7 Steps to Improving Your Critical Thinking

by Tara Struyk on 29 August 2012 3 comments

Every day, I’m amazed at the amount of information I consume; I listen to the news on my morning run, scan the papers while I’m eating breakfast, check my social media accounts throughout the day, and watch some TV before I go to bed, all while getting constant updates via email and Twitter. That’s pretty overwhelming on its own, but things get really interesting when some of that information is biased, inaccurate, or just plain made up. It makes it hard to know what to believe. But even with all the competing sources and opinions out there, getting the truth — or at least close to it — matters. What you believe affects what you buy, what you do, who you vote for, and even how you feel. In other words, it virtually dictates how you live your life.

So how can you sort the wheat from the chaff? Well, one clear way is by learning to think more critically. Critical thinking is as simple as it sounds — it’s just a way of thinking that helps you get a little closer to the best answer. So the next time you have a problem to solve, a decision to make or a claim to evaluate, you can decide whether it’s likely to be true — and if you should do anything about it. Here’s how. (See also: How to Improve Your Memory (and Even Get a Little Smarter))

1. Don’t Take Anything at Face Value

The first step to thinking critically is to learn to evaluate what you hear, what you read, and what you decide to do. So, rather than doing something because it’s what you’ve always done or accepting what you’ve heard as the truth, spend some time just thinking. What’s the problem? What are the possible solutions? What are the pros and cons of each? Of course, you still have to decide what to believe and what to do, but if you really evaluate things, you’re likely to make a better, more reasoned choice.

2. Consider Motive

We recently got a call from our cellular service provider about changing our very old, very cheap cell phone plan. They claimed they could give us a new plan that would provide better value. But why, my partner asked, would the company be interested in pursuing us so that we could pay less? Aren’t companies generally interested in making more money? Good question, right? And the reason we were asking it is because we questioned the cellular phone company’s motives. What they said just didn’t make sense. 

Where information is coming from is a key part of thinking critically about it. Everyone has a motive and a bias. Sometimes, like the cellular phone company, it’s pretty obvious; other times, it’s a lot harder to detect. Just know that where any information comes from should affect how you evaluate it — and whether you decide to act on it.

3. Do Your Research

All the information that gets thrown at us on a daily basis can be overwhelming, but if you decide to take matters into your own hands, it can also be a very powerful tool. If you have a problem to solve, a decision to make, or a perspective to evaluate, get onto Google and start reading about it. The more information you have, the better prepared you’ll be to think things through and come up with a reasonable answer to your query.

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4. Ask Questions

I sometimes find myself shying away from questions. They can make me feel like a bit of a dummy, especially when whoever’s fielding them isn’t receptive. But mostly, I can’t help myself. I just need to know! And once you go down that rabbit hole, you not only learn more, but often discover whole new ways of thinking about things. I think those other perspectives can also help you get closer to thinking through a problem or uncovering what’s what, which brings me to my next point ...

5. Don’t Assume You’re Right

I know it’s hard. I struggle with the hard-headed desire to be right as much as the next person. Because being right feels awesome. It’s an ego trip almost everyone aims to take at some time or another. But assuming you’re right will often put you on the wrong track when it comes to thinking critically. Because if you don’t take in other perspectives and points of view, and think them over, and compare them to your own, you really aren’t doing much thinking at all — and certainly not the critical kind.

6. Break It Down

Being able to see the big picture is often touted as a great quality, but I’d wager that being able to see that picture for all its components is even better. After all, most problems are too big to solve all at once, but they can be broken down into smaller parts. The smaller the parts, the easier it’ll be to evaluate them individually and arrive at a solution. This is essentially what scientists do; before they can figure out how a bigger system — such as our bodies or an ecosystem — works, they have to understand all the parts of that system, how they work, and how they relate to each other.

7. Keep It Simple

In the scientific community, a line of reasoning called Occam’s razor is often used to decide which hypothesis is most likely to be true. This means finding the simplest explanation that fits all facts. This is what you would call the most obvious explanation, and the one that should be preferred, at least until it’s proven wrong. Often, Occam’s razor is just plain common sense. Sure, it’s possible that the high-priced skin cream on TV will make you look 20 years younger — even though you’ve never heard of it, and neither has anyone else. What’s more likely is that the model shown in the ad really is 20 years old.

Critical thinking isn’t easy. It involves letting go of what we want to believe and embracing a whole bunch of new information. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s also interesting. And when you do your research and finally lay out what you believe to be the facts, you’ll probably be surprised by what you uncover. It might not be what you were expecting, but chances are it’ll be closer to the truth.

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Michal

Hi Tara,

First of all great thanks for your informative and useful (specially for me) blog post. After long time I am reading different blog post from my professional field (Forex trading). I am a forex trader and due to this my maximum time spend in either trading or reading forex, finance, business articles or blog posts. So, "That’s pretty overwhelming on its own" is real true for me as well.

I read your all 7 points and found that I am working on only "Do Your Research" and "Don’t Assume You’re Right" while rest points are missing. I need to work on those as well. I hope, it will change something.

You can catch me at: http://www.pipstoday.com/

Thanks
Michal

Guest's picture

The internet has undoubtedly made this problem even bigger than it has ever been. As if being bombarded with information all day everyday from all sides isn't enough, we now have to worry about is what we're reading is actually accurate. Anyone can publish anything on the internet and call it facts. Its up to us to weed through the crap and think critically about every situation to form our own opinions and come to our own conclusions. You have to be careful.

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suzemagoo

First on that list must be to recognize one's epistemological framework (or for the simplified version: point of view) is unique to the individual and mitigate for any known bias. This should cultivate an ever-changing awareness of what one's knows with confidence, knows only with some caveats or limitations and does not really know.

Too often these days, I find fellow Americans who are not aware that they are either guessing or simply don't know. Everything that comes out of their best thought is presented as certain fact when it is far from it.

In short, faith (opinion) has trumped science (fact) in this culture and this fails often where the rubber meets the road. Faith or opinion has its place but not at the universal solution level. Proposing one's faith or opinion in lieu of facts is not only spiritual arrogance but it wipes out the objectivity so necessary to cultivate in critical thinking skills.