5 Things you need to develop critical thinking

a woman thinking in work desk

How does critical thinking relate to decision making?


“Life is a matter of choices, and every choices you make makes you” – John C. Maxwell

Isn’t it interesting that the accumulation of our decisions led us to where we are today? We make numerous decisions every day, from small, seemingly unimportant ones like deciding what to eat for dinner, or where to hang out this weekend, to those big, important ones like; choosing the right career path and where to invest our money. Interestingly, numerous studies have shown that every single one of these decisions, however small they may be, contributes to decision fatigue, which in turn impairs our ability to make good decisions.

Consider these examples:

In a study conducted in Israel, when members of parole boards were given the task to decide whether to release inmates on probation, it was found that they were significantly more likely to grant parole in the morning than afternoon, with morning cases having a success rate of close to 70 percent, while those in the late afternoon saw a release rate of less than 10 percent. Why is this so?  One possible reason could be that despite the best efforts of the parole board to make responsible decisions, they grew mentally tired as the day wore on, and given the serious impact of their decisions, they gradually defaulted to saying ‘no’ as the day wore on.

Another study was conducted in the lab, where participants were segregated into 2 groups. One group was asked to sort variety of random items into 2 stacks, according to whether they liked the item or not. The second group was asked to do the same task with a twist: they will be given one item from the stack which they liked as a reward for their efforts. After completing their sorting tasks, both groups of participants were asked to hold their arms in ice water for as long as they could. The outcome, as you might have already guessed—is that the participants from Group 2 withdrew their hands much faster than those participants in group 1, again, probably due to their mental exhaustion exerting a negative impact on their ability to persevere.

Some of us tackle this issue by postponing our decision makings, like the parole board members in the first example. But haven’t you heard of the saying “By not making a decision, we have already made one”? On the other hand, some of us trust our ‘gut feelings’ and rush into decisions that we live to regret. Others seek an alternative opinion from friends/family/colleagues, even though these “advisors” are not responsible for the consequences, and get into another fix when the support we seek from others are not forthcoming. As Steve Jobs once said, “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your inner voice”

So what is the role of critical thinking in all this? Having a good understanding of critical thinking increases our chances of making the best possible decision in every situation.

Critical Thinking Definition

Based on Cambridge Dictionary, critical thinking can be defined as:

“The process of thinking carefully about a subject or idea, without allowing feelings or opinions to affect you.”

Some things that a critical thinker should be able to do are:

  • understand the connections between ideas
  • analyze and evaluate arguments
  • solve problems systematically
  • identify importance of an ideas

To become a critical thinker, one must be highly skeptical of any information and assumption. We must be able to distinguish an argument based on logic and the one that is based on misinformation and false assumption. This ensures that we have the capacity to build a good decision based on facts.

How do we do this?

There are several ways for us to develop this skill:

1. Question Everything Before Making a Move

The most important step for developing critical thinking skills is to become a critic of our own thoughts and actions. Before we start deciding on anything, do a self-reflection and ask question such; why we should do this? Is there a logical reason? Is it really a problem?

Don’t just analyze one option, consider other alternatives! Asking meaningful questions can lead to constructive and useful answers. This is the core of critical thinking and lifelong learning. As a result, we train ourselves to look at things from different perspectives and take nothing for granted.

2. Develop Active Listening

The information we need might be closer than we think, and we can learn a lot from listening to others around us. Not only listening, but actively listening. It requires our full attention to the other person and be ‘seen’ as listening. Giving simple feedback like ‘yes’ and ‘mm hmm’ can encourage them to continue the conversation and help us gain more insights that can help us to analyze the situation better. Being open to new ideas and practicing divergent thinking techniques like brainstorming are great at broadening the possibilities of a seemingly bad situation.

3. Evaluate Information

After we have gathered information from various sources, don’t just trust any information! Ask the following questions:

  • Who gathered this evidence?
  • How did they gather it?
  • Why? Is this an anomaly? Do we see a trend in the data?

Wrong info leads to bad decisions. Make sure we have the right info, then proceed to the next step.

4. Be Aware of our Mental Processes

A critical thinker should be aware of their cognitive biases. There are a few types of cognitive biases are errors that arise from brain’s tendency to make judgments and jump to conclusions. For example: ‘The Halo Effect’ is a tendency where someone judge other people’s ability or character based on qualities that was observed in the person. This kind of thinking tendencies can influence decisions and solutions. We all have cognitive biases, but make sure not to use this tendencies when assessing alternatives. Preventing this makes critical thinking possible.

5. Develop Foresight

Now that we have the right information and are aware of our thinking biases, try to predict the future impact of our decisions. What will we gain and what difficulties or consequences will we face if we chose this particular step of action? What are those actions that are not applicable given our current situation? Foresight is a necessary skill for us to measure decisions.

Choosing the best alternatives may not be a walk in the park. It takes curiosity, active listening, evaluation, and analysis of our own mental process in order to develop foresight. But it’s definitely worth doing to get the best possible results out of a situation. Remember that no one think critically 100% of the time! We may fail to do so sometimes, but what’s important is to learn from our mistakes and do better next time! Hope this article is useful to improve your critical thinking skills!

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