Critical thinking is the ability to think rationally and to think clearly. It means using the powers of logic and reason to draw robust conclusions and develop well-founded opinions. Many people consider themselves to be true rational thinkers. But in reality, none of us are.
We suffer from all kinds of biases, notably confirmation bias. This means that we tend to seek information that reinforces our current beliefs. At the same time, we ignore or undermine the information that contradicts them.
As Daniel Kahneman pointed out, we all make mental shortcuts. What he calls system 1 thinking. It saves energy and helps us become more efficient. But it can result in systematic errors of judgement.
Our decision making is never fully rational. We base decisions on available information, the information we can recall, rather than the best information. Psychologists refer to this as the ‘availability heuristic’.
These biases and tendencies inhibit our critical thinking abilities. All we can we do is to strive to make improvements. Here are a few strategies we could adopt.
1 Develop self awareness
Seek to understand our biases. Try to understand how they have shaped our points of view. Then factor these into our decision making. This is challenging. It requires us to be honest with ourselves and question our assumptions and beliefs. We also need to become more empathetic. To view information and scenarios from different points of view, not just our own. The best critical thinkers are very self aware.
2 Seek information from a wide variety of sources
We often return to our favourite writers or publications when seeking information. To develop a fully rounded point of view, we need to read widely. Source and listen to opinions and points of view from different places. Look for fresh news sources, seek different opinions to those we normally turn to. This will enable us to maintain a broad perspective.
To become a true critical thinker, we need to be open to fresh arguments. We must ensure we’ve looked at subjects from different angles.
3 Be willing to admit when we’re wrong
After researching a subject, we may receive new information or arguments that are more valid than our previous ones. As a good critical thinker, we should then have the humility to change our mind and adapt our point of view. This may require bravery. But we must strive to be flexible in the face of fresh, persuasive evidence.
4 Resist manipulation
Whilst it’s important to be open minded, at the same time we must strive to be intellectually rigorous and independent. Remain critical. Look out for the flaws in arguments. See this previous post on how to do this. Base judgements on reliable evidence. Only move your point of view if the arguments are powerful enough.
5 Look for connections between subjects
Try to spot patterns. See how one piece of information could be linked to another and try and join up the dots. It emerges from having a depth and breadth of knowledge and by taking a broad perspective. (See point 2 above.) Keep abreast of macro trends. Observe what’s happening in different places. Think laterally and connections will start to form.
6 Seek clarity
We should stay tenacious in our desire to overcome confusion. Let’s not settle for simplistic solutions to difficult problems. Instead, try to get a clear line of sight and point on view on complex issues. If we still can’t see the ‘solution’ or way forward, develop our best hypotheses. Then, keep going. Don’t jump to erroneous conclusions.
So to sum up.
Becoming a truly rational critical thinker is an impossible expectation. Information is never perfect. We can never rid ourselves our fundamental beliefs and values. However, we can all strive to improve our critical thinking abilities. Try adopting these strategies. It will ensure that our decisions and opinions are as robust and well founded as possible.