The ability to think critically is an important part of your intellectual wellness. With critical thinking, you build your ability to see things differently by examining your (and people’s) thoughts and judgments on any topic. Why is that important? Well, it’s as simple as not believing everything you hear – and maybe not anything you hear. You become aware of (and take control of) your own thinking, which leads you to be able to better define your own thoughts and opinions.
Your goal is to make sure that your beliefs are really your own, not simply ones that are passed on to you by others. Whether someone states an opinion or fact, or if you are reading a book or magazine or even an advertisement, with critical thinking, you will be less easily manipulated, and you will think more independently.
When you think critically, you learn about new things based on your own experiences and what you know to be true. You create your own beliefs and judgments and have a basis for thinking and acting more rationally and reasonably. You also protect yourself from being taken advantage of because logic and deductive reasoning insulates you.
You want to form your own opinions, as opposed to just going with what others think. To do that, listen/see/read with an open mind, and start with these three tips when faced with any opinion or statement of fact:
1. What’s the speaker’s purpose? Pay attention to what the speaker’s true purpose is, and that will help you decide how to assess his statements. Is he trying to convince you of something? Does he want you to believe his opinion is true? Is he trying to get you to accept a fact? Maybe he is making a statement as if it is a fact, when it is actually an opinion. Once you get a better grasp of the speaker’s goal, you know if you should question his statements.
2. What assumptions does the speaker want you to make? Whatever the speaker is trying to tell you or convince you of, ask yourself: Is there a basis for his opinion? Is it even logical? Is it plausible? Think about a commercial for laundry detergent where the voice-over says, “Now with Kleen Krystals that get out the toughest stains!” The advertiser wants you to make the assumption that Kleen Krystals are made up of an extra strong substance that’s good at stain-removal. But that’s a pretty big assumption, since you don’t even know what a Kleen Krystal is! So when the advertiser tries to convince you that the detergent is even stronger now because of the Krystals, the critical thinker in you realizes there really is no basis for that opinion, there’s no logical explanation that convinces you what he is saying is true, and you aren’t going to make the assumptions he wants you to make.
3. What’s the evidence? Evidence answers the question, “How do you know?”, and that’s a question that a critical thinker always wants answered. Is there any evidence to support the speaker’s opinion? Is the evidence complete? Is it believable? With any information you get from any source, it’s a great critical thinking exercise to ask how the speaker knows what he is saying is true – and keep asking it, even when you get your first answer.
When someone tells you something as fact, ask how he knows that to be true. Because someone told him? Well, how did that person know? Because she read it in a book? Well, how did the author of that book know? Because he read it in a study? Well, who wrote the study? You get the idea.
Asking yourself these three questions helps you to clarify your own thinking. The more you do it, the more it becomes second nature. Once you are in the habit of questioning what you see, read, and hear – consider yourself a critical thinker! Then try to apply your new skill when you’re in these situations:
When someone is telling you something about someone else – Do you know what she is saying is true, or is that just her interpretation of that person? If you and your friends tend to gossip about others, try to use it as an opportunity to work on your critical thinking skills. Realize that one person’s opinion isn’t fact, and that when someone relates something about someone else, her opinion of that event is just that – her opinion. It’s always much better to form your opinion about someone based on your own observations and interactions.
When you are watching a commercial on TV – Think about the characteristics of the product that the advertiser is trying to sell you on. A food that tastes better? Only you know what tastes better to you. A car that handles better? Your car handles just fine. A household cleaning product that wipes out more germs? The products you use clean your house just fine! You get the idea – watching television commercials are a great way to hone your critical thinking skills because they are always trying to convince you of something, and it’s easy to spot the parts you should be questioning.
When you are reading a news article – It’s a little tougher to practice your critical thinking skills when reading a news article, because your assumption might be that news outlets should be unbiased. But that’s what makes this a great exercise. Go to washingtonpost.com or nytimes.com and pick a news article. Skim through it and ask yourself how much of that is fact and how much of it is opinion based on fact. For the part that you think is fact, think about whether the columnist has first-hand knowledge or if the facts came from someone else. Obviously news columnists won’t always be present at the time a news event is happening, but that might help you realize how important it is to question what you are reading, even if it does seemingly come from an unbiased source.
To be fair, I sometimes read columnists who I know will have a particular slant on a topic, but I go into it knowing the columnist has that bias. It’s certainly okay to read something you know to be biased, as long as you are aware of it and always try to remember to question what you are reading.
Thinking critically means you don’t just accept something at face value. Instead of letting something answer a question for you, you question the answer. Critical thinking can be learned at any age, it just means you approach facts differently. What do you think of your own critical thinking skills? Do you think you have areas in which you can improve? Try the questioning approach above, and let me know how it works!