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  • Welcome to critical thinking
  • The importance of critical thinking
  • Distinguish causes vs. consequences
  • Break big problems into small ones
  • Define the problem statement
  • Understand the real question
  • Ask focusing questions
  • Examine past efforts
  • Use new lenses to think critically
  • How to find root causes
  • Challenge how the business operates
  • Use the five whys of critical thinking
  • Answer the seven so-whats?
  • Use the 80/20 rule to think critically
  • How to successfully conduct analysis
  • Consider the implications of answers
  • Teach others how to think critically
  • Common pitfalls when solving problems
  • Apply critical thinking every day

Mike Figliuolo

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Critical thinking: how to develop critical thinking skills, solving problems with creative and critical thinking, critical thinking: reasoned decision making, critical thinking & problem solving brilliance, an introduction to critical thinking, related articles, 1000 hours of free linkedin learning courses with free certification.

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Critical Thinking

Developing the right mindset and skills.

By the Mind Tools Content Team

We make hundreds of decisions every day and, whether we realize it or not, we're all critical thinkers.

We use critical thinking each time we weigh up our options, prioritize our responsibilities, or think about the likely effects of our actions. It's a crucial skill that helps us to cut out misinformation and make wise decisions. The trouble is, we're not always very good at it!

In this article, we'll explore the key skills that you need to develop your critical thinking skills, and how to adopt a critical thinking mindset, so that you can make well-informed decisions.

What Is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is the discipline of rigorously and skillfully using information, experience, observation, and reasoning to guide your decisions, actions, and beliefs. You'll need to actively question every step of your thinking process to do it well.

Collecting, analyzing and evaluating information is an important skill in life, and a highly valued asset in the workplace. People who score highly in critical thinking assessments are also rated by their managers as having good problem-solving skills, creativity, strong decision-making skills, and good overall performance. [1]

Key Critical Thinking Skills

Critical thinkers possess a set of key characteristics which help them to question information and their own thinking. Focus on the following areas to develop your critical thinking skills:

Being willing and able to explore alternative approaches and experimental ideas is crucial. Can you think through "what if" scenarios, create plausible options, and test out your theories? If not, you'll tend to write off ideas and options too soon, so you may miss the best answer to your situation.

To nurture your curiosity, stay up to date with facts and trends. You'll overlook important information if you allow yourself to become "blinkered," so always be open to new information.

But don't stop there! Look for opposing views or evidence to challenge your information, and seek clarification when things are unclear. This will help you to reassess your beliefs and make a well-informed decision later. Read our article, Opening Closed Minds , for more ways to stay receptive.

Logical Thinking

You must be skilled at reasoning and extending logic to come up with plausible options or outcomes.

It's also important to emphasize logic over emotion. Emotion can be motivating but it can also lead you to take hasty and unwise action, so control your emotions and be cautious in your judgments. Know when a conclusion is "fact" and when it is not. "Could-be-true" conclusions are based on assumptions and must be tested further. Read our article, Logical Fallacies , for help with this.

Use creative problem solving to balance cold logic. By thinking outside of the box you can identify new possible outcomes by using pieces of information that you already have.


Many of the decisions we make in life are subtly informed by our values and beliefs. These influences are called cognitive biases and it can be difficult to identify them in ourselves because they're often subconscious.

Practicing self-awareness will allow you to reflect on the beliefs you have and the choices you make. You'll then be better equipped to challenge your own thinking and make improved, unbiased decisions.

One particularly useful tool for critical thinking is the Ladder of Inference . It allows you to test and validate your thinking process, rather than jumping to poorly supported conclusions.

Developing a Critical Thinking Mindset

Combine the above skills with the right mindset so that you can make better decisions and adopt more effective courses of action. You can develop your critical thinking mindset by following this process:

Gather Information

First, collect data, opinions and facts on the issue that you need to solve. Draw on what you already know, and turn to new sources of information to help inform your understanding. Consider what gaps there are in your knowledge and seek to fill them. And look for information that challenges your assumptions and beliefs.

Be sure to verify the authority and authenticity of your sources. Not everything you read is true! Use this checklist to ensure that your information is valid:

  • Are your information sources trustworthy ? (For example, well-respected authors, trusted colleagues or peers, recognized industry publications, websites, blogs, etc.)
  • Is the information you have gathered up to date ?
  • Has the information received any direct criticism ?
  • Does the information have any errors or inaccuracies ?
  • Is there any evidence to support or corroborate the information you have gathered?
  • Is the information you have gathered subjective or biased in any way? (For example, is it based on opinion, rather than fact? Is any of the information you have gathered designed to promote a particular service or organization?)

If any information appears to be irrelevant or invalid, don't include it in your decision making. But don't omit information just because you disagree with it, or your final decision will be flawed and bias.

Now observe the information you have gathered, and interpret it. What are the key findings and main takeaways? What does the evidence point to? Start to build one or two possible arguments based on what you have found.

You'll need to look for the details within the mass of information, so use your powers of observation to identify any patterns or similarities. You can then analyze and extend these trends to make sensible predictions about the future.

To help you to sift through the multiple ideas and theories, it can be useful to group and order items according to their characteristics. From here, you can compare and contrast the different items. And once you've determined how similar or different things are from one another, Paired Comparison Analysis can help you to analyze them.

The final step involves challenging the information and rationalizing its arguments.

Apply the laws of reason (induction, deduction, analogy) to judge an argument and determine its merits. To do this, it's essential that you can determine the significance and validity of an argument to put it in the correct perspective. Take a look at our article, Rational Thinking , for more information about how to do this.

Once you have considered all of the arguments and options rationally, you can finally make an informed decision.

Afterward, take time to reflect on what you have learned and what you found challenging. Step back from the detail of your decision or problem, and look at the bigger picture. Record what you've learned from your observations and experience.

Critical thinking involves rigorously and skilfully using information, experience, observation, and reasoning to guide your decisions, actions and beliefs. It's a useful skill in the workplace and in life.

You'll need to be curious and creative to explore alternative possibilities, but rational to apply logic, and self-aware to identify when your beliefs could affect your decisions or actions.

You can demonstrate a high level of critical thinking by validating your information, analyzing its meaning, and finally evaluating the argument.

Critical Thinking Infographic

See Critical Thinking represented in our infographic: An Elementary Guide to Critical Thinking .

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13 Easy Steps To Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills

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With the sheer volume of information that we’re bombarded with on a daily basis – and with the pervasiveness of fake news and social media bubbles – the ability to look at evidence, evaluate the trustworthiness of a source, and think critically is becoming more important than ever. This is why, for me, critical thinking is one of the most vital skills to cultivate for future success.

Critical thinking isn’t about being constantly negative or critical of everything. It’s about objectivity and having an open, inquisitive mind. To think critically is to analyze issues based on hard evidence (as opposed to personal opinions, biases, etc.) in order to build a thorough understanding of what’s really going on. And from this place of thorough understanding, you can make better decisions and solve problems more effectively.

To put it another way, critical thinking means arriving at your own carefully considered conclusions instead of taking information at face value. Here are 13 ways you can cultivate this precious skill:

1. Always vet new information with a cautious eye. Whether it’s an article someone has shared online or data that’s related to your job, always vet the information you're presented with. Good questions to ask here include, "Is this information complete and up to date?” “What evidence is being presented to support the argument?” and “Whose voice is missing here?”

2. Look at where the information has come from. Is the source trustworthy? What is their motivation for presenting this information? For example, are they trying to sell you something or get you to take a certain action (like vote for them)?

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3. Consider more than one point of view. Everyone has their own opinions and motivations – even highly intelligent people making reasonable-sounding arguments have personal opinions and biases that shape their thinking. So, when someone presents you with information, consider whether there are other sides to the story.

4. Practice active listening. Listen carefully to what others are telling you, and try to build a clear picture of their perspective. Empathy is a really useful skill here since putting yourself in another person's shoes can help you understand where they're coming from and what they might want. Try to listen without judgment – remember, critical thinking is about keeping an open mind.

5. Gather additional information where needed. Whenever you identify gaps in the information or data, do your own research to fill those gaps. The next few steps will help you do this objectively…

6. Ask lots of open-ended questions. Curiosity is a key trait of critical thinkers, so channel your inner child and ask lots of "who," "what," and "why" questions.

7. Find your own reputable sources of information, such as established news sites, nonprofit organizations, and education institutes. Try to avoid anonymous sources or sources with an ax to grind or a product to sell. Also, be sure to check when the information was published. An older source may be unintentionally offering up wrong information just because events have moved on since it was published; corroborate the info with a more recent source.

8. Try not to get your news from social media. And if you do see something on social media that grabs your interest, check the accuracy of the story (via reputable sources of information, as above) before you share it.

9. Learn to spot fake news. It's not always easy to spot false or misleading content, but a good rule of thumb is to look at the language, emotion, and tone of the piece. Is it using emotionally charged language, for instance, and trying to get you to feel a certain way? Also, look at the sources of facts, figures, images, and quotes. A legit news story will clearly state its sources.

10. Learn to spot biased information. Like fake news, biased information may seek to appeal more to your emotions than logic and/or present a limited view of the topic. So ask yourself, “Is there more to this topic than what’s being presented here?” Do your own reading around the topic to establish the full picture.

11. Question your own biases, too. Everyone has biases, and there’s no point pretending otherwise. The trick is to think objectively about your likes and dislikes, preferences, and beliefs, and consider how these might affect your thinking.

12. Form your own opinions. Remember, critical thinking is about thinking independently. So once you’ve assessed all the information, form your own conclusions about it.

13. Continue to work on your critical thinking skills. I recommend looking at online learning platforms such as Udemy and Coursera for courses on general critical thinking skills, as well as courses on specific subjects like cognitive biases.

Read more about critical thinking and other essential skills in my new book, Future Skills: The 20 Skills & Competencies Everyone Needs To Succeed In A Digital World . Written for anyone who wants to surf the wave of digital transformation – rather than be drowned by it – the book explores why these vital future skills matter and how to develop them.

Bernard Marr

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How to build critical thinking skills for better decision-making

It’s simple in theory, but tougher in practice – here are five tips to get you started.

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Have you heard the riddle about two coins that equal thirty cents, but one of them is not a nickel? What about the one where a surgeon says they can’t operate on their own son?

Those brain teasers tap into your critical thinking skills. But your ability to think critically isn’t just helpful for solving those random puzzles – it plays a big role in your career. 

An impressive 81% of employers say critical thinking carries a lot of weight when they’re evaluating job candidates. It ranks as the top competency companies consider when hiring recent graduates (even ahead of communication ). Plus, once you’re hired, several studies show that critical thinking skills are highly correlated with better job performance.

So what exactly are critical thinking skills? And even more importantly, how do you build and improve them? 

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is the ability to evaluate facts and information, remain objective, and make a sound decision about how to move forward.

Does that sound like how you approach every decision or problem? Not so fast. Critical thinking seems simple in theory but is much tougher in practice, which helps explain why 65% of employers say their organization has a need for more critical thinking. 

In reality, critical thinking doesn’t come naturally to a lot of us. In order to do it well, you need to:

  • Remain open-minded and inquisitive, rather than relying on assumptions or jumping to conclusions
  • Ask questions and dig deep, rather than accepting information at face value
  • Keep your own biases and perceptions in check to stay as objective as possible
  • Rely on your emotional intelligence to fill in the blanks and gain a more well-rounded understanding of a situation

So, critical thinking isn’t just being intelligent or analytical. In many ways, it requires you to step outside of yourself, let go of your own preconceived notions, and approach a problem or situation with curiosity and fairness.

It’s a challenge, but it’s well worth it. Critical thinking skills will help you connect ideas, make reasonable decisions, and solve complex problems.

7 critical thinking skills to help you dig deeper

Critical thinking is often labeled as a skill itself (you’ll see it bulleted as a desired trait in a variety of job descriptions). But it’s better to think of critical thinking less as a distinct skill and more as a collection or category of skills. 

To think critically, you’ll need to tap into a bunch of your other soft skills. Here are seven of the most important. 


It’s important to kick off the critical thinking process with the idea that anything is possible. The more you’re able to set aside your own suspicions, beliefs, and agenda, the better prepared you are to approach the situation with the level of inquisitiveness you need. 

That means not closing yourself off to any possibilities and allowing yourself the space to pull on every thread – yes, even the ones that seem totally implausible.

As Christopher Dwyer, Ph.D. writes in a piece for Psychology Today , “Even if an idea appears foolish, sometimes its consideration can lead to an intelligent, critically considered conclusion.” He goes on to compare the critical thinking process to brainstorming . Sometimes the “bad” ideas are what lay the foundation for the good ones. 

Open-mindedness is challenging because it requires more effort and mental bandwidth than sticking with your own perceptions. Approaching problems or situations with true impartiality often means:

  • Practicing self-regulation : Giving yourself a pause between when you feel something and when you actually react or take action.
  • Challenging your own biases: Acknowledging your biases and seeking feedback are two powerful ways to get a broader understanding. 

Critical thinking example

In a team meeting, your boss mentioned that your company newsletter signups have been decreasing and she wants to figure out why.

At first, you feel offended and defensive – it feels like she’s blaming you for the dip in subscribers. You recognize and rationalize that emotion before thinking about potential causes. You have a hunch about what’s happening, but you will explore all possibilities and contributions from your team members.


Observation is, of course, your ability to notice and process the details all around you (even the subtle or seemingly inconsequential ones). Critical thinking demands that you’re flexible and willing to go beyond surface-level information, and solid observation skills help you do that.

Your observations help you pick up on clues from a variety of sources and experiences, all of which help you draw a final conclusion. After all, sometimes it’s the most minuscule realization that leads you to the strongest conclusion.

Over the next week or so, you keep a close eye on your company’s website and newsletter analytics to see if numbers are in fact declining or if your boss’s concerns were just a fluke. 

Critical thinking hinges on objectivity. And, to be objective, you need to base your judgments on the facts – which you collect through research. You’ll lean on your research skills to gather as much information as possible that’s relevant to your problem or situation. 

Keep in mind that this isn’t just about the quantity of information – quality matters too. You want to find data and details from a variety of trusted sources to drill past the surface and build a deeper understanding of what’s happening. 

You dig into your email and website analytics to identify trends in bounce rates, time on page, conversions, and more. You also review recent newsletters and email promotions to understand what customers have received, look through current customer feedback, and connect with your customer support team to learn what they’re hearing in their conversations with customers.

The critical thinking process is sort of like a treasure hunt – you’ll find some nuggets that are fundamental for your final conclusion and some that might be interesting but aren’t pertinent to the problem at hand.

That’s why you need analytical skills. They’re what help you separate the wheat from the chaff, prioritize information, identify trends or themes, and draw conclusions based on the most relevant and influential facts. 

It’s easy to confuse analytical thinking with critical thinking itself, and it’s true there is a lot of overlap between the two. But analytical thinking is just a piece of critical thinking. It focuses strictly on the facts and data, while critical thinking incorporates other factors like emotions, opinions, and experiences. 

As you analyze your research, you notice that one specific webpage has contributed to a significant decline in newsletter signups. While all of the other sources have stayed fairly steady with regard to conversions, that one has sharply decreased.

You decide to move on from your other hypotheses about newsletter quality and dig deeper into the analytics. 

One of the traps of critical thinking is that it’s easy to feel like you’re never done. There’s always more information you could collect and more rabbit holes you could fall down.

But at some point, you need to accept that you’ve done your due diligence and make a decision about how to move forward. That’s where inference comes in. It’s your ability to look at the evidence and facts available to you and draw an informed conclusion based on those. 

When you’re so focused on staying objective and pursuing all possibilities, inference can feel like the antithesis of critical thinking. But ultimately, it’s your inference skills that allow you to move out of the thinking process and onto the action steps. 

You dig deeper into the analytics for the page that hasn’t been converting and notice that the sharp drop-off happened around the same time you switched email providers.

After looking more into the backend, you realize that the signup form on that page isn’t correctly connected to your newsletter platform. It seems like anybody who has signed up on that page hasn’t been fed to your email list. 


3 ways to improve your communication skills at work

3 ways to improve your communication skills at work

If and when you identify a solution or answer, you can’t keep it close to the vest. You’ll need to use your communication skills to share your findings with the relevant stakeholders – like your boss, team members, or anybody who needs to be involved in the next steps.

Your analysis skills will come in handy here too, as they’ll help you determine what information other people need to know so you can avoid bogging them down with unnecessary details. 

In your next team meeting, you pull up the analytics and show your team the sharp drop-off as well as the missing connection between that page and your email platform. You ask the web team to reinstall and double-check that connection and you also ask a member of the marketing team to draft an apology email to the subscribers who were missed. 


Critical thinking and problem-solving are two more terms that are frequently confused. After all, when you think critically, you’re often doing so with the objective of solving a problem.

The best way to understand how problem-solving and critical thinking differ is to think of problem-solving as much more narrow. You’re focused on finding a solution.

In contrast, you can use critical thinking for a variety of use cases beyond solving a problem – like answering questions or identifying opportunities for improvement. Even so, within the critical thinking process, you’ll flex your problem-solving skills when it comes time to take action. 

Once the fix is implemented, you monitor the analytics to see if subscribers continue to increase. If not (or if they increase at a slower rate than you anticipated), you’ll roll out some other tests like changing the CTA language or the placement of the subscribe form on the page.

5 ways to improve your critical thinking skills

Beyond the buzzwords: Why interpersonal skills matter at work

Beyond the buzzwords: Why interpersonal skills matter at work

Think critically about critical thinking and you’ll quickly realize that it’s not as instinctive as you’d like it to be. Fortunately, your critical thinking skills are learned competencies and not inherent gifts – and that means you can improve them. Here’s how:

  • Practice active listening: Active listening helps you process and understand what other people share. That’s crucial as you aim to be open-minded and inquisitive.
  • Ask open-ended questions: If your critical thinking process involves collecting feedback and opinions from others, ask open-ended questions (meaning, questions that can’t be answered with “yes” or “no”). Doing so will give you more valuable information and also prevent your own biases from influencing people’s input.
  • Scrutinize your sources: Figuring out what to trust and prioritize is crucial for critical thinking. Boosting your media literacy and asking more questions will help you be more discerning about what to factor in. It’s hard to strike a balance between skepticism and open-mindedness, but approaching information with questions (rather than unquestioning trust) will help you draw better conclusions. 
  • Play a game: Remember those riddles we mentioned at the beginning? As trivial as they might seem, games and exercises like those can help you boost your critical thinking skills. There are plenty of critical thinking exercises you can do individually or as a team . 
  • Give yourself time: Research shows that rushed decisions are often regrettable ones. That’s likely because critical thinking takes time – you can’t do it under the wire. So, for big decisions or hairy problems, give yourself enough time and breathing room to work through the process. It’s hard enough to think critically without a countdown ticking in your brain. 

Critical thinking really is critical

The ability to think critically is important, but it doesn’t come naturally to most of us. It’s just easier to stick with biases, assumptions, and surface-level information. 

But that route often leads you to rash judgments, shaky conclusions, and disappointing decisions. So here’s a conclusion we can draw without any more noodling: Even if it is more demanding on your mental resources, critical thinking is well worth the effort.

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How to build your critical thinking skills in 7 steps (with examples)

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Critical thinking is, well, critical. By building these skills, you improve your ability to analyze information and come to the best decision possible. In this article, we cover the basics of critical thinking, as well as the seven steps you can use to implement the full critical thinking process. 

Critical thinking comes from asking the right questions to come to the best conclusion possible. Strong critical thinkers analyze information from a variety of viewpoints in order to identify the best course of action.

Don’t worry if you don’t think you have strong critical thinking abilities. In this article, we’ll help you build a foundation for critical thinking so you can absorb, analyze, and make informed decisions. 

What is critical thinking? 

Critical thinking is the ability to collect and analyze information to come to a conclusion. Being able to think critically is important in virtually every industry and applicable across a wide range of positions. That’s because critical thinking isn’t subject-specific—rather, it’s your ability to parse through information, data, statistics, and other details in order to identify a satisfactory solution. 

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Top 8 critical thinking skills

Like most soft skills, critical thinking isn’t something you can take a class to learn. Rather, this skill consists of a variety of interpersonal and analytical skills. Developing critical thinking is more about learning to embrace open-mindedness and bringing analytical thinking to your problem framing process. 

In no particular order, the eight most important critical thinking skills are:

Analytical thinking: Part of critical thinking is evaluating data from multiple sources in order to come to the best conclusions. Analytical thinking allows people to reject bias and strive to gather and consume information to come to the best conclusion. 

Open-mindedness: This critical thinking skill helps you analyze and process information to come to an unbiased conclusion. Part of the critical thinking process is letting your personal biases go and coming to a conclusion based on all of the information. 

Problem solving : Because critical thinking emphasizes coming to the best conclusion based on all of the available information, it’s a key part of problem solving. When used correctly, critical thinking helps you solve any problem—from a workplace challenge to difficulties in everyday life. 

Self-regulation: Self-regulation refers to the ability to regulate your thoughts and set aside any personal biases to come to the best conclusion. In order to be an effective critical thinker, you need to question the information you have and the decisions you favor—only then can you come to the best conclusion. 

Observation: Observation skills help critical thinkers look for things beyond face value. To be a critical thinker you need to embrace multiple points of view, and you can use observation skills to identify potential problems.

Interpretation: Not all data is made equal—and critical thinkers know this. In addition to gathering information, it’s important to evaluate which information is important and relevant to your situation. That way, you can draw the best conclusions from the data you’ve collected. 

Evaluation: When you attempt to answer a hard question, there is rarely an obvious answer. Even though critical thinking emphasizes putting your biases aside, you need to be able to confidently make a decision based on the data you have available. 

Communication: Once a decision has been made, you also need to share this decision with other stakeholders. Effective workplace communication includes presenting evidence and supporting your conclusion—especially if there are a variety of different possible solutions. 

7 steps to critical thinking

Critical thinking is a skill that you can build by following these seven steps. The seven steps to critical thinking help you ensure you’re approaching a problem from the right angle, considering every alternative, and coming to an unbiased conclusion.

 First things first: When to use the 7 step critical thinking process

There’s a lot that goes into the full critical thinking process, and not every decision needs to be this thought out. Sometimes, it’s enough to put aside bias and approach a process logically. In other, more complex cases, the best way to identify the ideal outcome is to go through the entire critical thinking process. 

The seven-step critical thinking process is useful for complex decisions in areas you are less familiar with. Alternatively, the seven critical thinking steps can help you look at a problem you’re familiar with from a different angle, without any bias. 

If you need to make a less complex decision, consider another problem solving strategy instead. Decision matrices are a great way to identify the best option between different choices. Check out our article on 7 steps to creating a decision matrix .

1. Identify the problem

Before you put those critical thinking skills to work, you first need to identify the problem you’re solving. This step includes taking a look at the problem from a few different perspectives and asking questions like: 

What’s happening? 

Why is this happening? 

What assumptions am I making? 

At first glance, how do I think we can solve this problem? 

A big part of developing your critical thinking skills is learning how to come to unbiased conclusions. In order to do that, you first need to acknowledge the biases that you currently have. Does someone on your team think they know the answer? Are you making assumptions that aren’t necessarily true? Identifying these details helps you later on in the process. 

2. Research

At this point, you likely have a general idea of the problem—but in order to come up with the best solution, you need to dig deeper. 

During the research process, collect information relating to the problem, including data, statistics, historical project information, team input, and more. Make sure you gather information from a variety of sources, especially if those sources go against your personal ideas about what the problem is or how to solve it.

Gathering varied information is essential for your ability to apply the critical thinking process. If you don’t get enough information, your ability to make a final decision will be skewed. Remember that critical thinking is about helping you identify the objective best conclusion. You aren’t going with your gut—you’re doing research to find the best option

3. Determine data relevance

Just as it’s important to gather a variety of information, it is also important to determine how relevant the different information sources are. After all, just because there is data doesn’t mean it’s relevant. 

Once you’ve gathered all of the information, sift through the noise and identify what information is relevant and what information isn’t. Synthesizing all of this information and establishing significance helps you weigh different data sources and come to the best conclusion later on in the critical thinking process. 

To determine data relevance, ask yourself:

How reliable is this information? 

How significant is this information? 

Is this information outdated? Is it specialized in a specific field? 

4. Ask questions

One of the most useful parts of the critical thinking process is coming to a decision without bias. In order to do so, you need to take a step back from the process and challenge the assumptions you’re making. 

We all have bias—and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Unconscious biases (also known as cognitive biases) often serve as mental shortcuts to simplify problem solving and aid decision making. But even when biases aren’t inherently bad, you must be aware of your biases in order to put them aside when necessary. 

Before coming to a solution, ask yourself:

Am I making any assumptions about this information? 

Are there additional variables I haven’t considered? 

Have I evaluated the information from every perspective? 

Are there any viewpoints I missed? 

5. Identify the best solution

Finally, you’re ready to come to a conclusion. To identify the best solution, draw connections between causes and effects. Use the facts you’ve gathered to evaluate the most objective conclusion. 

Keep in mind that there may be more than one solution. Often, the problems you’re facing are complex and intricate. The critical thinking process doesn’t necessarily lead to a cut-and-dry solution—instead, the process helps you understand the different variables at play so you can make an informed decision. 

6. Present your solution

Communication is a key skill for critical thinkers. It isn’t enough to think for yourself—you also need to share your conclusion with other project stakeholders. If there are multiple solutions, present them all. There may be a case where you implement one solution, then test to see if it works before implementing another solution. 

7. Analyze your decision

The seven-step critical thinking process yields a result—and you then need to put that solution into place. After you’ve implemented your decision, evaluate whether or not it was effective. Did it solve the initial problem? What lessons—whether positive or negative—can you learn from this experience to improve your critical thinking for next time? 

Depending on how your team shares information, consider documenting lessons learned in a central source of truth. That way, team members that are making similar or related decisions in the future can understand why you made the decision you made and what the outcome was. 

Example of critical thinking in the workplace

Imagine you work in user experience design (UX). Your team is focused on pricing and packaging and ensuring customers have a clear understanding of the different services your company offers. Here’s how to apply the critical thinking process in the workplace in seven steps: 

Start by identifying the problem

Your current pricing page isn’t performing as well as you want. You’ve heard from customers that your services aren’t clear, and that the page doesn’t answer the questions they have. This page is really important for your company, since it’s where your customers sign up for your service. You and your team have a few theories about why your current page isn’t performing well, but you decide to apply the critical thinking process to ensure you come to the best decision for the page. 

Gather information about how the problem started

Part of identifying the problem includes understanding how the problem started. The pricing and packaging page is important—so when your team initially designed the page, they certainly put a lot of thought into it. Before you begin researching how to improve the page, ask yourself: 

Why did you design the pricing page the way you did? 

Which stakeholders need to be involved in the decision making process? 

Where are users getting stuck on the page?

Are any features currently working?

Then, you research

In addition to understanding the history of the pricing and packaging page, it’s important to understand what works well. Part of this research means taking a look at what your competitor’s pricing pages look like. 

Ask yourself: 

How have our competitors set up their pricing pages?

Are there any pricing page best practices? 

How does color, positioning, and animation impact navigation? 

Are there any standard page layouts customers expect to see? 

Organize and analyze information

You’ve gathered all of the information you need—now you need to organize and analyze it. What trends, if any, are you noticing? Is there any particularly relevant or important information that you have to consider? 

Ask open-ended questions to reduce bias

In the case of critical thinking, it’s important to address and set bias aside as much as possible. Ask yourself: 

Is there anything I’m missing? 

Have I connected with the right stakeholders? 

Are there any other viewpoints I should consider? 

Determine the best solution for your team

You now have all of the information you need to design the best pricing page. Depending on the complexity of the design, you may want to design a few options to present to a small group of customers or A/B test on the live website.

Present your solution to stakeholders

Critical thinking can help you in every element of your life, but in the workplace, you must also involve key project stakeholders . Stakeholders help you determine next steps, like whether you’ll A/B test the page first. Depending on the complexity of the issue, consider hosting a meeting or sharing a status report to get everyone on the same page. 

Analyze the results

No process is complete without evaluating the results. Once the new page has been live for some time, evaluate whether it did better than the previous page. What worked? What didn’t? This also helps you make better critical decisions later on.

Critically successful 

Critical thinking takes time to build, but with effort and patience you can apply an unbiased, analytical mind to any situation. Critical thinking makes up one of many soft skills that makes you an effective team member, manager, and worker. If you’re looking to hone your skills further, read our article on the 25 project management skills you need to succeed . 

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Critical Thinking, Intelligence, and Unsubstantiated Beliefs: An Integrative Review

Associated data.

This research did not involve collection of original data, and hence there are no new data to make available.

A review of the research shows that critical thinking is a more inclusive construct than intelligence, going beyond what general cognitive ability can account for. For instance, critical thinking can more completely account for many everyday outcomes, such as how thinkers reject false conspiracy theories, paranormal and pseudoscientific claims, psychological misconceptions, and other unsubstantiated claims. Deficiencies in the components of critical thinking (in specific reasoning skills, dispositions, and relevant knowledge) contribute to unsubstantiated belief endorsement in ways that go beyond what standardized intelligence tests test. Specifically, people who endorse unsubstantiated claims less tend to show better critical thinking skills, possess more relevant knowledge, and are more disposed to think critically. They tend to be more scientifically skeptical and possess a more rational–analytic cognitive style, while those who accept unsubstantiated claims more tend to be more cynical and adopt a more intuitive–experiential cognitive style. These findings suggest that for a fuller understanding of unsubstantiated beliefs, researchers and instructors should also assess specific reasoning skills, relevant knowledge, and dispositions which go beyond what intelligence tests test.

1. Introduction

Why do some people believe implausible claims, such as the QAnon conspiracy theory, that a cabal of liberals is kidnapping and trafficking many thousands of children each year, despite the lack of any credible supporting evidence? Are believers less intelligent than non-believers? Do they lack knowledge of such matters? Are they more gullible or less skeptical than non-believers? Or, more generally, are they failing to think critically?

Understanding the factors contributing to acceptance of unsubstantiated claims is important, not only to the development of theories of intelligence and critical thinking but also because many unsubstantiated beliefs are false, and some are even dangerous. Endorsing them can have a negative impact on an individual and society at large. For example, false beliefs about the COVID-19 pandemic, such as believing that 5G cell towers induced the spread of the COVID-19 virus, led some British citizens to set fire to 5G towers ( Jolley and Paterson 2020 ). Other believers in COVID-19 conspiracy theories endangered their own and their children’s lives when they refused to socially distance and be vaccinated with highly effective vaccines, despite the admonitions of scientific experts ( Bierwiaczonek et al. 2020 ). Further endangering the population at large, those who believe the false conspiracy theory that human-caused global warming is a hoax likely fail to respond adaptively to this serious global threat ( van der Linden 2015 ). Parents, who uncritically accept pseudoscientific claims, such as the false belief that facilitated communication is an effective treatment for childhood autism, may forego more effective treatments ( Lilienfeld 2007 ). Moreover, people in various parts of the world still persecute other people whom they believe are witches possessing supernatural powers. Likewise, many people still believe in demonic possession, which has been associated with mental disorders ( Nie and Olson 2016 ). Compounding the problems created by these various unsubstantiated beliefs, numerous studies now show that when someone accepts one of these types of unfounded claims, they tend to accept others as well; see Bensley et al. ( 2022 ) for a review.

Studying the factors that contribute to unfounded beliefs is important not only because of their real-world consequences but also because this can facilitate a better understanding of unfounded beliefs and how they are related to critical thinking and intelligence. This article focuses on important ways in which critical thinking and intelligence differ, especially in terms of how a comprehensive model of CT differs from the view of intelligence as general cognitive ability. I argue that this model of CT more fully accounts for how people can accurately decide if a claim is unsubstantiated than can views of intelligence, emphasizing general cognitive ability. In addition to general cognitive ability, thinking critically about unsubstantiated claims involves deployment of specific reasoning skills, dispositions related to CT, and specific knowledge, which go beyond the contribution of general cognitive ability.

Accordingly, this article begins with an examination of the constructs of critical thinking and intelligence. Then, it discusses theories proposing that to understand thinking in the real world requires going beyond general cognitive ability. Specifically, the focus is on factors related to critical thinking, such as specific reasoning skills, dispositions, metacognition, and relevant knowledge. I review research showing that that this alternative multidimensional view of CT can better account for individual differences in the tendency to endorse multiple types of unsubstantiated claims than can general cognitive ability alone.

2. Defining Critical Thinking and Intelligence

Critical thinking is an almost universally valued educational objective in the US and in many other countries which seek to improve it. In contrast, intelligence, although much valued, has often been viewed as a more stable characteristic and less amenable to improvement through specific short-term interventions, such as traditional instruction or more recently through practice on computer-implemented training programs. According to Wechsler’s influential definition, intelligence is a person’s “aggregate or global capacity to act purposefully, to think rationally, and to deal effectively with his environment” ( Wechsler 1944, p. 3 ).

Consistent with this definition, intelligence has long been associated with general cognitive or intellectual ability and the potential to learn and reason well. Intelligence (IQ) tests measure general cognitive abilities, such as knowledge of words, memory skills, analogical reasoning, speed of processing, and the ability to solve verbal and spatial problems. General intelligence or “g” is a composite of these abilities statistically derived from various cognitive subtests on IQ tests which are positively intercorrelated. There is considerable overlap between g and the concept of fluid intelligence (Gf) in the prominent Cattell–Horn–Carroll model ( McGrew 2009 ), which refers to “the ability to solve novel problems, the solution of which does not depend on previously acquired skills and knowledge,” and crystalized intelligence (Gc), which refers to experience, existing skills, and general knowledge ( Conway and Kovacs 2018, pp. 50–51 ). Although g or general intelligence is based on a higher order factor, inclusive of fluid and crystallized intelligence, it is technically not the same as general cognitive ability, a commonly used, related term. However, in this article, I use “general cognitive ability” and “cognitive ability” because they are the imprecise terms frequently used in the research reviewed.

Although IQ scores have been found to predict performance in basic real-world domains, such as academic performance and job success ( Gottfredson 2004 ), an enduring question for intelligence researchers has been whether g and intelligence tests predict the ability to adapt well in other real-world situations, which concerns the second part of Wechsler’s definition. So, in addition to the search for the underlying structure of intelligence, researchers have been perennially concerned with how general abilities associated with intelligence can be applied to help a person adapt to real-world situations. The issue is largely a question of how cognitive ability and intelligence can help people solve real-world problems and cope adaptively and succeed in dealing with various environmental demands ( Sternberg 2019 ).

Based on broad conceptual definitions of intelligence and critical thinking, both intelligence and CT should aid adaptive functioning in the real world, presumably because they both involve rational approaches. Their common association with rationality gives each term a positive connotation. However, complicating the definition of each of these is the fact that rationality also continues to have a variety of meanings. In this article, in agreement with Stanovich et al. ( 2018 ), rationality is defined in the normative sense, used in cognitive science, as the distance between a person’s response and some normative standard of optimal behavior. As such, degree of rationality falls on a continuous scale, not a categorical one.

Despite disagreements surrounding the conceptual definitions of intelligence, critical thinking, and rationality, a commonality in these terms is they are value-laden and normative. In the case of intelligence, people are judged based on norms from standardized intelligence tests, especially in academic settings. Although scores on CT tests seldom are, nor could be, used to judge individuals in this way, the normative and value-laden basis of CT is apparent in people’s informal judgements. They often judge others who have made poor decisions to be irrational or to have failed to think critically.

This value-laden aspect of CT is also apparent in formal definitions of CT. Halpern and Dunn ( 2021 ) defined critical thinking as “the use of those cognitive skills or strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome. It is used to describe thinking that is purposeful, reasoned, and goal-directed.” The positive conception of CT as helping a person adapt well to one’s environment is clearly implied in “desirable outcome”.

Robert Ennis ( 1987 ) has offered a simpler, yet useful definition of critical thinking that also has normative implications. According to Ennis, “critical thinking is reasonable, reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do” ( Ennis 1987, p. 102 ). This definition implies that CT helps people know what to believe (a goal of epistemic rationality) and how to act (a goal of instrumental rationality). This is conveyed by associating “critical thinking” with the positive terms, “reasonable” and “reflective”. Dictionaries commonly define “reasonable” as “rational”, “logical”, “intelligent”, and “good”, all terms with positive connotations.

For critical thinkers, being reasonable involves using logical rules, standards of evidence, and other criteria that must be met for a product of thinking to be considered good. Critical thinkers use these to evaluate how strongly reasons or evidence supports one claim versus another, drawing conclusions which are supported by the highest quality evidence ( Bensley 2018 ). If no high-quality evidence is available for consideration, it would be unreasonable to draw a strong conclusion. Unfortunately, people’s beliefs are too often based on acceptance of unsubstantiated claims. This is a failure of CT, but is it also a failure of intelligence?

3. Does Critical Thinking “Go Beyond” What Is Meant by Intelligence?

Despite the conceptual overlap in intelligence and CT at a general level, one way that CT can be distinguished from the common view of intelligence as general cognitive ability is in terms of what each can account for. Although intelligence tests, especially measures of general cognitive ability, have reliably predicted academic and job performance, they may not be sufficient to predict other everyday outcomes for which CT measures have made successful predictions and have added to the variance accounted for in performance. For instance, replicating a study by Butler ( 2012 ), Butler et al. ( 2017 ) obtained a negative correlation ( r = −0.33) between scores on the Halpern Critical Thinking Appraisal (HCTA) and a measure of 134 negative, real-world outcomes, not expected to befall critical thinkers, such as engaging in unprotected sex or posting a message on social media which the person regretted. They found that higher HCTA scores not only predicted better life decisions, but also predicted better performance beyond a measure of general cognitive ability. These results suggest that CT can account for real-world outcomes and goes beyond general cognitive ability to account for additional variance.

Some theorists maintain that standardized intelligence tests do not capture the variety of abilities that people need to adapt well in the real world. For example, Gardner ( 1999 ), has proposed that additional forms of intelligence are needed, such as spatial, musical, and interpersonal intelligences in addition to linguistic and logical–mathematical intelligences, more typically associated with general cognitive ability and academic success. In other theorizing, Sternberg ( 1988 ) has proposed three additional types of intelligence: analytical, practical, and creative intelligence, to more fully capture the variety of intelligent abilities on which people differ. Critical thinking is considered part of analytical skills which involve evaluating the quality and applicability of ideas, products, and options ( Sternberg 2022 ). Regarding adaptive intelligence, Sternberg ( 2019 ) has emphasized how adaptive aspects of intelligence are needed to solve real-world problems both at the individual and species levels. According to Sternberg, core components of intelligence have evolved in humans, but intelligence takes different forms in different cultures, with each culture valuing its own skills for adaptation. Thus, the construct of intelligence must go beyond core cognitive ability to encompass the specific abilities needed for adaptive behavior in specific cultures and settings.

Two other theories propose that other components be added to intelligent and rational thinking. Ackerman ( 2022 ) has emphasized the importance of acquiring domain-specific knowledge for engaging in intelligent functioning in the wide variety of tasks found in everyday life. Ackerman has argued that declarative, procedural, and tacit knowledge, as well as non-ability variables, are needed to better predict job performance and performance of other everyday activities. Taking another approach, Halpern and Dunn ( 2021 ) have proposed that critical thinking is essentially the adaptive application of intelligence for solving real-world problems. Elsewhere, Butler and Halpern ( 2019 ) have argued that dispositions such as open-mindedness are another aspect of CT and that domain-specific knowledge and specific CT skills are needed to solve real-world problems.

Examples are readily available for how CT goes beyond what IQ tests test to include specific rules for reasoning and relevant knowledge needed to execute real-world tasks. Take the example of scientific reasoning, which can be viewed as a specialized form of CT. Drawing a well-reasoned inductive conclusion about a theory or analyzing the quality of a research study both require that a thinker possess relevant specialized knowledge related to the question and specific reasoning skills for reasoning about scientific methodology. In contrast, IQ tests are deliberately designed to be nonspecialized in assessing Gc, broadly sampling vocabulary and general knowledge in order to be fair and unbiased ( Stanovich 2009 ). Specialized knowledge and reasoning skills are also needed in non-academic domains. Jurors must possess specialized knowledge to understand expert, forensic testimony and specific reasoning skills to interpret the law and make well-reasoned judgments about a defendant’s guilt or innocence.

Besides lacking specific reasoning skills and domain-relevant knowledge, people may fail to think critically because they are not disposed to use their reasoning skills to examine such claims and want to preserve their favored beliefs. Critical thinking dispositions are attitudes or traits that make it more likely that a person will think critically. Theorists have proposed numerous CT dispositions (e.g., Bensley 2018 ; Butler and Halpern 2019 ; Dwyer 2017 ; Ennis 1987 ). Some commonly identified CT dispositions especially relevant to this discussion are open-mindedness, skepticism, intellectual engagement, and the tendency to take a reflective, rational–analytic approach. Critical thinking dispositions are clearly value-laden and prescriptive. A good thinker should be open-minded, skeptical, reflective, intellectually engaged, and value a rational–analytic approach to inquiry. Conversely, corresponding negative dispositions, such as “close-mindedness” and “gullibility”, could obstruct CT.

Without the appropriate disposition, individuals will not use their reasoning skills to think critically about questions. For example, the brilliant mystery writer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was trained as a physician and created the hyper-reasonable detective Sherlock Holmes, was not disposed to think critically about some unsubstantiated claims. Conan Doyle was no doubt highly intelligent in cognitive ability terms, but he was not sufficiently skeptical (disposed to think critically) about spiritualism. He believed that he was talking to his dearly departed son though a medium, despite the warnings of his magician friend, Harry Houdini, who told him that mediums used trickery in their seances. Perhaps influenced by his Irish father’s belief in the “wee folk”, Conan Doyle also believed that fairies inhabited the English countryside, based on children’s photos, despite the advice of experts who said the photos could be faked. Nevertheless, he was skeptical of a new theory of tuberculosis proposed by Koch when he reported on it, despite his wife suffering from the disease. So, in professional capacities, Conan Doyle used his CT skills, but in certain other domains for which he was motivated to accept unsubstantiated claims, he failed to think critically, insufficiently disposed to skeptically challenge certain implausible claims.

This example makes two important points. Conan Doyle’s superior intelligence was not enough for him to reject implausible claims about the world. In general, motivated reasoning can lead people, even those considered highly intelligent, to accept claims with no good evidentiary support. The second important point is that we would not be able to adequately explain cases like this one, considering only the person’s intelligence or even their reasoning skills, without also considering the person’s disposition. General cognitive ability alone is not sufficient, and CT dispositions should also be considered.

Supporting this conclusion, Stanovich and West ( 1997 ) examined the influence of dispositions beyond the contribution of cognitive ability on a CT task. They gave college students an argument evaluation test in which participants first rated their agreement with several claims about real social and political issues made by a fictitious person. Then, they gave them evidence against each claim and finally asked them to rate the quality of a counterargument made by the same fictitious person. Participants’ ratings of the counterarguments were compared to the median ratings of expert judges on the quality of the rebuttals. Stanovich and West also administered a new measure of rational disposition called the Actively Open-minded Thinking (AOT) scale and the SAT as a proxy for cognitive ability. The AOT was a composite of items from several other scales that would be expected to measure CT disposition. They found that both SAT and AOT scores were significant predictors of higher argument analysis scores. Even after partialing out cognitive ability, actively open-minded thinking was significant. These results suggest that general cognitive ability alone was not sufficient to account for thinking critically about real-world issues and that CT disposition was needed to go beyond it.

Further examining the roles of CT dispositions and cognitive ability on reasoning, Stanovich and West ( 2008 ) studied myside bias, a bias in reasoning closely related to one-sided thinking and confirmation bias. A critical thinker would be expected to not show myside bias and instead fairly evaluate evidence on all sides of a question. Stanovich and West ( 2007 ) found that college students often showed myside bias when asked their opinions about real-world policy issues, such as those concerning the health risks of smoking and drinking alcohol. For example, compared to non-smokers, smokers judged the health risks of smoking to be lower. When they divided participants into higher versus lower cognitive ability groups based on SAT scores, the two groups showed little difference on myside bias. Moreover, on the hazards of drinking issue, participants who drank less had higher scores on the CT disposition measure.

Other research supports the need for both reasoning ability and CT disposition in predicting outcomes in the real world. Ren et al. ( 2020 ) found that CT disposition, as measured by a Chinese critical thinking disposition inventory, and a CT skill measure together contributed a significant amount of the variance in predicting academic performance beyond the contribution of cognitive ability alone, as measured by a test of fluid intelligence. Further supporting the claim that CT requires both cognitive ability and CT disposition, Ku and Ho ( 2010 ) found that a CT disposition measure significantly predicted scores on a CT test beyond the significant contribution of verbal intelligence in high school and college students from Hong Kong.

The contribution of dispositions to thinking is related to another way that CT goes beyond the application of general cognitive ability, i.e., by way of the motivation for reasoning. Assuming that all reasoning is motivated ( Kunda 1990 ), then CT is motivated, too, which is implicit within the Halpern and Dunn ( 2021 ) and Ennis ( 1987 ) definitions. Critical thinking is motivated in the sense of being purposeful and directed towards the goal of arriving at an accurate conclusion. For instance, corresponding to pursuit of the goal of accurate reasoning, the CT disposition of “truth-seeking” guides a person towards reaching the CT goal of arriving at an accurate conclusion.

Also, according to Kunda ( 1990 ), a second type of motivated reasoning can lead to faulty conclusions, often by directing a person towards the goal of maintaining favored beliefs and preconceptions, as in illusory correlation, belief perseverance, and confirmation bias. Corresponding to this second type, negative dispositions, such as close-mindedness and self-serving motives, can incline thinkers towards faulty conclusions. This is especially relevant in the present discussion because poorer reasoning, thinking errors, and the inappropriate use of heuristics are related to the endorsement of unsubstantiated claims, all of which are CT failures. The term “thinking errors” is a generic term referring to logical fallacies, informal reasoning fallacies, argumentation errors, and inappropriate uses of cognitive heuristics ( Bensley 2018 ). Heuristics are cognitive shortcuts, commonly used to simplify judgment tasks and reduce mental effort. Yet, when used inappropriately, heuristics often result in biased judgments.

Stanovich ( 2009 ) has argued that IQ tests do not test people’s use of heuristics, but heuristics have been found to be negatively correlated with CT performance ( West et al. 2008 ). In this same study, they found that college students’ cognitive ability, as measured by performance on the SAT, was not correlated with thinking biases associated with use of heuristics. Although Stanovich and West ( 2008 ) found that susceptibility to biases, such as the conjunction fallacy, framing effect, base-rate neglect, affect bias, and myside bias were all uncorrelated with cognitive ability (using SAT as a proxy), other types of thinking errors were correlated with SAT.

Likewise, two types of knowledge are related to the two forms of motivated reasoning. For instance, inaccurate knowledge, such as misconceptions, can derail reasoning from moving towards a correct conclusion, as in when a person reasons from false premises. In contrast, reasoning from accurate knowledge is more likely to produce an accurate conclusion. Taking into account inaccurate knowledge and thinking errors is important to understanding the endorsement of unsubstantiated claims because these are also related to negative dispositions, such as close-mindedness and cynicism, none of which are measured by intelligence tests.

Critical thinking questions are often situated in real-world examples or in simulations of them which are designed to detect thinking errors and bias. As described in Halpern and Butler ( 2018 ), an item like one on the “Halpern Critical Thinking Assessment” (HCTA) provides respondents with a mock newspaper story about research showing that first-graders who attended preschool were better able to learn how to read. Then the question asks if preschool should be made mandatory. A correct response to this item requires recognizing that correlation does not imply causation, that is, avoiding a common reasoning error people make in thinking about research implications in everyday life. Another CT skills test, “Analyzing Psychological Statements” (APS) assesses the ability to recognize thinking errors and apply argumentation skills and psychology to evaluate psychology-related examples and simulations of real-life situations ( Bensley 2021 ). For instance, besides identifying thinking errors in brief samples of thinking, questions ask respondents to distinguish arguments from non-arguments, find assumptions in arguments, evaluate kinds of evidence, and draw a conclusion from a brief psychological argument. An important implication of the studies just reviewed is that efforts to understand CT can be further informed by assessing thinking errors and biases, which, as the next discussion shows, are related to individual differences in thinking dispositions and cognitive style.

4. Dual-Process Theory Measures and Unsubstantiated Beliefs

Dual-process theory (DPT) and measures associated with it have been widely used in the study of the endorsement of unsubstantiated beliefs, especially as they relate to cognitive style. According to a cognitive style version of DPT, people have two modes of processing, a fast intuitive–experiential (I-E) style of processing and a slower, reflective, rational–analytic (R-A) style of processing. The intuitive cognitive style is associated with reliance on hunches, feelings, personal experience, and cognitive heuristics which simplify processing, while the R-A cognitive style is a reflective, rational–analytic style associated with more elaborate and effortful processing ( Bensley et al. 2022 ; Epstein 2008 ). As such, the rational–analytic cognitive style is consistent with CT dispositions, such as those promoting the effortful analysis of evidence, objective truth, and logical consistency. In fact, CT is sometimes referred to as “critical-analytic” thinking ( Byrnes and Dunbar 2014 ) and has been associated with analytical intelligence Sternberg ( 1988 ) and with rational thinking, as discussed before.

People use both modes of processing, but they show individual differences in which mode they tend to rely upon, although the intuitive–experiential mode is the default ( Bensley et al. 2022 ; Morgan 2016 ; Pacini and Epstein 1999 ), and they accept unsubstantiated claims differentially based on their predominate cognitive style ( Bensley et al. 2022 ; Epstein 2008 ). Specifically, individuals who rely more on an I-E cognitive style tend to endorse unsubstantiated claims more strongly, while individuals who rely more on a R-A cognitive style tend to endorse those claims less. Note, however, that other theorists view the two processes and cognitive styles somewhat differently, (e.g., Kahneman 2011 ; Stanovich et al. 2018 ).

Researchers have often assessed the contribution of these two cognitive styles to endorsement of unsubstantiated claims, using variants of three measures: the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT) of Frederick ( 2005 ), the Rational–Experiential Inventory of Epstein and his colleagues ( Pacini and Epstein 1999 ), and the related Need for Cognition scale of Cacioppo and Petty ( 1982 ). The CRT is a performance-based test which asks participants to solve problems that appear to require simple mathematical calculations, but which actually require more reflection. People typically do poorly on the CRT, which is thought to indicate reliance on an intuitive cognitive style, while better performance is thought to indicate reliance on the slower, more deliberate, and reflective cognitive style. The positive correlation of the CRT with numeracy scores suggests it also has a cognitive skill component ( Patel et al. 2019 ). The Rational–Experiential Inventory (REI) of Pacini and Epstein ( 1999 ) contains one scale designed to measure an intuitive–experiential cognitive style and a second scale intended to measure a rational–analytic (R-A) style. The R-A scale was adapted from the Need for Cognition (NFC) scale of Cacioppo and Petty ( 1982 ), another scale associated with rational–analytic thinking and expected to be negatively correlated with unsubstantiated beliefs. The NFC was found to be related to open-mindedness and intellectual engagement, two CT dispositions ( Cacioppo et al. 1996 ).

The cognitive styles associated with DPT also relate to CT dispositions. Thinking critically requires that individuals be disposed to use their reasoning skills to reject unsubstantiated claims ( Bensley 2018 ) and that they be inclined to take a rational–analytic approach rather than relying on their intuitions and feelings. For instance, Bensley et al. ( 2014 ) found that students who endorsed more psychological misconceptions adopted a more intuitive cognitive style, were less disposed to take a rational–scientific approach to psychology, and scored lower on a psychological critical thinking skills test. Further supporting this connection, West et al. ( 2008 ) found that participants who tended to use cognitive heuristics more, thought to be related to intuitive processing and bias, scored lower on a critical thinking measure. As the Bensley et al. ( 2014 ) results suggest, in addition to assessing reasoning skills and dispositions, comprehensive CT assessment research should assess knowledge and unsubstantiated beliefs because these are related to failures of critical thinking.

5. Assessing Critical Thinking and Unsubstantiated Beliefs

Assessing endorsement of unsubstantiated claims provides another way to assess CT outcomes related to everyday thinking, which goes beyond what intelligence tests test ( Bensley and Lilienfeld 2020 ). From the perspective of the multi-dimensional model of CT, endorsement of unsubstantiated claims could result from deficiencies in a person’s CT reasoning skills, a lack of relevant knowledge, and in the engagement of inappropriate dispositions. Suppose an individual endorses an unsubstantiated claim, such as believing the conspiracy theory that human-caused global warming is a hoax. The person may lack the specific reasoning skills needed to critically evaluate the conspiracy. Lantian et al. ( 2020 ) found that scores on a CT skills test were negatively correlated with conspiracy theory beliefs. The person also must possess relevant scientific knowledge, such as knowing the facts that each year humans pump about 40 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas which traps heat in the atmosphere. Or, the person may not be scientifically skeptical or too cynical or mistrustful of scientists or governmental officials.

Although endorsing unsubstantiated beliefs is clearly a failure of CT, problems arise in deciding which ones are unsubstantiated, especially when considering conspiracy theories. Typically, the claims which critical thinkers should reject as unsubstantiated are those which are not supported by objective evidence. But of the many conspiracies proposed, few are vigorously examined. Moreover, some conspiracy theories which authorities might initially deny turn out to be real, such as the MK-Ultra theory that the CIA was secretly conducting mind-control research on American citizens.

A way out of this quagmire is to define unsubstantiated beliefs on a continuum which depends on the quality of evidence. This has led to the definition of unsubstantiated claims as assertions which have not been supported by high-quality evidence ( Bensley 2023 ). Those which are supported have the kind of evidentiary support that critical thinkers are expected to value in drawing reasonable conclusions. Instead of insisting that a claim must be demonstrably false to be rejected, we adopt a more tentative acceptance or rejection of claims, based on how much good evidence supports them. Many claims are unsubstantiated because they have not yet been carefully examined and so totally lack support or they may be supported only by low quality evidence such as personal experience, anecdotes, or non-scientific authority. Other claims are more clearly unsubstantiated because they contradict the findings of high-quality research. A critical thinker should be highly skeptical of these.

Psychological misconceptions are one type of claim that can be more clearly unsubstantiated. Psychological misconceptions are commonsense psychological claims (folk theories) about the mind, brain, and behavior that are contradicted by the bulk of high-quality scientific research. Author developed the Test of Psychological Knowledge and Misconceptions (TOPKAM), a 40-item, forced-choice measure with each item posing a statement of a psychological misconception and the other response option stating the evidence-based alternative ( Bensley et al. 2014 ). They found that higher scores on the APS, the argument analysis test applying psychological concepts to analyze real-world examples, were associated with more correct answers on the TOPKAM. Other studies have found positive correlations between CT skills tests and other measures of psychological misconceptions ( McCutcheon et al. 1992 ; Kowalski and Taylor 2004 ). Bensley et al. ( 2014 ) also found that higher correct TOPKAM scores were positively correlated with scores on the Inventory of Thinking Dispositions in Psychology (ITDP) of Bensley ( 2021 ), a measure of the disposition to take a rational and scientific approach to psychology but were negatively correlated with an intuitive cognitive style.

Bensley et al. ( 2021 ) conducted a multidimensional study, assessing beginner psychology students starting a CT course on their endorsement of psychological misconceptions, recognition of thinking errors, CT dispositions, and metacognition, before and after CT instruction. Two classes received explicit instruction involving considerable practice in argument analysis and scientific reasoning skills, with one class receiving CT instruction focused more on recognizing psychological misconceptions and a second class focused more on recognizing various thinking errors. Bensley et al. assessed both classes before and after instruction on the TOPKAM and on the Test of Thinking Errors, a test of the ability to recognize in real-world examples 17 different types of thinking errors, such as confirmation bias, inappropriate use of the availability and representativeness heuristics, reasoning from ignorance/possibility, gambler’s fallacy, and hasty generalization ( Bensley et al. 2021 ). Correct TOPKAM and TOTE scores were positively correlated, and after CT instruction both were positively correlated with the APS, the CT test of argument analysis skills.

Bensley et al. found that after explicit instruction of CT skills, students improved significantly on both the TOPKAM and TOTE, but those focusing on recognizing misconceptions improved the most. Also, those students who improved the most on the TOTE scored higher on the REI rational–analytic scale and on the ITDP, while those improving the most on the TOTE scored higher on the ITDP. The students receiving explicit CT skill instruction in recognizing misconceptions also significantly improved the accuracy of their metacognitive monitoring in estimating their TOPKAM scores after instruction.

Given that before instruction neither class differed in GPA nor on the SAT, a proxy for general cognitive ability, CT instruction provided a good accounting for the improvement in recognition of thinking errors and misconceptions without recourse to intelligence. However, SAT scores were positively correlated with both TOTE scores and APS scores, suggesting that cognitive ability contributed to CT skill performance. These results replicated the earlier findings of Bensley and Spero ( 2014 ) showing that explicit CT instruction improved performance on both CT skills tests and metacognitive monitoring accuracy while controlling for SAT, which was positively correlated with the CT skills test performance.

Taken together, these findings suggest that cognitive ability contributes to performance on CT tasks but that CT instruction goes beyond it to further improve performance. As the results of Bensley et al. ( 2021 ) show, and as discussed next, thinking errors and bias from heuristics are CT failures that should also be assessed because they are related to endorsement of unsubstantiated beliefs and cognitive style.

6. Dual-Processing Theory and Research on Unsubstantiated Beliefs

Consistent with DPT, numerous other studies have obtained significant positive correlations between intuitive cognitive style and paranormal belief, often using the REI intuitive–experiential scale and the Revised Paranormal Belief Scale (RPBS) of Tobacyk ( 2004 ) (e.g., Genovese 2005 ; Irwin and Young 2002 ; Lindeman and Aarnio 2006 ; Pennycook et al. 2015 ; Rogers et al. 2018 ; Saher and Lindeman 2005 ). Studies have also found positive correlations between superstitious belief and intuitive cognitive style (e.g., Lindeman and Aarnio 2006 ; Maqsood et al. 2018 ). REI intuitive–experiential thinking style was also positively correlated with belief in complementary and alternative medicine ( Lindeman 2011 ), conspiracy theory belief ( Alper et al. 2020 ), and with endorsement of psychological misconceptions ( Bensley et al. 2014 ; Bensley et al. 2022 ).

Additional evidence for DPT has been found when REI R-A and NFC scores were negatively correlated with scores on measures of unsubstantiated beliefs, but studies correlating them with measures of paranormal belief and conspiracy theory belief have shown mixed results. Supporting a relationship, REI rational–analytic and NFC scores significantly and negatively predicted paranormal belief ( Lobato et al. 2014 ; Pennycook et al. 2012 ). Other studies have also obtained a negative correlation between NFC and paranormal belief ( Lindeman and Aarnio 2006 ; Rogers et al. 2018 ; Stahl and van Prooijen 2018 ), but both Genovese ( 2005 ) and Pennycook et al. ( 2015 ) found that NFC was not significantly correlated with paranormal belief. Swami et al. ( 2014 ) found that although REI R-A scores were negatively correlated with conspiracy theory belief, NFC scores were not.

Researchers often refer to people who are doubtful of paranormal and other unfounded claims as “skeptics” and so have tested whether measures related to skepticism are associated with less endorsement of unsubstantiated claims. They typically view skepticism as a stance towards unsubstantiated claims taken by rational people who reject them, (e.g., Lindeman and Aarnio 2006 ; Stahl and van Prooijen 2018 ), rather than as a disposition inclining a person to think critically about unsubstantiated beliefs ( Bensley 2018 ).

Fasce and Pico ( 2019 ) conducted one of the few studies using a measure related to skeptical disposition, the Critical Thinking Disposition Scale (CTDS) of Sosu ( 2013 ), in relation to endorsement of unsubstantiated claims. They found that scores on the CTDS were negatively correlated with scores on the RPBS but not significantly correlated with either a measure of pseudoscience or of conspiracy theory belief. However, the CRT was negatively correlated with both RPBS and the pseudoscience measure. Because Fasce and Pico ( 2019 ) did not examine correlations with the Reflective Skepticism subscale of the CTDS, its contribution apart from full-scale CTDS was not found.

To more directly test skepticism as a disposition, we recently assessed college students on how well three new measures predicted endorsement of psychological misconceptions, paranormal claims, and conspiracy theories ( Bensley et al. 2022 ). The dispositional measures included a measure of general skeptical attitude; a second measure, the Scientific Skepticism Scale (SSS), which focused more on waiting to accept claims until high-quality scientific evidence supported them; and a third measure, the Cynicism Scale (CS), which focused on doubting the sincerity of the motives of scientists and people in general. We found that although the general skepticism scale did not predict any of the unsubstantiated belief measures, SSS scores were a significant negative predictor of both paranormal belief and conspiracy theory belief. REI R-A scores were a less consistent negative predictor, while REI I-E scores were more consistent positive predictors, and surprisingly CS scores were the most consistent positive predictors of the unsubstantiated beliefs.

Researchers commonly assume that people who accept implausible, unsubstantiated claims are gullible or not sufficiently skeptical. For instance, van Prooijen ( 2019 ) has argued that conspiracy theory believers are more gullible (less skeptical) than non-believers and tend to accept unsubstantiated claims more than less gullible people. van Prooijen ( 2019 ) reviewed several studies supporting the claim that people who are more gullible tend to endorse conspiracy theories more. However, he did not report any studies in which a gullible disposition was directly measured.

Recently, we directly tested the gullibility hypothesis in relation to scientific skepticism ( Bensley et al. 2023 ) using the Gullibility Scale of Teunisse et al. ( 2019 ) on which people skeptical of the paranormal had been shown to have lower scores. We found that Gullibility Scale and the Cynicism Scale scores were positively correlated, and both were significant positive predictors of unsubstantiated beliefs, in general, consistent with an intuitive–experiential cognitive style. In contrast, we found that scores on the Cognitive Reflection Test, the Scientific Skepticism Scale, and the REI rational–analytic scale were all positively intercorrelated and significant negative predictors of unsubstantiated beliefs, in general, consistent with a rational–analytic/reflective cognitive style. Scientific skepticism scores negatively predicted general endorsement of unsubstantiated claims beyond the REI R-A scale, but neither the CTDS nor the CTDS Reflective Skepticism subscale were significant. These results replicated findings from the Bensley et al. ( 2023 ) study and supported an elaborated dual-process model of unsubstantiated belief. The SSS was not only a substantial negative predictor, it was also negatively correlated with the Gullibility Scale, as expected.

These results suggest that both CT-related dispositions and CT skills are related to endorsement of unsubstantiated beliefs. However, a measure of general cognitive ability or intelligence must be examined along with measures of CT and unsubstantiated beliefs to determine if CT goes beyond intelligence to predict unsubstantiated beliefs. In one of the few studies that also included a measure of cognitive ability, Stahl and van Prooijen ( 2018 ) found that dispositional characteristics helped account for acceptance of conspiracies and paranormal belief beyond cognitive ability. Using the Importance of Rationality Scale (IRS), a rational–analytic scale designed to measure skepticism towards unsubstantiated beliefs, Stahl and van Prooijen ( 2018 ) found that the IRS was negatively correlated with paranormal belief and belief in conspiracy theories. In separate hierarchical regressions, cognitive ability was the strongest negative predictor of both paranormal belief and of conspiracy belief, but IRS scores in combination with cognitive ability negatively predicted endorsement of paranormal belief but did not significantly predict conspiracy theory belief. These results provided partial support that that a measure of rational–analytic cognitive style related to skeptical disposition added to the variance accounted for beyond cognitive ability in negatively predicting unsubstantiated belief.

In another study that included a measure of cognitive ability, Cavojova et al. ( 2019 ) examined how CT-related dispositions and the Scientific Reasoning Scale (SRS) were related to a measure of paranormal, pseudoscientific, and conspiracy theory beliefs. The SRS of Drummond and Fischhoff ( 2017 ) likely measures CT skill in that it measures the ability to evaluate scientific research and evidence. As expected, the unsubstantiated belief measure was negatively correlated with the SRS and a cognitive ability measure, similar to Raven’s Progressive Matrices. Unsubstantiated beliefs were positively correlated with dogmatism (the opposite of open-mindedness) but not with REI rational–analytic cognitive style. The SRS was a significant negative predictor of both unsubstantiated belief and susceptibility to bias beyond the contribution of cognitive ability, but neither dogmatism nor analytic thinking were significant predictors. Nevertheless, this study provides some support that a measure related to CT reasoning skill accounts for variance in unsubstantiated belief beyond cognitive ability.

The failure of this study to show a correlation between rational–analytic cognitive style and unsubstantiated beliefs, when some other studies have found significant correlations with it and related measures, has implications for the multidimensional assessment of unsubstantiated beliefs. One implication is that the REI rational–analytic scale may not be a strong predictor of unsubstantiated beliefs. In fact, we have recently found that the Scientific Skepticism Scale was a stronger negative predictor ( Bensley et al. 2022 ; Bensley et al. 2023 ), which also suggests that other measures related to rational–analytic thinking styles should be examined. This could help triangulate the contribution of self-report cognitive style measures to endorsement of unsubstantiated claims, recognizing that the use of self-report measures has a checkered history in psychological research. A second implication is that once again, measures of critical thinking skill and cognitive ability were negative predictors of unsubstantiated belief and so they, too, should be included in future assessments of unsubstantiated beliefs.

7. Discussion

This review provided different lines of evidence supporting the claim that CT goes beyond cognitive ability in accounting for certain real-world outcomes. Participants who think critically reported fewer problems in everyday functioning, not expected to befall critical thinkers. People who endorsed unsubstantiated claims less showed better CT skills, more accurate domain-specific knowledge, less susceptibility to thinking errors and bias, and were more disposed to think critically. More specifically, they tended to be more scientifically skeptical and adopt a more rational–analytic cognitive style. In contrast, those who endorsed them more tended to be more cynical and adopt an intuitive–experiential cognitive style. These characteristics go beyond what standardized intelligence tests test. In some studies, the CT measures accounted for additional variance beyond the variance contributed by general cognitive ability.

That is not to say that measures of general cognitive ability are not useful. As noted by Gottfredson ( 2004 ), “g” is a highly successful predictor of academic and job performance. More is known about g and Gf than about many other psychological constructs. On average, g is closely related to Gf, which is highly correlated with working memory ( r = 0.70) and can be as high as r = 0.77 ( r 2 = 0.60) based on a correlated two-factor model ( Gignac 2014 ). Because modern working memory theory is, itself, a powerful theory ( Chai et al. 2018 ), this lends construct validity to the fluid intelligence construct. Although cognitive scientists have clearly made progress in understanding the executive processes underlying intelligence, they have not yet identified the specific cognitive components of intelligence ( Sternberg 2022 ). Moreover, theorists have acknowledged that intelligence must also include components beyond g, including domain-specific knowledge ( Ackerman 2022 ; Conway and Kovacs 2018 ) which are not yet clearly understood,

This review also pointed to limitations in the research that should be addressed. So far, not only have few studies of unsubstantiated beliefs included measures of intelligence, but they have also often used proxies for intelligence test scores, such as SAT scores. Future studies, besides using more and better measures of intelligence, could benefit from inclusion of more specifically focused measures, such as measures of Gf and Gc. Also, more research should be carried out to develop additional high-quality measures of CT, including ones that assess specific reasoning skills and knowledge relevant to thinking about a subject, which could help resolve perennial questions about the domain-general versus domain-specific nature of intelligence and CT. Overall, the results of this review encourage taking a multidimensional approach to investigating the complex constructs of intelligence, CT, and unsubstantiated belief. Supporting these recommendations were results of studies in which the improvement accrued from explicit CT skill instruction could be more fully understood when CT skills, relevant knowledge, CT dispositions, metacognitive monitoring accuracy, and a proxy for intelligence were used.

8. Conclusions

Critical thinking, broadly conceived, offers ways to understand real-world outcomes of thinking beyond what general cognitive ability can provide and intelligence tests test. A multi-dimensional view of CT which includes specific reasoning and metacognitive skills, CT dispositions, and relevant knowledge can add to our understanding of why some people endorse unsubstantiated claims more than others do, going beyond what intelligence tests test. Although general cognitive ability and domain-general knowledge often contribute to performance on CT tasks, thinking critically about real-world questions also involves applying rules, criteria, and knowledge which are specific to the question under consideration, as well as the appropriate dispositions and cognitive styles for deploying these.

Despite the advantages of taking this multidimensional approach to CT in helping us to more fully understand everyday thinking and irrationality, it presents challenges for researchers and instructors. It implies the need to assess and instruct multidimensionally, including not only measures of reasoning skills but also addressing thinking errors and biases, dispositions, the knowledge relevant to a task, and the accuracy of metacognitive judgments. As noted by Dwyer ( 2023 ), adopting a more complex conceptualization of CT beyond just skills is needed, but it presents challenges for those seeking to improve students’ CT. Nevertheless, the research reviewed suggests that taking this multidimensional approach to CT can enhance our understanding of the endorsement of unsubstantiated claims beyond what standardized intelligence tests contribute. More research is needed to resolve remaining controversies and to develop evidence-based applications of the findings.

Funding Statement

This research received no external funding.

Institutional Review Board Statement

This research involved no new testing of participants and hence did not require Institutional Review Board approval.

Informed Consent Statement

This research involved no new testing of participants and hence did not require an Informed Consent Statement.

Data Availability Statement

Conflicts of interest.

The author declares no conflict of interest.

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linkedin critical thinking

Critical thinking definition

linkedin critical thinking

Critical thinking, as described by Oxford Languages, is the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgement.

Active and skillful approach, evaluation, assessment, synthesis, and/or evaluation of information obtained from, or made by, observation, knowledge, reflection, acumen or conversation, as a guide to belief and action, requires the critical thinking process, which is why it's often used in education and academics.

Some even may view it as a backbone of modern thought.

However, it's a skill, and skills must be trained and encouraged to be used at its full potential.

People turn up to various approaches in improving their critical thinking, like:

  • Developing technical and problem-solving skills
  • Engaging in more active listening
  • Actively questioning their assumptions and beliefs
  • Seeking out more diversity of thought
  • Opening up their curiosity in an intellectual way etc.

Is critical thinking useful in writing?

Critical thinking can help in planning your paper and making it more concise, but it's not obvious at first. We carefully pinpointed some the questions you should ask yourself when boosting critical thinking in writing:

  • What information should be included?
  • Which information resources should the author look to?
  • What degree of technical knowledge should the report assume its audience has?
  • What is the most effective way to show information?
  • How should the report be organized?
  • How should it be designed?
  • What tone and level of language difficulty should the document have?

Usage of critical thinking comes down not only to the outline of your paper, it also begs the question: How can we use critical thinking solving problems in our writing's topic?

Let's say, you have a Powerpoint on how critical thinking can reduce poverty in the United States. You'll primarily have to define critical thinking for the viewers, as well as use a lot of critical thinking questions and synonyms to get them to be familiar with your methods and start the thinking process behind it.

Are there any services that can help me use more critical thinking?

We understand that it's difficult to learn how to use critical thinking more effectively in just one article, but our service is here to help.

We are a team specializing in writing essays and other assignments for college students and all other types of customers who need a helping hand in its making. We cover a great range of topics, offer perfect quality work, always deliver on time and aim to leave our customers completely satisfied with what they ordered.

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