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critical thinking

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

Critical thinking is the capacity to be objective, rational and analytical about subjects, situations and cognitive problems. As a process, critical thinking is the ongoing effort to improve our cognitive abilities in that capacity.

The capacity for critical thinking varies significantly from one person to another but it can be increased through effort and education. The first area to explore is our own cognitive processes to understand the ways in which we tend to err.

Cognitive biases are tendencies in our thought processes that lead us to make irrational decisions. The biases often result from our unconscious application of heuristics, cognitive shortcuts that we use to avoid putting a lot of effort into thinking about things. The availability bias, for example, is the human tendency to think that examples of things that come readily to mind are more representative than is actually the case. The confirmation bias, another type of error, is our tendency to place too much faith in materials that support our own beliefs and attitudes, seeking out such materials and avoiding those that challenge us. The self-serving bias is our tendency to view our own activities positively and interpret ambiguous data in a way that suits our own purposes.

The recorded history of critical thinking goes back to Socrates, in ancient Greece. The Socratic method of teaching involves providing students with questions and subjecting all answers to a rigorous process involving further questions designed to test the validity of those answers. The Socratic method is still considered a powerful tool for fostering the capacity for critical thinking.

The Foundation for Critical Thinking offers suggestions for improving our capacity through questioning, probing into:

  • Goals and purposes.
  • Key concepts and ideas.
  • The nature of the problem or question.
  • Whether the available information is adequate.
  • Whether there are alternative interpretations that should be considered.
  • Whether unwarranted assumptions have been made.
  • The potential implications and consequences of a given solution.
  • Alternative perspectives.

Critical thinking is sometimes contrasted with creative thinking, which involves openness, curiosity, imagination and innovation. The two modes of thought are complementary rather than conflicting, however, and both are important in a business environment. 

Samantha Agoos' TED-ED talk, Five tips to improve your critical thinking:

This was last updated in February 2017

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