With every passing day, it feels more and more like we are moving toward a society where critical thinking skills are not only underappreciated but also downright frowned upon. We have splintered into two, not always mutually exclusive, factions. On the one side is the majority of those in power who want the masses to blindly follow what they say without ever giving it a second thought. Think about political parties that maintain their voter base simply because no one questions why they affiliate with that party in the first place. Or, on a more extreme level, government oversight of our bodily autonomy by mandating health requirements and mandating vaccines.
In the other camp, we have those who only think about what is best for them. Unless you live under a rock, everyone can recognize these types of people. This is your incompetent driver who whips an unannounced U-turn in the middle of a busy road because they missed their turn, and it would be too inconvenient to circle back at the next legal opportunity. This is your self-entitled A-hole who speeds up their pace to get in front of an elderly person on the subway and take the only available seat so they can carry on with their pretentious life with no concern for others. It could be argued they, and those like them, have critical thinking skills but choose to use them for selfish intent, but that’s probably giving them too much credit.
So, what are some ways we can work on developing better critical thinking skills?
- Never accept information at face value
Just because someone has asserted something is true does not make it so. Chicken Little once said the sky was falling without scientific proof, and the boy who cried wolf was ultimately muted by his community until his claim was real and no one cared anymore. So, why do we blindly believe the naysayers and pundits who boldly swear they have all the answers and we are best to heed their advice? Maybe it is because they hold positions of authority. It could possibly be because they garner the most media attention and come across as convincing. Or better yet, maybe it is because many of us want to believe what they are saying to be the truth, so we do not question it.
Whatever the reason, this needs to stop. Imagine where we would be today as a society if no one ever questioned the false theories of the earth being flat, the sun revolving around the earth, or flight being unattainable for anyone or thing that is not a bird. The problem is that from a young age, we are told to follow orders, fall in line, and get with whatever the educational program of the time is. Teachers are not challenging students to think, but rather to do as instructed and come up with the expected answer. No one, including teachers, should be taken at face value until they have proven themselves to be reliable critical thinkers themselves.
- Cultivate a desire for researching and learning
We live in one of the greatest times imaginable for learning in human history, thanks in part to the technological advances that have put information in the palms of our hands. In the past, we would have to go to a library, search for relevant books, and spend hours dissecting the material to formulate thoughts or plans. Today, we can get answers with the click of a button, yet many squander that luxury by watching cat videos and starting fights on social media. Sure, some will fall back on good old Google occasionally, but even this is just the first step.
Google is not the be-all and end-all of determining truth or reality. It is merely a tool (an incredibly powerful one), much like an encyclopedia or almanac. The answers Google spits out to your questions do not live in a vacuum. If you scroll through enough data in your search results, you will likely find copious amounts of conflicting information. At times, there are subtle differences, and at others, it literally feels like polar opposites. To truly sift through the sea of information and arrive at informed decisions, we must embrace the process and learn continuously. Dig into the qualifications and credentials of the sources used before jumping to pick a side. Oftentimes, you will find the answer is not black or white, and it comes down to your discretion on how to process and synthesize the information.
- Be fearless when questioning everything
Have you ever had or witnessed a conversation with a young child who replies to everything you say with the question why or how come? Of course, you have. That’s just what children do – until adults tell them to stop asking questions and do as they are told. This is the beginning of their reprogramming to think questioning the status quo is a bad thing when, in reality, we should embrace their instincts for wanting to understand the rationale behind statements or commands. Inquisitive children turn into inquisitive adults, and we need more of them.
Be more like a child in your life. Instead of fearing the backlash of asking questions, embrace your childish curiosity. Asking questions does not necessarily mean you trust someone any less or disagree with what they have to say. Questions are a way of confirming understanding and retaining knowledge. It should be viewed as a sign of reverence when someone questions what you have said, because it means they are listening but need more clarity. If we fear answering those questions and providing that clarity, then our message is probably the problem, not the reaction of the other party.
- Be impartial
One of the most challenging parts about thinking critically is our ego. When we have strong feelings or beliefs on a topic, it can be difficult to set them aside and listen to or read something to the contrary. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just human nature. And by right, there are certain things society should not expect you to negotiate about or change your opinion about. But we are all human, which means we can all make mistakes. Whether or not you want to live up to those mistakes is an entirely different conversation.
While it would be wrong to entertain changing a closely held personal belief like choice of religion, values, or ethics, that does not preclude you from learning more about what other people believe. I do not need to change religions to better understand someone from another faith. If you are heterosexual, you can still understand those who opt for homosexuality or bisexuality. If you are a die-hard fan of a particular sports team, anyone rooting for another team does not become the enemy (except maybe on game days when they play each other). Whether we agree or disagree with any topic is irrelevant; it’s how we arrive at our decisions and the grace we give others that matters.
- Understand bias
To be less partial in life, we must first understand bias is a very real thing. Bias comes in all shapes and sizes, not only over topics usually in the public spotlight such as political affiliation, religion, and sexuality. Depending on how someone was raised, they may have a bias for Italian food over Chinese food, a bias for the beach over the mountains, or a bias for American-made vehicles over imports. Some might say this is merely preference and not bias, but the two are inextricably linked. The person who prefers the domestic vehicle over the imported vehicle likely has biases as to why and not all are based on facts.
To truly try removing bias from anything, the first step is to remove the words “I am” from the conversation. While there is nothing wrong with being who you are (and I’m sure Popeye would agree), it can limit your ability to see other points of view. By saying “I am,” you are affirming that you cannot change. To put that in perspective, think about these two different statements: I am fat and I am Caucasian. One of these may describe a particular trait at any point in time, but it does not define who I am. The less you staunchly identify, the easier it can be to at least understand and appreciate other points of view, even if you don’t agree with them.
- Look at the bigger picture
The devil is in the details, or so they say. And while it is true that the smallest of details can wind up ruining the most carefully thought-out plans, we should not ignore the importance of starting with a larger vision in mind. It can be easy to dig your heels in and defend a very small point you feel strongly about, but where in the grand scheme of the issue does that provide any growth or benefit? The adrenaline of arguing and instant gratification of winning will be short-lived, and lack of context will ultimately leave you wondering what you were fighting about to begin with.
Think about it like this. You get into a heated discussion over which food option is healthier – a nice fatty ribeye steak or a grilled chicken salad. Conventional wisdom would lean toward the salad being a better option since it is high in protein and low in fat. But no one asked the question of who needed to make the decision. In the case of a professional bodybuilder, the ribeye might be the better option to meet a specific calorie goal. A morbidly obese person desperately trying to lose weight would likely do better with the salad. Without that big-picture context, nothing is getting solved with any level of certainty.
- Isolate the matter when appropriate
Isolating unrelated events can be more challenging than overcoming bias or keeping an open mind. Once we have formulated an opinion on something, when based on learned experiences, our primitive brains want to believe it is true forever. But that’s not to say every occurrence in life should be isolated; one must apply some degree of common sense and, well, critical thinking to determine when to make decisions based on historical outcomes and when to isolate and prioritize new situations.
Think about a human’s dietary needs again. If someone is lactose intolerant, yet an acquaintance totes a new kind of cheese or dairy product, they should probably go with the historical outcome of the stomach damage likely to occur and forego tasting it. But, if someone has a track record for being an upstanding business person, yet gets one bad review or endorsement, that situation should be isolated. No one knows what happened in that one instance to prompt the negative critique, but plenty of other folks have already made their differing opinions known.
For clarity, thinking and critical thinking are not the same, just distant cousins of the same family tree. Taking a step back to breathe before making a rash decision is thinking. Poring over a restaurant menu to decide the best meal option is thinking. Asking more difficult questions in life that require more than just time and a one-dimensional response is where critical thinking comes into play. The thinker stranded in the desert wonders if the water they found is safe to drink. The critical thinker maps out where the source of water is, whether it is moving or stagnant, the color and presence of algae and contaminants, etc. Always try going one level deeper instead of accepting anything at face value.