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12 common barriers to critical thinking (and how to overcome them).

As you know, critical thinking is a vital skill necessary for success in life and work. Unfortunately,  barriers to critical thinking  can hinder a person’s ability. This piece will discuss some of the most common  internal and external barriers to critical thinking  and what you should do if one of them hinders your ability to think critically.

Table of Contents

Critical Thinking Challenges

You already know that  critical thinking  is the process of analyzing and evaluating a situation or person so that you can make a sound judgment. You normally use the judgment you derive from your critical thinking process to make crucial decisions, and the choices you make affect you in workplaces, relationships, and life’s goals and achievements.

Several  barriers to critical thinking  can cause you to skew your judgment. This could happen even if you have a large amount of data and information to the contrary. The result might be that you make a poor or ineffective decision instead of a choice that could improve your life quality. These are some of the top obstacles that hinder and distort the ability to think critically:

1. Using Emotions Instead of Logic

Failing to remove one’s emotions from a critical thinking analysis is one of the hugest barriers to the process. People make these mistakes mainly in the relationship realm when choosing partners based on how they “make them feel” instead of the information collected.

The correct way to decide about a relationship is to use all facts, data, opinions, and situations to make a final judgment call. More times than not, individuals use their hearts instead of their minds.

Emotions can hinder critical thinking in the employment realm as well. One example is an employee who reacts negatively to a business decision, change, or process without gathering more information. The relationship between that person and the employer could become severed by her  lack of critical thinking  instead of being salvaged by further investigations and rational reactions.

2. Personal Biases

Personal biases can come from past negative experiences, skewed teachings, and peer pressure. They create a huge obstacle in critical thinking because they overshadow open-mindedness and fairness.

One example is failing to hire someone because of a specific race, age, religious preference, or perceived attitude. The hiring person circumvents using critical thinking by accepting his or her biases as truth. Thus, the entire processes of information gathering and objective analysis get lost in the mix.

3. Obstinance

Stubbornness almost always ruins the critical thinking procedure. Sometimes, people get so wrapped up in being right that they fail to look at the big picture. Big-picture thinking is a large part of critical thinking; without it, all judgments and choices are rash and incomplete.

4. Unbelief

It’s difficult for a person to do something he or she doesn’t believe in. It’s also challenging to engage in something that seems complex. Many people don’t think critically because they believe they must be scholarly to do so. The truth is that  anyone  can think critically by practicing the following steps:

  • 1. Gather as much data as possible.
  • 2. Have an opinion, but be open to changing it.
  • 3. Understand that assumptions are not the truth, and opinions are not facts.
  • 4. Think about the scenario, person, or problem from different angles.
  • 5. Evaluate all the information thoroughly.
  • 6. Ask simple, precise, and abundant questions.
  • 7. Take time to observe.
  • 8. Don’t be afraid to spend time on the problem or issue.
  • 9. Ask for input or additional information.
  • 10. Make it make sense.

5. Fear of Failure or Change

Fear of change and failure often hinders a person’s critical thinking process because it doesn’t allow thinking outside the box. Sometimes, the most efficient way to resolve a problem is to be open to changing something.

That change might be a different way of doing something, a relationship termination, or a shift of positions at a workplace. Fear can block out all possible scenarios in the critical thinking cycle. The result is often one-dimensional thinking, tunnel vision, or proverbial head-banging.

6. Egocentric Thinking

Egocentric thinking is also one of the main barriers to critical thinking. It occurs when a person examines everything through a “me” lens. Evaluating something properly requires an individual to understand and consider other people’s perspectives, plights, goals, input, etc.

7. Assumptions

Assumptions are one of the negative  factors that affect critical thinking . They are detrimental to the process because they cause distortions and misguided judgments. When using assumptions, an individual could unknowingly insert an invalid prejudgment into a stage of the thought process and sway the final decision.

It’s never wise to assume anything about a person, entity, or situation because it could be 100 percent wrong. The correct way to deal with assumptions is to store them in a separate thought category of possibilities and then use the data and other evidence to validate or nullify them.

XYZ  might  be why ABC happened, but there isn’t enough information or data to conclude it. The same concept is true for the rest of the possibilities, and thus, it’s necessary to research and analyze the facts before accepting them as truths.

8. Group Thinking

Group thinking is another one of the  barriers to critical thinking  that can block sound decisions and muddy judgments. It’s similar to peer pressure, where the person takes on the viewpoint of the people around him or her to avoid seeming “different.”

This barrier is dangerous because it affects how some people think about right and wrong. It’s most prevalent among teens. One example is the “everybody’s doing it (drugs, bullying), so I should too” mindset.

Unfortunately, this barrier can sometimes spill over into the workplace and darken the environment when workers can’t think for themselves. Workers may end up breaking policies, engaging in negative behavior, or harassing the workers who don’t conform.

Group thinking can also skew someone’s opinion of another person before the individual gets a chance to collect facts and evaluate the person for himself. You’ve probably heard of smear campaigns. They work so well against targets because the parties involved don’t use the critical thinking process at all.

9. Impulsivity

Impulsivity is the tendency to do things without thinking, and it’s a bona fide critical thinking killer. It skips right by  every  step in the critical thinking process and goes directly to what feels good in the moment.

Alleviating the habit takes practice and dedication. The first step is to set time aside when impulsive urges come to think about all aspects of the situation. It may take an impulsive person a while to develop a good critical thinking strategy, but it can work with time.

10. Not Knowing What’s Fact and Opinion

Critical thinking requires the thinker to know the difference between facts and opinions. Opinions are statements based on other people’s evaluative processes, and those processes may not be critical or analytical. Facts are an unemotional and unbiased piece of data that one can verify. Statistics and governmental texts are examples.

11. Having a Highly Competitive Nature

A “winning” mindset can overshadow the fair and objective evaluation of a problem, task, or person and undermine critical thinking. People who  think competitively  could lose sight of what’s right and wrong to meet a selfish goal that way.

12. Basing Statements on Popularity

This problem is prevalent in today’s world. Many people will accept anything a celebrity, political figure, or popular person says as gospel, but discredit or discount other people’s input. An adept critical thinker knows how to separate  what’s  being said from  who  said it and perform the necessary verification steps.

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How To Overcome Barriers in Critical Thinking

If you can identify any of the above-mentioned  barriers , your critical thinking may be flawed. These are some tips for overcoming such barriers:

1. Know your flaws.

The very first step toward improving anything is to know and admit your flaws. If you can do that, you are halfway to using better critical thinking strategies.

2. Park your emotions.

Use logic, not emotion, when you are evaluating something to form a judgment. It’s not the time to think with your heart.

3. Be mindful of others.

Try to put yourself in other people’s shoes to understand their stance. A little empathy goes a long way.

4. Avoid black-and-white thinking.

Understand that there’s always more than one way to solve a problem or achieve a goal. Additionally, consider that not every person is all bad or all good.

5. Dare to be unpopular.

Avoid making decisions to please other people. Instead, evaluate the full lot of information and make the decision you feel is best.

6. Don’t assign unjustified merit.

Don’t assume someone is telling the truth or giving you more accurate information because of his or her name or status. Evaluate  all  people’s input equally.

7. Avoid judging others.

Try to keep biases and prejudices out of your decision-making processes. That will make them fair and just.

8. Be patient with yourself.

Take all the days you need to pick apart a situation or problem and resolve it. Don’t rush to make hasty decisions.

9. Accept different points of view.

Not everyone will agree with you or tell you what you want to hear.

10. Embrace change.

Don’t ever be afraid of changing something or trying something new. Thinking outside the box is an integral part of the critical thinking process.

Now you know the answers to the question,  “What are the challenges of critical thinking?”  Use the information about the  barriers to critical thinking  to improve your critical thinking process and make healthier and more beneficial decisions for everyone.

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the obstacles to critical thinking have

10 Barriers to Critical Thinking & Tips to Overcome Them

students overcoming barriers to critical thinking

Critical thinking is an essential life skill, especially in an age where deceptions like “my truth” and “your truth” run rampant. 

It allows us to think our way through issues and arrive at effective solutions, and it is a skill that deserves the dedication it takes to hone it.

In some cases, there are invisible barriers to critical thinking that must first be broken down before progress can be made. 

Because it is so vitally important for our teens to develop such skills—to think for themselves in a world pressuring them to tow the line—I think it’s worth addressing potential obstacles in their way. 

Here are 10 common barriers to critical thinking that may reveal themselves as you seek to teach this vital skill. 

1. Lack of Practice

Considering what causes a lack of critical thinking , the word “practice” comes to mind. 

The phrase “practice makes progress” rings true when developing critical thinking skills .

Critical thinking may be discussed at length and encouraged theoretically, but is it expressed in the assignments or exercises our teens do on a daily basis?

Sadly, many assignments simply ask for regurgitated facts from a textbook that require little to no real thinking. 

If we want to see our students thrive in the realm of critical thinking, we need to provide them with opportunities to practice and apply what they’ve learned in real-life situations.

2. Perceived Inability to Teach It

The idea that you’re not capable of teaching such a thing may just become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

If you believe you can’t teach critical thinking, you may not even try. If you do try, you may be plagued by self-doubt that shakes your confidence. 

If you’ve ever thought …

“Why is critical thinking so difficult?”

You’re not alone.

It can be hard to plainly identify what critical thinking is and how to teach it. That’s one of the main reasons we created Philosophy Adventure —to provide an intriguing way to teach critical thinking effectively.

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3. Normalcy Bias

Normalcy bias is a subconscious response that falsely assures things will remain the same as they always were. 

Every type of bias works against critical thinking as it uses emotion to make decisions rather than rational thought rooted in truth.

This bias encourages our minds to ignore danger and new information in favor of maintaining the safety and security of our “regular” lives. 

For example, normalcy bias leads us to believe that freedom will always be free despite growing threats to quench it. 

Frankly, it’s a dangerous barrier to critical thinking with the potential for lasting consequences.

4. Group-Think

The group-think effect is a phenomenon where individuals conform to the beliefs of others in order to avoid appearing different. 

It can lead to mass conformity in which society grows blind to flaws in opinion-based reasoning. 

Why think for yourself when someone else can do it for you? It’s a sobering thought—and a major obstacle to critical thinking—but I fear it’s one that is sweeping the world.

This is an especially tough barrier for teenagers who are often desperate to be accepted and liked by their peers. 

Rather than relying on critical thinking to decipher between right and wrong, they may cave to peer pressure because “everyone else is doing it.”

This barrier is yet another poignant example of why it’s so important to help our children develop critical thinking skills.  

5. Distorted View of Truth

We’re also susceptible to having a distorted view of what is fact and what isn’t. If we’re not careful, our view of truth can be distorted by misleading opinions.

the obstacles to critical thinking have

Passionate people with deeply held beliefs are often willing to loudly defend them. 

Such passion and charisma can seduce teens and adults alike who may not fully know what they believe— or why they believe it . 

Of all the psychological obstacles to critical thinking, fear is a weighty one. 

I humbly suggest that it is the fear of failure or the fear of change that is most likely to act as a hindrance to critical thinking. 

Sometimes, when we look at an issue from every angle, we find that the only right reaction is to change. 

Likewise, if we fear failure, we’re likely to not act or try at all. 

And when it comes to trying to discern the truth in order to act upon it, not doing so can be far worse than the perceived failure itself. 

7. Viewing Everything Through the Lens of “Self”

Some people call it “egocentric thinking.” Whatever the name, it is the tendency to think about the world only as it relates to us. 

This self-centered thinking is natural, but there’s great value in training our minds to be able to view issues from another’s point of view. When problem-solving, it’s important to consider other perspectives.

This is particularly true when dealing with people who may be affected by our actions.

8. Past Experiences

Past experiences, relationships, even trauma can change us in a number of ways. 

What happened in the past surrounding any given thing most certainly influences how we think and feel about that thing in the future. 

But it’s important to recognize past experiences for what they are—a single moment (or period) of time.

They should not define our thoughts, nor should they dictate our actions as we seek to answer life’s questions objectively.  

Undoubtedly, it can be difficult to put such things in perspective so, and it calls for self-control, but it’s important to train our teens to try.  

Relying exclusively on the past to make decisions today can lead to negative outcomes as it relies on information that may not be true. 

9. Assumptions

Assumptions dampen our ability to learn. Though often flawed, assumptions quench our desire  to ask questions because we think we already know the answers. 

What a sad state to be stuck in because the truth is …

We don’t know what we don’t know.

How can we learn what we don’t know if we never root out the truth in a given matter?

Similarly, some people assume that because they don’t understand something, then it must be impossible to learn. 

That’s simply not true. We have an innate ability to learn new things, and critical thinking helps us do just that—with integrity.  

10. Time Constraints

There’s so much to learn in school that it can be hard to find the time to invest in critical thinking discussion and activities . 

This skill can often be moved to the side while teens learn about world history and how to write a proper essay—both of which are no doubt important. 

But I would argue that critical thinking gives students the foundation to not only better digest the material learned but to excel in it. 

How to Overcome Common Barriers to Critical Thinking 

We’ve established that critical thinking is an essential part of becoming a discerning adult, unmoved by news biases or passionate, emotional language. 

That being said, how do we break through the barriers that hinder critical thinking and move forward to teach such a significant skill?

You can help your students better develop their critical thinking skills by encouraging thoughtful questions and debate. 

When consuming news from around the world, inspire them to challenge their initial emotional reactions to the information presented. Teach them how to seek impartial data and use that to form an educated opinion. 

Providing real-world examples and connections between topics is a great way to encourage teens to think more deeply about a subject. 

Rather than presenting multiple choice answers or fill-in-the-blanks, ask them to talk through the question out loud based on the information they’ve been given.  

You can also try a fun exercise with these critical thinking questions for kids .

The ability to clearly vocalize beliefs and express thoughts is a priceless skill, and one that we have weaved into every lesson of Philosophy Adventure :

the obstacles to critical thinking have

will your children recognize truth?

Critical thinking is a learned skill that requires practice (and breaking down barriers when they arise). 

However, the ability to identify logical fallacies in arguments and recognize deception is well worth investing in. 

Recognizing potential barriers that are obstructing that end goal is a solid first step. 

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Break through these 5 common critical thinking barriers

Break through these 5 common critical thinking barriers

Can you think of the last time you made a decision? It was probably about one second ago, even though you may not have realized it.

Our days are filled with choices, from pressing the snooze button on the morning alarm to selecting what to eat for dinner. On average, adults make around 35,000 decisions a day . If you average 16 hours of waking time, that's almost 36 decisions per minute.

Most decisions are entirely unconscious, like whether or not to scratch an itch or having a knee-jerk reaction to the expression on your significant other's face. Others, though, require a more careful and critical examination.

Critical thinking is one of the most valuable skills we can possess in our personal and professional lives. It allows us to analyze information, make sound decisions, and solve problems. However, many people find it difficult to think critically.

This article will discuss what critical thinking is, why it's important, and how you can overcome common critical thinking barriers.

What is critical thinking?

The origin of critical thinking can be traced back thousands of years to the teaching practice of the Greek philosopher Socrates. After discovering that many people couldn't explain the truth of their statements, he encouraged people to ask questions that go deep into their thoughts before accepting them.

Socrates used open-ended questions to stimulate critical thinking and uncover assumptions, a process that bears his name today — Socratic Questioning. It’s grounded in the belief that thoughtful questioning allows the student to examine ideas logically and determine their validity.

Socrates' method of questioning set the stage for thoughtful reflection. Today, the Foundation for Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as "the art of analyzing and evaluating thinking to improve it." Unlike automatic or subconscious thought, thinking critically requires you to actively use intellectual tools to reach conclusions rather than relying on subconscious processes. This strengthens decision-making skills.

Critical thinking consists of two components:

  • A set of skills used to process information and beliefs
  • The act of consciously applying those skills as a guide for behavior

Each of these components is equally important during the critical thinking process.

What is the critical thinking process?

Critical thinking barriers: Steps on a wall

Critical thinkers evaluate evidence and analyze information before making a judgment. The process requires higher-order thinking skills such as sorting, analyzing, comparing data, and assessing logic and reason.

The critical thinking process consists of five primary elements :

  • Identify the claims. Organize arguments into basic statements and conclusions.
  • Clarify the arguments. Look for inconsistencies and ambiguities in statements.
  • Establish the facts. Verify whether the claims are reasonable, identify missing or omitted information, apply logic, and check for possible contradictions.
  • Evaluate the logic. Analyze whether the assumptions align with the conclusions.
  • Make the decision. Evaluate the argument using evidence, logic, and supporting data to increase the weight, contradictions, poor reasoning, or lack of evidence to decrease the weight.

Finding accuracy in ideas and challenging assumptions are essential parts of this process. Observing these two steps closely enables critical thinkers to form their own conclusions.

Why is it important to think critically?

Success in both business and life depends on the ability to think critically.

Human nature doesn't permit us to be completely objective. Instead, we each have our own viewpoints, close-mindedness, and social conditioning that influence our objective thinking capability. Everyone experiences distorted thinking and cognitive biases, leading to irrational thought processes. Critical thinking ability is necessary to overcome the limitations of irrational thinking.

Thinking critically is beneficial because it:

  • Promotes problem solving and innovation
  • Boosts creativity and curiosity
  • Encourages deeper self-reflection, self-assertion, and independence
  • Improves career opportunities
  • Builds objectivity and open-mindedness

Critical thinking isn't about reaching the "right" answer — it's about challenging the information you're given to make your own conclusions. When you can question details and think for yourself, you're less likely to be swayed by false claims, misleading arguments, and emotional manipulation.

5 common critical thinking barriers and how to break through them

It's possible to break through critical thinking barriers

The ability to think critically is essential to our personal and professional development. To become excellent critical thinkers, we must embrace a growth mindset — the idea that we can cultivate intelligence through learning and practice. This includes stepping out of our comfort zone to push our thinking patterns and checking in to correct ourselves as needed.

Very few of us can think critically without hitting a couple of roadblocks. These critical thinking barriers can come in many forms, including unwarranted assumptions, personal biases, egocentric thinking, and emotions that inhibit us from thinking clearly. By becoming aware of these common challenges and making a conscious effort to counter them, we can improve our critical thinking skills and learn to make better decisions.

Here are five of the most commonly encountered critical thinking barriers, how to spot them, and what you can do to overcome them.

1. Confirmation bias

What it is: Confirmation bias refers to the tendency to see new information as an affirmation of our existing beliefs and opinions. People with this bias disregard opposing points of view in favor of evidence that supports their position.

Why it occurs: Confirmation bias results from our emotional inclination to see the world from our perspective. Having quick reflexes keeps us safe, so we interpret information from our own perspective because it enables us to react instinctively . Another explanation is that our minds struggle with the parallel processing of two opposing arguments, so we only process the one we already believe because it’s easier.

How to overcome it: Confirmation bias may be the hardest bias to defeat . It’s difficult to not hold preconceived notions, but you can train your mind to think differently. Make an effort to be open-minded and look at situations from an alternative perspective. When we're aware of our own confirmation biases and diligently watch out for them, we can avoid favoring specific facts when evaluating arguments.

2. Self-serving bias

What it is : The self-serving bias concerns how we place attribution for results. An individual with this bias externalizes blame for any undesirable results, yet takes credit for success.

Why it occurs: Researchers have found that people with a self-serving bias make attributions based on their need to maintain a high level of self-esteem . Our minds fear losing confidence if we take responsibility for failure or negative outcomes.

How to overcome it: You can counteract self-serving bias by maintaining a growth mindset. To have a growth mindset, you must be able to admit your errors, examine personal biases, and learn to take criticism. To overcome a self-serving bias, practice self-compassion. Accepting your imperfections and being kind to yourself when you fall short of your goals can help you maintain confidence.

3. Normalcy bias

What it is: The normalcy bias arises from our instinctual need for safety. Using this bias, we tend to overlook new information and common sense so that nothing changes and we can continue to live our lives as usual.

Why it occurs: The normalcy bias is a protection mechanism, a form of denial. Usually active when facing a traumatic event, this bias shuts down the mind to protect us from things that are too painful or confusing to comprehend.

How to overcome it: Although it is the brain's attempt to protect us, the normalcy bias can be harmful — and even dangerous — if it keeps us from facing reality. The best way to overcome it is to face facts and truth head-on, no matter how difficult it may be.

4. Availability heuristic

What it is: The availability heuristic occurs when we rely on the first piece of information that comes to mind without weighing other possibilities, even when it may not be the best option. We assume that information that is more readily accessible is more likely to be true.

Why it occurs: This heuristic stems from the brain’s use of shortcuts to be efficient. It can be used in a wide variety of real-life situations to facilitate fast and accurate estimation.

How to overcome it: Some real-world scenarios (like probability estimations) can benefit from the availability bias, so it's neither possible nor advisable to eliminate it entirely. In the event of uncertainty, however, we must be aware of all relevant data when making judgments, not just that which comes readily to mind.

5. Sunk cost fallacy

What it is: The sunk cost fallacy arises from the instinctual need for commitment. We fall victim to this illusion when we continue doing something even if it's irrational, simply because we’ve already invested resources that we can’t get back.

Why it occurs: The sunk cost fallacy occurs when we’re affected by feelings of loss, guilt, or regret. These innate feelings are hard to overcome — research has found that even rats and mice struggle with sunk costs when pursuing a reward. Because of this tendency, when we feel like we've already put considerable effort into organizing our information and pursuing a result, we tell ourselves that we can’t waste it by changing course.

How to overcome it: Instead of dwelling on past commitments, pay attention to the present and future. Thinking with logical reasoning, in terms of concrete actions instead of feelings, is vital.

Be ABLE to think critically despite barriers

Thinking critically is an essential skill for self-learners . Making sound decisions starts with recognizing our critical thinking barriers. Practicing self-compassion and self-awareness are excellent ways to identify biases in your thinking. From there, you can begin working toward overcoming those obstacles. When you have no critical thinking barriers in your way, you can develop and strengthen the skills that will help you succeed.

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How to Identify and Remove Barriers to Critical Thinking

An illustration of an office worker jumping over a brick wall representing barriers to critical thinking.

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Contrary to popular belief, being intelligent or logical does not automatically make you a critical thinker.

People with high IQs are still prone to biases, complacency, overconfidence, and stereotyping that affect the quality of their thoughts and performance at work. But people who scored high in critical thinking —a reflection of sound analytical, problem-solving, and decision-making abilities—report having fewer negative experiences in and out of the office.

Top 5 Barriers to Critical Thinking

To learn how to think critically, you’ll need to identify and understand what prevents people from doing so in the first place. Catching yourself (and others) engaging in these critical thinking no-no’s can help prevent costly mistakes and improve your quality of life.

Here are five of the most common barriers to critical thinking.

Egocentric Thinking

Egoism, or viewing everything in relation to yourself, is a natural human tendency and a common barrier to critical thinking. It often leads to an inability to question one’s own beliefs, sympathize with others, or consider different perspectives.

Egocentricity is an inherent character flaw. Understand that, and you’ll gain the open-minded point of view required to assess situations outside your own lens of understanding.

Groupthink and Social Conditioning

Everyone wants to feel like they belong. It’s a basic survival instinct and psychological mechanism that ensures the survival of our species. Historically, humans banded together to survive in the wild against predators and each other. That desire to “fit in” persists today as groupthink, or the tendency to agree with the majority and suppress independent thoughts and actions.

Groupthink is a serious threat to diversity in that it supports social conditioning, or the idea that we should all adhere to a particular society or culture’s most “acceptable” behavior.

Overcoming groupthink and cultural conditioning requires the courage to break free from the crowd. It’s the only way to question popular thought, culturally embedded values, and belief systems in a detached and objective manner.

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Drone Mentality and Cognitive Fatigue

Turning on “autopilot” and going through the motions can lead to a lack of spatial awareness. This is known as drone mentality, and it’s not only detrimental to you, but those around you, as well.

Studies show that monotony and boredom are bad for mental health . Cognitive fatigue caused by long-term mental activity without appropriate stimulation, like an unchanging daily routine full of repetitive tasks, negatively impairs cognitive functioning and critical thinking .

Although you may be tempted to flip on autopilot when things get monotonous, as a critical thinker you need to challenge yourself to make new connections and find fresh ideas. Adopt different schools of thought. Keep both your learning and teaching methods exciting and innovative, and that will foster an environment of critical thinking.

The Logic Tree: The Ultimate Critical Thinking Framework


Personal Biases and Preferences

Everyone internalizes certain beliefs, opinions, and attitudes that manifest as personal biases. You may feel that you’re open minded, but these subconscious judgements are more common than most people realize. They can distort your thinking patterns and sway your decision making in the following ways:

  • Confirmation bias: favoring information that reinforces your existing viewpoints and beliefs
  • Anchoring bias: being overly influenced by the first piece of information you come across
  • False consensus effect: believing that most people share your perspective
  • Normalcy bias: assuming that things will stay the same despite significant changes to the status quo

The critical thinking process requires being aware of personal biases that affect your ability to rationally analyze a situation and make sound decisions.

Allostatic Overload

Research shows that persistent stress causes a phenomenon known as allostatic overload . It’s serious business, affecting your attention span, memory, mood, and even physical health.

When under pressure, your brain is forced to channel energy into the section responsible for processing necessary information at the expense of taking a rest. That’s why people experience memory lapses in fight-or-flight situations. Prolonged stress also reduces activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that handles executive tasks.

Avoiding cognitive impairments under pressure begins by remaining as calm and objective as possible. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a deep breath and slow your thoughts. Assume the role of a third-party observer. Analyze and evaluate what can be controlled instead of what can’t.

Train Your Mind Using the 9 Intellectual Standards

The bad news is that barriers to critical thinking can really sneak up on you and be difficult to overcome. But the good news is that anyone can learn to think critically with practice.

Unlike raw intelligence, which is largely determined by genetics , critical thinking can be mastered using nine teachable standards of thought:

  • Clarity: Is the information or task at hand easy to understand and free from obscurities?
  • Precision: Is it specific and detailed?
  • Accuracy: Is it correct, free from errors and distortions?
  • Relevance: Is it directly related to the matter at hand?
  • Depth: Does it consider all other variables, contexts, and situations?
  • Breadth: Is it comprehensive, and does it encompass other perspectives?
  • Logical: Does it contradict itself?
  • Significance: Is it important in the first place?
  • Fairness: Is it free from bias, deception, and self-interest?

When evaluating any task, situation, or piece of information, consider these intellectual standards to hone your critical thinking skills in a structured, practiced way. Keep it up, and eventually critical thinking will become second nature.

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Barriers to Critical Thinking & How To Unlock Your Mind’s Full Potential

Thinking critically is a skill that many people aim to perfect. It involves analyzing and evaluating an issue or situation deeply and objectively to form a judgment. It’s not just about solving problems but also about making decisions, understanding the connections between ideas, and even identifying, constructing, and evaluating arguments.

Critical thinking is not just beneficial; it’s necessary for our survival. We use critical thinking skills in our daily lives when making decisions – from what to have for breakfast to which route to take to work. It’s especially important in today’s world, where misinformation, disinformation, and biased information are rampant. Being able to critically assess the information we come across is key to making informed decisions.

What you will learn in this guide:

  • Understanding the Barriers: Dive into the obstacles that hinder our ability to think critically, from cognitive biases to emotional barriers, and even social influences.
  • Strategies to Overcome: Uncover various strategies to bypass these barriers and unlock your mind’s full potential.
  • Developing a Critical Thinking Mindset: Learn practical tips for developing a mindset that naturally gravitates towards critical thinking.

In this guide, we will delve deep into the barriers to critical thinking, the strategies to overcome them, and tips for developing a critical thinking mindset. Let’s get started on this journey towards unlocking your mind’s full potential.

Understanding Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is a term that gets thrown around a lot, but what does it really mean? At its core, critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking. In other words, it’s about being active, not passive, in your thought process.

Importance of Critical Thinking

Why is critical thinking so important? For starters, it helps us make better decisions. By analyzing and evaluating all the available information, we can make more informed and rational choices. It also helps us solve problems more effectively because we can identify and analyze the issue at hand, consider all possible solutions, and then select the most appropriate one. Additionally, critical thinking helps us understand and challenge our beliefs and assumptions, leading to personal growth and development . Ultimately, critical thinking is essential for improving ourselves and the world around us.

Key Components of Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is a multifaceted skill that involves several key components:

  • Analysis: This involves examining information in detail and breaking it down into its component parts to understand its structure and meaning.
  • Evaluation: This involves assessing the credibility and strength of the information and arguments presented.
  • Inference: This involves drawing conclusions from the information available, even when it is not explicitly stated.
  • Interpretation: This involves understanding and explaining the meaning of information or a particular situation.
  • Explanation: This involves stating the results of one’s reasoning and justifying that reasoning.

Common Barriers to Critical Thinking

Despite its importance, several barriers can hinder our ability to think critically.

Being aware of these barriers is the first step towards overcoming them.

Here are some common ones:

Cognitive Biases

Our brains are wired to take shortcuts, which often leads to cognitive biases. These are systematic patterns of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment.

Emotional Barriers

Emotions play a significant role in decision-making. However, they can also be a barrier to critical thinking. For example, if we feel strongly about a particular issue, we may ignore or dismiss information that contradicts our beliefs. It’s essential to be aware of our emotions and not let them cloud our judgment.

Intellectual Laziness

Thinking critically requires effort. It’s much easier to accept information at face value or go along with what everyone else is doing. However, this intellectual laziness can lead to poor decisions and a lack of personal growth.

Conformity and Groupthink

Humans are social creatures, and we often seek approval from others. This can lead to conformity and groupthink, where we go along with the group even if it goes against our judgment. This can stifle creativity and independent thought.

Assumptions and Overgeneralizations

We often make assumptions about people, situations, or information without having all the facts.

Similarly, we tend to overgeneralize from a single instance to a broader conclusion. These habits can lead to misunderstandings and faulty conclusions.

By being aware of these barriers and actively working to overcome them, we can improve our critical thinking skills and make better decisions.

The Impact of Barriers on Decision Making

Critical thinking is crucial for effective decision-making. It allows us to evaluate information objectively, consider different perspectives, and make well-informed decisions. However, the barriers to critical thinking can significantly impact our decisions.

The Role of Critical Thinking in Decision-Making

Critical thinking involves evaluating information and arguments in a balanced way. It means not just accepting everything we hear or read but questioning it, analyzing it, and determining its validity. This process helps us make decisions that are logical, well-thought-out, and less likely to be influenced by emotions or biases.

How Barriers to Critical Thinking Affect Decisions

The barriers to critical thinking, such as cognitive biases, emotional barriers, and intellectual laziness, can lead to poor decisions. Similarly, emotional barriers can cause us to make decisions based on our feelings rather than objective facts. For example, if we are angry at someone, we may make a decision to spite them rather than considering what is best for the situation.

Real-life Examples of the Impact of These Barriers

A classic example of the impact of barriers to critical thinking is the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. The decision-makers involved were victims of groupthink, a phenomenon where a group of people strive for consensus at the expense of critically evaluating alternative viewpoints. This led to a flawed decision-making process and, ultimately, a failed mission.

Another example is the financial crisis of 2008. Many financial experts and investors ignored warning signs and made decisions based on overconfidence and a lack of critical analysis. This led to disastrous consequences for the global economy.

By being aware of the barriers to critical thinking and actively working to overcome them, we can make better decisions in both our personal and professional lives.

Strategies to Overcome Barriers

To become better critical thinkers and make better decisions, it’s essential to recognize and overcome the barriers to critical thinking. Here are some strategies that can help:

Recognizing and Acknowledging Barriers

The first step in overcoming any barrier is to recognize and acknowledge its existence. This may involve some self-reflection and an honest assessment of our own thinking processes. For example,  are we making assumptions without questioning them?

Developing a Growth Mindset

A growth mindset is the belief that our abilities and intelligence can be developed with practice and effort. This mindset encourages us to view challenges as opportunities to learn and grow rather than obstacles to be avoided. By developing a growth mindset , we can become more open to new ideas and perspectives, which is essential for overcoming barriers to critical thinking.

Enhancing Self-Awareness and Emotional Intelligence

Self-awareness is the ability to recognize and understand our own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Emotional intelligence is the ability to manage and use our emotions in positive ways. By enhancing our self-awareness and emotional intelligence, we can become more aware of the emotional barriers that may be affecting our thinking and decision-making.

Practicing Mindfulness and Reflection

Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment without judgment. Reflection involves taking time to think about our thoughts, feelings, and actions. By practicing mindfulness and reflection, we can become more aware of our thought processes and identify any barriers that may be affecting our critical thinking.

Seeking Diverse Perspectives and Challenging Assumptions

Seeking out diverse perspectives and challenging our own assumptions is essential for overcoming barriers to critical thinking. This may involve actively seeking out people with different viewpoints, reading articles or books that challenge our existing beliefs, or engaging in debates or discussions that encourage us to think critically about our own assumptions.

By actively working to overcome these barriers, we can become better critical thinkers and make better decisions in our personal and professional lives.

Tips for Developing a Critical Thinking Mindset

Developing a critical thinking mindset is not just about overcoming barriers; it’s also about actively cultivating positive habits that encourage critical thinking. Here are some tips that can help you develop a critical thinking mindset:

Creating a Conducive Environment for Critical Thinking

Our environment plays a significant role in shaping our thinking. Create an environment that encourages critical thinking by surrounding yourself with intellectually stimulating materials, engaging in meaningful conversations, and minimizing distractions.

Regularly Engaging in Critical Thinking Exercises

Like any skill, critical thinking improves with practice. Regularly engage in exercises that challenge your thinking, such as solving puzzles, analyzing case studies, or debating controversial topics.

Adopting a Questioning Attitude

Adopt an attitude of curiosity and skepticism. Question everything, including your own assumptions and beliefs. Ask questions such as, “What is the evidence for this?” “Are there alternative explanations?” “What are the implications of this?”

Being Open to New Ideas and Perspectives

Being open-minded is essential for critical thinking. Actively seek out new ideas and perspectives, and be willing to change your mind when presented with compelling evidence.

Continually Seeking Self-Improvement

Critical thinking is a journey, not a destination. Continually seek to improve your thinking by seeking feedback, reflecting on your experiences, and actively working to overcome your biases and assumptions.

By actively cultivating a critical thinking mindset, you can improve your decision-making and problem-solving skills , both in your personal and professional life.

Final Thoughts

Overcoming the barriers to critical thinking is of utmost importance in today’s world, where we are constantly bombarded with information, misinformation, and disinformation. Developing a critical thinking mindset is not just about overcoming these barriers; it’s about actively cultivating a mindset that enables us to make better decisions, solve problems more effectively, and lead more fulfilling lives.

We encourage you to actively work on developing your critical thinking mindset by recognizing and acknowledging your barriers, developing a growth mindset, enhancing your self-awareness and emotional intelligence, practicing mindfulness and reflection, seeking diverse perspectives, and challenging your assumptions. Remember, critical thinking is a journey, not a destination, and it requires continuous effort and practice.

We hope that this article has provided you with valuable insights and practical tips for overcoming the barriers to critical thinking and developing a critical thinking mindset. We encourage you to apply the strategies and tips shared in this article to your daily life and to continually seek self-improvement.

Recap: Key Points Discussed in this Article

  • Understanding Critical Thinking: Critical thinking is the process of actively analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating information to make better decisions, solve problems, and understand the world around us.
  • Common Barriers to Critical Thinking: Cognitive biases, emotional barriers, intellectual laziness, conformity and groupthink, and assumptions and overgeneralizations are common barriers that hinder our ability to think critically.
  • The Impact of Barriers on Decision Making: Barriers to critical thinking affect our decisions by limiting our ability to accurately assess situations, consider alternative perspectives, and make well-informed choices.
  • Strategies to Overcome Barriers: Recognizing and acknowledging barriers, developing a growth mindset, enhancing self-awareness and emotional intelligence, practicing mindfulness and reflection, seeking diverse perspectives, and challenging assumptions are key strategies for overcoming barriers to critical thinking.
  • Tips for Developing a Critical Thinking Mindset: Creating a conducive environment for critical thinking, regularly engaging in critical thinking exercises, adopting a questioning attitude, being open to new ideas and perspectives, and continually seeking self-improvement are essential tips for developing a critical thinking mindset.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. If you have any questions or would like further guidance, please do not hesitate to reach out. Remember, the journey to developing a critical thinking mindset is a continuous one, and we are here to support you along the way.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Why is it so hard to overcome cognitive biases?

Cognitive biases are deeply ingrained mental shortcuts that our brains have developed over time to help us make quick decisions without having to analyze every piece of information consciously. These biases often operate in the background, without our conscious awareness, making them difficult to recognize and overcome. Additionally, acknowledging our biases requires a level of self-awareness and self-criticism that can be uncomfortable for many people.

How can I develop a growth mindset?

Developing a growth mindset involves recognizing and challenging your fixed mindset beliefs, embracing challenges, seeing efforts as a path to mastery, learning from criticism, and being inspired by others’ success. It’s essential to practice self-awareness, be open to feedback, and focus on self-improvement rather than comparing yourself to others.

Why is it important to seek diverse perspectives?

Seeking diverse perspectives is crucial for overcoming barriers to critical thinking because it helps us challenge our assumptions, consider alternative viewpoints, and avoid groupthink. It allows us to see the world from different angles, understand the complexities of a situation, and make better-informed decisions.

How can I practice mindfulness and reflection?

Practicing mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment without judgment. You can practice mindfulness through meditation, deep breathing exercises, or simply by being fully present in your daily activities. Reflection involves taking time to think about your thoughts, feelings, and actions, and considering how they affect your well-being and the people around you. You can practice reflection by keeping a journal, setting aside time for self-reflection, or engaging in activities that encourage introspection, such as reading or spending time in nature.

What are some examples of critical thinking exercises?

Some examples of critical thinking exercises include analyzing a piece of writing or a situation from different perspectives, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of an argument, solving complex problems that require creative thinking, and engaging in debates or discussions that encourage you to consider alternative viewpoints and challenge your assumptions.

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6 Steps to Beat Common Critical Thinking Barriers at Work

Why is critical thinking difficult, what are the 6 barriers to critical thinking, how to overcome critical thinking barriers as a manager, what are fallacies , what are critical thinking fallacies.

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  • It requires effort: Critical thinking requires a conscious effort to analyze information, evaluate arguments, and make logical and informed decisions. This can be mentally taxing and time-consuming.
  • It goes against intuition: Critical thinking often requires us to question our assumptions, beliefs, and biases and to consider alternative perspectives that may challenge our preconceived notions. This can be uncomfortable and may need us to change our thinking or behavior.
  • Emotions can influence it: Emotions can influence our thinking and decision-making, leading us to make biased or irrational judgments. Critical thinking requires us to recognize and regulate our emotions to ensure that our review is objective and rational.
  • It requires knowledge and skills: Critical thinking requires knowledge of the relevant subject matter and the ability to apply logical reasoning and analytical skills. Without these skills, it can be challenging to evaluate information and make informed decisions.
  • It can be affected by external factors: Critical thinking can be influenced by external factors such as social and cultural norms, group dynamics, and the media. These factors can create biases and limit our ability to think critically.

Confirmation bias

Emotional bias, limited knowledge or information, time constraints, social or cultural bias.

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  • Be aware of biases: Recognize and acknowledge your own preferences and assumptions. This will help you to evaluate information objectively and consider alternative perspectives.
  • Seek out diverse perspectives: Expose yourself to a variety of viewpoints and opinions. This can help you to challenge your own beliefs and assumptions and to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the subject matter.
  • Ask questions: Question everything, including your assumptions and the assumptions of others. Ask questions to clarify information, identify underlying assumptions, and evaluate arguments.
  • Analyze information: Take the time to analyze data and evaluate arguments. Use critical thinking skills, such as logic and reasoning, to assess the validity and reliability of the information.
  • Consider the context: Consider the context in which information is presented. Be aware of external factors that may influence your thinking, such as social and cultural norms, group dynamics, and the media.
  • Practice: Critical thinking is a skill that can be developed and improved with practice. Make a conscious effort to think critically in your daily life, whether it is at work, in your personal life, or in the media you consume.
  • Ad hominem fallacy: Attacking the character or personal traits of an individual rather than addressing the substance of their argument. For example, “I can’t believe anything he says; he’s a known liar.”
  • Appeal to authority fallacy: Supporting an idea with an authority figure rather than presenting evidence or logical reasoning. For example, “Dr. Smith says that this treatment is effective, so it must be true.”
  • False cause fallacy: Assuming that one event caused another simply because it happened before the second event. For example, “I wore my lucky socks, and we won the game, so my socks must have caused the win.”
  • Straw man fallacy: Misrepresenting an opponent’s argument to make it easier to attack. For example, “My opponent thinks we should do nothing about climate change, which is ridiculous.”
  • Slippery slope fallacy: Suggesting that one event will inevitably lead to a chain of events without presenting evidence or logical reasoning. For example, “If we allow gay marriage, next we’ll be allowing people to marry animals.”
  • False dichotomy fallacy: Presenting an argument as if there are only two options when in fact, there are more. For example, “Either you’re with us, or you’re against us.”
  • Hasty generalization fallacy: Making a generalization based on insufficient or unrepresentative evidence. For example, “I met one rude French person, so all French people must be rude.”
  • Red herring fallacy: Introducing an unrelated topic to distract from the main argument. For example, “I know my proposal is controversial, but what about all the good things I’ve done for this company?”
  • Post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy: Assuming that one event caused another simply because it happened after the first event. For example, “I took this pill, and then my cold went away, so the pill must have cured my cold.”
  • False analogy fallacy: Comparing two things that are not similar enough to support the conclusion drawn. For example, “Driving a car is like flying a plane, so if you can do one, you can do the other.

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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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Overcoming Obstacles to Critical Thinking

The ability to think critically will benefit students throughout their lives. Here are a few tips on how to get started teaching it.

A young boy stands thinking in front of a blackboard covered with question marks.

The ability to think critically is one skill separating innovators from followers. It combats the power of advertisers, unmasks the unscrupulous and pretentious, and exposes unsupported arguments. Students enjoy learning the skill because they immediately see how it gives them more control. Yet critical thinking is simple: It is merely the ability to understand why things are they way they are and to understand the potential consequences of actions.  

Devastating Consequences, Tremendous Opportunities

Young people—without significant life experience and anxious to fit in—are especially vulnerable to surface appeal. Sometimes that appeal actively discourages analysis, as is the case with the targeted advertising that affects buying and eating habits. Students may choose friends for the wrong reasons, leading to heartache. Later on, decisions about joining the military or pursuing another career or about becoming a parent will have indelible effects on their lives.

Every educator is in a position to teach students how to gather information, evaluate it, screen out distractions, and think for themselves. Because critical thinking is so important, some believe that every educator has the obligation to incorporate the application of critical thinking into his or her subject area. This helps students evaluate prepackaged conclusions and clears a path for original thoughts. Practicing critical thinking in the classroom may mean discussing the quality of a textbook, considering whether traditional beliefs about a subject are accurate, or even discussing the teacher’s instructional style.

A World of Illusions

Seeing beyond superficial appearances is especially important today because we are surrounded by illusions, many of them deliberately created. The effects may be subtle yet profound. While we seek out and appreciate some illusions, such as films and novels, others can make us miserable or even kill us. We need to know if foods that taste perfectly fine can hurt us in the short term (as with Salmonella contamination) or in the long term (cholesterol). A virus might be so dangerous that we should avoid public places, and political candidates promising to clean up government can end up being more corrupt than their predecessors. We want to know if items we purchase are durable or junk, and whether people we’re attracted to are truly as considerate as they seem at first. Students are constantly being presented with information not only in the classroom, but also from their friends, parents, the internet, films, television, radio, newspapers, and magazines. They need tools to analyze all the input.

Making a Start in Teaching Critical Thinking

The first step in teaching critical thinking is to help students recognize how easily false ideas can creep into their belief systems. For example:

1) People believe stories because they are the ones available. Most people identify Thomas Edison as the inventor of the incandescent light bulb. Although Edison perfected a commercially successful design, he was preceded in the experimentation by British inventors Frederick de Moleyns and Joseph Swan, and by American J. W. Starr. Sometimes stories become accepted because they are simple, sensational, entertaining, or already popular. But just because a story is available doesn’t mean it’s accurate.

2) Beliefs may justify past actions. In July 2006, half the respondents to a Harris Poll said they believed that when the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, that country possessed weapons of mass destruction. But back in 2004, the CIA had already concluded that Iraq possessed no stockpiles of illicit weapons. Even reliable, readily available facts had not superseded the mistaken impression that many still held.

3) People may not recognize the significance of their own perceptions. In November 2005, a suicide bomber struck the Radisson Hotel in Amman, Jordan. On the eighth floor, Ita Martin heard a loud noise. Yet it was not until she turned on CNN that she learned a bomb had gone off. “Oh, my God, I’m in that hotel!” she exclaimed. Had she trusted her own ears and eyes, she would have left the building much more quickly.

4) People may not want to question their beliefs. Students don’t need much convincing that two of the biggest enemies of the truth are people whose job it is to sell us incomplete versions of the available facts, and the simple absence of accurate information. They may need more convincing that a significant problem is their own desire to believe what feels comfortable.

Students can be reminded that companies advertising products take advantage of our desires; they don’t describe the benefits of their competitors’ products any more than a man asking a woman to marry him encourages her to date other men before deciding. It’s a social reality that people encourage one another to make important decisions with limited facts.

When students are shown how to gather information, question what appears obvious, and think through possible consequences, they’ll be able to make decisions based on facts, not myths or propaganda. Years later, students may forget some details of a subject, but they’ll never forget the teacher who taught them how to think more effectively.

the obstacles to critical thinking have

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Chapter 2 Summary


  • Critical thinking takes place in a mental environment consisting of our experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Some elements in this inner environment can sabotage our efforts to think critically or at least make critical thinking more difficult. Fortunately, we can exert some control over these elements. With practice, we can detect errors in our thinking, restrain attitudes and feelings that can disrupt our reasoning, and achieve enough objectivity to make critical thinking possible.
  • The most common of these hindrances to critical thinking fall into two main categories: (1) Those obstacles that crop up because of how we think and (2) those that occur because of what we think. The first category is composed of psychological factors such as our fears, attitudes, motivations, and desires. The second category is made up of certain philosophical beliefs.

Psychological Obstacles

  • None of us is immune to the psychological obstacles. Among them are the products of egocentric thinking. We may accept a claim solely because it advances our interests or just because it helps us save face. To overcome these pressures, we must (1) be aware of strong emotions that can warp our thinking, (2) be alert to ways that critical thinking can be undermined, and (3) ensure that we take into account all relevant factors when we evaluate a claim.
  • The first category of hindrances also includes those that arise because of group pressure. These obstacles include conformist pressures from groups that we belong to and ethnocentric urges to think that our group is superior to others. The best defense against group pressure is to proportion our beliefs according to the strength of reasons.

Philosophical Obstacles

  • We may also have certain core beliefs that can undermine critical thinking (the second category of hindrances). Subjective relativism is the view that truth depends solely on what someone believes ¾ a notion that may make critical thinking look superfluous. But subjective relativism leads to some strange consequences. For example, if the doctrine were true, each of us would be infallible. Also, subjective relativism has a logical problem ¾ it’s self-defeating. Its truth implies its falsity. There are no good reasons to accept this form of relativism.
  • Social relativism is the view that truth is relative to societies ¾ a claim that would also seem to make critical thinking unnecessary. But this notion is undermined by the same kinds of problems that plague subjective relativism.
  • Philosophical skepticism is the doctrine that we know much less than we think we do. One form of philosophical skepticism says that we cannot know anything unless the belief is beyond all possible doubt. But this is not a plausible criterion for knowledge. To be knowledge, claims need not be beyond all possible doubt, but beyond all reasonable doubt.

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Main Challenges When Developing Your Critical Thinking

the obstacles to critical thinking have

Written by Argumentful

Every day we are constantly bombarded with information and opinions from all directions. The ability to think critically is more important now than it ever was.

Critical thinking allows us to evaluate arguments, identify biases, and make informed decisions based on evidence and reasoning.

However, developing this skill is not easy, and there are many challenges that can stand in our way.

In this article, we will explore the main challenges that people face when trying to develop their critical thinking skills and provide some tips and strategies for overcoming them.

• Challenge #1: Confirmation Bias

• Challenge #2: Logical Fallacies

• Challenge #3: Emotions

• Challenge #4: Lack of Information or Misinformation

• Challenge #5: Groupthink

• Challenge #6: Overconfidence Bias

• Challenge #7: Cognitive dissonance

Challenge #1: Confirmation Bias

What is confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is a tendency to seek out information that supports your existing beliefs and ignore information that contradicts those beliefs . It can be a major obstacle to critical thinking, as it can lead us to only consider evidence that confirms our preconceived notions and dismiss evidence that challenges them.

Raymond S. Nickerson, a psychology professor considers that confirmation bias is a common human tendency that can have negative consequences for decision making and information processing.

For example, in politics, people may only consume news from sources that align with their political ideology and ignore information that challenges their beliefs.

Or in the workplace, managers may only seek out feedback that confirms their leadership style and ignore feedback that suggests they need to make changes.

How do critical thinkers fight confirmation bias?

To overcome confirmation bias, it is important to actively seek out information from a variety of sources and perspectives .

This can involve reading news articles and opinion pieces from a range of sources, engaging in discussions with people who hold different opinions, and being open to changing our own beliefs based on new evidence.

It can also be helpful to regularly question our own assumptions and biases.

Another strategy is to practice “ steel manning ” which involves actively trying to understand and strengthen arguments that challenge our own beliefs, rather than just attacking weaker versions of those arguments.

Nickerson suggests the following strategies that can be used to mitigate confirmation bias:

  • Considering alternative explanations : You can make a conscious effort to consider alternative explanations for a given set of data or evidence, rather than simply focusing on information that supports your pre-existing beliefs.
  • Seeking out disconfirming evidence : Try to actively seek out evidence that contradicts your pre-existing beliefs, rather than simply ignoring or discounting it.
  • Using formal decision-making tools : Use formal decision-making tools, such as decision trees or decision matrices, to help structure your thinking and reduce the influence of biases.
  • Encouraging group decision making : Groups can be more effective at mitigating confirmation bias than individuals, since group members can challenge each other’s assumptions and biases.
  • Adopting a scientific mindset : You can adopt a more scientific mindset, which involves a willingness to consider multiple hypotheses, test them rigorously, and revise them based on evidence.

Nickerson suggests that these strategies may be effective at mitigating confirmation bias, but notes that they may require effort and practice to implement successfully.

By being aware of confirmation bias and actively working to overcome it, we can all develop a more open-minded approach to critical thinking and make more informed decisions.

Challenge #2: Logical Fallacies

Critical thinking requires the ability to identify and analyze arguments for their strengths and weaknesses. One major obstacle to this process is the presence of logical fallacies.

What are logical fallacies?

Logical fallacies are errors in reasoning that can make an argument appear convincing, even if it is flawed .

There are many types of logical fallacies, including ad hominem attacks , false dichotomies , strawman arguments , and appeals to emotion . These fallacies can appear in everyday discourse, from political debates to advertising campaigns, and can lead to flawed conclusions and decisions.

An example of a logical fallacy is when a politician might use an ad hominem attack to undermine their opponent’s credibility rather than addressing their argument directly.

Similarly, an advertisement might use emotional appeals to distract consumers from the actual merits of a product.

For an engaging introduction into the topic, check out Ali Almossawi’s book on logical fallacies-“ An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments “. It provides a visually appealing perspective, using illustrations and examples to explain many common fallacies. It is aimed at a general audience, but provides a good overview of the topic for beginners.

How do critical thinkers fight logical fallacies?

To avoid being swayed by logical fallacies, it is important to be able to recognize them.

• One strategy is to familiarize yourself with common fallacies and their definitions .

• Additionally, it is important to analyse an argument’s premises and conclusions to identify any flaws in its reasoning.

• Finally, it can be helpful to question assumptions and consider alternative perspectives to ensure that your thinking is not influenced by logical fallacies.

A good source to do a deep dive into logical fallacies is The Fallacy Files by Gary N. Curtis – This website provides an extensive list of common logical fallacies, along with explanations and examples of each. It emphasizes the importance of being able to identify and avoid fallacies, and provides resources for improving critical thinking skills.

By developing the ability to identify and avoid logical fallacies, you can become a more effective critical thinker and make more informed decisions.

Challenge #3: Emotions

Emotions can have a significant impact on critical thinking and decision-making. Our emotional responses to information can affect our perception of it and bias our judgments. For example, if we have a strong emotional attachment to a particular belief or idea, we may be more likely to dismiss information that contradicts it and accept information that supports it, even if the information is flawed or unreliable.

Additionally, emotional reactions can also lead to impulsive decision-making, where we may act without fully considering all available information or weighing the potential consequences. This can be particularly problematic in high-stakes situations, such as in the workplace or in personal relationships.

Jennifer S. Lerner, Ye Li, Piercarlo Valdesolo, and Karim S. Kassam explore the relationship between emotions and decision making, including the role of emotions in shaping cognitive processes such as attention, memory, and judgment. They suggest that emotions can influence decision making in both positive and negative ways, and that understanding how emotions affect decision making is an important area of research.

How do critical thinkers manage emotions?

To manage the role of emotions in critical thinking, it is important to first become aware of our emotional reactions and biases. This can be done through mindfulness practices, such as meditation or journaling, where we can reflect on our thoughts and feelings without judgment.

It can also be helpful to actively seek out diverse perspectives and information, as exposure to new and varied ideas can help to broaden our understanding and reduce emotional attachments to particular beliefs. Additionally, taking a pause before making a decision or responding to information can provide time to reflect on our emotional reactions and consider all available information in a more rational and objective manner.

Overall, recognizing the impact of emotions on critical thinking and developing strategies for managing them can lead to more informed and effective decision-making.

Challenge #4: Lack of Information or Misinformation

Critical thinking relies heavily on having accurate and reliable information. However, in today’s age of rapid information sharing, it is easy to be inundated with an overwhelming amount of information, and distinguishing fact from fiction can be a daunting task. Additionally, misinformation and propaganda can be intentionally spread to manipulate opinions and beliefs.

Pew Research Center found that many Americans are concerned about the impact of misinformation on democracy and that fake news can erode trust in institutions and hinder critical thinking.

One example of the impact of misinformation is the spread of conspiracy theories, such as the belief that climate change is a hoax. These beliefs can lead to negative consequences for us and society as a whole, such as a lack of action on climate change.

How do critical thinkers overcome the lack of information or misinformation?

To overcome the challenge of misinformation and a lack of information, critical thinkers must develop a habit of fact-checking and verifying information. This means seeking out multiple sources of information and analyzing the credibility and biases of each source. Critical thinkers must also be willing to adjust their beliefs based on new evidence and be open to changing their opinions.

Pew Research Center suggests that media literacy education can help people become more discerning consumers of information.

• A good source for developing media literacy is Unesco’s “ Media and Information Literacy: Curriculum for Teachers “: The publication emphasizes the importance of teaching students to critically evaluate information in order to become informed and responsible citizens. It provides a framework for teaching media and information literacy skills, including critical thinking, and emphasizes the need to teach students how to recognize and avoid misinformation.

• Another source worth checking out is New York Times Events’ video on How to Teach Critical Thinking in an Age of Misinformation . The speakers suggest that educators should focus on teaching students to ask probing questions, evaluate evidence, and consider alternative perspectives. They also note that critical thinking skills are especially important in an age of information overload and misinformation.

• Furthermore, it is important to be aware of your own biases and limitations when seeking out and evaluating information. Confirmation bias, discussed in Challenge #1, can also play a role in accepting misinformation or overlooking important information that does not align with our pre-existing beliefs.

By being diligent and thorough in our information gathering and evaluation, we can overcome the challenge of misinformation and make more informed decisions.

Challenge #5: Groupthink

What is groupthink.

According to Sunstein and Hastie , groupthink occurs when members of a group prioritize consensus and social harmony over critical evaluation of alternative ideas. They suggest that groupthink can lead to a narrowing of perspectives and a lack of consideration for alternative viewpoints, which can result in flawed decision-making. They argue that groupthink is particularly dangerous in situations where group members are highly cohesive, where there is a strong leader or dominant voice, or where the group lacks diverse perspectives.

The desire for group cohesion can lead to a reluctance to challenge the consensus or express dissenting opinions, resulting in flawed decision-making and missed opportunities for innovation.

One example of groupthink is the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 , where NASA engineers failed to recognize and address the risk of launching the shuttle in cold weather due to pressure from superiors and a culture of overconfidence. This led to a catastrophic failure that claimed the lives of all seven crew members.

How do critical thinkers overcome groupthink?

To overcome groupthink, it is important to encourage diversity of thought and promote constructive disagreement.

There are several strategies for avoiding groupthink, including promoting independent thinking and dissenting opinions, encouraging diverse perspectives, and engaging in active listening and critical evaluation of alternative ideas.

This can be achieved by seeking out dissenting views and challenging assumptions, creating a culture of open communication and feedback, and avoiding hierarchies that can stifle innovation and creativity. It is also important to value and reward independent thinking, even if it goes against the prevailing consensus.

For more ways to overcome group think, check out this comprehensive list of strategies from Northwestern school of education and social policy .

Developing critical thinking skills can help you to overcome groupthink and make more informed and effective decisions. By being aware of the challenges of group dynamics and actively seeking out diverse perspectives, you can cultivate a more independent and objective approach to critical thinking, ultimately leading to better outcomes and a more robust and resilient society.

Challenge #6: Overconfidence Bias

Another challenge to developing critical thinking is overconfidence bias, which is the tendency to overestimate our own abilities and knowledge. This bias can lead us to make hasty decisions or overlook important information, which can ultimately hinder our critical thinking skills.

Kahneman explains how the human mind has two modes of thinking: System 1, which is fast and intuitive, and System 2, which is slow and deliberative. He argues that overconfidence bias is a common flaw in System 1 thinking, which can lead us to overestimate our knowledge and abilities. Kahneman suggests that improving critical thinking requires training to recognize and control our overconfidence bias.

Overconfidence bias can occur in various contexts, such as in the workplace, academic settings, or even in personal relationships. For instance, you may be overconfident in your ability to complete a task at work without seeking help or feedback from colleagues, which could result in suboptimal outcomes.

Lichtenstein and Fischhoff conducted a study on overconfidence bias, in which they found that people tend to overestimate their knowledge and abilities in areas where they have limited expertise.

Tversky and Kahneman’s seminal paper on heuristics and biases discusses overconfidence bias as a common flaw in human decision-making. They suggest that overconfidence bias can lead us to make inaccurate judgments and can contribute to a wide range of cognitive biases.

How do critical thinkers overcome overconfidence bias?

To overcome overconfidence bias, you should take a more humble and reflective approach to your own abilities and knowledge. This can involve seeking feedback from others, taking the time to consider different perspectives, and being open to constructive criticism.

Kahneman suggests that improving critical thinking requires training to recognize and control our overconfidence bias.

Moore and Healy offer several strategies for reducing overconfidence bias , including increasing feedback, considering alternative explanations, and using probabilistic reasoning.

Another strategy is to cultivate a growth mindset , which emphasizes the belief that your abilities can be developed through effort and persistence. By adopting this mindset, you can avoid becoming complacent and continue to challenge yourself to develop your critical thinking skills.

Overall, overcoming overconfidence bias requires a willingness to acknowledge our own limitations and to actively seek out opportunities for growth and learning.

Challenge #7: Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when a person holds two or more conflicting beliefs, values, or ideas. This internal conflict can create feelings of discomfort, which can lead to irrational and inconsistent behaviour. Cognitive dissonance can pose a significant challenge to critical thinking by distorting our perceptions and leading us to accept information that confirms our existing beliefs while dismissing or rationalizing away information that challenges them.

For example, a person who believes that they are a good driver may become defensive and dismissive when presented with evidence of their unsafe driving habits, such as speeding or not using a turn signal. This person may experience cognitive dissonance, as their belief in their driving ability conflicts with the evidence presented to them.

Tavris and Aronson’s book- Mistakes were made (but not by me) examines the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance in everyday life, using real-life examples to illustrate how we justify our beliefs and actions, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. It’s a worthwhile read to understand the psychological mechanisms that underlie cognitive dissonance and the implications of dissonance for understanding interpersonal conflict, group behaviour, and decision-making.

How do critical thinkers overcome cognitive dissonance?

Overcoming cognitive dissonance requires a willingness to confront and examine our own beliefs and assumptions.

Tavris and Aronson offer several strategies for recognizing and overcoming cognitive dissonance.

• we should be aware of the potential for cognitive dissonance to arise in situations where our beliefs, attitudes, or behaviours are inconsistent . By recognizing the possibility of dissonance, we can be more prepared to manage the discomfort that may result.

• we should engage in self-reflection to examine our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors more closely. By questioning assumptions and considering alternative perspectives, we may be able to reduce the cognitive dissonance we experience.

• we should seek out diverse perspectives and engage in constructive dialogue with others. By listening to and respecting different viewpoints, we can gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and others, which may help to reduce cognitive dissonance.

Finally, the authors emphasize the importance of taking responsibility for our own actions and decisions. By acknowledging mistakes and being accountable for them, we can avoid the temptation to justify our behaviour and maintain consistency with our beliefs and attitudes.

In conclusion, developing effective critical thinking skills is essential for making informed decisions and navigating complex issues. However, there are several challenges that can hinder the development of critical thinking.

Confirmation bias, logical fallacies, emotions, lack of information or misinformation, groupthink, overconfidence bias, and cognitive dissonance are all common challenges that you may face when attempting to engage in critical thinking.

To overcome these challenges, it is important to develop strategies such as seeking out diverse perspectives, fact-checking and verifying information, and managing emotions. Additionally, it is crucial to remain open-minded and willing to consider alternative viewpoints, even if they challenge your existing beliefs. By recognizing and addressing these challenges, you can continue to improve your critical thinking skills and become more effective problem-solvers and decision-makers in your personal and professional lives.

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Critical Thinking and Decision-Making  - What is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking and decision-making  -, what is critical thinking, critical thinking and decision-making what is critical thinking.

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Critical Thinking and Decision-Making: What is Critical Thinking?

Lesson 1: what is critical thinking, what is critical thinking.

Critical thinking is a term that gets thrown around a lot. You've probably heard it used often throughout the years whether it was in school, at work, or in everyday conversation. But when you stop to think about it, what exactly is critical thinking and how do you do it ?

Watch the video below to learn more about critical thinking.

Simply put, critical thinking is the act of deliberately analyzing information so that you can make better judgements and decisions . It involves using things like logic, reasoning, and creativity, to draw conclusions and generally understand things better.

illustration of the terms logic, reasoning, and creativity

This may sound like a pretty broad definition, and that's because critical thinking is a broad skill that can be applied to so many different situations. You can use it to prepare for a job interview, manage your time better, make decisions about purchasing things, and so much more.

The process

illustration of "thoughts" inside a human brain, with several being connected and "analyzed"

As humans, we are constantly thinking . It's something we can't turn off. But not all of it is critical thinking. No one thinks critically 100% of the time... that would be pretty exhausting! Instead, it's an intentional process , something that we consciously use when we're presented with difficult problems or important decisions.

Improving your critical thinking

illustration of the questions "What do I currently know?" and "How do I know this?"

In order to become a better critical thinker, it's important to ask questions when you're presented with a problem or decision, before jumping to any conclusions. You can start with simple ones like What do I currently know? and How do I know this? These can help to give you a better idea of what you're working with and, in some cases, simplify more complex issues.  

Real-world applications

illustration of a hand holding a smartphone displaying an article that reads, "Study: Cats are better than dogs"

Let's take a look at how we can use critical thinking to evaluate online information . Say a friend of yours posts a news article on social media and you're drawn to its headline. If you were to use your everyday automatic thinking, you might accept it as fact and move on. But if you were thinking critically, you would first analyze the available information and ask some questions :

  • What's the source of this article?
  • Is the headline potentially misleading?
  • What are my friend's general beliefs?
  • Do their beliefs inform why they might have shared this?

illustration of "Super Cat Blog" and "According to survery of cat owners" being highlighted from an article on a smartphone

After analyzing all of this information, you can draw a conclusion about whether or not you think the article is trustworthy.

Critical thinking has a wide range of real-world applications . It can help you to make better decisions, become more hireable, and generally better understand the world around you.

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Marcel Danesi Ph.D.

7 Puzzles to Challenge Your Critical Thinking

Can you spot the connections and sort these items.

Posted March 5, 2015 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan

Forster Forest/Shutterstock

The theme of this post is critical thinking—and the kinds of puzzles that can be constructed around it. This term is used frequently in psychology and education . There are various definitions, but the one that best suits our purpose and which is, in the end, perhaps the best, is the ability to comprehend the logical connections among ideas, words, phrases, and concepts . In the relevant scientific literature, of course, the term is used much more broadly as a framework for understanding human cognition . But in my opinion, the best way to understand things is to construct puzzles to illustrate their basic essence.

Critical thinking involves skill at recognizing a pattern in given information and especially recognizing how the information is connected to the real world. Here are a couple of very simple examples. First, consider the five words below:

  • Cruise ship
  • Walking on foot
  • Automobile (not a race car)

Now, put them in order from the slowest to the fastest, when they are going at maximum speed. The solution, of course, is: 4-2-5-1-3.

As with all such puzzles, there might be slightly different solutions—one could claim that some automobiles go faster than cruise ships. This “indeterminacy” characterizes this kind of thinking. However, some puzzles are straightforward. For instance, what do the following five things have in common?

The answer? These are all words referring to shades of blue.

The seven puzzles below are to the ones above, though hopefully more challenging. Some involve knowledge of facts, but critical thinking is still involved in such cases because the organization of the facts according to some principle is always involved—for example, a puzzle may ask you to put five items in order of their dates of invention.

The following tongue-in-cheek definition of critical thinking by Richard W. Paul, a leading expert on critical thinking theory, says it all: “Critical thinking is thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking in order to make your thinking better.”

I. What do the following 5 things have in common?

  • Orange juice

II. Put the following buildings or structures in order of height, from the shortest to the tallest.

  • Typical camping tent

III. What do the following animals have in common?

IV. Put the following inventions in order from earliest to most recent.

V. What feature do the following words have in common?

  • Imagination

VI. Put these bodies of water in order in terms of volume, from smallest to largest .

VII. What do the following landmasses have in common?

I. They are all drinkable liquids. II. 5-1-4-3-2 III. They all have a tail. They are also all quadrupeds. IV. To the best of my knowledge: 5-4-3-1-2 V. They start with a vowel: a, e, i, o, u VI. 4-2-1-5-3 VII. They are all peninsulas.

Marcel Danesi Ph.D.

Marcel Danesi, Ph.D. , is a professor of semiotics and anthropology at Victoria College, University of Toronto. His books include The Puzzle Instinct and The Total Brain Workout .

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    Philosophical Obstacles. We may also have certain core beliefs that can undermine critical thinking (the second category of hindrances). Subjective relativism is the view that truth depends solely on what someone believes ¾ a notion that may make critical thinking look superfluous. But subjective relativism leads to some strange consequences.

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    1. Introduction. Critical thinking (CT) is a metacognitive process—consisting of a number of skills and dispositions—that, through purposeful, self-regulatory reflective judgment, increases the chances of producing a logical solution to a problem or a valid conclusion to an argument (Dwyer 2017, 2020; Dwyer et al. 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016; Dwyer and Walsh 2019; Quinn et al. 2020).

  14. Main Challenges When Developing Your Critical Thinking

    However, there are several challenges that can hinder the development of critical thinking. Confirmation bias, logical fallacies, emotions, lack of information or misinformation, groupthink, overconfidence bias, and cognitive dissonance are all common challenges that you may face when attempting to engage in critical thinking.

  15. Critical Thinking and Decision-Making

    Definition. Simply put, critical thinking is the act of deliberately analyzing information so that you can make better judgements and decisions. It involves using things like logic, reasoning, and creativity, to draw conclusions and generally understand things better. This may sound like a pretty broad definition, and that's because critical ...

  16. PDF The Obstacles to Critical Thinking

    Debriefing: discussion on feelings, thinking and reflecting a. Ask participants to form group of 3 persons. Instruct them to write on the piece of paper individually: their feeling during exercise, reflection on thinking and evaluation what did she/he learnt. After 5 minutes ask participants to share what they have written with each other. b.

  17. 7 Puzzles to Challenge Your Critical Thinking

    First, consider the five words below: Cruise ship. Bicycle. Airplane. Walking on foot. Automobile (not a race car) Now, put them in order from the slowest to the fastest, when they are going at ...

  18. POL2761 Flashcards

    The obstacles to critical thinking have _____ in recent decades. increased. As political leaders have become more willing to make deceptive claims, the public has. become more tolerant of the practice. Helga and Halla are sisters who vehemently disagree about politics and support opposing parties. When they watch a news story about how a ...


    OBSTACLES TO CRITICAL THINKING OBSTACLES 1: Beliefs about how CT relates and compares to other courses 1. Critical thinking is not related to my major. 2. I'm in my third (or fourth) years at university, or I have a high GPA, or I'm a successful student, so I don't need to take a critical thinking course. 3.


    Abstract. There is widespread interest in critical thinking in the Army and elsewhere, as a set of skills for handling complex, novel, and information-intensive tasks for which initiative is ...

  21. 'Destroying barriers to critical thinking' to surge the effect of self

    The importance of critical thinking skills is widely accepted as one of the prominent sets of 21st-century skills for innovation and countering pervasive misinformation, ... Those predictable or challenging obstacles can have numerous adverse effects on pre-service teachers' learning development. For example, in a broad sense, critical ...

  22. Identifying obstacles to transfer of critical thinking skills

    Every day, we have to make a multitude of quick but sound judgments and decisions. Since our working-memory capacity and duration are limited and we cannot process all the information around us, we have to resort to heuristics (i.e. mental shortcuts) that ease reasoning processes (Tversky & Kahneman, Citation 1974).Usually, heuristic reasoning is very functional and inconsequential—think ...

  23. Chapter 1 Flashcards

    True. An economic system that operates mainly on private transactions where firms are free to make their own production, distribution and pricing decisions is known as. a free-market system. Slavery in America lasted for ______ years. 250. Chapter 1 questions Learn with flashcards, games, and more — for free.

  24. Critical Thinking: Creating Job-Proof Skills for the Future of Work

    Cultivating critical thinking skills will be essential to ensuring that individuals can take advantage of the opportunities presented by new technologies while mitigating the challenges of job disruption in this AI-driven future. Go to: 3. Critical Thinking Skills and Job Disruption and Replacement.

  25. Why Leaders Who Are Mentored Outperform Those Who Aren't

    That is where a mentor is critical. "Even the world's leading athletes have coaches to fine-tune their approach and to help them achieve even better results.". Mentoring isn't a "nice to ...

  26. Ask the Mama Bears: When did we become so critical of critical thinking

    OPINION: Dear Mama Bears, I have always been a huge proponent of teaching my kids critical thinking skills. However, I keep hearing people talk about critical thinking like it's a bad thing and ...

  27. Lakers' Interest In UConn's Dan Hurley Hints At New Team ...

    The Lakers already have $103.7 million in guaranteed salary on their books for the 2024-25 season, and that does not include LeBron James, who has a $51.4 million player option. If he picks up ...

  28. Big Data: Latest Articles, News & Trends

    8 Best Data Science Tools and Software. Apache Spark and Hadoop, Microsoft Power BI, Jupyter Notebook and Alteryx are among the top data science tools for finding business insights. Compare their ...

  29. New Essential: 92% Of Leaders Expect Employees To Have Design ...

    6 Obstacles 2024 Gen Z Graduates Face In The Job Market ... as a striking trend shows that 92% of business leaders now expect employees to have design skills based on Canva's ... design thinking ...

  30. AI can support value-based care, but challenges must be addressed

    AI can support value-based care, but challenges must be addressed. Jun 3, 2024. As many health systems and organizations work on advancing value-based care to prioritize patient outcomes and cost efficiency, ... "Being transparent is critical in anything that you do," Dr. Oliver said. That means "being transparent about this model, this ...