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How to Develop Critical Thinking Skills
If your thinking is fuzzy or flawed, your decisions may lead to less than desirable consequences. Thinking skills are easily taken for granted. “Surely I can think!” you may say to yourself. The question is, how well do you think?
Value objective reality. Our thinking can only be effective if it is based on reality. Reality is objective; it exists independently of your desires, wishes, whims, and objectives. Your thinking will be productive to the extent that you are able to accurately perceive and interpret this reality. This requires objectivity–the ability to separate “what is” from what you might want to believe or what might be more comforting to believe.
Keep an open mind. A closed mind is cut off from reality. The closed mind thinker can easily be recognized; he or she has a rigid set of opinions and attitudes that are not open to discussion. Such a thinker cannot be reasoned with, since this process involves processing new input. If you feel as if you are talking to a brick wall, you are probably dealing with a closed mind thinker. However, being open minded does not mean that you should not stand by the truth as you know it, or that you must accept every point of view. Truth will withstand questioning; only illusion is threatened by the exchange of thought.
Do not tolerate ongoing and unproductive ambiguity. Most decisions that you face involve a degree of ambiguity, a gray area between the obvious black-or-white alternatives. This is not an argument for the tolerance of uncertainty; it is a recommendation to exercise the power of thought to establish clarity. Ambiguity is often a symptom of sloppy, incomplete, or irrational thinking. When you experience such a state, it is time carefully to examine your premises, your principles, your knowledge, and the efficacy of your thinking process. Knowledge is the progressive retrieval of clarity from uncertainty and confusion.
Avoid the bandwagon. When a notion becomes popular, many people will jump on the bandwagon to embrace it. This is usually more a function of conformity than it is of critical thought. Look (and think) before you leap.
Distinguish between observation and inference, between established facts and conjectures that follow.
Withhold judgment until you are sure you have adequate information. It may be tempting to jump to conclusions, but you may end up in a hole you didn’t see. On the other hand, once you have adequate information, do not hesitate to make judgments based upon it. Judgment is part of the process of thinking, the application of your ability to come to conclusions about reality.
Maintain a sense of humor. You can’t think straight if everything seems like a matter of life and death to you. The ability to laugh at yourself and to see the humor in situations can often help you maintain clarity of thought and perspective. However, beware of laughter used as a weapon to denigrate what you value or as a psychological defense; such uses require a serious response.
Cultivate intellectual curiosity. The world is full of things you don’t yet know about. Curiosity is the sign of a mind that is free and open to the wonders of reality, unafraid to face the unknown in order to grasp new knowledge. A curious thinker will explore new manners of looking at things and doing things. Learning can be an adventure of constant and exciting discovery if you cultivate a curious mind.
Don’t take things at face value. At an early age, most of us learn not to believe everything we hear. Imagine how disappointed you would be if you believed all the claims you hear in television advertising! This same principle should be applied to the other information that comes through the media, even what is presented as “news.” It is meant to be chewed (and sometimes spit out), not swallowed whole! Beware of packaging that hides the truth. Sometimes a big box with a fancy picture on the front bears little relationship to what is hidden inside. Open it up and take a look for yourself!
Challenge conventional wisdom. Every culture is based upon certain assumptions that go largely unquestioned. Galileo Galilei, the Italian astronomer and mathematician, was brought before the Inquisition because he dared to question the “truth” that the Earth was the center of the universe. Even today, members of the Flat Earth Society are said to believe that the world is as flat as a pancake! You cannot assume what is commonly accepted as truth is indeed true. Truth is established by rational thought, not by a public opinion poll or past practice.
Resist appeals to emotion. Emotion can sometimes cloud your reason. If you are angry or ecstatic, your thought processes will not work in the same way as when you are in a more dispassionate mood. Beware of situations in which your emotions are being intentionally stimulated (by flattery, fear, or anticipations while you are being asked to make a decision. It may be a strategy to manipulate the outcome.
Do not automatically accept authority. The appeal to authority is a favorite advertising gimmick: Hollywood stars, sports figures, and popular culture heroes are used to promote everything from breakfast cereal to underwear and underarm deodorant. We are encouraged to think that if he (or she) says this is great stuff, it must be! The fact that such an authority is getting paid millions of dollars for his or her endorsement might be enough to make you question him as an objective authority.
Beware others’ ego pleasing behavior. Flattery is a time honored method of persuasion. If someone starts with flattery, they may intend to end with your thinking or your money in their pocket. It’s not always easy to tell the difference between a sincere compliment and a statement designed to manipulate you.
Be aware of your own ego enhancing behavior. Decisions can often be influenced by how you want to appear to yourself or to others. If you are overly concerned about maintaining a given image, you may be doing and saying things that are not really in your own best interest. As you achieve authentic self esteem, behavior based on appearances often loses its appeal.
Maintain a sense of perspective. When you are in the midst of an important matter, it is easy to lose a balanced view of the situation. It can often be a good practice to “zoom out” and view the matter in a larger context. One method to establish perspective: On a scale of one to ten, with one being the death of a blade of grass and ten being worldwide nuclear annihilation, what does your situation rate? Is it truly as critical as it seems at the moment?
Be aware of unspoken rules. Sometimes how we behave is dictated by hidden rules. If you are not aware of such unspoken rules, you won’t have the knowledge you need to make a wise decision. If you are in a familiar situation, chances are you know the rules (for example: don’t rock the boat, don’t question the boss, don’t challenge the professor). If you are in an unfamiliar situation (or a foreign culture), it may pay to be unusually observant and to question those more familiar with the situation. This is not to say that you should be limited by such rules, only that an awareness of them is advisable.
Be aware of nonverbal behavior clues. The impact of verbal communication is less than half of the message you receive from others. The rest of the message is communicated by nonverbal behavior. You will be influenced by both. If someone is acting friendly while painfully squeezing your hand in a handshake, you may have reason to question what he or she are saying! The same would apply if someone is stretched back in his chair and yawning while telling you how interested he is in your ideas. The clearer your perception of the facts of the situation, the clearer your thinking will be.
When under pressure, stop and think. Impulsive decision making often results in poor decisions. As the pressure for a decision increases, the temptation to make an impulsive decision also increases. You may rationalize this by thinking that any decision is better than indecision; this is rarely true. Indecision is often the result of poor decision making skills. Impulsiveness only assures that you’ll reap the consequences of poor decisions that much sooner!
See beyond labels and stereotypes. Labels and stereotypes are a type of mental shorthand that can facilitate thinking and communication. If you are in need of a four legged piece of furniture designed for sitting, it is easier to ask for a chair and to ignore the many possible variations of design and materials. However, if you are investigating a possible career choice, you should not be satisfied with a stereotypical description of the occupations involved you want to know exactly what it really means to be a police officer, brain surgeon, or financial analyst. Likewise, dealing with people from different backgrounds or cultures is seriously hampered by prejudicial stereotypes that obscure the truth.
Weed out negative self talk. Much of what passes for thinking is really self-talk–sub-vocal conversations you constantly hold with yourself. This self-talk often takes the form of critical judgments and attitudes about yourself. Your thinking skills may be undermined by self talk that conveys negative messages over and over again, reinforcing a negative self image (“I can’t do anything right,” “I’m just not as smart as everyone else”) or attitudes (“I better not trust anyone,” “School is a waste of time”). Unless this kind of negative thinking is challenged and replaced by more positive self talk, it will tend to influence your decisions in an undesirable manner. The fundamental element in such change is the cultivation of self esteem. Counseling is a good solution to this kind of problem.
Look for consistency. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” A thoughtful consistency, however, is the hallmark of careful and thorough thinking. Consistency and logic are criteria that should be applied to whatever you consider. Inconsistency is often used to obscure the truth.
Practice empathy. There’s an Indian saying that you should walk a mile in another person’s moccasins before passing judgment. In other words, you should not judge others until you fully understand their situation. By practicing this type of empathy, you will decrease the likelihood of making snap judgments that you may later regret. You may also find that a little understanding facilitates a deeper insight into other people and their behavior. The deeper your insight into yourself and others, the wiser your decisions will be.
Take time to check the facts. If you don’t have the facts straight, your decisions are likely to be skewed. In important matters, you should try to obtain firsthand access to the relevant facts. If you are trying to make a career decision and want to know something about your occupational skills, it is better to take an aptitude test than to ask your buddies what they think “you’re good at.” Likewise, it is better to find out the nature of work for a given occupation, based on accepted references and worker interviews, than to rely on stereotypes that may be full of partial truths and significant omissions. Check the reliability of your information. Did it come from a reliable source? Can you find another source that confirms your information? If you can answer yes to these questions, you can be more confident about the facts you use as a basis for your decisions.
Check the validity of your information. Information may be reliable but not valid. Validity has to do with the relevance of the information to the context in which it is being applied. It may be a reliable fact that when you strike a match, fire will result–unless you are underwater or in the vacuum of outer space! Context is important!
Cultivate listening skills. When it comes to conversation, what you hear is what you get. Listening is another skill we tend to take for granted, but it is rarely utilized as effectively as we think. How many times have you been in the middle of a conversation and suddenly realized that the other person had asked you a question that you didn’t even hear? How often are you so preoccupied with your own thoughts in class that you tune out the instructor? It happens to us all, which illustrates the difficulty of practicing this seemingly simple skill. The better you listen, the more correct information you will obtain; the more correct information you have, the better decisions you will make.
Be aware of illogical thinking. There are entire philosophy books devoted to logic and the manner in which it can be distorted. Stereotypes are often based on illogical thinking, applying specific characteristics in a universal manner without verifiable basis in fact, or assuming a causal connection between two unrelated events. Advertising commonly encourages illogical associations: beef is touted as “food for real people” (what do “unreal” people eat?), and white teeth or the right deodorant seem to guarantee a bevy of babes (or hunks) at your feet (Where’s the Crest?). It may seem obvious that such claims are ridiculous, but someone is paying big bucks for these commercials for a reason!
Heed your intuition. All of us have hunches about things at one time or another. These hunches are often the result of information that registers at a level other than conscious awareness. It’s like when you sense someone staring at you, only to look up and find it is true. There was no logical reason to believe someone was looking it you, but it somehow registered nevertheless. Intuition cannot take the place of logical thought, but it can be developed as a valuable supplement. By trying to be more aware of your intuitions, you can increase your sensitivity to this kind of information. As you learn to test it and to trust it, it can enhance your decision making skills.