How to Develop Critical Thinking Skills You Can Use for Big Decisions
In our series on information overload, information and source quality, and the importance of discernment when it comes to selecting information, we’ve frequently touched on the links between effective leadership and critical thinking. In reply, the most common question we’re getting from readers is some from of “how?” to build good critical thinking skills. We’ll focus on that in this post and continue with a series about how to develop critical thinking skills you can use every day.
Critical thinking is a little like math. Some people feel it comes naturally to them. Others feel that critical thinking (logic, objectivity, evaluation, analysis) is too hard to do. They figure they can get by with mental shortcuts, by relying on others to spoon feed them information, and by using gut instinct and feelings to make decisions.
Here’s some good news. It’s not hard to develop critical thinking skills, and you’ve already got some!
Critical Thinking Skills Are Accessible to Everyone
It’s not that you’re “bad” at critical thinking. It’s more likely that you’re hasty in responding based on emotions and a desire to get things done.
Oftentimes, we make choices based on emotion alone. We rationalize that if it feels right it must be right. Unfortunately, that’s not thinking. It’s reacting. Emotions alone aren’t the most reliable guide when it comes to important decisions.
Hasty responses may seem efficient and may feel good in the moment. When regret sets in, after it’s too late, that’s when we use our critical thinking to acknowledge all the reasons we shouldn’t have been so quick to react.
See! You DO have critical thinking skills. They just get overshadowed by emotions and hasty choices. The trick is to call on them sooner than you currently are.
Good critical thinking doesn’t require a high IQ, Spock-like detachment, or record-setting Rubik’s cube capabilities.
To be a good critical thinker, you simply need to apply skills you already have in disciplined ways. You also need to be willing to challenge your own assumptions and to step outside the echo chamber of sameness to invite in new sources and information. Anyone can do this… if they’re willing.
To Develop Critical Thinking Skills, You’ll Need to Stretch Beyond Day-to-Day Thinking
Thinking isn’t something you think about. It just happens. It’s uncritical.
By contrast, critical thinking is not automatic. It only happens when you deliberately focus and stretch your mind to consider more than regular thinking conjured up for you.
Think about this.
Do you really want everyday, automatic thinking to guide your important decisions and choices? Your preconditioned responses, unconscious biases, habits, heuristics (mental shortcuts), peer pressures, past experiences, emotions, assumptions, and even primal instincts influence your everyday thinking. Sadly, everyday thinking is an obstacle to forming your own opinions and to understanding why you think what you think. Unfortunately, everyday thinking usually isn’t rational.
The big decisions deserve more and better thinking. Being irrational, uninformed, Pavlovian, lazy, or influenced by others isn’t going to serve you well in making life’s most important decisions.
Critical thinking entails looking at all the angles, stepping out of your comfort zone and echo chamber, and questioning your own beliefs. Stretching yourself and thinking for yourself is difficult, but only until you get accustomed to it and make it part of your routine response.
To Develop Critical Thinking, Here’s the First Skill You Need to Develop
In a recent post, we examined intellectual honesty. One of the ways that we can keep ourselves honest as we assess a situation or break down a problem is by asking direct, thoughtful questions. Whether it's asked aloud to somebody else who's involved or just in your own mind, questions force focus on anything that doesn’t fully make sense and, ultimate, provide clarity about a situation.
The primary purpose of asking questions that are logical and rational is to help you step back away from your emotional response. Emotions are useful as a single point of data. But they're not the only thing that should influence your decisions and your responses. To help you step back and remain objective, you have to ask questions, starting with questions about the information like:
- What are the facts (not opinions!)?
- What is the proof, the evidence, the undisputed and universally accepted truth within this?
- Is this something that is truly provable or knowable?
- What is missing from this body of information? Why is it missing?
- What am I overlooking or rejecting due to confirmation bias or convenience?
You’ll also want to take a step back as you're being objective and working on intellectual honesty to ask questions about the source like:
- What is the primary source of this information (not the secondary source that’s sharing someone else’s information… but the primary source who gathered this information, conducted this research, came up with this proof). Once you know the primary source, you can then determine whether that source is, in your estimation, trustworthy or not.
- What's the intent of the source who’s providing this information? Is there a hidden agenda?
- Does this source use the “two credible proofs” rule? Or do they rely only on a single source? Beware: multiple players quoting a single primary source is still just one source!
- Does this source look objectively at both sides or does the source present information subjectively to bolster one side of a story while suppressing the other side?
- What is this source’s long-term track record for reliability and objectivity? Is this source truly an expert in this subject?
As you’re sorting through the information, you’ll also want to ask questions about your own thought process. This will help you rise above the temptation to take shortcuts and default to what’s being propagandized or pushed for groupthink. Ask yourself:
- Who will be impacted and how if this information is accurate?
- Who will be impacted and how if this information is not complete or isn’t accurate?
- What is the extent of that impact, how big or how small is it?
- With everything else I have heard/seen, does this make sense? Is it aligned?
- Why am I favoring some information and discarding other information? Are these valid choices or are they reflexive based on habit, bandwagon effect, convenience, or bias?
Anytime you run across conflicting information, you’ll want to ask questions to sort out the truth. Two opposites cannot coexist when we’re looking at absolutes, truths, and facts. One is accurate, and the other is not. Your job as a critical thinker is to figure out which one turns out to no longer be accurate. You’ll need to dig deeper than the narrative and spin to find the facts. In addition to the questions listed above, consider questions like these:
- What facts, evidence, sources, and logic are presented to back each claim?
- Aside from emotional reactions and “everyone’s doing it” sentiments, why should I believe what is presented here?
- Is this claim validated by standard scientific method (hypothesis, testing, analysis, conclusion and verified results that are repeated each time the experiment is repeated)?
- Why would each party make the claims they are making? What’s in it for them?
- How can I verify this information and make sure it’s current, credible, and applicable here?
Finally, you’ll want to ask questions to evaluate your risk/benefit for accepting information. This is helpful when there's a great deal of ambiguity, when you can’t know for certain what's right or what's wrong, no matter how much critical thinking and how much introspection you put into it. These questions serve as a litmus test. Before deciding on one action versus another, ask yourself these questions about each option:
- What if I'm wrong? If I make this choice what could happen if I'm wrong?
- What would the consequences be if I’m wrong? Who would be hurt? How hard would it be to come back and take a different position and make up for any damage done?
- What is the risk of waiting for more information before making a final decision?
Asking questions is a healthy, intelligent exercise and the key for developing strong critical thinking skills. The only “stupid” questions are the ones you don’t ask and later wish you had asked.
Want to develop your critical thinking skills more? Check out our playlist on YouTube!