“Critical Thinking” may sound like an obnoxious buzzword, but it’s actually a useful skill. Critical thinking means absorbing important information and using that to form a decision or opinion of your own, rather than just spouting off what you hear others say. This doesn’t always come naturally to us, but it’s something you can train yourself to do better.
Train Yourself to Pay Attention to the Right Details
One of the most important parts of thinking critically is learning which details matter. We’re exposed to so much information and so many different opinions every day that it’s really easy to get lost in the minutiae. Subsequently, we need to train ourselves to learn which details matter and which don’t. Start by listening to your gut. If something doesn’t sound true, that’s your first warning sign. From there, you can start looking for other holes in an argument. Here are a few ways to do that:
- Think about who benefits from a statement: When you read about news or an opinion, it’s good to think about who, if anyone, benefits from the statement being made. If someone’s making an argument, there’s a good chance they benefit from it for some reason. As Business Insider points out, that’s not always a bad thing — sometimes a person’s motivations can make their opinion more valid — but it’s good to think about who might gain from an idea.
- Question the source: With the internet, sources aren’t always immediately visible, so if something sounds off about a statement, track down where it came from initially before you form an opinion on it.
- Look for obvious statements: A common trick in debates, reviews, and even personal essays is to couch a critical argument inside a series of obviously true statements. These sort of non sequiturs are easy to miss because by the time they appear you’ve already started agreeing with a statement. Here’s an extreme example: “So, now we know the sky is blue, that grass is green, that clouds are white, and that Apple makes the best computers.”
Arguments are misleading for many reasons, and events like political debates or science discussions are a great place to train yourself to pay attention to particular details. The more you pay attention, the more automatic your critical thinking will become.
Always Ask Questions
Knowing which details to watch out for is the first part of critical thinking, but it’s pretty useless if you don’t know what types of questions to ask next. After all, thinking critically and asking questions go pretty much hand in hand.
Author and psychologist Maria Konnikova suggests a few ways to do this in the video above, using Sherlock Holmes as an example:
After he sets his goals, he goes about observing and collecting data, and asking: ok, how do I answer this question?’ and ‘What is it about this conversation, about this person, about this situation, whatever it happens to be, that will enable me to gather the data that I will then be able to use to see whether my hypothesis holds up?’ Then he does this thing that every great scientist does, and I think mediocre scientists probably do not, which is take a step back and learn to look at the data, recombine it, look at different possibility, be imaginative with that data to see, is there anything that I didn’t think of beforehand? Is my mind still open? Do I still know what’s going on? Does this data somehow make me think of new ideas? Think of new approaches? Think of things that I hadn’t thought of in the past?
Writer Scott Berkun shares his own set of questions for thinking critically:
What is the counter argument? Anyone who has seriously considered something will have seen enough facts to fit their current argument as well as alternative position: ask for them… Similarly useful questions include: Who besides you shares this opinion? What are your biggest concerns, and what will you do to address them? What would need to change for you to have a different (opposite) opinion?
This is similar to the Socratic method, where a series of questions help you reveal what you think about an argument or idea. Regardless of how you approach it, the end goal is to learn to think critically and analyse everything. As we’ve seen before, it’s important to always ask yourself why something is important and how it connects to things to you already know. As you do that, you train your brain to make connections between ideas and think critically about more information you come across.
Watch for Qualifying Phrases
Thinking critically isn’t just about training your brain. It’s also about training your ear so you notice subtle little words and phrases that can set off warning flags. As we already mentioned, it’s impossible to pay attention to everything, so knowing the handful of phrases that tend to come before a weak argument is really helpful. Generally speaking, a good warning flag for when you need to put on that critical thinking cap is when the speaker uses a qualifying statement.
- I want to say
- I’m just saying
- To be perfectly honest
- I just want you to know
- To tell you the truth
- I’m not saying
- I hear what you’re saying
- Don’t take this the wrong way
- Let’s be frank
- As far as I know
- I’m thinking that
These are the types of statements that tend to signal untruth, and they’re a good indicator that you should start paying attention. Once you do, you’ll know that it’s time to start asking questions.
Know and Confront Your Own Biases
When we talk about critical thinking it’s important to note that we’re often bad at recognising biases in our own thinking. We’re all biased about information whether we realise it or not, and part of critical thinking is cultivating the ability to see outside those biases.
“Be careful. People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things. New things…well, new things aren’t what they expect. They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man. That is what dogs do. They don’t want to know that man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that. In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds…Not news but olds, telling people that what they think they already know is true.”
Thinking critically is all about confronting those biases as often as possible. It’s tough, but if you take the time to think about opposing views throughout the day, you’ll train your brain to do that more often.
Practise Any Way You Can
As with anything, if you want to get good at critical thinking, you need to practise it every day. A lot of this can certainly be done in your own head, but you can do exercises to whip your brain into shape.
Generally, one easy way to do this is to keep a journal of some kind. This could be casual observations or a notebook with opinions, but the point is to write every single day. Once you’re comfortable writing, blogging is not only good for you, it’s also a great way to engage other people and challenge yourself to see alternate points of view. Likewise, participating in a healthy debate with friends is great practice, as is reading more conscientiously.
Critical thinking doesn’t end. The more knowledge you cultivate, the better you’ll become at thinking about it. It’s navel gazing in that you’re constantly thinking about thinking, but the end result is a brain that automatically forms better arguments, focused ideas and creative solutions to problems.