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What is Critical Thinking? - Definition, Skills & Meaning

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Taught by

Tara DeLecce

Tara has taught Psychology and has a master's degree in evolutionary psychology.

Critical thinking is a term that we hear a lot, but many people don't really stop to think about what it means or how to use it. This lesson will tell you exactly what it means and make you realize that the average person largely ignores critical thinking.

Critical Thinking Defined

Critical thinking means making reasoned judgments that are logical and well thought out. It is a way of thinking in which you don't simply accept all arguments and conclusions you are exposed to but rather have an attitude involving questioning such arguments and conclusions. It requires wanting to see what evidence is involved to support a particular argument or conclusion. People who use critical thinking are the ones who say things such as, 'How do you know that? Is this conclusion based on evidence or gut feelings?' and 'Are there alternative possibilities?' when given new pieces of information.

Additionally, critical thinking can be divided into the following three core skills. Curiosity is the desire to learn more information and seek evidence as well as being open to new ideas. Skepticism involves having a healthy questioning attitude about new information that you are exposed to and not blindly believing everything everyone tells you. Finally, humility is the ability to admit that your opinions and ideas are wrong when faced with new convincing evidence that states otherwise. The following is a story that provides a context in which each of these skills can be applied.

Using Critical Thinking Skills

Many people decide to make changes in their daily lives based on anecdotes, or stories, from one person's experience. For instance, let's say that your aunt told you that she takes a vitamin C supplement every day. Additionally, she told you that one morning she was running late for work and forgot to take her vitamin C supplement. That afternoon, she developed a cold. She now insists that you take vitamin C every day or you will get sick, just like she did in her story. Many people hearing this story would just accept this and think, 'To avoid getting sick I should take vitamin C.'

Although this type of logic is very common, it lacks critical thinking skills. If we examine this anecdote a little more carefully, you should be able to understand why. For starters, we don't know how the idea for vitamin C stopping illness even came from. Why did your aunt decide to take vitamin C rather than vitamin D, or any other vitamin?

Also, there was never any indication given that there exists a direct link between not taking vitamin C and developing a cold. At first glance, it may seem that way. However, there could be many other variables involved that have nothing to do with vitamin C. Maybe she was already developing a cold and that particular day it just happened to manifest itself. Maybe a sick person sneezed on her in the elevator that morning. Any number of possibilities could have happened, and from just this story we simply do not have enough information. All of this speculation as to the validity of this particular observation is considered skepticism.

Let's say that these thoughts of skepticism inspired your curiosity. After all, it wouldn't be fair to simply dismiss all new ideas either. As a result, you looked up articles on the relationship between vitamin C and cold prevention. After reading several reports you've found that scientific studies on whether vitamin C prevents the common cold have been conducted and the results have been inconsistent. The overall conclusion found from these studies is that vitamin C is necessary for maintaining overall body function, but cannot be held responsible for preventing people from getting any colds or treating a cold once someone already has one.

After your investigative reporting, you decide to show your aunt that her beliefs on vitamin C are erroneous by presenting the results of your research. If your aunt is like most people, she will hear this scientifically valid evidence and still insist that her idea about cold prevention through vitamin C is correct based on her personal experience. Part of critical thinking is demonstrating humility, and many people (in this case your aunt) have trouble doing this. However, a big part of science is testing ideas and finding out that some ideas were not right. This is good because it allows us to tweak these ideas and test out other ones to get closer to finding out the right way the world works.

Lesson Summary

Critical thinking is making informed decisions based on logic. It requires you to question and investigate the validity of new information instead of just blindly believing everything you hear. The three main skills involved in critical thinking are curiosity (desire or passion to learn new information and being open to new ideas), skepticism (questioning new information rather than just blindly believing it), and humility (the ability to change your ideas when logically proven that you are wrong). If you use critical thinking, you will be able to make better decisions and be less gullible.

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