Despite its name, critical thinking actually has nothing to do with being critical. Or, at least, not the kind of ‘critical’ we first assume. You’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise, as it’s often wrongly considered to be the ability we have to criticise another, to stand against the crowd, to express our own opinions regardless of facts, or in opposition to perspectives different from ours.
"Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought."
John F Kennedy
This idea that critical thinking is connected to criticism may be a result of the idiom “thinking for ourselves”, which is a key element to critical thinking. But it’s not referring to making judgements or forming opinions without considering others’ perspectives at all. This is how critical thinking can turn into criticism. Thinking for ourselves actually means being able to make independent decisions, based on facts or evidence without external influence.
So what is critical thinking?
We asked Martina, our cognitive scientist to help us understand what critical thinking is exactly.
According to Martina: “Critical thinking is one of the most high level cognitive abilities that our minds have. It involves evaluating facts rationally and objectively - without our own feelings or opinions clouding our decisions. It’s the ability to self-monitor our thinking and the biases we fall into.”
“It’s about being open to considering new perspectives when they are valid, even those that are different to our own, like how there are different ways to solve one problem."
"It’s making thoughtful decisions that we have evaluated, and adapting or building on these as new information comes up.”
How to recognise critical thinking vs criticism
Criticising is often a way to protect and defend our own beliefs, critical thinking starts from questioning the validity of such beliefs, to build a rational way to support and strengthen them (if valid) or return to the drawing board (if unreliable).
As humans, we are not fully rational which really takes the biscuit, right? We are prone to look for or seek out supporting evidence and information agreeing with our beliefs rather than those that differ from ours. This can make critical thinking quite challenging and criticism so much easier to fall into. It means that rather than rationally consider the different opinions, all-too-often we jump to criticise them.
Even without meaning to criticise, without the intention to judge, we easily fall into that confirmation bias. For example, we tend to build our relationships with others that have similar interests and opinions to our own, and these are often the foundations to our friendships. Then we’re hanging out with and sharing similar beliefs and perspectives that do not require us to consider another side or version.
Martina says, “it Is important to be aware of this when we employ critical thinking - we will always have some kind of cultural influence on our thoughts, which can be quite difficult to remove. But this does not mean that ALL points of view different from ours are worth considering. Irrational beliefs still exist, but rather than criticising them, we can try to understand the reasons behind them and try communication in a way to make our own beliefs more understandable.”
It’s clearly quite the challenge to employ critical thinking, so how can we employ it in everyday situations? Martina suggests, trying to act like a scientist;
Take your opinion or belief as a hypothesis (a possible theory or answer) to test - it doesn’t matter how true you believe it to be.
Search for the evidence, but rather than looking for support or confirmation to your idea, look for that which disputes it, that argues another way or version, try to find evidence that would make it false.
If we cannot find any reasonable evidence against our idea, then we can probably assume it as valid and reliable.
But remember, the validity of theories, ideas, opinions differ. Once we recognise a theory as valid it doesn’t mean it always will be, or that it can’t change in the future. Validity occurs while there's no evidence against it. We may come to know something later and be open to changing our minds.
Brain crunches: have you been confusing the two without realising? It’s hard work getting our heads around how the brain functions, and how it can interfere with our actions without us realising. And that really ramps up the challenge, right? Next time you’re thinking about an opinion or idea that’s different from your own, approach it with curiosity to help us think critically rather than fall into the criticism brain trap.