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Teach yourself (or your students!) the components of critical thinking.

Updated: Feb 15, 2023

Enhancing your critical thinking can have a lot of benefits, including developing a clearer picture of reality, becoming a more informed citizen, and making better life decisions. We often hear about "critical thinking", but what is it, really, and how do you know if you’re practising it? This post will cover some of the key components of critical thinking for anyone who wants to improve their reasoning.

We're also excited to announce that teachers now have the ability to assign more than 20 of our interactive learning modules to their students, covering numerous critical thinking, bias, and decision-making topics! If you teach at a high school, college, or graduate level, click here to learn more – it's 100% free, of course. Whether or not you're a teacher, though, read on to learn about several interesting components of critical thinking.

What is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is a way of generating true beliefs about the world by using reason, interpretation, inference and analysis to evaluate information. There are many different frameworks for critical thinking, but we divide the concepts and techniques of critical thinking into four groups:

  1. Universal Intellectual Standards - these universal standards are the principles that critical thinking is based on. In order to generate true beliefs, we have to understand and use these standards to seek evidence, question claims, and make new judgments.

  2. Truth-Seeking Traits - these personality and character traits focus on discovering the truth, and developing them can make it easier to be a good critical thinker.

  3. Elements of Reason and Inference - these elements are the basic approaches we take to analyzing the information that we have, and assessing what the implications of this information should be on our beliefs and judgments.

  4. Techniques for Thinking - these are some of the thinking techniques that we can use to combat bias and other errors in our thinking that frequently prevent us from seeing the world accurately.

What follows is a subdivision of each of these four components. Critical thinking encompasses so much that this list is not comprehensive, but it does cover many of the basic elements, along with some specific techniques and recommendations for what you can do to improve different types of critical thinking.

1. Universal Intellectual Standards are the guidelines and theoretical concepts we should follow when we want to reason correctly about the world (see the Paul-Elder Framework). Here are two examples of these concepts:

  • (i) Truth-Based Thinking - accepting that your beliefs about the world should be based on what is true (rather than, say, what it is pleasing to believe, or what beliefs your culture happens to have passed down for generations). If your beliefs are going to accord with the world for reasons other than luck, you’ll need to rely on external evidence. Writer Julia Galef refers to the mindset of trying to see the world exactly as it is as Scout Mindset. To have Scout Mindset is to seek the truth, even if it means disputing ideas popular in your social circles, or making discoveries that run against what you wish were true, or realizing that a group you dislike actually was correct about something important that it turns out you were wrong about.

The fundamental question to ask yourself here is: Do you want to believe the truth (wherever the truth will take you), instead of believing what is traditional or pleasing?

  • (ii) Non-Binary Thinking - remaining aware that almost everything in the world has some good aspects and some bad aspects (even if overall the good aspects far outweigh the bad, or the bad aspects far outweigh the good). Humans tend to perceive reality as black or white, good or bad (check the three types of binary thinking). This reductive tendency can lead us to think in dogmatic or absolutist terms (e.g., believing that meditation is good for everyone at all times, or believing that meditation is useless pseudoscience, rather than considering that, like most things, it is likely to have both positive and negative aspects).

The fundamental question to ask yourself here is: do you want to see the world accurately, with all its nuances and complex gray areas, instead of seeing things as either "all good" or "all bad"?

2. Truth-Seeking Traits are personal characteristics that make it easier to get an accurate picture of the world as it is. For another perspective on this concept, check out these 12 rationality virtues.

  • (i) Skepticism - to be skeptical is to be distrustful of information and vet it carefully, with the awareness that people are often misinformed, misled, or motivated to bend the truth. Skepticism requires being willing to reflect frequently on what you've heard and actively check information. It also requires some autonomy from the thoughts of others. Skepticism is essential for critical thinking because, without it, we adopt new beliefs without engaging our critical thinking skills.. If you want to practice this useful skill, check our our Belief Challenger program, where we teach some basic yet powerful techniques for skepticism.

The fundamental question to ask yourself here is: do you want to carefully vet information to help make sure it's true, recognizing that false information is really common, instead of assuming that all of what your standard sources say is true?

  • (ii) Seekingness - to be seeking is to see the value of new perspectives that challenge your own, and to search out a variety of worldviews and ways of thinking. If you won’t deeply consider outside ideas that contradict yours, you will have trouble overturning your existing beliefs. Finding and then listening to other perspectives that disagree with your own is a great way to critically evaluate your assumptions. This seekingness trait of being curious and open to different ideas is especially powerful when combined with skepticism, because it means you will assess the accuracy and relevance of the new perspectives you seek out, rather than being unduly credulous of questionable ideas. We’ve developed a short test that measures these "skepticism" and "seekingness" traits, which will be available on soon!

The fundamental question to ask yourself here is: do you want to seek out the beliefs of those very different from you, and really consider whether they might be true, instead of mainly considering the beliefs you already have?

  • (iii) Impartiality - to evaluate information without self-interested bias requires resisting the temptations of your own social needs, incentives, and preferences when you form beliefs. If your attempts to reach a truthful, logical conclusion are tainted by the desire to get something that you want, it will hinder your ability to see the world clearly. Evaluating evidence and counter-evidence objectively becomes difficult when you aren’t being fair to all sides of the argument. Remember to examine your intentions, and whether your biased towards a particular outcome. You may have an incentive to find out that X is true, but that doesn't make X any truer (though it certainly makes you more likely to succumb to bias when considering X).

The fundamental question to ask yourself here is: do you want to figure out what's true in each particular case, instead of seeking information in a biased way that causes you to find what you were hoping for?

3. Elements of Reason and Inference are ways of thinking that are more likely to lead us to form true beliefs and good judgments about the world.

  • (i) Probabilistic Thinking - to think probabilistically is to consider the likelihood of a specific event or outcome, and to use these estimates as foundations for one’s important beliefs and actions. Pretty much nothing is 100% certain, and there is potentially a big difference in how you should behave when something has a 99% chance of being true versus where there is a 90% chance.But people routinely behave as though uncertain matters are far more predictable than they really are, or that differences in probability are not worth worrying about. To get a better feel for how confident you should be in different situations, try our Overconfidence Analyzer (which is about how confident you should be relative to other people), or our Common Misconceptions Test (which has you bet on your chances of getting the right answer).

The fundamental question to ask yourself here is: do you want to acknowledge that all beliefs have at least some chance of being wrong (including your deepest-held ones), instead of assuming a false certainty?

  • (ii) Accumulating Evidence - incorporating new evidence into your worldview so that your beliefs adjust proportionally over time is fundamental to critical thinking. Often we "believe" something so strongly that we dismiss all the counter evidence. Instead, we should adjust our beliefs bit by bit as we encounter new evidence. When we learn about evidence against a strongly-held belief, we should believe it at least a little bit less strongly. If instead we dismiss contrary evidence, we may prevent ourselves from ever changing our minds, which can block us from ever learning what's true.

The fundamental question to ask yourself here is: are you willing to take evidence against your beliefs seriously, so that your confidence adjusts bit by bit, instead of dismissing counter evidence because it's not overwhelmingly convincing?

  • (iii) Deductive and Inductive Logic - to use deductive logic is to begin with a generalized principle that is true, and using that principle to derive specific facts about the world. In contrast, inductive reasoning uses specific facts about the world to infer generalized tendencies or statistical likelihoods. Depending on what information you have, both forms of reasoning can be extremely helpful for generating true beliefs about the world.

The fundamental question to ask yourself here is: is this belief logically derivable from a strong set of premises, or does statistical evidence support it, or does it lack a solid axiomatic or factual basis?

4. Techniques for Thinking are useful tools for analyzing information and understanding the world more accurately. The examples we include below can help you examine your assumptions, make better arguments, and improve predictions.

  • (i) Argument and Evidence Evaluation - knowing what sort of arguments tend to be valid vs. invalid, and knowing how to evaluate whether evidence is weak, moderate or strong, are skills that are extremely valuable for understanding the world. For instance, anecdotes are usually very weak evidence, though in special situations can actually be moderately strong evidence. Our Rhetorical Fallacies program can help you learn how to identify fallacious arguments, and our Bayesian Thinking program can give you a deeper understanding of how to evaluate the strength of evidence.

The fundamental questions to ask yourself here are: is this argument strong or weak? And: how many times more likely am I to see this evidence if my hypothesis is true, than if my hypothesis is false?

  • (ii) Evaluating Credentials - it's important to know when an expert can be trusted, because there are many times when formal credentials don't say much about whether someone's opinion is valid, yet plenty of other times where expertise is critical to rely on. Notably, "experts" tend to be less reliable when there is a lack of consensus in a field, or when a field makes unfalsifiable predictions, or when a field doesn't have a culture of experts independently checking each other's findings. On the other hand, there are plenty of technical fields (like medicine, law, and particle physics) where experts usually have much more knowledge than non-experts. We’re working on developing a short test that measures how highly you regard formal credentials, and you’ll be able to try that soon!

The fundamental question to ask yourself here is: To what extent are this person's credentials relevant to their accuracy in this domain?

  • (iii) Fermi Estimates - breaking down a problem into its parts can be useful in helping you make accurate predictions. Fermi Estimates are named after the physicist Enrico Fermi (who was one of the creators of the world’s first nuclear reactor); this technique involves making approximate calculations when you can't look up an answer. To estimate the answer to a question like “How many piano tuners are there in Chicago”, one can break the question down into different assumptions, like “How many people live in Chicago?”, “How many households are there in Chicago?”, etc. Taking these assumptions, it may be possible to make a calculation that is fairly accurate even if you can't look up the actual answer.

The fundamental question to ask yourself here is: if you can't look up an answer, are you willing to try to get a rough estimate by combining other information?

  • (iv) Steel-manning - evaluating ideas you think you disagree with by analyzing the strongest arguments in favor of the idea, rather than knocking down a weak (i.e. "straw man") version of the idea.

The fundamental question to ask yourself here is: what are the best arguments in favor of this idea, and do I agree with those best arguments, even if the typical arguments in favor of the idea are not strong?

  • (v) Defusion - often we "fuse" with our thoughts and emotions, taking whatever "feels" true to be the actual truth. In reality, even the feeling that something is true is just that - a feeling. The better we are at critical thinking (and the more honed our intuitions are through repeated experience with reliable feedback) the better these feelings will line up with reality, but we all sometimes have feelings that are out of whack with what's true. The technique of "defusion" is to view your thoughts and feelings from an outside perspective, evaluating things like "I know I feel anxious right now, but is this actually dangerous?" and "I know I had the thought that this person doesn't like me, but do I actually have reason to think that?" By practicing methods like those from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and mindfulness meditation, you can improve your skill at "defusion", and be misled by your internal experiences less often.

The fundamental question to ask yourself here is: does my thought or feeling accord with reality, or is it one of the miscalibrated reactions we all have at times?

How do these different components - Universal Intellectual Standards, Truth-Seeking Traits, Elements of Reason and Inference, and Techniques for Thinking - reflect your approach to understanding the world? You might be stronger in one of these four categories and weaker in another, so it could pay off to focus on the aspects of critical thinking that you aren’t so familiar with.

And remember: if you want to teach critical thinking to your students - or know someone who would - then check out this newly launched page for teachers! You can use our programs for critical thinking practice, either to teach others, or to teach yourself!

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