a more affective, somatic, and ethical account of making risky choices that have sexist, racist, classist, familial, sexual, or other consequences for themselves and those both near and far… critical thinking that reads arguments, texts, or practices merely on the surface without connections to feeling/desiring/doing or action lacks an ethical depth that should infuse the difference between mere cognitive activity and something we want to call critical thinking. (Alston 2001: 34)

Some critics portray such biases as unfair to women. Thayer-Bacon (1992), for example, has charged modern critical thinking theory with being sexist, on the ground that it separates the self from the object and causes one to lose touch with one’s inner voice, and thus stigmatizes women, who (she asserts) link self to object and listen to their inner voice. Her charge does not imply that women as a group are on average less able than men to analyze and evaluate arguments. Facione (1990c) found no difference by sex in performance on his California Critical Thinking Skills Test. Kuhn (1991: 280–281) found no difference by sex in either the disposition or the competence to engage in argumentative thinking.

The critics propose a variety of remedies for the biases that they allege. In general, they do not propose to eliminate or downplay critical thinking as an educational goal. Rather, they propose to conceptualize critical thinking differently and to change its pedagogy accordingly. Their pedagogical proposals arise logically from their objections. They can be summarized as follows:

  • Focus on argument networks with dialectical exchanges reflecting contesting points of view rather than on atomic arguments, so as to develop “strong sense” critical thinking that transcends egocentric and sociocentric biases (Paul 1981, 1984).
  • Foster closeness to the subject-matter and feeling connected to others in order to inform a humane democracy (Martin 1992).
  • Develop “constructive thinking” as a social activity in a community of physically embodied and socially embedded inquirers with personal voices who value not only reason but also imagination, intuition and emotion (Thayer-Bacon 2000).
  • In developing critical thinking in school subjects, treat as important neither skills nor dispositions but opening worlds of meaning (Alston 2001).
  • Attend to the development of critical thinking dispositions as well as skills, and adopt the “critical pedagogy” practised and advocated by Freire (1968 [1970]) and hooks (1994) (Dalgleish, Girard, & Davies 2017).

A common thread in these proposals is treatment of critical thinking as a social, interactive, personally engaged activity like that of a quilting bee or a barn-raising (Thayer-Bacon 2000) rather than as an individual, solitary, distanced activity symbolized by Rodin’s The Thinker . One can get a vivid description of education with the former type of goal from the writings of bell hooks (1994, 2010). Critical thinking for her is open-minded dialectical exchange across opposing standpoints and from multiple perspectives, a conception similar to Paul’s “strong sense” critical thinking (Paul 1981). She abandons the structure of domination in the traditional classroom. In an introductory course on black women writers, for example, she assigns students to write an autobiographical paragraph about an early racial memory, then to read it aloud as the others listen, thus affirming the uniqueness and value of each voice and creating a communal awareness of the diversity of the group’s experiences (hooks 1994: 84). Her “engaged pedagogy” is thus similar to the “freedom under guidance” implemented in John Dewey’s Laboratory School of Chicago in the late 1890s and early 1900s. It incorporates the dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring that Abrami (2015) found to be most effective in improving critical thinking skills and dispositions.

What is the relationship of critical thinking to problem solving, decision-making, higher-order thinking, creative thinking, and other recognized types of thinking? One’s answer to this question obviously depends on how one defines the terms used in the question. If critical thinking is conceived broadly to cover any careful thinking about any topic for any purpose, then problem solving and decision making will be kinds of critical thinking, if they are done carefully. Historically, ‘critical thinking’ and ‘problem solving’ were two names for the same thing. If critical thinking is conceived more narrowly as consisting solely of appraisal of intellectual products, then it will be disjoint with problem solving and decision making, which are constructive.

Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives used the phrase “intellectual abilities and skills” for what had been labeled “critical thinking” by some, “reflective thinking” by Dewey and others, and “problem solving” by still others (Bloom et al. 1956: 38). Thus, the so-called “higher-order thinking skills” at the taxonomy’s top levels of analysis, synthesis and evaluation are just critical thinking skills, although they do not come with general criteria for their assessment (Ennis 1981b). The revised version of Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson et al. 2001) likewise treats critical thinking as cutting across those types of cognitive process that involve more than remembering (Anderson et al. 2001: 269–270). For details, see the Supplement on History .

As to creative thinking, it overlaps with critical thinking (Bailin 1987, 1988). Thinking about the explanation of some phenomenon or event, as in Ferryboat , requires creative imagination in constructing plausible explanatory hypotheses. Likewise, thinking about a policy question, as in Candidate , requires creativity in coming up with options. Conversely, creativity in any field needs to be balanced by critical appraisal of the draft painting or novel or mathematical theory.

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Defining Critical Thinking

  • A Brief History of the Idea of Critical Thinking
  • Critical Thinking: Basic Questions & Answers
  • Our Conception of Critical Thinking
  • Sumner’s Definition of Critical Thinking
  • Research in Critical Thinking
  • Critical Societies: Thoughts from the Past

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Critical Thinking: A Simple Guide and Why It’s Important

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Critical Thinking: A Simple Guide and Why It’s Important was originally published on Ivy Exec .

Strong critical thinking skills are crucial for career success, regardless of educational background. It embodies the ability to engage in astute and effective decision-making, lending invaluable dimensions to professional growth.

At its essence, critical thinking is the ability to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize information in a logical and reasoned manner. It’s not merely about accumulating knowledge but harnessing it effectively to make informed decisions and solve complex problems. In the dynamic landscape of modern careers, honing this skill is paramount.

The Impact of Critical Thinking on Your Career

☑ problem-solving mastery.

Visualize critical thinking as the Sherlock Holmes of your career journey. It facilitates swift problem resolution akin to a detective unraveling a mystery. By methodically analyzing situations and deconstructing complexities, critical thinkers emerge as adept problem solvers, rendering them invaluable assets in the workplace.

☑ Refined Decision-Making

Navigating dilemmas in your career path resembles traversing uncertain terrain. Critical thinking acts as a dependable GPS, steering you toward informed decisions. It involves weighing options, evaluating potential outcomes, and confidently choosing the most favorable path forward.

☑ Enhanced Teamwork Dynamics

Within collaborative settings, critical thinkers stand out as proactive contributors. They engage in scrutinizing ideas, proposing enhancements, and fostering meaningful contributions. Consequently, the team evolves into a dynamic hub of ideas, with the critical thinker recognized as the architect behind its success.

☑ Communication Prowess

Effective communication is the cornerstone of professional interactions. Critical thinking enriches communication skills, enabling the clear and logical articulation of ideas. Whether in emails, presentations, or casual conversations, individuals adept in critical thinking exude clarity, earning appreciation for their ability to convey thoughts seamlessly.

☑ Adaptability and Resilience

Perceptive individuals adept in critical thinking display resilience in the face of unforeseen challenges. Instead of succumbing to panic, they assess situations, recalibrate their approaches, and persist in moving forward despite adversity.

☑ Fostering Innovation

Innovation is the lifeblood of progressive organizations, and critical thinking serves as its catalyst. Proficient critical thinkers possess the ability to identify overlooked opportunities, propose inventive solutions, and streamline processes, thereby positioning their organizations at the forefront of innovation.

☑ Confidence Amplification

Critical thinkers exude confidence derived from honing their analytical skills. This self-assurance radiates during job interviews, presentations, and daily interactions, catching the attention of superiors and propelling career advancement.

So, how can one cultivate and harness this invaluable skill?

✅ developing curiosity and inquisitiveness:.

Embrace a curious mindset by questioning the status quo and exploring topics beyond your immediate scope. Cultivate an inquisitive approach to everyday situations. Encourage a habit of asking “why” and “how” to deepen understanding. Curiosity fuels the desire to seek information and alternative perspectives.

✅ Practice Reflection and Self-Awareness:

Engage in reflective thinking by assessing your thoughts, actions, and decisions. Regularly introspect to understand your biases, assumptions, and cognitive processes. Cultivate self-awareness to recognize personal prejudices or cognitive biases that might influence your thinking. This allows for a more objective analysis of situations.

✅ Strengthening Analytical Skills:

Practice breaking down complex problems into manageable components. Analyze each part systematically to understand the whole picture. Develop skills in data analysis, statistics, and logical reasoning. This includes understanding correlation versus causation, interpreting graphs, and evaluating statistical significance.

✅ Engaging in Active Listening and Observation:

Actively listen to diverse viewpoints without immediately forming judgments. Allow others to express their ideas fully before responding. Observe situations attentively, noticing details that others might overlook. This habit enhances your ability to analyze problems more comprehensively.

✅ Encouraging Intellectual Humility and Open-Mindedness:

Foster intellectual humility by acknowledging that you don’t know everything. Be open to learning from others, regardless of their position or expertise. Cultivate open-mindedness by actively seeking out perspectives different from your own. Engage in discussions with people holding diverse opinions to broaden your understanding.

✅ Practicing Problem-Solving and Decision-Making:

Engage in regular problem-solving exercises that challenge you to think creatively and analytically. This can include puzzles, riddles, or real-world scenarios. When making decisions, consciously evaluate available information, consider various alternatives, and anticipate potential outcomes before reaching a conclusion.

✅ Continuous Learning and Exposure to Varied Content:

Read extensively across diverse subjects and formats, exposing yourself to different viewpoints, cultures, and ways of thinking. Engage in courses, workshops, or seminars that stimulate critical thinking skills. Seek out opportunities for learning that challenge your existing beliefs.

✅ Engage in Constructive Disagreement and Debate:

Encourage healthy debates and discussions where differing opinions are respectfully debated.

This practice fosters the ability to defend your viewpoints logically while also being open to changing your perspective based on valid arguments. Embrace disagreement as an opportunity to learn rather than a conflict to win. Engaging in constructive debate sharpens your ability to evaluate and counter-arguments effectively.

✅ Utilize Problem-Based Learning and Real-World Applications:

Engage in problem-based learning activities that simulate real-world challenges. Work on projects or scenarios that require critical thinking skills to develop practical problem-solving approaches. Apply critical thinking in real-life situations whenever possible.

This could involve analyzing news articles, evaluating product reviews, or dissecting marketing strategies to understand their underlying rationale.

In conclusion, critical thinking is the linchpin of a successful career journey. It empowers individuals to navigate complexities, make informed decisions, and innovate in their respective domains. Embracing and honing this skill isn’t just an advantage; it’s a necessity in a world where adaptability and sound judgment reign supreme.

So, as you traverse your career path, remember that the ability to think critically is not just an asset but the differentiator that propels you toward excellence.

Critical Thinking Definition, Skills, and Examples

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what is the significance of critical thinking

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Critical thinking refers to the ability to analyze information objectively and make a reasoned judgment. It involves the evaluation of sources, such as data, facts, observable phenomena, and research findings.

Good critical thinkers can draw reasonable conclusions from a set of information, and discriminate between useful and less useful details to solve problems or make decisions. Employers prioritize the ability to think critically—find out why, plus see how you can demonstrate that you have this ability throughout the job application process. 

Why Do Employers Value Critical Thinking Skills?

Employers want job candidates who can evaluate a situation using logical thought and offer the best solution.

 Someone with critical thinking skills can be trusted to make decisions independently, and will not need constant handholding.

Hiring a critical thinker means that micromanaging won't be required. Critical thinking abilities are among the most sought-after skills in almost every industry and workplace. You can demonstrate critical thinking by using related keywords in your resume and cover letter, and during your interview.

Examples of Critical Thinking

The circumstances that demand critical thinking vary from industry to industry. Some examples include:

  • A triage nurse analyzes the cases at hand and decides the order by which the patients should be treated.
  • A plumber evaluates the materials that would best suit a particular job.
  • An attorney reviews evidence and devises a strategy to win a case or to decide whether to settle out of court.
  • A manager analyzes customer feedback forms and uses this information to develop a customer service training session for employees.

Promote Your Skills in Your Job Search

If critical thinking is a key phrase in the job listings you are applying for, be sure to emphasize your critical thinking skills throughout your job search.

Add Keywords to Your Resume

You can use critical thinking keywords (analytical, problem solving, creativity, etc.) in your resume. When describing your  work history , include top critical thinking skills that accurately describe you. You can also include them in your  resume summary , if you have one.

For example, your summary might read, “Marketing Associate with five years of experience in project management. Skilled in conducting thorough market research and competitor analysis to assess market trends and client needs, and to develop appropriate acquisition tactics.”

Mention Skills in Your Cover Letter

Include these critical thinking skills in your cover letter. In the body of your letter, mention one or two of these skills, and give specific examples of times when you have demonstrated them at work. Think about times when you had to analyze or evaluate materials to solve a problem.

Show the Interviewer Your Skills

You can use these skill words in an interview. Discuss a time when you were faced with a particular problem or challenge at work and explain how you applied critical thinking to solve it.

Some interviewers will give you a hypothetical scenario or problem, and ask you to use critical thinking skills to solve it. In this case, explain your thought process thoroughly to the interviewer. He or she is typically more focused on how you arrive at your solution rather than the solution itself. The interviewer wants to see you analyze and evaluate (key parts of critical thinking) the given scenario or problem.

Of course, each job will require different skills and experiences, so make sure you read the job description carefully and focus on the skills listed by the employer.

Top Critical Thinking Skills

Keep these in-demand critical thinking skills in mind as you update your resume and write your cover letter. As you've seen, you can also emphasize them at other points throughout the application process, such as your interview. 

Part of critical thinking is the ability to carefully examine something, whether it is a problem, a set of data, or a text. People with  analytical skills  can examine information, understand what it means, and properly explain to others the implications of that information.

  • Asking Thoughtful Questions
  • Data Analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Questioning Evidence
  • Recognizing Patterns


Often, you will need to share your conclusions with your employers or with a group of colleagues. You need to be able to  communicate with others  to share your ideas effectively. You might also need to engage in critical thinking in a group. In this case, you will need to work with others and communicate effectively to figure out solutions to complex problems.

  • Active Listening
  • Collaboration
  • Explanation
  • Interpersonal
  • Presentation
  • Verbal Communication
  • Written Communication

Critical thinking often involves creativity and innovation. You might need to spot patterns in the information you are looking at or come up with a solution that no one else has thought of before. All of this involves a creative eye that can take a different approach from all other approaches.

  • Flexibility
  • Conceptualization
  • Imagination
  • Drawing Connections
  • Synthesizing


To think critically, you need to be able to put aside any assumptions or judgments and merely analyze the information you receive. You need to be objective, evaluating ideas without bias.

  • Objectivity
  • Observation

Problem Solving

Problem-solving is another critical thinking skill that involves analyzing a problem, generating and implementing a solution, and assessing the success of the plan. Employers don’t simply want employees who can think about information critically. They also need to be able to come up with practical solutions.

  • Attention to Detail
  • Clarification
  • Decision Making
  • Groundedness
  • Identifying Patterns

More Critical Thinking Skills

  • Inductive Reasoning
  • Deductive Reasoning
  • Noticing Outliers
  • Adaptability
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Brainstorming
  • Optimization
  • Restructuring
  • Integration
  • Strategic Planning
  • Project Management
  • Ongoing Improvement
  • Causal Relationships
  • Case Analysis
  • Diagnostics
  • SWOT Analysis
  • Business Intelligence
  • Quantitative Data Management
  • Qualitative Data Management
  • Risk Management
  • Scientific Method
  • Consumer Behavior

Key Takeaways

  • Demonstrate that you have critical thinking skills by adding relevant keywords to your resume.
  • Mention pertinent critical thinking skills in your cover letter, too, and include an example of a time when you demonstrated them at work.
  • Finally, highlight critical thinking skills during your interview. For instance, you might discuss a time when you were faced with a challenge at work and explain how you applied critical thinking skills to solve it.

University of Louisville. " What is Critical Thinking ."

American Management Association. " AMA Critical Skills Survey: Workers Need Higher Level Skills to Succeed in the 21st Century ."

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what is the significance of critical thinking

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Critical thinking.

Critical Thinking is the process of using and assessing reasons to evaluate statements, assumptions, and arguments in ordinary situations. The goal of this process is to help us have good beliefs, where “good” means that our beliefs meet certain goals of thought, such as truth, usefulness, or rationality. Critical thinking is widely regarded as a species of informal logic, although critical thinking makes use of some formal methods. In contrast with formal reasoning processes that are largely restricted to deductive methods—decision theory, logic, statistics—the process of critical thinking allows a wide range of reasoning methods, including formal and informal logic, linguistic analysis, experimental methods of the sciences, historical and textual methods, and philosophical methods, such as Socratic questioning and reasoning by counterexample.

The goals of critical thinking are also more diverse than those of formal reasoning systems. While formal methods focus on deductive validity and truth, critical thinkers may evaluate a statement’s truth, its usefulness, its religious value, its aesthetic value, or its rhetorical value. Because critical thinking arose primarily from the Anglo-American philosophical tradition (also known as “analytic philosophy”), contemporary critical thinking is largely concerned with a statement’s truth. But some thinkers, such as Aristotle (in Rhetoric ), give substantial attention to rhetorical value.

The primary subject matter of critical thinking is the proper use and goals of a range of reasoning methods, how they are applied in a variety of social contexts, and errors in reasoning. This article also discusses the scope and virtues of critical thinking.

Critical thinking should not be confused with Critical Theory. Critical Theory refers to a way of doing philosophy that involves a moral critique of culture. A “critical” theory, in this sense, is a theory that attempts to disprove or discredit a widely held or influential idea or way of thinking in society. Thus, critical race theorists and critical gender theorists offer critiques of traditional views and latent assumptions about race and gender. Critical theorists may use critical thinking methodology, but their subject matter is distinct, and they also may offer critical analyses of critical thinking itself.

Table of Contents

  • Argument and Evaluation
  • Categorical Logic
  • Propositional Logic
  • Modal Logic
  • Predicate Logic
  • Other Formal Systems
  • Generalization
  • Causal Reasoning
  • Formal Fallacies
  • Informal Fallacies
  • Heuristics and Biases
  • The Principle of Charity/Humility
  • The Principle of Caution
  • The Expansiveness of Critical Thinking
  • Productivity and the Limits of Rationality
  • Classical Approaches
  • The Paul/Elder Model
  • Other Approaches
  • References and Further Reading

The process of evaluating a statement traditionally begins with making sure we understand it; that is, a statement must express a clear meaning. A statement is generally regarded as clear if it expresses a proposition , which is the meaning the author of that statement intends to express, including definitions, referents of terms, and indexicals, such as subject, context, and time. There is significant controversy over what sort of “entity” propositions are, whether abstract objects or linguistic constructions or something else entirely. Whatever its metaphysical status, it is used here simply to refer to whatever meaning a speaker intends to convey in a statement.

The difficulty with identifying intended propositions is that we typically speak and think in natural languages (English, Swedish, French), and natural languages can be misleading. For instance, two different sentences in the same natural language may express the same proposition, as in these two English sentences:

Jamie is taller than his father. Jamie’s father is shorter than he.

Further, the same sentence in a natural language can express more than one proposition depending on who utters it at a time:

I am shorter than my father right now.

The pronoun “I” is an indexical; it picks out, or “indexes,” whoever utters the sentence and, therefore, expresses a different proposition for each new speaker who utters it. Similarly, “right now” is a temporal indexical; it indexes the time the sentence is uttered. The proposition it is used to express changes each new time the sentence is uttered and, therefore, may have a different truth value at different times (as, say, the speaker grows taller: “I am now five feet tall” may be true today, but false a year from now). Other indexical terms that can affect the meaning of the sentence include other pronouns (he, she, it) and definite articles (that, the).

Further still, different sentences in different natural languages may express the same proposition . For example, all of the following express the proposition “Snow is white”:

Snow is white. (English)

Der Schnee ist weiss. (German)

La neige est blanche. (French)

La neve é bianca. (Italian)

Finally, statements in natural languages are often vague or ambiguous , either of which can obscure the propositions actually intended by their authors. And even in cases where they are not vague or ambiguous, statements’ truth values sometimes vary from context to context. Consider the following example.

The English statement, “It is heavy,” includes the pronoun “it,” which (when used without contextual clues) is ambiguous because it can index any impersonal subject. If, in this case, “it” refers to the computer on which you are reading this right now, its author intends to express the proposition, “The computer on which you are reading this right now is heavy.” Further, the term “heavy” reflects an unspecified standard of heaviness (again, if contextual clues are absent). Assuming we are talking about the computer, it may be heavy relative to other computer models but not to automobiles. Further still, even if we identify or invoke a standard of heaviness by which to evaluate the appropriateness of its use in this context, there may be no weight at which an object is rightly regarded as heavy according to that standard. (For instance, is an object heavy because it weighs 5.3 pounds but not if it weighs 5.2 pounds? Or is it heavy when it is heavier than a mouse but lighter than an anvil?) This means “heavy” is a vague term. In order to construct a precise statement, vague terms (heavy, cold, tall) must often be replaced with terms expressing an objective standard (pounds, temperature, feet).

Part of the challenge of critical thinking is to clearly identify the propositions (meanings) intended by those making statements so we can effectively reason about them. The rules of language help us identify when a term or statement is ambiguous or vague, but they cannot, by themselves, help us resolve ambiguity or vagueness. In many cases, this requires assessing the context in which the statement is made or asking the author what she intends by the terms. If we cannot discern the meaning from the context and we cannot ask the author, we may stipulate a meaning, but this requires charity, to stipulate a plausible meaning, and humility, to admit when we discover that our stipulation is likely mistaken.

2. Argument and Evaluation

Once we are satisfied that a statement is clear, we can begin evaluating it. A statement can be evaluated according to a variety of standards. Commonly, statements are evaluated for truth, usefulness, or rationality. The most common of these goals is truth, so that is the focus of this article.

The truth of a statement is most commonly evaluated in terms of its relation to other statements and direct experiences. If a statement follows from or can be inferred from other statements that we already have good reasons to believe, then we have a reason to believe that statement. For instance, the statement “The ball is blue” can be derived from “The ball is blue and round.” Similarly, if a statement seems true in light of, or is implied by, an experience, then we have a reason to believe that statement. For instance, the experience of seeing a red car is a reason to believe, “The car is red.” (Whether these reasons are good enough for us to believe is a further question about justification , which is beyond the scope of this article, but see “ Epistemic Justification .”) Any statement we derive in these ways is called a conclusion . Though we regularly form conclusions from other statements and experiences—often without thinking about it—there is still a question of whether these conclusions are true: Did we draw those conclusions well? A common way to evaluate the truth of a statement is to identify those statements and experiences that support our conclusions and organize them into structures called arguments . (See also, “ Argument .”)

An argument is one or more statements (called premises ) intended to support the truth of another statement (the conclusion ). Premises comprise the evidence offered in favor of the truth of a conclusion. It is important to entertain any premises that are intended to support a conclusion, even if the attempt is unsuccessful. Unsuccessful attempts at supporting a proposition constitute bad arguments, but they are still arguments. The support intended for the conclusion may be formal or informal. In a formal, or deductive, argument, an arguer intends to construct an argument such that, if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. This strong relationship between premises and conclusion is called validity . This relationship between the premises and conclusion is called “formal” because it is determined by the form (that is, the structure) of the argument (see §3). In an informal, or inductive , argument, the conclusion may be false even if the premises are true. In other words, whether an inductive argument is good depends on something more than the form of the argument. Therefore, all inductive arguments are invalid, but this does not mean they are bad arguments. Even if an argument is invalid, its premises can increase the probability that its conclusion is true. So, the form of inductive arguments is evaluated in terms of the strength the premises confer on the conclusion, and stronger inductive arguments are preferred to weaker ones (see §4). (See also, “ Deductive and Inductive Arguments .”)

Psychological states, such as sensations, memories, introspections, and intuitions often constitute evidence for statements. Although these states are not themselves statements, they can be expressed as statements. And when they are, they can be used in and evaluated by arguments. For instance, my seeing a red wall is evidence for me that, “There is a red wall,” but the physiological process of seeing is not a statement. Nevertheless, the experience of seeing a red wall can be expressed as the proposition, “I see a red wall” and can be included in an argument such as the following:

  • I see a red wall in front of me.
  • Therefore, there is a red wall in front of me.

This is an inductive argument, though not a strong one. We do not yet know whether seeing something (under these circumstances) is reliable evidence for the existence of what I am seeing. Perhaps I am “seeing” in a dream, in which case my seeing is not good evidence that there is a wall. For similar reasons, there is also reason to doubt whether I am actually seeing. To be cautious, we might say we seem to see a red wall.

To be good , an argument must meet two conditions: the conclusion must follow from the premises—either validly or with a high degree of likelihood—and the premises must be true. If the premises are true and the conclusion follows validly, the argument is sound . If the premises are true and the premises make the conclusion probable (either objectively or relative to alternative conclusions), the argument is cogent .

Here are two examples:

  • Earth is larger than its moon.
  • Our sun is larger than Earth.
  • Therefore, our sun is larger than Earth’s moon.

In example 1, the premises are true. And since “larger than” is a transitive relation, the structure of the argument guarantees that, if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. This means the argument is also valid. Since it is both valid and has true premises, this deductive argument is sound.

  Example 2:

  • It is sunny in Montana about 205 days per year.
  • I will be in Montana in February.
  • Hence, it will probably be sunny when I am in Montana.

In example 2, premise 1 is true, and let us assume premise 2 is true. The phrase “almost always” indicates that a majority of days in Montana are sunny, so that, for any day you choose, it will probably be a sunny day. Premise 2 says I am choosing days in February to visit. Together, these premises strongly support (though they do not guarantee) the conclusion that it will be sunny when I am there, and so this inductive argument is cogent.

In some cases, arguments will be missing some important piece, whether a premise or a conclusion. For instance, imagine someone says, “Well, she asked you to go, so you have to go.” The idea that you have to go does not follow logically from the fact that she asked you to go without more information. What is it about her asking you to go that implies you have to go? Arguments missing important information are called enthymemes . A crucial part of critical thinking is identifying missing or assumed information in order to effectively evaluate an argument. In this example, the missing premise might be that, “She is your boss, and you have to do what she asks you to do.” Or it might be that, “She is the woman you are interested in dating, and if you want a real chance at dating her, you must do what she asks.” Before we can evaluate whether her asking implies that you have to go, we need to know this missing bit of information. And without that missing bit of information, we can simply reply, “That conclusion doesn’t follow from that premise.”

The two categories of reasoning associated with soundness and cogency—formal and informal, respectively—are considered, by some, to be the only two types of argument. Others add a third category, called abductive reasoning, according to which one reasons according to the rules of explanation rather than the rules of inference . Those who do not regard abductive reasoning as a third, distinct category typically regard it as a species of informal reasoning. Although abductive reasoning has unique features, here it is treated, for reasons explained in §4d, as a species of informal reasoning, but little hangs on this characterization for the purposes of this article.

3. Formal Reasoning

Although critical thinking is widely regarded as a type of informal reasoning, it nevertheless makes substantial use of formal reasoning strategies. Formal reasoning is deductive , which means an arguer intends to infer or derive a proposition from one or more propositions on the basis of the form or structure exhibited by the premises. Valid argument forms guarantee that particular propositions can be derived from them. Some forms look like they make such guarantees but fail to do so (we identify these as formal fallacies in §5a). If an arguer intends or supposes that a premise or set of premises guarantee a particular conclusion, we may evaluate that argument form as deductive even if the form fails to guarantee the conclusion, and is thus discovered to be invalid.

Before continuing in this section, it is important to note that, while formal reasoning provides a set of strict rules for drawing valid inferences, it cannot help us determine the truth of many of our original premises or our starting assumptions. And in fact, very little critical thinking that occurs in our daily lives (unless you are a philosopher, engineer, computer programmer, or statistician) involves formal reasoning. When we make decisions about whether to board an airplane, whether to move in with our significant others, whether to vote for a particular candidate, whether it is worth it to drive ten miles faster the speed limit even if I am fairly sure I will not get a ticket, whether it is worth it to cheat on a diet, or whether we should take a job overseas, we are reasoning informally. We are reasoning with imperfect information (I do not know much about my flight crew or the airplane’s history), with incomplete information (no one knows what the future is like), and with a number of built-in biases, some conscious (I really like my significant other right now), others unconscious (I have never gotten a ticket before, so I probably will not get one this time). Readers who are more interested in these informal contexts may want to skip to §4.

An argument form is a template that includes variables that can be replaced with sentences. Consider the following form (found within the formal system known as sentential logic ):

  • If p, then q.
  • Therefore, q.

This form was named modus ponens (Latin, “method of putting”) by medieval philosophers. p and q are variables that can be replaced with any proposition, however simple or complex. And as long as the variables are replaced consistently (that is, each instance of p is replaced with the same sentence and the same for q ), the conclusion (line 3), q , follows from these premises. To be more precise, the inference from the premises to the conclusion is valid . “Validity” describes a particular relationship between the premises and the conclusion, namely: in all cases , the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises, or, to use more technical language, the premises logically guarantee an instance of the conclusion.

Notice we have said nothing yet about truth . As critical thinkers, we are interested, primarily, in evaluating the truth of sentences that express propositions, but all we have discussed so far is a type of relationship between premises and conclusion (validity). This formal relationship is analogous to grammar in natural languages and is known in both fields as syntax . A sentence is grammatically correct if its syntax is appropriate for that language (in English, for example, a grammatically correct simple sentence has a subject and a predicate—“He runs.” “Laura is Chairperson.”—and it is grammatically correct regardless of what subject or predicate is used—“Jupiter sings.”—and regardless of whether the terms are meaningful—“Geflorble rowdies.”). Whether a sentence is meaningful, and therefore, whether it can be true or false, depends on its semantics , which refers to the meaning of individual terms (subjects and predicates) and the meaning that emerges from particular orderings of terms. Some terms are meaningless—geflorble; rowdies—and some orderings are meaningless even though their terms are meaningful—“Quadruplicity drinks procrastination,” and “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”.

Despite the ways that syntax and semantics come apart, if sentences are meaningful, then syntactic relationships between premises and conclusions allow reasoners to infer truth values for conclusions. Because of this, a more common definition of validity is this: it is not possible for all the premises to be true and the conclusion false . Formal logical systems in which syntax allows us to infer semantic values are called truth-functional or truth-preserving —proper syntax preserves truth throughout inferences.

The point of this is to note that formal reasoning only tells us what is true if we already know our premises are true. It cannot tell us whether our experiences are reliable or whether scientific experiments tell us what they seem to tell us. Logic can be used to help us determine whether a statement is true, but only if we already know some true things. This is why a broad conception of critical thinking is so important: we need many different tools to evaluate whether our beliefs are any good.

Consider, again, the form modus ponens , and replace p with “It is a cat” and q with “It is a mammal”:

  • If it is a cat, then it is a mammal.
  • It is a cat.
  • Therefore, it is a mammal.

In this case, we seem to “see” (in a metaphorical sense of see ) that the premises guarantee the truth of the conclusion. On reflection, it is also clear that the premises might not be true; for instance, if “it” picks out a rock instead of a cat, premise 1 is still true, but premise 2 is false. It is also possible for the conclusion to be true when the premises are false. For instance, if the “it” picks out a dog instead of a cat, the conclusion “It is a mammal” is true. But in that case, the premises do not guarantee that conclusion; they do not constitute a reason to believe the conclusion is true.

Summing up, an argument is valid if its premises logically guarantee an instance of its conclusion (syntactically), or if it is not possible for its premises to be true and its conclusion false (semantically). Logic is truth-preserving but not truth-detecting; we still need evidence that our premises are true to use logic effectively.

            A Brief Technical Point

Some readers might find it worth noting that the semantic definition of validity has two counterintuitive consequences. First, it implies that any argument with a necessarily true conclusion is valid. Notice that the condition is phrased hypothetically: if the premises are true, then the conclusion cannot be false. This condition is met if the conclusion cannot be false:

  • Two added to two equals four.

This is because the hypothetical (or “conditional”) statement would still be true even if the premises were false:

  • If it is blue, then it flies.
  • It is an airplane.

It is true of this argument that if the premises were true, the conclusion would be since the conclusion is true no matter what.

Second, the semantic formulation also implies that any argument with necessarily false premises is valid. The semantic condition for validity is met if the premises cannot be true:

  • Some bachelors are married.
  • Earth’s moon is heavier than Jupiter.

In this case, if the premise were true, the conclusion could not be false (this is because anything follows syntactically from a contradiction), and therefore, the argument is valid. There is nothing particularly problematic about these two consequences. But they highlight unexpected implications of our standard formulations of validity, and they show why there is more to good arguments than validity.

Despite these counterintuitive implications, valid reasoning is essential to thinking critically because it is a truth-preserving strategy: if deductive reasoning is applied to true premises, true conclusions will result.

There are a number of types of formal reasoning, but here we review only some of the most common: categorical logic, propositional logic, modal logic, and predicate logic.

a. Categorical Logic

Categorical logic is formal reasoning about categories or collections of subjects, where subjects refers to anything that can be regarded as a member of a class, whether objects, properties, or events or even a single object, property, or event. Categorical logic employs the quantifiers “all,” “some,” and “none” to refer to the members of categories, and categorical propositions are formulated in four ways:

A claims: All As are Bs (where the capitals “A” and “B” represent categories of subjects).

E claims: No As are Bs.

I claims: Some As are Bs.

O claims: Some As are not Bs.

Categorical syllogisms are syllogisms (two-premised formal arguments) that employ categorical propositions. Here are two examples:

  • All cats are mammals. (A claim) 1. No bachelors are married. (E claim)
  • Some cats are furry. (I claim) 2. All the people in this building are bachelors. (A claim)
  • Therefore, some mammals are furry. (I claim) 3. Thus, no people in this building are married. (E claim)

There are interesting limitations on what categorical logic can do. For instance, if one premise says that, “Some As are not Bs,” may we infer that some As are Bs, in what is known as an “existential assumption”? Aristotle seemed to think so ( De Interpretatione ), but this cannot be decided within the rules of the system. Further, and counterintuitively, it would mean that a proposition such as, “Some bachelors are not married,” is false since it implies that some bachelors are married.

Another limitation on categorical logic is that arguments with more than three categories cannot be easily evaluated for validity. The standard method for evaluating the validity of categorical syllogisms is the Venn diagram (named after John Venn, who introduced it in 1881), which expresses categorical propositions in terms of two overlapping circles and categorical arguments in terms of three overlapping circles, each circle representing a category of subjects.

Venn diagram for claim and Venn diagram for argument

A, B, and C represent categories of objects, properties, or events. The symbol “ ∩ ” comes from mathematical set theory to indicate “intersects with.” “A∩B” means all those As that are also Bs and vice versa. 

Though there are ways of constructing Venn diagrams with more than three categories, determining the validity of these arguments using Venn diagrams is very difficult (and often requires computers). These limitations led to the development of more powerful systems of formal reasoning.

b. Propositional Logic

Propositional, or sentential , logic has advantages and disadvantages relative to categorical logic. It is more powerful than categorical logic in that it is not restricted in the number of terms it can evaluate, and therefore, it is not restricted to the syllogistic form. But it is weaker than categorical logic in that it has no operators for quantifying over subjects, such as “all” or “some.” For those, we must appeal to predicate logic (see §3c below).

Basic propositional logic involves formal reasoning about propositions (as opposed to categories), and its most basic unit of evaluation is the atomic proposition . “Atom” means the smallest indivisible unit of something, and simple English statements (subject + predicate) are atomic wholes because if either part is missing, the word or words cease to be a statement, and therefore ceases to be capable of expressing a proposition. Atomic propositions are simple subject-predicate combinations, for instance, “It is a cat” and “I am a mammal.” Variable letters such as p and q in argument forms are replaced with semantically rich constants, indicated by capital letters, such as A and B . Consider modus ponens again (noting that the atomic propositions are underlined in the English argument):

As you can see from premise 1 of the Semantic Replacement, atomic propositions can be combined into more complex propositions using symbols that represent their logical relationships (such as “If…, then…”). These symbols are called “operators” or “connectives.” The five standard operators in basic propositional logic are:

These operations allow us to identify valid relations among propositions: that is, they allow us to formulate a set of rules by which we can validly infer propositions from and validly replace them with others. These rules of inference (such as modus ponens ; modus tollens ; disjunctive syllogism) and rules of replacement (such as double negation; contraposition; DeMorgan’s Law) comprise the syntax of propositional logic, guaranteeing the validity of the arguments employing them.

Two Rules of Inference:

Two Rules of Replacement:

For more, see “ Propositional Logic .”

c. Modal Logic

Standard propositional logic does not capture every type of proposition we wish to express (recall that it does not allow us to evaluate categorical quantifiers such as “all” or “some”). It also does not allow us to evaluate propositions expressed as possibly true or necessarily true, modifications that are called modal operators or modal quantifiers .

Modal logic refers to a family of formal propositional systems, the most prominent of which includes operators for necessity (□) and possibility (◊) (see §3d below for examples of other modal systems). If a proposition, p , is possibly true, ◊ p , it may or may not be true. If p is necessarily true, □ p , it must be true; it cannot be false. If p is necessarily false, either ~◊ p or □~ p , it must be false; it cannot be true.

There is a variety of modal systems, the weakest of which is called K (after Saul Kripke, who exerted important influence on the development of modal logic), and it involves only two additional rules:

Necessitation Rule:   If  A  is a theorem of  K , then so is □ A .

Distribution Axiom:  □( A ⊃ B ) ⊃ (□ A ⊃□ B ).  [If it is necessarily the case that if A, then B , then if it is necessarily the case that A, it is necessarily the case that B .]

Other systems maintain these rules and add others for increasing strength. For instance, the (S4) modal system includes axiom (4):

(4)  □ A ⊃ □□ A   [If it is necessarily the case that A, then it is necessarily necessary that A.]

An influential and intuitive way of thinking about modal concepts is the idea of “possible worlds” (see Plantinga, 1974; Lewis 1986). A world is just the set of all true propositions. The actual world is the set of all actually true propositions—everything that was true, is true, and (depending on what you believe about the future) will be true. A possible world is a way the actual world might have been. Imagine you wore green underwear today. The actual world might have been different in that way: you might have worn blue underwear. In this interpretation of modal quantifiers, there is a possible world in which you wore blue underwear instead of green underwear. And for every possibility like this, and every combination of those possibilities, there is a distinct possible world.

If a proposition is not possible, then there is no possible world in which that proposition is true. The statement, “That object is red all over and blue all over at the same time” is not true in any possible worlds. Therefore, it is not possible (~◊P), or, in other words, necessarily false (□~P). If a proposition is true in all possible worlds, it is necessarily true. For instance, the proposition, “Two plus two equal four,” is true in all possible worlds, so it is necessarily true (□P) or not possibly false (~◊~P).

All modal systems have a number of controversial implications, and there is not space to review them here. Here we need only note that modal logic is a type of formal reasoning that increases the power of propositional logic to capture more of what we attempt to express in natural languages. (For more, see “ Modal Logic: A Contemporary View .”)

d. Predicate Logic

Predicate logic, in particular, first-order predicate logic, is even more powerful than propositional logic. Whereas propositional logic treats propositions as atomic wholes, predicate logic allows reasoners to identify and refer to subjects of propositions, independently of their predicates. For instance, whereas the proposition, “Susan is witty,” would be replaced with a single upper-case letter, say “S,” in propositional logic, predicate logic would assign the subject “Susan” a lower-case letter, s, and the predicate “is witty” an upper-case letter, W, and the translation (or formula ) would be: Ws.

In addition to distinguishing subjects and predicates, first-order predicate logic allows reasoners to quantify over subjects. The quantifiers in predicate logic are “All…,” which is comparable to “All” quantifier in categorical logic and is sometimes symbolized with an upside-down A: ∀ (though it may not be symbolized at all), and “There is at least one…,” which is comparable to “Some” quantifier in categorical logic and is symbolized with a backward E: ∃. E and O claims are formed by employing the negation operator from propositional logic. In this formal system, the proposition, “Someone is witty,” for example, has the form: There is an x , such that x has the property of being witty, which is symbolized: (∃ x)(Wx). Similarly, the proposition, “Everyone is witty,” has the form: For all x, x has the property of being witty, which is symbolized (∀ x )( Wx ) or, without the ∀: ( x )( Wx ).

Predicate derivations are conducted according to the same rules of inference and replacement as propositional logic with the exception of four rules to accommodate adding and eliminating quantifiers.

Second-order predicate logic extends first-order predicate logic to allow critical thinkers to quantify over and draw inferences about subjects and predicates, including relations among subjects and predicates. In both first- and second-order logic, predicates typically take the form of properties (one-place predicates) or relations (two-place predicates), though there is no upper limit on place numbers. Second-order logic allows us to treat both as falling under quantifiers, such as e verything that is (specifically, that has the property of being) a tea cup and everything that is a bachelor is unmarried .

e. Other Formal Systems

It is worth noting here that the formal reasoning systems we have seen thus far (categorical, propositional, and predicate) all presuppose that truth is bivalent , that is, two-valued. The two values critical thinkers are most often concerned with are true and false , but any bivalent system is subject to the rules of inference and replacement of propositional logic. The most common alternative to truth values is the binary code of 1s and 0s used in computer programming. All logics that presuppose bivalence are called classical logics . In the next section, we see that not all formal systems are bivalent; there are non-classical logics . The existence of non-classical systems raises interesting philosophical questions about the nature of truth and the legitimacy of our basic rules of reasoning, but these questions are too far afield for this context. Many philosophers regard bivalent systems as legitimate for all but the most abstract and purely formal contexts. Included below is a brief description of three of the most common non-classical logics.

Tense logic , or temporal logic, is a formal modal system developed by Arthur Prior (1957, 1967, 1968) to accommodate propositional language about time. For example, in addition to standard propositional operators, tense logic includes four operators for indexing times: P “It has at some time been the case that…”; F “It will at some time be the case that…”; H “It has always been the case that…”; and G “It will always be the case that….”

Many-valued logic , or n -valued logic, is a family of formal logical systems that attempts to accommodate intuitions that suggest some propositions have values in addition to true and false. These are often motivated by intuitions that some propositions have neither of the classic truth values; their truth value is indeterminate (not just undeterminable, but neither true nor false), for example, propositions about the future such as, “There will be a sea battle tomorrow.” If the future does not yet exist, there is no fact about the future, and therefore, nothing for a proposition to express.

Fuzzy logic is a type of many-valued logic developed out of Lotfi Zadeh’s (1965) work on mathematical sets. Fuzzy logic attempts to accommodate intuitions that suggest some propositions have truth value in degrees, that is, some degree of truth between true and false. It is motivated by concerns about vagueness in reality, for example whether a certain color is red or some degree of red, or whether some temperature is hot or some degree of hotness.

Formal reasoning plays an important role in critical thinking, but not very often. There are significant limits to how we might use formal tools in our daily lives. If that is true, how do critical thinkers reason well when formal reasoning cannot help? That brings us to informal reasoning.

4. Informal Reasoning

Informal reasoning is inductive , which means that a proposition is inferred (but not derived) from one or more propositions on the basis of the strength provided by the premises (where “strength” means some degree of likelihood less than certainty or some degree of probability less than 1 but greater than 0; a proposition with 0% probability is necessarily false).

Particular premises grant strength to premises to the degree that they reflect certain relationships or structures in the world . For instance, if a particular type of event, p , is known to cause or indicate another type of event, q , then upon encountering an event of type p , we may infer that an event of type q is likely to occur. We may express this relationship among events propositionally as follows:

  • Events of type p typically cause or indicate events of type q .
  • An event of type p occurred.
  • Therefore, an event of type q probably occurred.

If the structure of the world (for instance, natural laws) makes premise 1 true, then, if premise 2 is true, we can reasonably (though not certainly) infer the conclusion.

Unlike formal reasoning, the adequacy of informal reasoning depends on how well the premises reflect relationships or structures in the world. And since we have not experienced every relationship among objects or events or every structure, we cannot infer with certainty that a particular conclusion follows from a true set of premises about these relationships or structures. We can only infer them to some degree of likelihood by determining to the best of our ability either their objective probability or their probability relative to alternative conclusions.

The objective probability of a conclusion refers to how likely, given the way the world is regardless of whether we know it , that conclusion is to be true. The epistemic probability of a conclusion refers to how likely that conclusion is to be true given what we know about the world , or more precisely, given our evidence for its objective likelihood.

Objective probabilities are determined by facts about the world and they are not truths of logic, so we often need evidence for objective probabilities. For instance, imagine you are about to draw a card from a standard playing deck of 52 cards. Given particular assumptions about the world (that this deck contains 52 cards and that one of them is the Ace of Spades), the objective likelihood that you will draw an Ace of Spades is 1/52. These assumptions allow us to calculate the objective probability of drawing an Ace of Spades regardless of whether we have ever drawn a card before. But these are assumptions about the world that are not guaranteed by logic: we have to actually count the cards, to be sure we count accurately and are not dreaming or hallucinating, and that our memory (once we have finished counting) reliably maintains our conclusions. None of these processes logically guarantees true beliefs. So, if our assumptions are correct, we know the objective probability of actually drawing an Ace of Spades in the real world. But since there is no logical guarantee that our assumptions are right, we are left only with the epistemic probability (the probability based on our evidence) of drawing that card. If our assumptions are right, then the objective probability is the same as our epistemic probability: 1/52. But even if we are right, objective and epistemic probabilities can come apart under some circumstances.

Imagine you draw a card without looking at it and lay it face down. What is the objective probability that that card is an Ace of Spades? The structure of the world has now settled the question, though you do not know the outcome. If it is an Ace of Spades, the objective probability is 1 (100%); it is the Ace of Spades. If it is not the Ace of Spades, the objective probability is 0 (0%); it is not the Ace of Spades. But what is the epistemic probability? Since you do not know any more about the world than you did before you drew the card, the epistemic probability is the same as before you drew it: 1/52.

Since much of the way the world is is hidden from us (like the card laid face down), and since it is not obvious that we perceive reality as it actually is (we do not know whether the actual coins we flip are evenly weighted or whether the actual dice we roll are unbiased), our conclusions about probabilities in the actual world are inevitably epistemic probabilities. We can certainly calculate objective probabilities about abstract objects (for instance, hypothetically fair coins and dice—and these calculations can be evaluated formally using probability theory and statistics), but as soon as we apply these calculations to the real world, we must accommodate the fact that our evidence is incomplete.

There are four well-established categories of informal reasoning: generalization, analogy, causal reasoning, and abduction.

a. Generalization

Generalization is a way of reasoning informally from instances of a type to a conclusion about the type. This commonly takes two forms: reasoning from a sample of a population to the whole population , and reasoning from past instances of an object or event to future instances of that object or event . The latter is sometimes called “enumerative induction” because it involves enumerating past instances of a type in order to draw an inference about a future instance. But this distinction is weak; both forms of generalization use past or current data to infer statements about future instances and whole current populations.

A popular instance of inductive generalization is the opinion poll: a sample of a population of people is polled with respect to some statement or belief. For instance, if we poll 57 sophomores enrolled at a particular college about their experiences of living in dorms, these 57 comprise our sample of the population of sophomores at that particular college. We want to be careful how we define our population given who is part of our sample. Not all college students are like sophomores, so it is not prudent to draw inferences about all college students from these sophomores. Similarly, sophomores at other colleges are not necessarily like sophomores at this college (it could be the difference between a liberal arts college and a research university), so it is prudent not to draw inferences about all sophomores from this sample at a particular college.

Let us say that 90% of the 57 sophomores we polled hate the showers in their dorms. From this information, we might generalize in the following way:

  • We polled 57 sophomores at Plato’s Academy. (the sample)
  • 90% of our sample hates the showers in their dorms. (the polling data)
  • Therefore, probably 90% of all sophomores at Plato’s Academy hate the showers in their dorms. (a generalization from our sample to the whole population of sophomores at Plato’s Academy)

Is this good evidence that 90% of all sophomores at that college hate the showers in their dorms?

A generalization is typically regarded as a good argument if its sample is representative of its population. A sample is representative if it is similar in the relevant respects to its population. A perfectly representative sample would include the whole population: the sample would be identical with the population, and thus, perfectly representative. In that case, no generalization is necessary. But we rarely have the time or resources to evaluate whole populations. And so, a sample is generally regarded as representative if it is large relative to its population and unbiased .

In our example, whether our inference is good depends, in part, on how many sophomores there are. Are there 100, 2,000? If there are only 100, then our sample size seems adequate—we have polled over half the population. Is our sample unbiased? That depends on the composition of the sample. Is it comprised only of women or only of men? If this college is not co-ed, that is not a problem. But if the college is co-ed and we have sampled only women, our sample is biased against men. We have information only about female freshmen dorm experiences, and therefore, we cannot generalize about male freshmen dorm experiences.

How large is large enough? This is a difficult question to answer. A poll of 1% of your high school does not seem large enough to be representative. You should probably gather more data. Yet a poll of 1% of your whole country is practically impossible (you are not likely to ever have enough grant money to conduct that poll). But could a poll of less than 1% be acceptable? This question is not easily answered, even by experts in the field. The simple answer is: the more, the better. The more complicated answer is: it depends on how many other factors you can control for, such as bias and hidden variables (see §4c for more on experimental controls).

Similarly, we might ask what counts as an unbiased sample. An overly simple answer is: the sample is taken randomly, that is, by using a procedure that prevents consciously or unconsciously favoring one segment of the population over another (flipping a coin, drawing lottery balls). But reality is not simple. In political polls, it is important not to use a selection procedure that results in a sample with a larger number of members of one political party than another relative to their distribution in the population, even if the resulting sample is random. For example, the two most prominent parties in the U.S. are the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. If 47% of the U.S. is Republican and 53% is Democrat, an unbiased sample would have approximately 47% Republicans and 53% Democrats. But notice that simply choosing at random may not guarantee that result; it could easily occur, just by choosing randomly, that our sample has 70% Democrats and 30% Republicans (suppose our computer chose, albeit randomly, from a highly Democratic neighborhood). Therefore, we want to control for representativeness in some criteria, such as gender, age, and education. And we explicitly want to avoid controlling for the results we are interested in; if we controlled for particular answers to the questions on our poll, we would not learn anything—we would get all and only the answers we controlled for.

Difficulties determining representativeness suggest that reliable generalizations are not easy to construct. If we generalize on the basis of samples that are too small or if we cannot control for bias, we commit the informal fallacy of hasty generalization (see §5b). In order to generalize well, it seems we need a bit of machinery to guarantee representativeness. In fact, it seems we need an experiment, one of the primary tools in causal reasoning (see §4c below).

Argument from Analogy , also called analogical reasoning , is a way of reasoning informally about events or objects based on their similarities. A classic instance of reasoning by analogy occurs in archaeology, when researchers attempt to determine whether a stone object is an artifact (a human-made item) or simply a rock. By comparing the features of an unknown stone with well-known artifacts, archaeologists can infer whether a particular stone is an artifact. Other examples include identifying animals’ tracks by their similarities with pictures in a guidebook and consumer reports on the reliability of products.

To see how arguments from analogy work in detail, imagine two people who, independently of one another, want to buy a new pickup truck. Each chooses a make and model he or she likes, and let us say they decide on the same truck. They then visit a number of consumer reporting websites to read reports on trucks matching the features of the make and model they chose, for instance, the year it was built, the size of the engine (6 cyl. or 8 cyl.), the type of transmission (2WD or 4WD), the fuel mileage, and the cab size (standard, extended, crew). Now, let us say one of our prospective buyers is interested in safety —he or she wants a tough, safe vehicle that will protect against injuries in case of a crash. The other potential buyer is interested in mechanical reliability —he or she does not want to spend a lot of time and money fixing mechanical problems.

With this in mind, here is how our two buyers might reason analogically about whether to purchase the truck (with some fake report data included):

  • The truck I have in mind was built in 2012, has a 6-cylinder engine, a 2WD transmission, and a king cab.
  • 62 people who bought trucks like this one posted consumer reports and have driven it for more than a year.
  • 88% of those 62 people report that the truck feels very safe.
  • Therefore, the truck I am looking at will likely be very safe.
  • 88% of those 62 people report that the truck has had no mechanical problems.
  • Therefore, the truck I am looking at will likely have no mechanical problems.

Are the features of these analogous vehicles (the ones reported on) sufficiently numerous and relevant for helping our prospective truck buyers decide whether to purchase the truck in question (the one on the lot)? Since we have some idea that the type of engine and transmission in a vehicle contribute to its mechanical reliability, Buyer 2 may have some relevant features on which to draw a reliable analogy. Fuel mileage and cab size are not obviously relevant, but engine specifications seem to be. Are these specifications numerous enough? That depends on whether anything else that we are not aware of contributes to overall reliability. Of course, if the trucks having the features we know also have all other relevant features we do not know (if there are any), then Buyer 2 may still be able to draw a reliable inference from analogy. Of course, we do not currently know this.

Alternatively, Buyer 1 seems to have very few relevant features on which to draw a reliable analogy. The features listed are not obviously related to safety. Are there safety options a buyer may choose but that are not included in the list? For example, can a buyer choose side-curtain airbags, or do such airbags come standard in this model? Does cab size contribute to overall safety? Although there are a number of similarities between the trucks, it is not obvious that we have identified features relevant to safety or whether there are enough of them. Further, reports of “feeling safe” are not equivalent to a truck actually being safe. Better evidence would be crash test data or data from actual accidents involving this truck. This information is not likely to be on a consumer reports website.

A further difficulty is that, in many cases, it is difficult to know whether many similarities are necessary if the similarities are relevant. For instance, if having lots of room for passengers is your primary concern, then any other features are relevant only insofar as they affect cab size. The features that affect cab size may be relatively small.

This example shows that arguments from analogy are difficult to formulate well. Arguments from analogy can be good arguments when critical thinkers identify a sufficient number of features of known objects that are also relevant to the feature inferred to be shared by the object in question. If a rock is shaped like a cutting tool, has marks consistent with shaping and sharpening, and has wear marks consistent with being held in a human hand, it is likely that rock is an artifact. But not all cases are as clear.

It is often difficult to determine whether the features we have identified are sufficiently numerous or relevant to our interests. To determine whether an argument from analogy is good, a person may need to identify a causal relationship between those features and the one in which she is interested (as in the case with a vehicle’s mechanical reliability). This usually takes the form of an experiment, which we explore below (§4c).

Difficulties with constructing reliable generalizations and analogies have led critical thinkers to develop sophisticated methods for controlling for the ways these arguments can go wrong. The most common way to avoid the pitfalls of these arguments is to identify the causal structures in the world that account for or underwrite successful generalizations and analogies. Causal arguments are the primary method of controlling for extraneous causal influences and identifying relevant causes. Their development and complexity warrant regarding them as a distinct form of informal reasoning.

c. Causal Reasoning

Causal arguments attempt to draw causal conclusions (that is, statements that express propositions about causes: x causes y ) from premises about relationships among events or objects. Though it is not always possible to construct a causal argument, when available, they have an advantage over other types of inductive arguments in that they can employ mechanisms (experiments) that reduce the risks involved in generalizations and analogies.

The interest in identifying causal relationships often begins with the desire to explain correlations among events (as pollen levels increase, so do allergy symptoms) or with the desire to replicate an event (building muscle, starting a fire) or to eliminate an event (polio, head trauma in football).

Correlations among events may be positive (where each event increases at roughly the same rate) or negative (where one event decreases in proportion to another’s increase). Correlations suggest a causal relationship among the events correlated.

But we must be careful; correlations are merely suggestive—other forces may be at work. Let us say the y-axis in the charts above represents the number of millionaires in the U.S. and the x-axis represents the amount of money U.S. citizens pay for healthcare each year. Without further analysis, a positive correlation between these two may lead someone to conclude that increasing wealth causes people to be more health conscious and to seek medical treatment more often. A negative correlation may lead someone to conclude that wealth makes people healthier and, therefore, that they need to seek medical care less frequently.

Unfortunately, correlations can occur without any causal structures (mere coincidence) or because of a third, as-yet-unidentified event (a cause common to both events, or “common cause”), or the causal relationship may flow in an unexpected direction (what seems like the cause is really the effect). In order to determine precisely which event (if any) is responsible for the correlation, reasoners must eliminate possible influences on the correlation by “controlling” for possible influences on the relationship (variables).

Critical thinking about causes begins by constructing hypotheses about the origins of particular events. A hypothesis is an explanation or event that would account for the event in question. For example, if the question is how to account for increased acne during adolescence, and we are not aware of the existence of hormones, we might formulate a number of hypotheses about why this happens: during adolescence, people’s diets change (parents no longer dictate their meals), so perhaps some types of food cause acne; during adolescence, people become increasingly anxious about how they appear to others, so perhaps anxiety or stress causes acne; and so on.

After we have formulated a hypothesis, we identify a test implication that will help us determine whether our hypothesis is correct. For instance, if some types of food cause acne, we might choose a particular food, say, chocolate, and say: if chocolate causes acne (hypothesis), then decreasing chocolate will decrease acne (test implication). We then conduct an experiment to see whether our test implication occurs.

Reasoning about our experiment would then look like one of the following arguments:

There are a couple of important things to note about these arguments. First, despite appearances, both are inductive arguments. The one on the left commits the formal fallacy of affirming the consequent, so, at best, the premises confer only some degree of probability on the conclusion. The argument on the right looks to be deductive (on the face of it, it has the valid form modus tollens ), but it would be inappropriate to regard it deductively. This is because we are not evaluating a logical connection between H and TI, we are evaluating a causal connection—TI might be true or false regardless of H (we might have chosen an inappropriate test implication or simply gotten lucky), and therefore, we cannot conclude with certainty that H does not causally influence TI. Therefore, “If…, then…” statements in experiments must be read as causal conditionals and not material conditionals (the term for how we used conditionals above).

Second, experiments can go wrong in many ways, so no single experiment will grant a high degree of probability to its causal conclusion. Experiments may be biased by hidden variables (causes we did not consider or detect, such as age, diet, medical history, or lifestyle), auxiliary assumptions (the theoretical assumptions by which evaluating the results may be faulty), or underdetermination (there may be a number of hypotheses consistent with those results; for example, if it is actually sugar that causes acne, then chocolate bars, ice cream, candy, and sodas would yield the same test results). Because of this, experiments either confirm or disconfirm a hypothesis; that is, they give us some reason (but not a particularly strong reason) to believe our hypothesized causes are or are not the causes of our test implications, and therefore, of our observations (see Quine and Ullian, 1978). Because of this, experiments must be conducted many times, and only after we have a number of confirming or disconfirming results can we draw a strong inductive conclusion. (For more, see “ Confirmation and Induction .”)

Experiments may be formal or informal . In formal experiments, critical thinkers exert explicit control over experimental conditions: experimenters choose participants, include or exclude certain variables, and identify or introduce hypothesized events. Test subjects are selected according to control criteria (criteria that may affect the results and, therefore, that we want to mitigate, such as age, diet, and lifestyle) and divided into control groups (groups where the hypothesized cause is absent) and experimental groups (groups where the hypothesized cause is present, either because it is introduced or selected for).

Subjects are then placed in experimental conditions. For instance, in a randomized study, the control group receives a placebo (an inert medium) whereas the experimental group receives the hypothesized cause—the putative cause is introduced, the groups are observed, and the results are recorded and compared. When a hypothesized cause is dangerous (such as smoking) or its effects potentially irreversible (for instance, post-traumatic stress disorder), the experimental design must be restricted to selecting for the hypothesized cause already present in subjects, for example, in retrospective (backward-looking) and prospective (forward-looking) studies. In all types of formal experiments, subjects are observed under exposure to the test or placebo conditions for a specified time, and results are recorded and compared.

In informal experiments, critical thinkers do not have access to sophisticated equipment or facilities and, therefore, cannot exert explicit control over experimental conditions. They are left to make considered judgments about variables. The most common informal experiments are John Stuart Mill’s five methods of inductive reasoning, called Mill’s Methods, which he first formulated in A System of Logic (1843). Here is a very brief summary of Mill’s five methods:

(1) The Method of Agreement

If all conditions containing the event y also contain x , x is probably the cause of y .

For example:

“I’ve eaten from the same box of cereal every day this week, but all the times I got sick after eating cereal were times when I added strawberries. Therefore, the strawberries must be bad.”

(2) The Method of Difference

If all conditions lacking y also lack x , x is probably the cause of y .

“The organization turned all its tax forms in on time for years, that is, until our comptroller, George, left; after that, we were always late. Only after George left were we late. Therefore, George was probably responsible for getting our tax forms in on time.”

(3) The Joint Method of Agreement and Difference

If all conditions containing event y also contain event x , and all events lacking y also lack x , x is probably the cause of y .

“The conditions at the animal shelter have been pretty regular, except we had a string of about four months last year when the dogs barked all night, every night. But at the beginning of those four months we sheltered a redbone coonhound, and the barking stopped right after a family adopted her. All the times the redbone hound wasn’t present, there was no barking. Only the time she was present was there barking. Therefore, she probably incited all the other dogs to bark.”

(4) The Method of Concomitant Variation

If the frequency of event y increases and decreases as event x increases and decreases, respectively, x is probably the cause of y .

“We can predict the amount of alcohol sales by the rate of unemployment. As unemployment rises, so do alcohol sales. As unemployment drops, so do alcohol sales. Last quarter marked the highest unemployment in three years, and our sales last quarter are the highest they had been in those three years. Therefore, unemployment probably causes people to buy alcohol.”

(5) The Method of Residues

If a number of factors x , y , and z , may be responsible for a set of events A , B , and C , and if we discover reasons for thinking that x is the cause of A and y is the cause of B , then we have reason to believe z is the cause of C .

“The people who come through this medical facility are usually starving and have malaria, and a few have polio. We are particularly interested in treating the polio. Take this patient here: she is emaciated, which is caused by starvation; and she has a fever, which is caused by malaria. But notice that her muscles are deteriorating, and her bones are sore. This suggests she also has polio.”

d. Abduction

Not all inductive reasoning is inferential. In some cases, an explanation is needed before we can even begin drawing inferences. Consider Darwin’s idea of natural selection. Natural selection is not an object, like a blood vessel or a cellular wall, and it is not, strictly speaking, a single event. It cannot be detected in individual organisms or observed in a generation of offspring. Natural selection is an explanation of biodiversity that combines the process of heritable variation and environmental pressures to account for biomorphic change over long periods of time. With this explanation in hand, we can begin to draw some inferences. For instance, we can separate members of a single species of fruit flies, allow them to reproduce for several generations, and then observe whether the offspring of the two groups can reproduce. If we discover they cannot reproduce, this is likely due to certain mutations in their body types that prevent them from procreating. And since this is something we would expect if natural selection were true, we have one piece of confirming evidence for natural selection. But how do we know the explanations we come up with are worth our time?

Coined by C. S. Peirce (1839-1914), abduction , also called retroduction, or inference to the best explanation , refers to a way of reasoning informally that provides guidelines for evaluating explanations. Rather than appealing to types of arguments (generalization, analogy, causation), the value of an explanation depends on the theoretical virtues it exemplifies. A theoretical virtue is a quality that renders an explanation more or less fitting as an account of some event. What constitutes fittingness (or “loveliness,” as Peter Lipton (2004) calls it) is controversial, but many of the virtues are intuitively compelling, and abduction is a widely accepted tool of critical thinking.

The most widely recognized theoretical virtue is probably simplicity , historically associated with William of Ockham (1288-1347) and known as Ockham’s Razor . A legend has it that Ockham was asked whether his arguments for God’s existence prove that only one God exists or whether they allow for the possibility that many gods exist. He supposedly responded, “Do not multiply entities beyond necessity.” Though this claim is not found in his writings, Ockham is now famous for advocating that we restrict our beliefs about what is true to only what is absolutely necessary for explaining what we observe.

In contemporary theoretical use, the virtue of simplicity is invoked to encourage caution in how many mechanisms we introduce to explain an event. For example, if natural selection can explain the origin of biological diversity by itself, there is no need to hypothesize both natural selection and a divine designer. But if natural selection cannot explain the origin of, say, the duck-billed platypus, then some other mechanism must be introduced. Of course, not just any mechanism will do. It would not suffice to say the duck-billed platypus is explained by natural selection plus gremlins. Just why this is the case depends on other theoretical virtues; ideally, the virtues work together to help critical thinkers decide among competing hypotheses to test. Here is a brief sketch of some other theoretical virtues or ideals:

Conservatism – a good explanation does not contradict well-established views in a field.

Independent Testability – a good explanation is successful on different occasions under similar circumstances.

Fecundity – a good explanation leads to results that make even more research possible.

Explanatory Depth – a good explanation provides details of how an event occurs.

Explanatory Breadth – a good explanation also explains other, similar events.

Though abduction is structurally distinct from other inductive arguments, it functions similarly in practice: a good explanation provides a probabilistic reason to believe a proposition. This is why it is included here as a species of inductive reasoning. It might be thought that explanations only function to help critical thinkers formulate hypotheses, and do not, strictly speaking, support propositions. But there are intuitive examples of explanations that support propositions independently of however else they may be used. For example, a critical thinker may argue that material objects exist outside our minds is a better explanation of why we perceive what we do (and therefore, a reason to believe it) than that an evil demon is deceiving me , even if there is no inductive or deductive argument sufficient for believing that the latter is false. (For more, see “ Charles Sanders Peirce: Logic .”)

5. Detecting Poor Reasoning

Our attempts at thinking critically often go wrong, whether we are formulating our own arguments or evaluating the arguments of others. Sometimes it is in our interests for our reasoning to go wrong, such as when we would prefer someone to agree with us than to discover the truth value of a proposition. Other times it is not in our interests; we are genuinely interested in the truth, but we have unwittingly made a mistake in inferring one proposition from others. Whether our errors in reasoning are intentional or unintentional, such errors are called fallacies (from the Latin, fallax, which means “deceptive”). Recognizing and avoiding fallacies helps prevent critical thinkers from forming or maintaining defective beliefs.

Fallacies occur in a number of ways. An argument’s form may seem to us valid when it is not, resulting in a formal fallacy . Alternatively, an argument’s premises may seem to support its conclusion strongly but, due to some subtlety of meaning, do not, resulting in an informal fallacy . Additionally, some of our errors may be due to unconscious reasoning processes that may have been helpful in our evolutionary history, but do not function reliably in higher order reasoning. These unconscious reasoning processes are now widely known as heuristics and biases . Each type is briefly explained below.

a. Formal Fallacies

Formal fallacies occur when the form of an argument is presumed or seems to be valid (whether intentionally or unintentionally) when it is not. Formal fallacies are usually invalid variations of valid argument forms. Consider, for example, the valid argument form modus ponens (this is one of the rules of inference mentioned in §3b):

modus ponens (valid argument form)

In modus ponens , we assume or “affirm” both the conditional and the left half of the conditional (called the antecedent ): (p à q) and p. From these, we can infer that q, the second half or consequent , is true. This a valid argument form: if the premises are true, the conclusion cannot be false.

Sometimes, however, we invert the conclusion and the second premise, affirming that the conditional, (p à q), and the right half of the conditional, q (the consequent), are true, and then inferring that the left half, p (the antecedent), is true. Note in the example below how the conclusion and second premise are switched. Switching them in this way creates a problem.

To get an intuitive sense of why “affirming the consequent” is a problem, consider this simple example:

affirming the consequent

  • It is a mammal.
  • Therefore, it is a cat.(?)

From the fact that something is a mammal, we cannot conclude that it is a cat. It may be a dog or a mouse or a whale. The premises can be true and yet the conclusion can still be false. Therefore, this is not a valid argument form. But since it is an easy mistake to make, it is included in the set of common formal fallacies.

Here is a second example with the rule of inference called modus tollens . Modus tollens involves affirming a conditional, (p à q), and denying that conditional’s consequent: ~q. From these two premises, we can validly infer the denial of the antecedent: ~p. But if we switch the conclusion and the second premise, we get another fallacy, called denying the antecedent .

Technically, all informal reasoning is formally fallacious—all informal arguments are invalid. Nevertheless, since those who offer inductive arguments rarely presume they are valid, we do not regard them as reasoning fallaciously.

b. Informal Fallacies

Informal fallacies occur when the meaning of the terms used in the premises of an argument suggest a conclusion that does not actually follow from them (the conclusion either follows weakly or with no strength at all). Consider an example of the informal fallacy of equivocation , in which a word with two distinct meanings is used in both of its meanings:

  • Any law can be repealed by Congress.
  • Gravity is a law.
  • Therefore, gravity can be repealed by Congress.

In this case, the argument’s premises are true when the word “law” is rightly interpreted, but the conclusion does not follow because the word law has a different referent in premise 1 (political laws) than in premise 2 (a law of nature). This argument equivocates on the meaning of law and is, therefore, fallacious.

Consider, also, the informal fallacy of ad hominem , abusive, when an arguer appeals to a person’s character as a reason to reject her proposition:

“Elizabeth argues that humans do not have souls; they are simply material beings. But Elizabeth is a terrible person and often talks down to children and the elderly. Therefore, she could not be right that humans do not have souls.”

The argument might look like this:

  • Elizabeth is a terrible person and often talks down to children and the elderly.
  • Therefore, Elizabeth is not right that humans do not have souls.

The conclusion does not follow because whether Elizabeth is a terrible person is irrelevant to the truth of the proposition that humans do not have souls. Elizabeth’s argument for this statement is relevant, but her character is not.

Another way to evaluate this fallacy is to note that, as the argument stands, it is an enthymeme (see §2); it is missing a crucial premise, namely: If anyone is a terrible person, that person makes false statements. But this premise is clearly false. There are many ways in which one can be a terrible person, and not all of them imply that someone makes false statements. (In fact, someone could be terrible precisely because they are viciously honest.) Once we fill in the missing premise, we see the argument is not cogent because at least one premise is false.

Importantly, we face a number of informal fallacies on a daily basis, and without the ability to recognize them, their regularity can make them seem legitimate. Here are three others that only scratch the surface:

Appeal to the People: We are often encouraged to believe or do something just because everyone else does. We are encouraged to believe what our political party believes, what the people in our churches or synagogues or mosques believe, what people in our family believe, and so on. We are encouraged to buy things because they are “bestsellers” (lots of people buy them). But the fact that lots of people believe or do something is not, on its own, a reason to believe or do what they do.

Tu Quoque (You, too!): We are often discouraged from pursuing a conclusion or action if our own beliefs or actions are inconsistent with them. For instance, if someone attempts to argue that everyone should stop smoking, but that person smokes, their argument is often given less weight: “Well, you smoke! Why should everyone else quit?” But the fact that someone believes or does something inconsistent with what they advocate does not, by itself, discredit the argument. Hypocrites may have very strong arguments despite their personal inconsistencies.

Base Rate Neglect: It is easy to look at what happens after we do something or enact a policy and conclude that the act or policy caused those effects. Consider a law reducing speed limits from 75 mph to 55 mph in order to reduce highway accidents. And, in fact, in the three years after the reduction, highway accidents dropped 30%! This seems like a direct effect of the reduction. However, this is not the whole story. Imagine you looked back at the three years prior to the law and discovered that accidents had dropped 30% over that time, too. If that happened, it might not actually be the law that caused the reduction in accidents. The law did not change the trend in accident reduction. If we only look at the evidence after the law, we are neglecting the rate at which the event occurred without the law. The base rate of an event is the rate that the event occurs without the potential cause under consideration. To take another example, imagine you start taking cold medicine, and your cold goes away in a week. Did the cold medicine cause your cold to go away? That depends on how long colds normally last and when you took the medicine. In order to determine whether a potential cause had the effect you suspect, do not neglect to compare its putative effects with the effects observed without that cause.

For more on formal and informal fallacies and over 200 different types with examples, see “ Fallacies .”

c. Heuristics and Biases

In the 1960s, psychologists began to suspect there is more to human reasoning than conscious inference. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky confirmed these suspicions with their discoveries that many of the standard assumptions about how humans reason in practice are unjustified. In fact, humans regularly violate these standard assumptions, the most significant for philosophers and economists being that humans are fairly good at calculating the costs and benefits of their behavior; that is, they naturally reason according to the dictates of Expected Utility Theory. Kahneman and Tversky showed that, in practice, reasoning is affected by many non-rational influences, such as the wording used to frame scenarios (framing bias) and information most vividly available to them (the availability heuristic).

Consider the difference in your belief about the likelihood of getting robbed before and after seeing a news report about a recent robbery, or the difference in your belief about whether you will be bitten by a shark the week before and after Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week.” For most of us, we are likely to regard their likelihood as higher after we have seen these things on television than before. Objectively, they are no more or less likely to happen regardless of our seeing them on television, but we perceive they are more likely because their possibility is more vivid to us. These are examples of the availability heuristic.

Since the 1960s, experimental psychologists and economists have conducted extensive research revealing dozens of these unconscious reasoning processes, including ordering bias , the representativeness heuristic , confirmation bias , attentional bias , and the anchoring effect . The field of behavioral economics, made popular by Dan Ariely (2008; 2010; 2012) and Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (2009), emerged from and contributes to heuristics and biases research and applies its insights to social and economic behaviors.

Ideally, recognizing and understanding these unconscious, non-rational reasoning processes will help us mitigate their undermining influence on our reasoning abilities (Gigerenzer, 2003). However, it is unclear whether we can simply choose to overcome them or whether we have to construct mechanisms that mitigate their influence (for instance, using double-blind experiments to prevent confirmation bias).

6. The Scope and Virtues of Good Reasoning

Whether the process of critical thinking is productive for reasoners—that is, whether it actually answers the questions they are interested in answering—often depends on a number of linguistic, psychological, and social factors. We encountered some of the linguistic factors in §1. In closing, let us consider some of the psychological and social factors that affect the success of applying the tools of critical thinking.

Not all psychological and social contexts are conducive for effective critical thinking. When reasoners are depressed or sad or otherwise emotionally overwhelmed, critical thinking can often be unproductive or counterproductive. For instance, if someone’s child has just died, it would be unproductive (not to mention cruel) to press the philosophical question of why a good God would permit innocents to suffer or whether the child might possibly have a soul that could persist beyond death. Other instances need not be so extreme to make the same point: your company’s holiday party (where most people would rather remain cordial and superficial) is probably not the most productive context in which to debate the president’s domestic policy or the morality of abortion.

The process of critical thinking is primarily about detecting truth, and truth may not always be of paramount value. In some cases, comfort or usefulness may take precedence over truth. The case of the loss of a child is a case where comfort seems to take precedence over truth. Similarly, consider the case of determining what the speed limit should be on interstate highways. Imagine we are trying to decide whether it is better to allow drivers to travel at 75 mph or to restrict them to 65. To be sure, there may be no fact of the matter as to which is morally better, and there may not be any difference in the rate of interstate deaths between states that set the limit at 65 and those that set it at 75. But given the nature of the law, a decision about which speed limit to set must be made. If there is no relevant difference between setting the limit at 65 and setting it at 75, critical thinking can only tell us that , not which speed limit to set. This shows that, in some cases, concern with truth gives way to practical or preferential concerns (for example, Should I make this decision on the basis of what will make citizens happy? Should I base it on whether I will receive more campaign contributions from the business community?). All of this suggests that critical thinking is most productive in contexts where participants are already interested in truth.

b. The Principle of Charity/Humility

Critical thinking is also most productive when people in the conversation regard themselves as fallible, subject to error, misinformation, and deception. The desire to be “right” has a powerful influence on our reasoning behavior. It is so strong that our minds bias us in favor of the beliefs we already hold even in the face of disconfirming evidence (a phenomenon known as “confirmation bias”). In his famous article, “The Ethics of Belief” (1878), W. K. Clifford notes that, “We feel much happier and more secure when we think we know precisely what to do, no matter what happens, than when we have lost our way and do not know where to turn. … It is the sense of power attached to a sense of knowing that makes men desirous of believing, and afraid of doubting” (2010: 354).

Nevertheless, when we are open to the possibility that we are wrong, that is, if we are humble about our conclusions and we interpret others charitably, we have a better chance at having rational beliefs in two senses. First, if we are genuinely willing to consider evidence that we are wrong—and we demonstrate that humility—then we are more likely to listen to others when they raise arguments against our beliefs. If we are certain we are right, there would be little reason to consider contrary evidence. But if we are willing to hear it, we may discover that we really are wrong and give up faulty beliefs for more reasonable ones.

Second, if we are willing to be charitable to arguments against our beliefs, then if our beliefs are unreasonable, we have an opportunity to see the ways in which they are unreasonable. On the other hand, if our beliefs are reasonable, then we can explain more effectively just how well they stand against the criticism. This is weakly analogous to competition in certain types of sporting events, such as basketball. If you only play teams that are far inferior to your own, you do not know how good your team really is. But if you can beat a well-respected team on fair terms, any confidence you have is justified.

c. The Principle of Caution

In our excitement over good arguments, it is easy to overextend our conclusions, that is, to infer statements that are not really warranted by our evidence. From an argument for a first, uncaused cause of the universe, it is tempting to infer the existence of a sophisticated deity such as that of the Judeo-Christian tradition. From an argument for the compatibilism of the free will necessary for moral responsibility and determinism, it is tempting to infer that we are actually morally responsible for our behaviors. From an argument for negative natural rights, it is tempting to infer that no violation of a natural right is justifiable. Therefore, it is prudent to continually check our conclusions to be sure they do not include more content than our premises allow us to infer.

Of course, the principle of caution must itself be used with caution. If applied too strictly, it may lead reasoners to suspend all belief, and refrain from interacting with one another and their world. This is not, strictly speaking, problematic; ancient skeptics, such as the Pyrrhonians, advocated suspending all judgments except those about appearances in hopes of experiencing tranquility. However, at least some judgments about the long-term benefits and harms seem indispensable even for tranquility, for instance, whether we should retaliate in self-defense against an attacker or whether we should try to help a loved one who is addicted to drugs or alcohol.

d. The Expansiveness of Critical Thinking

The importance of critical thinking cannot be overstated because its relevance extends into every area of life, from politics, to science, to religion, to ethics. Not only does critical thinking help us draw inferences for ourselves, it helps us identify and evaluate the assumptions behind statements, the moral implications of statements, and the ideologies to which some statements commit us. This can be a disquieting and difficult process because it forces us to wrestle with preconceptions that might not be accurate. Nevertheless, if the process is conducted well, it can open new opportunities for dialogue, sometimes called “critical spaces,” that allow people who might otherwise disagree to find beliefs in common from which to engage in a more productive conversation.

It is this possibility of creating critical spaces that allows philosophical approaches like Critical Theory to effectively challenge the way social, political, and philosophical debates are framed. For example, if a discussion about race or gender or sexuality or gender is framed in terms that, because of the origins those terms or the way they have functioned socially, alienate or disproportionately exclude certain members of the population, then critical space is necessary for being able to evaluate that framing so that a more productive dialogue can occur (see Foresman, Fosl, and Watson, 2010, ch. 10 for more on how critical thinking and Critical Theory can be mutually supportive).

e. Productivity and the Limits of Rationality

Despite the fact that critical thinking extends into every area of life, not every important aspect of our lives is easily or productively subjected to the tools of language and logic. Thinkers who are tempted to subject everything to the cold light of reason may discover they miss some of what is deeply enjoyable about living. The psychologist Abraham Maslow writes, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail” (1966: 16). But it is helpful to remember that language and logic are tools, not the projects themselves. Even formal reasoning systems depend on axioms that are not provable within their own systems (consider Euclidean geometry or Peano arithmetic). We must make some decisions about what beliefs to accept and how to live our lives on the basis of considerations outside of critical thinking.

Borrowing an example from William James (1896), consider the statement, “Religion X is true.” James says that, while some people find this statement interesting, and therefore, worth thinking critically about, others may not be able to consider the truth of the statement. For any particular religious tradition, we might not know enough about it to form a belief one way or the other, and even suspending judgment may be difficult, since it is not obvious what we are suspending judgment about.

If I say to you: ‘Be a theosophist or be a Mohammedan,’ it is probably a dead option, because for you neither hypothesis is likely to be alive. But if I say: ‘Be an agnostic or be a Christian,’ it is otherwise: trained as you are, each hypothesis makes some appeal, however small, to your belief (2010: 357).

Ignoring the circularity in his definition of “dead option,” James’s point seems to be that if you know nothing about a view or what statements it entails, no amount of logic or evidence could help you form a reasonable belief about that position.

We might criticize James at this point because his conclusion seems to imply that we have no duty to investigate dead options, that is, to discover if there is anything worth considering in them. If we are concerned with truth, the simple fact that we are not familiar with a proposition does not mean it is not true or potentially significant for us. But James’s argument is subtler than this criticism suggests. Even if you came to learn about a particularly foreign religious tradition, its tenets may be so contrary to your understanding of the world that you could not entertain them as possible beliefs of yours . For instance, you know perfectly well that, if some events had been different, Hitler would not have existed: his parents might have had no children, or his parents’ parents might have had no children. You know roughly what it would mean for Hitler not to have existed and the sort of events that could have made it true that he did not exist. But how much evidence would it take to convince you that, in fact, Hitler did not exist, that is, that your belief that Hitler did exist is false ? Could there be an argument strong enough? Not obviously. Since all the information we have about Hitler unequivocally points to his existence, any arguments against that belief would have to affect a very broad range of statements; they would have to be strong enough to make us skeptical of large parts of reality.

7. Approaches to Improving Reasoning through Critical Thinking

Recall that the goal of critical thinking is not just to study what makes reasons and statements good, but to help us improve our ability to reason, that is, to improve our ability to form, hold, and discard beliefs according to whether they meet the standards of good thinking. Some ways of approaching this latter goal are more effective than others. While the classical approach focuses on technical reasoning skills, the Paul/Elder model encourages us to think in terms of critical concepts, and irrationality approaches use empirical research on instances of poor reasoning to help us improve reasoning where it is least obvious we need it and where we need it most. Which approach or combination of approaches is most effective depends, as noted above, on the context and limits of critical thinking, but also on scientific evidence of their effectiveness. Those who teach critical thinking, of all people, should be engaged with the evidence relevant to determining which approaches are most effective.

a. Classical Approaches

The classic approach to critical thinking follows roughly the structure of this article: critical thinkers attempt to interpret statements or arguments clearly and charitably, and then they apply the tools of formal and informal logic and science, while carefully attempting to avoid fallacious inferences (see Weston, 2008; Walton, 2008; Watson and Arp, 2015). This approach requires spending extensive time learning and practicing technical reasoning strategies. It presupposes that reasoning is primarily a conscious activity, and that enhancing our skills in these areas will improve our ability to reason well in ordinary situations.

There are at least two concerns about this approach. First, it is highly time intensive relative to its payoff. Learning the terminology of systems like propositional and categorical logic and the names of the fallacies, and practicing applying these tools to hypothetical cases requires significant time and energy. And it is not obvious, given the problems with heuristics and biases, whether this practice alone makes us better reasoners in ordinary contexts. Second, many of the ways we reason poorly are not consciously accessible (recall the heuristics and biases discussion in §5c). Our biases, combined with the heuristics we rely on in ordinary situations, can only be detected in experimental settings, and addressing them requires restructuring the ways in which we engage with evidence (see Thaler and Sunstein, 2009).

b. The Paul/Elder Model

Richard Paul and Linda Elder (Paul and Elder, 2006; Paul, 2012) developed an alternative to the classical approach on the assumption that critical thinking is not something that is limited to academic study or to the discipline of philosophy. On their account, critical thinking is a broad set of conceptual skills and habits aimed at a set of standards that are widely regarded as virtues of thinking: clarity, accuracy, depth, fairness, and others. They define it simply as “the art of analyzing and evaluating thinking with a view to improving it” (2006: 4). Their approach, then, is to focus on the elements of thought and intellectual virtues that help us form beliefs that meet these standards.

The Paul/Elder model is made up of three sets of concepts: elements of thought, intellectual standards, and intellectual traits. In this model, we begin by identifying the features present in every act of thought. They use “thought” to mean critical thought aimed at forming beliefs, not just any act of thinking, musing, wishing, hoping, remembering. According to the model, every act of thought involves:

These comprise the subject matter of critical thinking; that is, they are what we are evaluating when we are thinking critically. We then engage with this subject matter by subjecting them to what Paul and Elder call universal intellectual standards. These are evaluative goals we should be aiming at with our thinking:

While in classical approaches, logic is the predominant means of thinking critically, in the Paul/Elder model, it is put on equal footing with eight other standards. Finally, Paul and Elder argue that it is helpful to approach the critical thinking process with a set of intellectual traits or virtues that dispose us to using elements and standards well.

To remind us that these are virtues of thought relevant to critical thinking, they use “intellectual” to distinguish these traits from their moral counterparts (moral integrity, moral courage, and so on).

The aim is that, as we become familiar with these three sets of concepts and apply them in everyday contexts, we become better at analyzing and evaluating statements and arguments in ordinary situations.

Like the classical approach, this approach presupposes that reasoning is primarily a conscious activity, and that enhancing our skills will improve our reasoning. This means that it still lacks the ability to address the empirical evidence that many of our reasoning errors cannot be consciously detected or corrected. It differs from the classical approach in that it gives the technical tools of logic a much less prominent role and places emphasis on a broader, and perhaps more intuitive, set of conceptual tools. Learning and learning to apply these concepts still requires a great deal of time and energy, though perhaps less than learning formal and informal logic. And these concepts are easy to translate into disciplines outside philosophy. Students of history, psychology, and economics can more easily recognize the relevance of asking questions about an author’s point of view and assumptions than perhaps determining whether the author is making a deductive or inductive argument. The question, then, is whether this approach improves our ability to think better than the classical approach.

c. Other Approaches

A third approach that is becoming popular is to focus on the ways we commonly reason poorly and then attempt to correct them. This can be called the Rationality Approach , and it takes seriously the empirical evidence (§5c) that many of our errors in reasoning are not due to a lack of conscious competence with technical skills or misusing those skills, but are due to subconscious dispositions to ignore or dismiss relevant information or to rely on irrelevant information.

One way to pursue this approach is to focus on beliefs that are statistically rare or “weird.” These include beliefs of fringe groups, such as conspiracy theorists, religious extremists, paranormal psychologists, and proponents of New Age metaphysics (see Gilovich, 1992; Vaughn and Schick, 2010; Coady, 2012). If we recognize the sorts of tendencies that lead to these controversial beliefs, we might be able to recognize and avoid similar tendencies in our own reasoning about less extreme beliefs, such as beliefs about financial investing, how statistics are used to justify business decisions, and beliefs about which public policies to vote for.

Another way to pursue this approach is to focus directly on the research on error, those ordinary beliefs that psychologists and behavioral economists have discovered we reason poorly, and to explore ways of changing how we frame decisions about what to believe (see Nisbett and Ross, 1980; Gilovich, 1992; Ariely, 2008; Kahneman, 2011). For example, in one study, psychologists found that judges issue more convictions just before lunch and the end of the day than in the morning or just after lunch (Danzinger, et al., 2010). Given that dockets do not typically organize cases from less significant crimes to more significant crimes, this evidence suggests that something as irrelevant as hunger can bias judicial decisions. Even though hunger has nothing to do with the truth of a belief, knowing that it can affect how we evaluate a belief can help us avoid that effect. This study might suggest something as simple as that we should avoid being hungry when making important decisions. The more we learn ways in which our brains use irrelevant information, the better we can organize our reasoning to avoid these mistakes. For more on how decisions can be improved by restructuring our decisions, see Thaler and Sunstein, 2009.

A fourth approach is to take more seriously the role that language plays in our reasoning. Arguments involve complex patterns of expression, and we have already seen how vagueness and ambiguity can undermine good reasoning (§1). The pragma-dialectics approach (or pragma-dialectical theory) is the view that the quality of an argument is not solely or even primarily a matter of its logical structure, but is more fundamentally a matter of whether it is a form of reasonable discourse (Van Eemeren and Grootendorst, 1992). The proponents of this view contend that, “The study of argumentation should … be construed as a special branch of linguistic pragmatics in which descriptive and normative perspectives on argumentative discourse are methodically integrated” (Van Eemeren and Grootendorst, 1995: 130).

The pragma-dialectics approach is a highly technical approach that uses insights from speech act theory, H. P. Grice’s philosophy of language, and the study of discourse analysis. Its use, therefore, requires a great deal of background in philosophy and linguistics. It has an advantage over other approaches in that it highlights social and practical dimensions of arguments that other approaches largely ignore. For example, argument is often public ( external ), in that it creates an opportunity for opposition, which influences people’s motives and psychological attitudes toward their arguments. Argument is also social in that it is part of a discourse in which two or more people try to arrive at an agreement. Argument is also functional ; it aims at a resolution that can only be accommodated by addressing all the aspects of disagreement or anticipated disagreement, which can include public and social elements. Argument also has a rhetorical role ( dialectical ) in that it is aimed at actually convincing others, which may have different requirements than simply identifying the conditions under which they should be convinced.

These four approaches are not mutually exclusive. All of them presuppose, for example, the importance of inductive reasoning and scientific evidence. Their distinctions turn largely on which aspects of statements and arguments should take precedence in the critical thinking process and on what information will help us have better beliefs.

8. References and Further Reading

  • Ariely, Dan. 2008. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions. New York: Harper Perennial.
  • Ariely, Dan. 2010. The Upside of Irrationality. New York: Harper Perennial.
  • Ariely, Dan. 2012. The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty. New York: Harper Perennial.
  • Aristotle. 2002. Categories and De Interpretatione, J. L. Akrill, editor. Oxford: University of Oxford Press.
  • Clifford, W. K. 2010. “The Ethics of Belief.” In Nils Ch. Rauhut and Robert Bass, eds., Readings on the Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy, 3rd ed. Boston: Prentice Hall, 351-356.
  • Chomsky, Noam. 1957/2002. Syntactic Structures. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Coady, David. What To Believe Now: Applying Epistemology to Contemporary Issues. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
  • Danzinger, Shai, Jonathan Levav, and Liora Avnaim-Pesso. 2011. “Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Vol. 108, No. 17, 6889-6892. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1018033108.
  • Foresman, Galen, Peter Fosl, and Jamie Carlin Watson. 2017. The Critical Thinking Toolkit. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Fogelin, Robert J. and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. 2009. Understanding Arguments: An Introduction to Informal Logic, 8th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
  • Gigerenzer, Gerd. 2003. Calculated Risks: How To Know When Numbers Deceive You. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Gigerenzer, Gerd, Peter Todd, and the ABC Research Group. 2000. Simple Heuristics that Make Us Smart. Oxford University Press.
  • Gilovich, Thomas. 1992. How We Know What Isn’t So. New York: Free Press.
  • James, William. “The Will to Believe”, in Nils Ch. Rauhut and Robert Bass, eds., Readings on the Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy, 3rd ed. Boston: Prentice Hall, 2010, 356-364.
  • Kahneman, Daniel. 2011. Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
  • Lewis, David. 1986. On the Plurality of Worlds. Oxford Blackwell.
  • Lipton, Peter. 2004. Inference to the Best Explanation, 2nd ed. London: Routledge.
  • Maslow, Abraham. 1966. The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Mill, John Stuart. 2011. A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Nisbett, Richard and Lee Ross. 1980. Human Inference: Strategies and Shortcomings of Social Judgment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Paul, Richard. 2012. Critical Thinking: What Every Person Needs to Survive in a Rapidly Changing World. Tomales, CA: The Foundation for Critical Thinking.
  • Paul, Richard and Linda Elder. 2006. The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, 4th ed. Tomales, CA: The Foundation for Critical Thinking.
  • Plantinga, Alvin. 1974. The Nature of Necessity. Oxford Clarendon.
  • Prior, Arthur. 1957. Time and Modality. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Prior, Arthur. 1967. Past, Present and Future. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Prior, Arthur. 1968. Papers on Time and Tense. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Quine, W. V. O. and J. S. Ullian. 1978. The Web of Belief, 2nd ed. McGraw-Hill.
  • Russell, Bertrand. 1940/1996. An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth, 2nd ed. London: Routledge.
  • Thaler, Richard and Cass Sunstein. 2009. Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New York: Penguin Books.
  • van Eemeren, Frans H. and Rob Grootendorst. 1992. Argumentation, Communication, and Fallacies: A Pragma-Dialectical Perspective. London: Routledge.
  • van Eemeren, Frans H. and Rob Grootendorst. 1995. “The Pragma-Dialectical Approach to Fallacies.” In Hans V. Hansen and Robert C. Pinto, eds. Fallacies: Classical and Contemporary Readings. Penn State University Press, 130-144.
  • Vaughn, Lewis and Theodore Schick. 2010. How To Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age, 6th ed. McGraw-Hill.
  • Walton, Douglas. 2008. Informal Logic: A Pragmatic Approach, 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Watson, Jamie Carlin and Robert Arp. 2015. Critical Thinking: An Introduction to Reasoning Well, 2nd ed. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Weston, Anthony. 2008. A Rulebook for Arguments, 4th ed. Indianapolis: Hackett.
  • Zadeh, Lofti. 1965. “Fuzzy Sets and Systems.” In J. Fox, ed., System Theory. Brooklyn, NY: Polytechnic Press, 29-39.

Author Information

Jamie Carlin Watson Email: [email protected] University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences U. S. A.

An encyclopedia of philosophy articles written by professional philosophers.

Why Critical Thinking Is Important (& How to Improve It)

Last updated May 1, 2023. Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC . Written by Deane Alban .

By improving the quality of your thoughts and your decisions, better critical thinking skills can bring about a big positive change in your life. Learn how.

The quality of your life largely depends on the quality of the decisions you make.

Amazingly, the average person makes roughly 35,000 conscious decisions every day! 

Imagine how much better your life would be if there were a way to make better decisions, day in and day out?

Well, there is and you do it by boosting a skill called critical thinking .

Learning to master critical thinking can have a profoundly positive impact on nearly every aspect of your life.

What Exactly Is Critical Thinking?

The first documented account of critical thinking is the teachings of Socrates as recorded by Plato. 

Over time, the definition of critical thinking has evolved.

Most definitions of critical thinking are fairly complex and best understood by philosophy majors or psychologists.

For example, the Foundation for Critical Thinking , a nonprofit think tank, offers this definition:

“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.”

If that makes your head spin, here are some definitions that you may relate to more easily.

Critical thinking is “reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do.”


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Or, a catchy way of defining critical thinking is “deciding what’s true and what you should do.”

But my favorite uber-simple definition is that critical thinking is simply “thinking about thinking.”

6 Major Benefits of Good Critical Thinking Skills

Whether or not you think critically can make the difference between success and failure in just about every area of your life.

Our human brains are imperfect and prone to irrationality, distortions, prejudices, and cognitive biases .

Cognitive biases are systematic patterns of irrational thinking.

While the number of cognitive biases varies depending on the source, Wikipedia, for example, lists nearly 200 of them ! 

Some of the most well-known cognitive biases include:

  • catastrophic thinking
  • confirmation bias
  • fear of missing out (FOMO)

Critical thinking will help you move past the limitations of irrational thinking.

Here are some of the most important ways critical thinking can impact your life.

1. Critical Thinking Is a Key to Career Success

There are many professions where critical thinking is an absolute must.

Lawyers, analysts, accountants, doctors, engineers, reporters, and scientists of all kinds must apply critical thinking frequently.

But critical thinking is a skill set that is becoming increasingly valuable in a growing number of professions.

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Critical thinking can help you in any profession where you must:

  • analyze information
  • systematically solve problems
  • generate innovative solutions
  • plan strategically
  • think creatively
  • present your work or ideas to others in a way that can be readily understood

And, as we enter the fourth industrial revolution , critical thinking has become one of the most sought-after skills.

chart showing the increase in demand for enterprise skills

According to the World Economic Forum , critical thinking and complex problem-solving are the two top in-demand skills that employers look for. 

Critical thinking is considered a soft or enterprise skill — a core attribute required to succeed in the workplace . 


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According to The University of Arizona, other soft skills include : 

  • interpersonal skills
  • communication skills
  • digital literacy

Critical thinking can help you develop the rest of these soft skills.

Developing your critical thinking can help you land a job since many employers will ask you interview questions or even give you a test to determine how well you can think critically.

It can also help you continually succeed in your career, since being a critical thinker is a powerful predictor of long-term success.

2. Critical Thinkers Make Better Decisions

Every day you make thousands of decisions.

Most of them are made by your subconscious , are not very important, and don’t require much thought, such as what to wear or what to have for lunch. 

But the most important decisions you make can be hard and require a lot of thought, such as when or if you should change jobs, relocate to a new city, buy a house, get married, or have kids.

At work, you may have to make decisions that can alter the course of your career or the lives of others.

Critical thinking helps you cope with everyday problems as they arise.

It promotes independent thinking and strengthens your inner “BS detector.”

It helps you make sense of the glut of data and information available, making you a smarter consumer who is less likely to fall for advertising hype, peer pressure, or scams.

3. Critical Thinking Can Make You Happier

Knowing and understanding yourself is an underappreciated path to happiness. 

We’ve already shown how your quality of life largely depends on the quality of your decisions, but equally as important is the quality of your thoughts.

Critical thinking is an excellent tool to help you better understand yourself and to learn to master your thoughts.

You can use critical thinking to free yourself from cognitive biases, negative thinking , and limiting beliefs that are holding you back in any area of your life.

Critical thinking can help you assess your strengths and weaknesses so that you know what you have to offer others and where you could use improvement.

Critical thinking will enable you to better express your thoughts, ideas, and beliefs.

Better communication helps others to understand you better, resulting in less frustration for both of you.

Critical thinking fosters creativity and out-of-the-box thinking that can be applied to any area of your life.

It gives you a process you can rely on, making decisions less stressful.

4. Critical Thinking Ensures That Your Opinions Are Well-Informed

We have access to more information than ever before .

Astoundingly, more data has been created in the past two years than in the entire previous history of mankind. 

Critical thinking can help you sort through the noise.

American politician, sociologist, and diplomat Daniel Patrick Moynihan once remarked , “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” 

Critical thinking ensures your opinions are well-informed and based on the best available facts.

You’ll get a boost in confidence when you see that those around you trust your well-considered opinions.

5. Critical Thinking Improves Relationships

You might be concerned that critical thinking will turn you into a Spock-like character who is not very good at relationships.

But, in fact, the opposite is true.

Employing critical thinking makes you more open-minded and better able to understand others’ points of view.

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Critical thinkers are more empathetic and in a better position to get along with different kinds of people.

Critical thinking keeps you from jumping to conclusions.

You can be counted on to be the voice of reason when arguments get heated.

You’ll be better able to detect when others:

  • are being disingenuous
  • don’t have your best interests at heart
  • try to take advantage of or manipulate you

6. Critical Thinking Makes You a Better, More Informed Citizen

“An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”

This quote has been incorrectly attributed to Thomas Jefferson , but regardless of the source, these words of wisdom are more relevant than ever. 

Critical thinkers are able to see both sides of any issue and are more likely to generate bipartisan solutions.

They are less likely to be swayed by propaganda or get swept up in mass hysteria.

They are in a better position to spot fake news when they see it.

5 Steps to Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills

Some people already have well-developed critical thinking skills.

These people are analytical, inquisitive, and open to new ideas.

And, even though they are confident in their own opinions, they seek the truth, even if it proves their existing ideas to be wrong.

They are able to connect the dots between ideas and detect inconsistencies in others’ thinking.

But regardless of the state of your critical thinking skills today, it’s a skill set you can develop.

While there are many techniques for thinking rationally, here’s a classic 5-step critical thinking process . 

How to Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills

Clearly define your question or problem.

This step is so important that Albert Einstein famously quipped:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Gather Information to Help You Weigh the Options

Consider only the most useful and reliable information from the most reputable sources.

Disregard the rest.

Apply the Information and Ask Critical Questions

Scrutinize all information carefully with a skeptic’s eye.

Not sure what questions to ask?

You can’t go wrong starting with the “5 Ws” that any good investigator asks: Who? What? Where? When? Why?

Then finish by asking “How?”

You’ll find more thought-provoking questions on this Critical Thinking Skills Cheatsheet .

Consider the Implications

Look for potential unintended consequences.

Do a thought experiment about how your solution could play out in both the short term and the long run.

Explore the Full Spectrum of Viewpoints

Examine why others are drawn to differing points of view.

This will help you objectively evaluate your own viewpoint.

You may find critical thinkers who take an opposing view and this can help you find gaps in your own logic.

Watch the Video

This TED-Ed video on YouTube elaborates on the five steps to improve your critical thinking.

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  • Improve your mental clarity and focus.
  • Boost your memory and your ability to learn.
  • Increase your capacity to think critically, solve problems, and make decisions.

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Philosophy Behind Critical Thinking: A Concise Overview

Philosophy Behind Critical Thinking

The philosophy behind critical thinking delves into the deeper understanding of what it means to think critically and to develop the ability to reason, analyze, and evaluate information in a structured and systematic manner. Critical thinking has intricate connections with philosophy, mainly because it originated from ancient philosophical teachings. At its core, the concept of critical thinking is rooted in the Socratic method of questioning, which emphasizes the importance of inquiry and rational thinking as a means to achieve knowledge.

what is the significance of critical thinking

Understanding critical thinking necessitates exploring the various philosophical groundings, which delves into epistemology, the branch of philosophy that deals with knowledge, truth, and belief. Epistemological theories help elucidate different approaches to critical thinking, such as the psychological approach, focusing on cognitive processes, and the cultural and social context approach, emphasizing the importance of context in shaping critical thought. In the realm of education, the role of critical thinking cannot be understated, as it is a vital component of teaching and learning, shaping the way individuals process and interpret information and develop intellectually.

Key Takeaways

  • Critical thinking is deeply rooted in ancient philosophical teachings, particularly the Socratic method of questioning.
  • Different philosophical groundings provide varying approaches to critical thinking, such as psychological and cultural/social context approaches.
  • The importance of critical thinking in education is paramount, as it shapes how individuals process, interpret, and develop intellectually.

Understanding Critical Thinking

Definition and Process

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe. It involves engaging in reflective and independent thinking . To understand the logical connections between ideas, one needs to identify, construct, and evaluate arguments.

Logic, Reason, Rationality

Logic, reason, and rationality are essential components of critical thinking. Logic refers to the systematic approach to reasoning and validating claims through principles and rules. Reasoning, on the other hand, is the process of drawing conclusions based on logic, evidence, and assumptions. Rationality encompasses the use of logic and reason to make well-informed decisions, judgments, and evaluations.

Strategies and Patterns

To develop critical thinking skills, individuals must employ various strategies and recognize patterns in their thinking. Some common strategies include:

  • Analysis : Breaking down complex problems, data, or texts into simpler parts to understand what they mean and explain the implications to others.
  • Interpretation : Making sense of information and grasping its relevance in a given context.
  • Inference : Drawing reasonable conclusions based on available evidence and logic.
  • Evaluation : Assessing the credibility and validity of claims, arguments, or sources of information.

Recognizing patterns in thinking involves identifying common errors, biases, and other factors that might hinder critical thinking and refining one’s thought process accordingly.

Justification and Argumentation

Justification and argumentation play a crucial role in critical thinking. Justification refers to providing reasons or evidence in support of a claim, while argumentation involves constructing and evaluating arguments . Both justification and argumentation require logical reasoning, analysis of evidence, and clear communication of ideas.

Clarity and Reflection

Clarity is essential for effective critical thinking. This entails expressing ideas and arguments in a clear, concise, and organized manner. Furthermore, critical thinkers must also engage in reflection — the process of examining their own thought processes, assumptions, and biases. Reflecting on one’s beliefs and values helps individuals refine their thinking and develop a more nuanced understanding of the world around them.

In conclusion, understanding critical thinking involves exploring its definition, process, and key components, such as logic, reason, rationality, strategies, patterns, justification, argumentation, clarity, and reflection. By cultivating a strong foundation in these areas, individuals can develop their ability to think critically and make well-informed decisions in various aspects of life.

Psychological Approach to Critical Thinking

what is the significance of critical thinking

Cognition and Pattern Recognition

The psychological approach to critical thinking emphasizes the role of cognition and pattern recognition in the process. Cognitive psychologists recognize that our minds have a natural ability to identify patterns and relationships in the information we encounter. This involves categorizing, comparing, and evaluating various pieces of information. By developing cognitive skills, individuals can more effectively analyze and evaluate complex arguments, ultimately fostering their critical thinking abilities.

Bias and Judgments

Another aspect of the psychological approach to critical thinking is the examination of biases and judgments. Bias refers to the systematic errors or distortions in human reasoning that can arise from emotions, beliefs, or external factors. When individuals possess a strong bias, it can impede their ability to think critically and accurately evaluate information. By being aware of these biases and actively seeking to minimize their influence, one can improve their critical thinking skills and make more accurate judgments.

Problem-Solving and Decision-Making

Finally, the psychological approach to critical thinking also emphasizes the importance of problem-solving and decision-making abilities. Effective problem-solving is accomplished by identifying the problem, gathering and evaluating relevant information, and formulating potential solutions. Strong decision-making skills involve comparing potential solutions and selecting the most effective one based on logical reasoning and evidence.

In conclusion, the psychological approach to critical thinking focuses on fostering cognitive skills, identifying and minimizing biases, and developing strong problem-solving and decision-making abilities. By enhancing these aspects, individuals can become more effective critical thinkers and make well-informed decisions throughout their lives.

Philosophical Groundings

Roots of critical thought.

The roots of critical thought can be traced back to ancient Greek philosophy, particularly the ideas developed by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. In their teachings, these philosophers emphasized the importance of questioning and examining beliefs, seeking evidence, and evaluating arguments logically. Through these pursuits, they laid a strong foundation for the development of critical thinking in modern times.

Major Philosophers and Approaches

Several major philosophers and their approaches have significantly contributed to the evolution of critical thinking. Among them, Socrates’ method of inquiry, known as the Socratic Method, involves continuous questioning and probing for deeper understanding. Plato, a student of Socrates, focused on the power of dialectical reasoning, urging individuals to engage in dialogue and debate to examine their own beliefs and the beliefs of others.

Aristotle contributed to critical thinking by emphasizing the importance of logic and coherent reasoning to gain knowledge. He also explored rhetoric, expounding on its role in persuasive argumentation. In more recent times, figures such as John Dewey and Karl Marx have provided insights into the role of critical thinking in education and social transformation.

Informal Logic and its Importance

Informal logic plays a crucial role in critical thinking as it concerns the principles and methods used to analyze everyday arguments and reasoning beyond the scope of formal logic. It complements formal logic, which deals strictly with logical systems and symbols. Informal logic helps individuals assess the validity, soundness, and context of arguments encountered in daily life. By honing their skills in informal logic, individuals can become better critical thinkers and more adept at navigating complex situations and decision-making processes.

Through the teachings of philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates, as well as the application of informal logic and logical reasoning, the concept of critical thinking has evolved into an essential aspect of learning and decision-making in modern society. Embracing these foundational elements can empower individuals to develop the skills necessary to think critically and effectively in various aspects of life.

Critical Thinking in Cultural and Social Context

Race and gender perspectives.

Critical thinking is a universal skill that transcends cultural and social boundaries. However, it is essential to consider the impact of race and gender on the development and exercise of critical thinking skills. People from marginalized groups may experience unique challenges and perspectives that influence their critical thinking abilities. For example, in a cross-cultural study examining critical thinking among nurse scholars in Thailand and the United States, distinctive perspectives on critical thinking were observed due to cultural differences. Understanding the intersections of race, gender, and critical thinking can help create more inclusive education and workplace environments that foster critical thinking for everyone.

Critical Thinking in a Democratic Society

In a democratic society, critical thinking plays a crucial role in informed decision-making, civic engagement, and open discussion. The healthy functioning of a democracy relies on the citizens’ capacity to discern reliable information, assess arguments, and make rational choices. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , critical thinking includes abilities and dispositions that lead individuals to think critically when appropriate. Developing these skills allows members of democratic societies to engage in productive debates, evaluate policies, and hold leaders accountable.

Culture, Society, and Critical Thinking

Cultural backgrounds and societal norms can significantly impact how individuals approach critical thinking. Different cultures may emphasize various ways of thinking, problem-solving, and expressing ideas. As a result, critical thinking can manifest differently across cultures, often influenced by aspects such as language, traditions, and values. A study discussing critical thinking in its historical and social contexts highlights the importance of considering cultural influences when evaluating and teaching critical thinking.

In summary, critical thinking is an essential skill across various cultural, racial, gender, and social contexts. By acknowledging these differences and understanding the significance of critical thinking in democratic societies, educators and societies can promote a more inclusive environment for cultivating critical thinking skills.

Role of Critical Thinking in Education

Aims of education.

The primary aim of education is to foster the development of individuals’ cognitive capabilities, empowering them to grow into confident, knowledgeable and discerning adults. Critical thinking plays a significant role in education as it helps students acquire and apply knowledge more effectively, by analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing information from diverse sources in a systematic manner, leading to more accurate and informed decisions.

In addition, critical thinking allows students to question existing knowledge and challenge conventional wisdom, thus avoiding indoctrination and promoting intellectual independence. This helps in nurturing open-minded and critical citizens who can contribute positively to society.

Skills Development

Critical thinking involves a variety of skills and abilities that are essential for students’ personal and professional success. These include problem-solving, decision making, logical reasoning, and effective communication, among others. By teaching these skills in the classroom, educators enable learners to confront complex issues and dilemmas with confidence and clarity, fostering their cognitive, social, and emotional growth.

Classroom activities focused on critical thinking are essential to help students develop a systematic approach to problem-solving and sharpen their analytical skills. Practical tasks, like debates, group discussions, case studies, or role plays, can be employed to engage students in active learning, thus enhancing their critical thought processes.

Standardized Tests vs. Critical Thought

While standardized tests have dominated the contemporary education system, there is growing concern regarding their effectiveness in promoting critical thinking. Some argue that standardized tests prioritize the acquisition of specific knowledge over the development of essential skills and abilities, leading to an education that is more focused on rote memorization than meaningful learning.

However, introducing critical thinking elements in the curriculum or classroom activities does not require a complete removal of standardized tests. Educators can strike a balance between knowledge acquisition and skill development by incorporating critical thinking exercises in conjunction with traditional assessments. In doing so, students can better prepare for life beyond the classroom, developing a mindset that values continuous learning, reflection, and intellectual curiosity.

Importance of Open-Mindedness and Skepticism

Being skeptical vs. being cynical.

It is essential to understand the difference between being skeptical and being cynical. Skepticism in critical thinking involves questioning assertions and assumptions, seeking evidence, and evaluating arguments from a neutral, objective viewpoint. On the other hand, cynicism is a distrustful attitude, where one assumes negative intentions or outcomes.

A critical thinker should strive to be skeptical rather than cynical. Approaching situations with skepticism allows for the exploration of different viewpoints and the willingness to change one’s mind based on new evidence, while cynicism can lead to the dismissal of valid arguments due to preconceived negative beliefs.

Traits of an Open-Minded Thinker

Open-mindedness is an essential trait for critical thinkers. Some key characteristics of an open-minded thinker include:

  • Cognitive flexibility : Adapting to and considering new information or perspectives.
  • Tolerance for ambiguity : Accepting the possibility that there may be multiple valid solutions or interpretations.
  • Willingness to change : Being open to revising beliefs and opinions when presented with strong evidence or arguments.

Being open-minded allows critical thinkers to explore various perspectives and ideas and to evaluate them fairly. This inclination towards cognitive flexibility helps in avoiding rigidity in thinking, enabling better decision-making and problem-solving.

Role of Curiosity and Empathy in Critical Thinking

Curiosity and empathy play crucial roles in effective critical thinking. A curious individual seeks knowledge and understanding, thus asking relevant questions and engaging in Socratic questioning. Socratic questioning is a method of probing and analyzing through questions to encourage self-reflection and deeper understanding. This technique fosters critical thinking by challenging assumptions and providing opportunities to explore diverse viewpoints.

Empathy, on the other hand, permits critical thinkers to comprehend and appreciate different perspectives by placing themselves in others’ shoes. An empathetic approach contributes to open-mindedness and cultivates a sense of humility, recognizing that individuals may hold contrasting opinions based on personal experiences or beliefs. The combination of curiosity and empathy enhances critical thinking by promoting a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of complex issues and scenarios.

In the realm of philosophy, critical thinking holds a prominent position. It is a process that revolves around using and assessing reasons to evaluate statements, assumptions, and arguments in ordinary situations. The ultimate goal of critical thinking is to foster good beliefs, aligning them with goals such as truth, usefulness, and rationality 1 .

John Dewey played a crucial role in shaping the concept of critical thinking by introducing it as an educational goal 2 . He connected it with a scientific attitude of mind, highlighting the importance of reflective thought in the process of critical thinking. This approach enhances one’s ability to understand and analyze situations, leading to informed and rational decisions.

Critical thinking equips individuals with the tools necessary to think carefully with clarity, depth, precision, accuracy, and logic 3 . It has applications across various domains, such as science, where great scientists like Albert Einstein have benefited from critical thinking skills to discover groundbreaking concepts.

In conclusion, the philosophy behind critical thinking emphasizes the importance of cultivating a rational and reflective mindset. As an essential skill for problem-solving and decision-making, critical thinking plays a vital role in developing well-rounded individuals ready to navigate the complexities of the world.

  • Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy ↩
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ↩
  • SlideShare ↩

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Nichols College

Critical Thinking & Why It’s So Important

Critical thinking is a cognitive skill with the power to unlock the full potential of your mind. In today’s rapidly evolving society, where information is abundant but discerning its validity is becoming increasingly challenging, the art of critical thinking has never been more crucial.

At Nichols College, we believe that cultivating strong critical thinking abilities is not just a pursuit for the academically inclined, but a fundamental necessity for individuals across all walks of life. Join us as we explore the significance of critical thinking and the remarkable impact it can have on your decision-making, problem-solving, and overall cognitive prowess.

Discover why our Graduate Certificate program in Advanced Critical Thinking and Decision Making is your gateway to becoming a perceptive and adept thinker, ready to tackle the complex challenges of today’s world with confidence and ingenuity.

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is a fundamental skill that allows individuals to analyze, evaluate, and interpret information objectively and rationally. It goes beyond merely accepting information at face value; instead, critical thinkers are equipped to delve deeper, question assumptions, and explore various perspectives before arriving at well-informed conclusions. This ability to think critically is highly valued across various domains, including education, business, and everyday life.

Benefits of using critical thinking

The countless advantages of critical thinking extend far beyond the realms of academia. For starters, critical thinking fosters superior decision-making by equipping individuals with the tools to weigh options, assess consequences, and arrive at better choices. Critical thinkers also benefit from heightened self-reflection, gaining a profound understanding of their own biases and areas for improvement.

Critical thinkers become well-informed individuals who can navigate the sea of information with discernment, adeptly identifying misinformation and unreliable sources. Furthermore, this invaluable skill enables creative problem-solving, allowing thinkers to craft innovative solutions to intricate challenges. Some of the most important benefits of using critical thinking include:

Better decision making

Critical thinkers excel at weighing pros and cons, considering alternatives, and anticipating potential consequences. This leads to more informed and effective decision-making processes, both in personal and professional realms.

Better self-reflection

By fostering a habit of introspection, critical thinkers become more self-aware, recognizing their own biases and limitations. This heightened self-awareness allows them to continually improve and adapt their thinking patterns.

Being well-informed

Critical thinkers actively seek out diverse sources of information, ensuring they have a comprehensive understanding of complex issues. This empowers them to engage in meaningful discussions and contribute constructively to their communities.

The ability to identify misinformation

In a world filled with misinformation, critical thinkers possess the skills to discern fact from fiction. They scrutinize sources, verify information, and avoid being misled by deceptive content.

Building creative problem solving skills

Critical thinking encourages innovative and outside-the-box problem-solving approaches. By considering multiple angles and challenging conventional ideas, critical thinkers arrive at inventive solutions to complex challenges.

What skills do critical thinkers have?

Critical thinkers possess a remarkable set of skills that elevate their cognitive abilities and enable them to approach complex issues with acuity. Embracing these skills empowers them to tackle challenges, unravel complexities, and make meaningful insights and well-informed decisions. Some of the most valuable skills critical thinkers have include:

Critical thinkers have a natural inclination to ask questions and explore topics in-depth. Their thirst for knowledge drives them to seek out answers and continually expand their understanding.

Proficient in conducting thorough research, critical thinkers gather information from reliable sources and assess its validity. They are skilled at distinguishing credible data from biased or unsubstantiated claims.

Pattern recognition

Critical thinkers recognize recurring patterns and connections between seemingly unrelated pieces of information. This allows them to draw meaningful insights and make well-founded predictions.

Bias identification

Having honed the ability to identify biases, critical thinkers remain open-minded and impartial in their assessments. They acknowledge their own biases and strive to approach each situation objectively.

How to use critical thinking skills in the workplace

In any work environment, critical thinking is a valuable asset that can enhance productivity and foster a more innovative and collaborative workplace. Employees with strong critical thinking skills contribute to problem-solving sessions, provide constructive feedback, and make informed decisions based on thorough analysis. By promoting critical thinking, organizations encourage employees to challenge assumptions, seek out novel solutions, and contribute to the overall growth and success of the company.

Examples of good critical thinking in action

The real-world application of critical thinking can be awe-inspiring, as it empowers individuals to approach various scenarios with astute judgment and creativity. In the business realm and with regard to project management, critical thinkers demonstrate their prowess by:

  • Analyzing Market Trends : A marketing professional employs critical thinking skills to assess market trends, consumer behavior, and competitor strategies before devising a successful marketing campaign that aligns with the target audience’s needs.
  • Problem-Solving in Project Management : A project manager utilizes critical thinking to identify potential roadblocks, consider alternative approaches, and ensure projects are executed efficiently and within budget.

Furthermore, critical thinkers shine in scientific research, meticulously evaluating data, and drawing evidence-based conclusions that contribute to groundbreaking discoveries. In everyday life, they navigate the digital landscape with discernment, identifying misinformation and making informed decisions about their health, finances, and general well-being. These examples illustrate the power of critical thinking to transform not only individual lives but also entire industries, making it an indispensable skill in the pursuit of success and progress.

Get a critical thinking graduate certificate from Nichols College

If you are eager to enhance your problem-solving abilities, decision-making processes, and overall cognitive skills, the Nichols College graduate certificate in critical thinking may be right for you. Designed to equip individuals with the necessary tools to excel in today’s complex world, this program will empower you to think critically, analyze data effectively, and approach challenges with creativity and confidence. Elevate your potential and join Nichols College in cultivating a new generation of sharp-minded leaders, ready to make a positive impact on the world. Enroll in the Advanced Critical Thinking and Decision Making certificate program today and unlock a brighter future for yourself and your community.

what is the significance of critical thinking

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Advice and resources to help you develop your critical voice.

Developing critical thinking skills is essential to your success at University and beyond.  We all need to be critical thinkers to help us navigate our way through an information-rich world. 

Whatever your discipline, you will engage with a wide variety of sources of information and evidence.  You will develop the skills to make judgements about this evidence to form your own views and to present your views clearly.

One of the most common types of feedback received by students is that their work is ‘too descriptive’.  This usually means that they have just stated what others have said and have not reflected critically on the material.  They have not evaluated the evidence and constructed an argument.

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is the art of making clear, reasoned judgements based on interpreting, understanding, applying and synthesising evidence gathered from observation, reading and experimentation. Burns, T., & Sinfield, S. (2016)  Essential Study Skills: The Complete Guide to Success at University (4th ed.) London: SAGE, p94.

Being critical does not just mean finding fault.  It means assessing evidence from a variety of sources and making reasoned conclusions.  As a result of your analysis you may decide that a particular piece of evidence is not robust, or that you disagree with the conclusion, but you should be able to state why you have come to this view and incorporate this into a bigger picture of the literature.

Being critical goes beyond describing what you have heard in lectures or what you have read.  It involves synthesising, analysing and evaluating what you have learned to develop your own argument or position.

Critical thinking is important in all subjects and disciplines – in science and engineering, as well as the arts and humanities.  The types of evidence used to develop arguments may be very different but the processes and techniques are similar.  Critical thinking is required for both undergraduate and postgraduate levels of study.

What, where, when, who, why, how?

Purposeful reading can help with critical thinking because it encourages you to read actively rather than passively.  When you read, ask yourself questions about what you are reading and make notes to record your views.  Ask questions like:

  • What is the main point of this paper/ article/ paragraph/ report/ blog?
  • Who wrote it?
  • Why was it written?
  • When was it written?
  • Has the context changed since it was written?
  • Is the evidence presented robust?
  • How did the authors come to their conclusions?
  • Do you agree with the conclusions?
  • What does this add to our knowledge?
  • Why is it useful?

Our web page covering Reading at university includes a handout to help you develop your own critical reading form and a suggested reading notes record sheet.  These resources will help you record your thoughts after you read, which will help you to construct your argument.  

Reading at university

Developing an argument

Being a university student is about learning how to think, not what to think.  Critical thinking shapes your own values and attitudes through a process of deliberating, debating and persuasion.   Through developing your critical thinking you can move on from simply disagreeing to constructively assessing alternatives by building on doubts.

There are several key stages involved in developing your ideas and constructing an argument.  You might like to use a form to help you think about the features of critical thinking and to break down the stages of developing your argument.

Features of critical thinking (pdf)

Features of critical thinking (Word rtf)

Our webpage on Academic writing includes a useful handout ‘Building an argument as you go’.

Academic writing

You should also consider the language you will use to introduce a range of viewpoints and to evaluate the various sources of evidence.  This will help your reader to follow your argument.  To get you started, the University of Manchester's Academic Phrasebank has a useful section on Being Critical . 

Academic Phrasebank

Developing your critical thinking

Set yourself some tasks to help develop your critical thinking skills.  Discuss material presented in lectures or from resource lists with your peers.  Set up a critical reading group or use an online discussion forum.  Think about a point you would like to make during discussions in tutorials and be prepared to back up your argument with evidence.

For more suggestions:

Developing your critical thinking - ideas (pdf)

Developing your critical thinking - ideas (Word rtf)

Published guides

For further advice and more detailed resources please see the Critical Thinking section of our list of published Study skills guides.

Study skills guides  

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Importance of critical thinking: 13 compelling reasons

Disela Dassanayake

Not in the mood to read the full article? Listen to the audio podcast episode below .

What does critical thinking mean to you? The ability to think critically is an important skill to have, but not everyone is good at it. Some people think critically in certain situations, but their thinking becomes muddy in other situations. What’s important is that we can all learn this skill, which will help us make sound decisions.

Today’s workplace emphasizes data-driven decision-making, which makes critical thinking a skill more important than ever. The skill, however, is also vital to your personal life. We’ll discuss the importance of critical thinking in everyday life in this article. 

 So, what is critical thinking? Critical thinking can be defined as the mental process of analyzing and evaluating ideas and drawing logical conclusions. Before you start to apply critical thinking skills, this article dives deeper into understanding the importance of critical thinking as a soft skill.

Table of Contents

Listen to the audio article.

“Why Is Critical Thinking Important?”; listen to the audio cast of the full article on Anchor podcasts.

The importance of Critical thinking explained

It is crucial to think critically in this day and age because so much information is available. To figure out what is true and isn’t, you need to think critically and process information.

Importance of critical thinking

When you think critically, you make healthy, informed decisions based on facts rather than faulty assumptions. Think about how often you’ve made a decision based on emotion or gut instinct alone. These types of decisions can lead to unhealthy lifestyles, dire financial situations, unsound investments, and much more. 

Success in your personal and professional life depends on strong critical thinking abilities. So how do you improve your critical thinking? Here are some ways that can help you become a better critical thinker. Collectively these reasons illustrate why this skill is so valuable in everyday situations. 

1. Overcoming negative thinking

Critical thinking is dependent on self-confidence. You cannot critically analyze anything if you don’t believe in yourself to make the best decisions. You have to be able to assess situations and make decisions based on your end goals. 

 Making progress will be difficult if you are constantly doubting yourself. Low self-confidence makes people make less optimal decisions since they don’t think they can achieve better results. 

Becoming more confident allows you to think more critically in order to make better decisions. In addition, it negates the negative thoughts we usually have when making a decision.

How to be a critical thinker

2. Getting over biases

The way people make decisions is influenced by cognitive biases. This is evident when people have to choose between two options. Usually, we believe we come to an evidence-based conclusion on our own since it feels more natural to us. However, it is possible that our personal bias overshadowed the facts and truth.

However, the choice of one decision over another may not have been based on any logical reasoning. Most of the time, we make critical decisions based on biases rather than what is most optimal under the given circumstances.

It is important to be able to gather information about an issue and analyze it critically in order to challenge our own beliefs. This involves looking at your information sources objectively and determining their biases. Also, verifying the reliability of those sources with sufficient proof without depending on the face value. 

Only by doing this can one form an informed opinion on an issue and effectively engage with others in meaningful dialogue about it.

3. Improving your decision-making

Our senses allow us to critically evaluate what we see, hear, feel, smell, and read. Our mental faculties get energized and work at their best when we think critically. Whenever something doesn’t add up or doesn’t seem right, a critical thinker wants to figure out why.

Better decision-making comes from this kind of analytical thinking combined with strategic thinking; it can make people more productive and decisive.

4. Self-reflection

This means looking inward and questioning one’s own motivations, values, and beliefs. It allows people to analyze their thoughts more deeply. Although it can be uncomfortable, it is essential for growth. Without self-reflection, we are at risk of becoming stuck in our ways and resistant to change.

5. Evaluating multiple options

Critical thinking can help you solve problems more efficiently by focusing on one thing at a time. When analyzing options, you need to analyze them individually. 

 For example, Suppose you want to pick up groceries today. In that case, you have to consider everything else you have scheduled for the day, the peak time at the grocery store, the best time to get fresh produce, the availability of parking, etc. So you compare the time slots available to get to the store with these variables.

6. Gathering information from multiple sources

Critical thinking allows you to approach problems rationally. As we discussed earlier, a critical thinker approaches problems differently from those who do not possess this skill, such as gathering all relevant information from several sources before deciding.

It requires creativity, curiosity, and open-mindedness, as we must be open to new ideas and willing to look beyond what we already know. By doing so, we can see what really matters and cut through the noise.

7. Improving your ability to manage emotions

Critical thinking can provide you with effective tools for managing your emotions. You can use the skill to deal with your emotions more effectively. If you know how your emotions influence how you process information, you can learn to control these impulses before they affect your decisions.

 The key to making smart decisions is taming your emotions. Consider getting an email from your favourite brand offering a 70% discount. Your first thought may be to at the store on your way home. When you think critically, you will first check to see if you actually need more clothes this month before buying any.  

 Let’s say you were thinking about buying a new jacket.  Next, you would see whether jackets are included in the promotion. If they are, you should quickly check if there is any budget left this month to spend on clothing. If not, you might consider waiting until the next promotion is available.

8. Boosting your creativity

It’s easy to take a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach when you don’t have all the facts. That leads to mistakes, wasted time, and lost opportunities. With critical thinking, you can separate your emotions from your decisions to make more accurate choices that are more likely to lead to successful outcomes. 

Critical thinking helps you to be creative and think in unconventional ways. That could be the reason why some tech companies hire philosophy majors for their product development teams.

9. Building your character

Critical thinking skills can help you build your personality. Therefore, we must train ourselves to think in a structured way in order to develop our critical thinking skills. Although this may seem counter-intuitive, it will improve our judgment and decision-making skills in the long run. 

A critical thinker analyzes information objectively and logically. This means considering all the evidence and forming an unbiased opinion. Consequently, you can become more open-minded and open to new solutions that may push you out of your comfort zone.

Critical thinking also helps sharpen our judgment. The more confident we are in our ability to make better decisions, the less likely we are to be swayed by others. This will make our lives more fulfilling.  

10. Expanding your mental capacity

It makes us smarter. We’re better at remembering information than people who don’t use critical thinking skills. We can learn new things faster when we use critical thinking.

Spending a little extra time on something helps us remember it long-term. Our mental faculties improve when we use more mental energy to evaluate and weigh different options for a problem or opportunity.

11. Breaking bigger problems into smaller ones

Breaking down larger problems into smaller ones requires critical thinking. When faced with a huge problem, it can be overwhelming to know where to begin. Taking a step back and assessing the situation critically can help you break it down into smaller pieces.

It will give you a better idea of what you’re up against and how to deal with it. Once you have a better grasp of the situation, you can start developing smaller solutions that will eventually lead to solving the larger problem.

12. Learning new things quicker

The process of critical thinking makes it easier to learn new things. It’s about looking at things differently and finding out what’s really going on. We can learn faster and better this way.

Let’s say you’re learning a new language. It will be challenging and time-consuming to just memorize the basic syntax. With critical thinking, you can break down the parts of speech into their sub-components and understand how it all fits together. Critical thinking enhances language learning ability.

It is generally considered a necessary skill when learning any scientific subject. The World Federation for Medical Education, for example, has listed critical thinking as one of the medical training standards .

13. Positively improving relationships

Many people view critical thinking as a cold, calculating process. However, it can actually be quite valuable in our personal relationships. By critically examining our beliefs and assumptions about others, we are more likely to become tolerant and understanding. 

As humans, we tend to view things through our own limited lenses. However, we can see things from a different perspective when we think critically.

This type of thinking and communication can help build strong relationships and resolve conflicts. Critical thinking can help us build more fulfilling relationships.

Critical thinking vs strategic thinking

A critical thinker is able to think clearly and rationally while understanding logical connections between ideas. They can evaluate arguments and data and make informed decisions. On the other hand, strategic thinking is the ability to see the big picture and understand how the pieces fit together. 

When you draw inferences from information, break down facts and ideas based on their merits, or analyze trends over time, that’s strategic thinking. In order to be successful, businesses need both critical and strategic thinkers. 

While critical thinkers provide detailed analysis to enable sound decisions, strategic thinkers help identify long-term opportunities and challenges. These two types of thinking can be combined to make better decisions that lead to long-term success.

Final thoughts

You can’t overemphasize the importance of critical thinking. It is vital that we develop critical thinking in the modern world since it is absolutely essential to both our personal and career growth. It helps us stop seeing people in conflict as adversaries and work together.

Making successful decisions requires critical thinking skills. It entails analyzing information objectively and logically, considering all evidence, and coming to an unbiased conclusion. 

It also helps build one’s character and promotes creativity. It increases mental capacity and promotes smart approaches. 

In addition, breaking down a bigger problem into smaller pieces and understanding how the pieces fit together require critical thinking. The knowledge economy is all about finding solutions to problems. That’s why businesses need critical thinkers to find creative solutions.

Related posts

Read about how strategic thinking helps you achieve your long-term goals.

Here are some useful tips to help you make better decisions

Disela Dassanayake

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Curtis Silver

The Importance of Logic and Critical Thinking

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"Critical thinking is a desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; and hatred for every kind of imposture." - Francis Bacon (1605)

As parents, we are tasked with instilling a plethora of different values into our children. While some parents in the world choose to instill a lack of values in their kids, those of us that don't want our children growing up to be criminals and various misfits try a bit harder. Values and morality are one piece of the pie. These are important things to mold into a child's mind, but there are also other items in life to focus on as well. It starts with looking both ways to cross the street and either progresses from there, or stops.

If you stopped explaining the world to your children after they learned to cross the street, then perhaps you should stop reading and go back to surfing for funny pictures of cats. I may use some larger words that you might not understand, making you angry and causing you to leave troll-like comments full of bad grammar and moronic thought processes. However, if you looked at the crossing the street issue as I did – as a logical problem with cause and effect and a probable solution – then carry on. You are my target audience.

Or perhaps the opposite is true, as the former are the people that could benefit from letting some critical thinking into their lives. So what exactly is critical thinking? This bit by Linda Elder in a paper on CriticalThinking.org pretty much sums it up:

Through critical thinking, as I understand it, we acquire a means of assessing and upgrading our ability to judge well. It enables us to go into virtually any situation and to figure out the logic of whatever is happening in that situation. It provides a way for us to learn from new experiences through the process of continual self-assessment. Critical thinking, then, enables us to form sound beliefs and judgments, and in doing so, provides us with a basis for a 'rational and reasonable' emotional life. — Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, Winter, 1996. Vol. XVI, No. 2.

The rationality of the world is what is at risk. Too many people are taken advantage of because of their lack of critical thinking, logic and deductive reasoning. These same people are raising children without these same skills, creating a whole new generation of clueless people.

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To wit, a personal tale of deductive reasoning:

Recently I needed a new transmission for the family van. The warranty on the power train covers the transmission up to 100,000 miles. The van has around 68,000 miles on it. Therefore, even the logic-less dimwit could easily figure that the transmission was covered. Well, this was true until the dealership told me that it wasn't, stating that because we didn't get the scheduled transmission service (which is basically a fluid change) at 30,000 and 60,000 miles the warranty was no longer valid. Now, there are many people that would argue this point, but many more that would shrug, panic, and accept the full cost of repairs.

I read the warranty book. I had a receipt that said the fluid was checked at 60,000 but not replaced. A friend on Twitter pointed out the fact that they were using 100,000 mile transmission fluid. So logically, the fluid would not have to be replaced under 100,000 miles if it wasn't needed, right? So why the stipulation that it needed to be replaced at 60,000 and the loose assumption that not doing that would void the warranty? So I asked the warranty guy to show me in the book where the two items are related. Where it explicitly says that if you don't get the service, the transmission isn't covered. There were portions where it said the service was recommended, but never connecting to actual repairs. Finally the warranty guy shrugged, admitted I was right and said the service was covered.

In this case, valid logic equaled truth and a sound argument. I used very simple reasoning and logic to determine that I was being inadvertently screwed. I say "inadvertently" because I truly believe based on their behavior that they were not intentionally trying to screw me. They believed the two items were related, they had had this argument many times before and were not prepared to be questioned. While both the service manager and the warranty guy seemed at least junior college educated, proving my argument to them took longer than it should have between three adults.

However, valid logic does not always guarantee truth or a sound argument. This is where it gets a little funky. Valid logic is when the structure of logic is correct in the way of syntax and semantics rather than truth. Truth comes from deductive reasoning of said logic. For example:

All transmissions are covered parts. All covered parts are free. Therefore, all transmissions are free. This logic is technically valid, and if the premises are true, then of course the conclusion must be true. You can see here however that it's not always true, though in some situations it could be. While the logic is valid, not all transmissions are free, only those covered by the warranty. So based on that, saying all transmissions are free is not sound logic.

To take it one step further:

All Daleks are brown. Some brown things are Cylons . Therefore, some Daleks are Cylons. Sci-fi fan or not, you probably know that this is not true. The basic lesson here is that, while the logic above might seem valid because of the structure of the statement, it takes a further understanding to figure out why it's not necessarily true: That is, based on the first two statements it's possible that some Daleks are Cylons, but it's not logically concludable. That's where deductive reasoning comes on top of the logic. The underlying lesson here is not to immediately assume everything you read or are told is true, something all children need to and should learn.

This is the direct lesson that needs to be passed on to our children: that of not accepting the immediately visible logic. While not all problems are complex enough to require the scientific method, some of them need some deduction to determine if they are true. Take the example above — how many kids would immediately be satisfied with the false conclusion? Sure, it's a bit geeky with the examples, but switch out bears for Daleks and puppies for Cylons. That makes it easier, and takes the actual research out of it (to find out what Daleks and Cylons are respectively) but many people would just accept that in fact some bears are puppies, if presented with this problem in the context of a textbook or word problem.

Maybe I'm being paranoid or thinking too doomsday, whatever, but I think this is an epidemic. Children are becoming lazier and not as self sufficient because their parents have a problem with watching a three year old cry after they tell her to remove her own jeans, or ask her to put away her own toys (yes, organizational logic falls under the main topic). These are the same parents who do their kid's science project while the kid is playing video games. These kids grow up lacking the simple problem solving skills that make navigating life much easier. Remember when you were growing up and you had the plastic stacking toys ? Well, instead of toys for early development like that, parents are just plopping their kids down in front of the television. While there is some educational type programming on television, it's just not the same as hands-on experience.

My father is an engineer, and he taught me logic and reasoning by making me solve simple, then complex, problems on my own. Or at least giving me the opportunity to solve them on my own. This helped develop critical thinking and problem solving skills, something a lot of children lack these days. Too often I see children that are not allowed to solve problems on their own; instead their parents simply do it for them without argument or discussion. Hell, I am surrounded by adults every day that are unable to solve simple problems, instead choosing to immediately ask me at which point I have to fill the role that their parents never did and – knowing the solution – tell them to solve it themselves, or at least try first.

One of the things I like to work on with my kids is math. There is nothing that teaches deductive reasoning and logic better than math word problems. They are at the age where basic algebra can come into play, which sharpens their reasoning skills because they start to view real world issues with algebraic solutions. Another thing is logic puzzles , crossword puzzles and first person shooters. Actually, not that last one. That's just the reward.

Since I weeded out the folks that don't teach their kids logic in the first two paragraphs, as representatives of the real world it's up to the rest of us to spread the knowledge. It won't be easy. The best thing we can do is teach these thought processes to our children, so that they may look at other children with looks of bewilderment when other children are unable to solve simple tasks. Hopefully, they will not simply do the task for them, but teach them to think. I'm not saying we need to build a whole new generation of project managers and analysts, but it would be better than a generation of task-oriented mindless office drones with untied shoelaces, shoving on a door at the Midvale School for the Gifted .

h/t to @aubreygirl22 for the logical conversation. Image: Flickr user William Notowidagdo. Used under Creative Commons License.

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The Importance of Critical Thinking, For Students and Ourselves

A group of students sit at a table discussing the importance of critical thinking

Critical thinking is a vital skill, yet it’s often neglected. In higher education, we know the importance of learning objectives that let us measure learner success. Starting with a clear definition of critical thinking allows us to identify the associated skills that we want to imbue in our students and ourselves.

Defining Critical Thinking

According to the Oxford Languages dictionary , critical thinking is “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.” It sounds relatively simple, yet we often form judgments without that all-important objective analysis/evaluation piece.

Employers on the Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) Social Sciences Advisory Board tell us that they want to hire people with critical thinking skills, but applicants often lack this ability. According to Professor of Science Dr. Norman Herr , critical thinking skills can be boiled down to the following key sequential elements:

  • Identification of premises and conclusions — Break arguments down into logical statements
  • Clarification of arguments — Identify ambiguity in these stated assertions
  • Establishment of facts — Search for contradictions to determine if an argument or theory is complete and reasonable
  • Evaluation of logic — Use inductive or deductive reasoning to decide if conclusions drawn are adequately supported
  • Final evaluation — Weigh the arguments against the evidence presented

As educators, we must teach our students those critical thinking skills and practice them ourselves to objectively analyze an onslaught of information. Ideas, especially plausible-sounding philosophies, should be challenged and pass the credibility litmus test.

Red Flag Alert

The School Library Journal lists four types of information that should raise red flags when we’re watching the news, reading social media, or at any point in our everyday lives when we are confronted with something purported to be “fact:”

  • Fake news, which refers to purported news that is demonstrably untrue.
  • Misinformation, which is spread by those who don’t realize that it’s false or only partially true.
  • Disinformation, which is deliberately spread by people who know that it’s not accurate and who want to spread a false message.
  • Propaganda, which is information that is spread with a specific agenda. It may or may not be false, but it’s intended to get an emotional reaction.

Get With the Times

SNHU, and other colleges and universities across the U.S., must use updated tools to help their students think critically about the information they consume. Currently, many institutions of higher learning fail to teach students how to identify misinformation sources. Sam Wineburg and Nadiv Ziv , professors of education at Stanford University, argue that many colleges offer guides to evaluating website trustworthiness, but far too many of them base their advice on a 1998 report on assessing websites. They warn that it makes no sense for colleges to share 20-year-old advice on dealing with the rapidly-changing online landscape, where two decades feels like a century.

Further, as educators in institutions of higher education, we must afford learners as many opportunities as possible to hone their critical thinking skills when interacting with instructors and fellow students. Greg Lukianoff and Johnathan Haidt , authors of The Coddling of the American Mind , contend that “one of the most brilliant features of universities is that, when they are working properly, they are communities of scholars who cancel out one another’s confirmation biases .” Without exploring opposing viewpoints, students may fall prey to confirmation bias, further cementing ideas that they already believe to be true. Being inclusive when it comes to viewpoint diversity is indispensable for avoiding these echo chambers that circumvent having one’s ideas challenged.

Separating Wheat from Chaff: Critical Thinking Examples

As we teach our students the importance of critical thinking, how do we equip them to sift through the onslaught of information they encounter every day, both personally and in their educational pursuits? And how do we do the same for ourselves?

Here are four critical thinking examples that anyone can apply when evaluating information:

  • Consider whether the person who wrote or is sharing the information has any vested interest in doing so. For example, a writer may have a degree and professional experience that gives them expertise to write an article on specific communication techniques. Be aware that the writer’s credibility can be affected by outside interests. These include being paid to write a book with a certain viewpoint, giving paid seminars, affiliation with certain organizations or anything else that creates a financial or personal interest in promoting a specific perspective.
  • Consider the venue in which the person is sharing the information. Newscasts and newspapers once were slanted more toward neutrality, although there was never an era when bias was completely absent. The 19th century even had its own version of “clickbait” in the form of yellow journalism . Today, it’s getting more difficult for those with critical thinking skills to find unbiased sources. Websites like Towards Data Science publish lists rating major sites on their leanings; check these lists to view content on biased sites through a more skeptical lens, verifying their claims for yourself.
  • Read beyond clickbait headlines. Websites create headlines to generate traffic and ad revenue, not to support critical thinking or give accurate information. Too many people go by what the headline says without reading more deeply, even though media misrepresentation of studies is rampant . Often, the information contained within the article is not accurately represented in the headline. Sometimes there’s even a direct contradiction, or the publication is focusing on one single study that may mean nothing because other studies have contradictory results.
  • Use Snopes , Fact Check , and other fact-checking websites. Ironically, Snopes itself has been the victim of misinformation campaigns designed to discredit its efforts to promote the importance of critical thinking.

Anyone in a teaching position should point their students toward reliable references. For example, at SNHU, instructors can point their students towards the Shapiro Library for their assignments. No matter where you teach, the main objective is to give them opportunities to apply critical thinking skills by evaluating material that they encounter in everyday life. Another way to do this at SNHU or in any online classroom is by incorporating elements of the four points into your announcements, discussion posts and feedback. For example, you might post two articles with differing viewpoints on the week’s material. For each, break down the publication’s possible slant, the way in which any research-based material is presented and the author’s credentials. Hypothetically, ask students whether those factors might be playing into the opinions expressed.

Misinformation Morphs into Disinformation

Misinformation, if not addressed, easily turns into disinformation when it is readily shared by students, individuals and groups that may know it is wrong. They may continue to intentionally spread it to cast doubt or stir divisiveness. Students listen to their peers, and the more critical thinking is addressed in a course, the more we prepare students not to fall into the misinformation trap.

Courtney Brown and Sherrish Holland , of the Center for the Professional Education of Teachers, argue that for educators, the challenge is now far more about how they need to inform their students to interpret and assess the information they come across and not simply how to gain access to it. The term “fake news” is used to discredit anyone trying to clarify fact from fiction. Fake news is a cover for some people when they are being deliberately deceptive. As educators become clearer about the distinction, it can be better communicated to students.

Anyone Can Promote Critical Thinking

Even if you don’t teach, use those points in conversations to help others hone their critical thinking skills, along with a dose of emotional intelligence. If someone shares misinformation with you, don’t be combative. Instead, use probing statements and questions designed to spark their critical thinking.

Here are some examples:

“That’s very interesting. Do you think the person they’re quoting might be letting his business interests color what he’s saying?”

“I know that sometimes the media oversimplifies research. I wonder who funded that study and if that’s influencing what they’re saying.”

Of course, you need to adapt to the situation and to make what you say sound organic and conversational, but the core idea remains the same. Inspire the other person to use critical thinking skills. Give them reasons to look more deeply into the topic instead of blindly accepting information. Course activities that stimulate interaction and a deep dive into course-related ideas will encourage perspective-taking and foster new avenues of thought along the path to life-long learning. As American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.” While Mead was referring to younger children, this statement is apropos for learners in higher education who are tasked with dissecting volumes of information.

It’s crucial to teach our students to question what they read and hear. Jerry Baldasty , provost at the University of Washington, believes that democracies live and die by the ability of their people to access information and engage in robust discussions based upon facts. It is the facts that are being attacked by misinformation. The result is a growing distrust of our core societal institution. People have lost confidence in religious organizations, higher education, government and the media as they believe deliberately deceptive information they come across.

Baldasty argues, “this is why it is crucial that we educate our students how to think critically, access and analyze data, and, above all, question the answers.” Students need critical thinking skills for much more than their self-enlightenment. They will become our leaders, politicians, teachers, researchers, advocates, authors, business owners and perhaps most importantly, voters. The more we can imbue them with critical thinking skills, the better.

Dr Nickolas Dominello

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The Value of Critical Thinking in Nursing

portrait of Gayle Morris, BSN, MSN

Gayle Morris

Contributing Writer

Learn about our editorial process .

Updated October 3, 2023

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Some experts describe a person's ability to question belief systems, test previously held assumptions, and recognize ambiguity as evidence of critical thinking. Others identify specific skills that demonstrate critical thinking, such as the ability to identify problems and biases, infer and draw conclusions, and determine the relevance of information to a situation.

Nicholas McGowan, BSN, RN, CCRN, has been a critical care nurse for 10 years in neurological trauma nursing and cardiovascular and surgical intensive care. He defines critical thinking as "necessary for problem-solving and decision-making by healthcare providers. It is a process where people use a logical process to gather information and take purposeful action based on their evaluation."

"This cognitive process is vital for excellent patient outcomes because it requires that nurses make clinical decisions utilizing a variety of different lenses, such as fairness, ethics, and evidence-based practice," he says.

How Do Nurses Use Critical Thinking?

Successful nurses think beyond their assigned tasks to deliver excellent care for their patients. For example, a nurse might be tasked with changing a wound dressing, delivering medications, and monitoring vital signs during a shift. However, it requires critical thinking skills to understand how a difference in the wound may affect blood pressure and temperature and when those changes may require immediate medical intervention.

Nurses care for many patients during their shifts. Strong critical thinking skills are crucial when juggling various tasks so patient safety and care are not compromised.

Jenna Liphart Rhoads, Ph.D., RN, is a nurse educator with a clinical background in surgical-trauma adult critical care, where critical thinking and action were essential to the safety of her patients. She talks about examples of critical thinking in a healthcare environment, saying:

"Nurses must also critically think to determine which patient to see first, which medications to pass first, and the order in which to organize their day caring for patients. Patient conditions and environments are continually in flux, therefore nurses must constantly be evaluating and re-evaluating information they gather (assess) to keep their patients safe."

The COVID-19 pandemic created hospital care situations where critical thinking was essential. It was expected of the nurses on the general floor and in intensive care units. Crystal Slaughter is an advanced practice nurse in the intensive care unit (ICU) and a nurse educator. She observed critical thinking throughout the pandemic as she watched intensive care nurses test the boundaries of previously held beliefs and master providing excellent care while preserving resources.

"Nurses are at the patient's bedside and are often the first ones to detect issues. Then, the nurse needs to gather the appropriate subjective and objective data from the patient in order to frame a concise problem statement or question for the physician or advanced practice provider," she explains.

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Top 5 ways nurses can improve critical thinking skills.

We asked our experts for the top five strategies nurses can use to purposefully improve their critical thinking skills.

Case-Based Approach

Slaughter is a fan of the case-based approach to learning critical thinking skills.

In much the same way a detective would approach a mystery, she mentors her students to ask questions about the situation that help determine the information they have and the information they need. "What is going on? What information am I missing? Can I get that information? What does that information mean for the patient? How quickly do I need to act?"

Consider forming a group and working with a mentor who can guide you through case studies. This provides you with a learner-centered environment in which you can analyze data to reach conclusions and develop communication, analytical, and collaborative skills with your colleagues.

Practice Self-Reflection

Rhoads is an advocate for self-reflection. "Nurses should reflect upon what went well or did not go well in their workday and identify areas of improvement or situations in which they should have reached out for help." Self-reflection is a form of personal analysis to observe and evaluate situations and how you responded.

This gives you the opportunity to discover mistakes you may have made and to establish new behavior patterns that may help you make better decisions. You likely already do this. For example, after a disagreement or contentious meeting, you may go over the conversation in your head and think about ways you could have responded.

It's important to go through the decisions you made during your day and determine if you should have gotten more information before acting or if you could have asked better questions.

During self-reflection, you may try thinking about the problem in reverse. This may not give you an immediate answer, but can help you see the situation with fresh eyes and a new perspective. How would the outcome of the day be different if you planned the dressing change in reverse with the assumption you would find a wound infection? How does this information change your plan for the next dressing change?

Develop a Questioning Mind

McGowan has learned that "critical thinking is a self-driven process. It isn't something that can simply be taught. Rather, it is something that you practice and cultivate with experience. To develop critical thinking skills, you have to be curious and inquisitive."

To gain critical thinking skills, you must undergo a purposeful process of learning strategies and using them consistently so they become a habit. One of those strategies is developing a questioning mind. Meaningful questions lead to useful answers and are at the core of critical thinking .

However, learning to ask insightful questions is a skill you must develop. Faced with staff and nursing shortages , declining patient conditions, and a rising number of tasks to be completed, it may be difficult to do more than finish the task in front of you. Yet, questions drive active learning and train your brain to see the world differently and take nothing for granted.

It is easier to practice questioning in a non-stressful, quiet environment until it becomes a habit. Then, in the moment when your patient's care depends on your ability to ask the right questions, you can be ready to rise to the occasion.

Practice Self-Awareness in the Moment

Critical thinking in nursing requires self-awareness and being present in the moment. During a hectic shift, it is easy to lose focus as you struggle to finish every task needed for your patients. Passing medication, changing dressings, and hanging intravenous lines all while trying to assess your patient's mental and emotional status can affect your focus and how you manage stress as a nurse .

Staying present helps you to be proactive in your thinking and anticipate what might happen, such as bringing extra lubricant for a catheterization or extra gloves for a dressing change.

By staying present, you are also better able to practice active listening. This raises your assessment skills and gives you more information as a basis for your interventions and decisions.

Use a Process

As you are developing critical thinking skills, it can be helpful to use a process. For example:

  • Ask questions.
  • Gather information.
  • Implement a strategy.
  • Evaluate the results.
  • Consider another point of view.

These are the fundamental steps of the nursing process (assess, diagnose, plan, implement, evaluate). The last step will help you overcome one of the common problems of critical thinking in nursing — personal bias.

Common Critical Thinking Pitfalls in Nursing

Your brain uses a set of processes to make inferences about what's happening around you. In some cases, your unreliable biases can lead you down the wrong path. McGowan places personal biases at the top of his list of common pitfalls to critical thinking in nursing.

"We all form biases based on our own experiences. However, nurses have to learn to separate their own biases from each patient encounter to avoid making false assumptions that may interfere with their care," he says. Successful critical thinkers accept they have personal biases and learn to look out for them. Awareness of your biases is the first step to understanding if your personal bias is contributing to the wrong decision.

New nurses may be overwhelmed by the transition from academics to clinical practice, leading to a task-oriented mindset and a common new nurse mistake ; this conflicts with critical thinking skills.

"Consider a patient whose blood pressure is low but who also needs to take a blood pressure medication at a scheduled time. A task-oriented nurse may provide the medication without regard for the patient's blood pressure because medication administration is a task that must be completed," Slaughter says. "A nurse employing critical thinking skills would address the low blood pressure, review the patient's blood pressure history and trends, and potentially call the physician to discuss whether medication should be withheld."

Fear and pride may also stand in the way of developing critical thinking skills. Your belief system and worldview provide comfort and guidance, but this can impede your judgment when you are faced with an individual whose belief system or cultural practices are not the same as yours. Fear or pride may prevent you from pursuing a line of questioning that would benefit the patient. Nurses with strong critical thinking skills exhibit:

  • Learn from their mistakes and the mistakes of other nurses
  • Look forward to integrating changes that improve patient care
  • Treat each patient interaction as a part of a whole
  • Evaluate new events based on past knowledge and adjust decision-making as needed
  • Solve problems with their colleagues
  • Are self-confident
  • Acknowledge biases and seek to ensure these do not impact patient care

An Essential Skill for All Nurses

Critical thinking in nursing protects patient health and contributes to professional development and career advancement. Administrative and clinical nursing leaders are required to have strong critical thinking skills to be successful in their positions.

By using the strategies in this guide during your daily life and in your nursing role, you can intentionally improve your critical thinking abilities and be rewarded with better patient outcomes and potential career advancement.

Frequently Asked Questions About Critical Thinking in Nursing

How are critical thinking skills utilized in nursing practice.

Nursing practice utilizes critical thinking skills to provide the best care for patients. Often, the patient's cause of pain or health issue is not immediately clear. Nursing professionals need to use their knowledge to determine what might be causing distress, collect vital information, and make quick decisions on how best to handle the situation.

How does nursing school develop critical thinking skills?

Nursing school gives students the knowledge professional nurses use to make important healthcare decisions for their patients. Students learn about diseases, anatomy, and physiology, and how to improve the patient's overall well-being. Learners also participate in supervised clinical experiences, where they practice using their critical thinking skills to make decisions in professional settings.

Do only nurse managers use critical thinking?

Nurse managers certainly use critical thinking skills in their daily duties. But when working in a health setting, anyone giving care to patients uses their critical thinking skills. Everyone — including licensed practical nurses, registered nurses, and advanced nurse practitioners —needs to flex their critical thinking skills to make potentially life-saving decisions.

Meet Our Contributors

Portrait of Crystal Slaughter, DNP, APRN, ACNS-BC, CNE

Crystal Slaughter, DNP, APRN, ACNS-BC, CNE

Crystal Slaughter is a core faculty member in Walden University's RN-to-BSN program. She has worked as an advanced practice registered nurse with an intensivist/pulmonary service to provide care to hospitalized ICU patients and in inpatient palliative care. Slaughter's clinical interests lie in nursing education and evidence-based practice initiatives to promote improving patient care.

Portrait of Jenna Liphart Rhoads, Ph.D., RN

Jenna Liphart Rhoads, Ph.D., RN

Jenna Liphart Rhoads is a nurse educator and freelance author and editor. She earned a BSN from Saint Francis Medical Center College of Nursing and an MS in nursing education from Northern Illinois University. Rhoads earned a Ph.D. in education with a concentration in nursing education from Capella University where she researched the moderation effects of emotional intelligence on the relationship of stress and GPA in military veteran nursing students. Her clinical background includes surgical-trauma adult critical care, interventional radiology procedures, and conscious sedation in adult and pediatric populations.

Portrait of Nicholas McGowan, BSN, RN, CCRN

Nicholas McGowan, BSN, RN, CCRN

Nicholas McGowan is a critical care nurse with 10 years of experience in cardiovascular, surgical intensive care, and neurological trauma nursing. McGowan also has a background in education, leadership, and public speaking. He is an online learner who builds on his foundation of critical care nursing, which he uses directly at the bedside where he still practices. In addition, McGowan hosts an online course at Critical Care Academy where he helps nurses achieve critical care (CCRN) certification.

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