Importance of Critical Thinking

Everybody thinks, but not everyone thinks in the same way. How you think has a significant impact on your happiness and success in life. Critical thinking is an organized, analytical way of thinking that’s useful for solving problems and predicting consequences.

Although critical thinking might sound like a lofty, academic concept, it’s useful in practically every avenue of life. Learning how to think critically allows you to make better decisions, increases your career prospects, and has many other benefits.

In this article, you’ll learn the importance of critical thinking, plus how to use it to improve your life in various ways. Get ready to change the way you think – for the better!

What is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking isn’t uniformly defined. Academics and philosophers have debated its exact definition for 50 years or more. However, while slightly different explanations of the concept exist, the basic idea remains fairly consistent across definitions.

Critical thinking is a process used to evaluate data, analyze information, and draw conclusions. It relies heavily on evidence, context, and self-regulatory judgment. Critical thinking is often referred to as “thinking about thinking.”

The University of Louisville has a more complex definition of critical thinking that identifies several key elements. Critical thinking:

  • Requires an ability to question
  • Tests previously held assumptions
  • Requires examination, evaluation, and reflection
  • Results in a clear, articulate, and justified position

Critical thinking is independent thinking. It’s based on principles of logic, such as interpretation, verification, and rationality. The critical thinker uses factual information to solve problems and deduce consequences.

Critical Thinking is a Domain-General Thinking Skill

A domain-general thinking skill is one that can apply to practically any subject. It’s necessary for a host of academic topics, including finance, science, law, education, and more.

At the same time, taking a systematic approach to problem-solving is a plus in practically any career. Auto mechanics, waiters, and other more physical jobs also benefit from an approach based on critical thinking.

Outside of the working world, critical thinking helps in more mundane aspects of life, too. It’s useful when you need to plan a new route for travel, clean your house, or shop at a store.

What Critical Thinking Isn’t

When learning what critical thinking is, it’s helpful to look at what it isn’t.

Critical thinking isn’t focused on retaining large volumes of information. A person with good memory isn’t necessarily also an excellent critical thinker. For example, a Jeopardy! Champion requires the ability to recall facts quickly more than it requires critical thinking skills (although some critical thinking ability plays a role, too).

Additionally, critical thinking isn’t related to criticism. For example, it’s not a negative review or judgment. Critical thinking also doesn’t involve arguing with or criticizing other people.

Critical thinking isn’t based on dogma, such as rigidly held political or religious beliefs. Instead, it’s open-minded in nature.

However, it’s not open-minded to a fault. Critical thinking requires an underlying suspicion of all potential sources and solutions.

The Importance of Sources

Critical thinking relies on using information to draw a conclusion. Information is obtained from sources including:

  • Facts
  • Data
  • Research Findings
  • Observable Phenomena

Critical thinking involves evaluating the validity of sources. Without accurate information, your conclusions will be flawed.

The Benefits and Importance of Critical Thinking for Individuals

Here’s a closer look at what regular application of critical thinking principles helps achieve:

Make Good Decisions

Critical thinking is primarily a problem-solving tool. When you’re confronted with a problem, use critical thinking processes to develop potential solutions. Then choose the best solution and implement it.

It works on all types of problems, from big to small. For example, should you make your morning coffee at home, or buy a cup on your way to work? It also helps you tackle major questions like should you marry a certain person, where should you live, and what should you do for a living?

Although critical thinking might seem to apply purely to business or academic topics, it’s also useful when dealing with emotional decisions that have a big impact on your life. It helps remove emotions from the decision-making process, allowing you to view the situation with increased objectivity.

Increase Self Confidence

When you think through decisions before making them, you’ll feel more comfortable with the result. Even if you don’t solve the problem on your first attempt, you won’t feel lost or confused. Gaining knowledge and perspective on a situation helps you feel more in control.

When you regularly feel in control of your life and responsible for your own decision-making, you’ll gain increased self-confidence.

Promotes Creativity

Critical thinking might sound rigid and structured, but it’s often an effective way to generate creative ideas. New ideas alone aren’t enough to solve a problem. Instead, creative ideas must fit within specific parameters for problem-solving such as cost, feasibility, and more.

Critical thinking allows you to evaluate new ideas for their ability to solve the problem. You can select and modify creative ideas to make them workable.

Increased Employment Opportunities

The world currently operates on what’s called a knowledge economy. According to a Harvard research paper, it’s an economic system based on knowledge-intensive activities.

Increasingly, employers value intellectual capabilities instead of natural resources or the capacity for physical labor. They want employees with flexible knowledge skills and a capacity to deal with change. Critical thinking skills are a highly-sought asset.

Improved Language and Presentation Skills

A core element of critical thinking is the ability to analyze the logical structure of an idea. Critically analyzing text increases comprehension because you have to understand how every idea in the text fits together.

Additionally, critical thinking improves your presentation ability. You’ll understand how to organize information in a logical way that your audience will find easy to follow.

Allows for Self-Reflection

Self-reflection lets you change course when needed to improve your life. Looking at your life using critical analysis allows you to reflect on your past decisions and apply that knowledge towards the future. It’s an important tool for self-evaluation.

Saves Time

When time is limited, and you need to make a decision fast, the last thing you want to do is act quickly. While that might sound counterintuitive, it’s usually far better to assess the situation and gather as much information as possible. Then, you can develop a plan designed to work quickly.

Expands Your Sense of Empathy

A major component of critical thinking is the ability to consider all perspectives. By putting yourself in the shoes of another person, you gain insight into their thoughts and motivations. Understanding points of view beyond your own helps foster a sense of empathy.

Increased empathy helps you connect with others in a natural, genuine way. Additionally, as individuals in society show empathy to one another, society as a whole becomes healthier.

Let’s expand on that idea in the following section.

Benefits of Critical Thinking for Society

The importance of critical thinking extends beyond individual benefits. Society thrives when people understand how to think critically. Here’s a look at some of the benefits:

Critical thinkers can help guide society through a crisis. Their leadership helps prevent panic and mass hysteria. Consider Roosevelt’s famous saying, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Critical thinkers can help others handle an emergency situation.

Additionally, critical thinking strategies provide a foundation for scientific achievement. The scientific method requires reason and confirmation. Without critical thinking, advancements in technology and medicine simply wouldn’t be possible.

Finally, these strategies also provide a foundation for liberal democracy. The citizens of a country must know how to critically assess information without bias. Otherwise, large sections of the population can fall victim to lies and deceit.

A 5-Step Process to Thinking Critically

As you become more comfortable thinking critically, you likely won’t need to refer to these steps. However, they’re a clear, systematic method that’s often useful if you’re still learning the concept.

1. Identify the Problem

The first step is identifying the problem. After all, you can’t solve a problem until you can define it clearly and accurately.

Be careful. Sometimes the problem is not always the problem. What you think the problem is, might instead be a symptom of a different problem.

For example, suppose you’re tasked with improving morale in an office. The problem you’re presented with is “the office has bad morale.” But that’s not the actual problem.

The real problem you need to fix is whatever’s causing bad morale in the office. It might be bad management, low salaries, unpleasant working conditions, or something else.

You can’t step into the office, hand out some gift cards, and hope morale magically improves. Instead, you need to identify the problem – and it might not always be obvious.

2. Research All Related Components

You want to research everything related to the problem. Don’t worry too much about analyzing the information at this stage. You just want a solid understanding of all the moving parts related to the problem.

Part of your research likely involves the difference between reputable sources and misinformation. A University of Georgia report identifies the following as reliable sources:

  • Peer-reviewed, scholarly publications
  • Trade and professional organizations
  • Well-established news organizations such as AP, Reuters, and the BBC

Additionally, government and university websites (.gov and .edu) are also considered reputable sources.

3. Sort Through Research

Even if the information you have is accurate and well-sourced, it’s not necessarily relevant to the issue at hand. You want to sort through your research to find only the data points that apply.

4. Identify Bias

Be aware of bias, which is a prejudice either for or against a person, group, thing, or idea. When thinking critically, bias is divided into two types:

  • External
  • Personal

External bias includes institutional bias and similar organizational reasons why you might misread or misinterpret the problem. Because you can objectively learn about this bias through your research into the problem, it’s often fairly simple to spot.

Personal bias is a bit more difficult to recognize. It’s biases you hold personally. We all have prejudices and preconceived notions about the world. The key to critical thinking is identifying them within yourself to avoid letting them cloud your judgment.

Pay attention to your emotions when you encounter information. Does something invoke a strong emotional response such as fear, anger, or excitement? When our emotions take over, it’s easy to misunderstand a situation.

5. Draw Inferences and Reach a Conclusion

Sometimes, you’ll get lucky. The relevant data you’ve collected will point to a clear solution. However, most of the time, you’ll need to draw a conclusion based on the information you have.

In many cases, critical thinking works circularly. As you gain more information, you can draw new conclusions and implement solutions. If the solution doesn’t work but yields more information, you can arrive at new conclusions until the problem is solved.

History of Critical Thinking

American philosopher John Dewey is generally considered the father of critical thinking. Although, presumably, people have used critical thinking since ancient times, Dewey is widely recognized as the first to organize the concept and give it a label.

He called it “reflective thinking” and heavily acknowledged his idea built upon the work of Francis Bacon, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill. Dewey’s main contribution is the push towards critical thinking as a concept that should be taught in schools.

In the 1930s, many high schools throughout the country participated in a nationwide study called the Eight-Year Study of the Progressive Education Association. Teaching students how to think critically was part of this study. Although it may seem obvious in hindsight, by 1941, the study confirmed that people can learn to think critically.

Examples of Critical Thinking

As part of his curriculum, Dewey frequently used a few examples. Here’s a closer look:


A man is downtown having lunch. He notices it’s 12:20. He has an appointment across town at one o’clock. What method of transportation should he take to make sure he gets there on time?

He knows that it takes an hour by taxi to get to his appointment, making him 20 minutes late. However, the subway is much faster. Where is the closest subway entrance? It’s one block away, and he could see there’s no line.

What about an elevated train? A platform is right by his appointment, saving him some walking distance when he arrives. However, the closest platform to his current location is three blocks away, requiring more walking time now.

Ultimately, he decides to take the subway. A taxi is too slow. While he could save some walking time upon arriving by train, he’d have to sacrifice time now traveling to the platform. The subway is the most reliable option to arrive on time.


A man takes the ferry to work every day. He notices a long, white pole extending from the deck. At first, he thinks it’s a flagpole. He makes this assumption on the pole’s color, shape, and gilded ball on top.

However, he also notes characteristics that don’t apply to a flagpole. The pole on the ferry extends outwards in a near-horizontal position. Additionally, the pole has no pulley to raise a flag. If it’s not a flagpole, then what else could it be?

He studies the angle and position of the pole relative to the captain. When he could mentally put himself into the captain’s chair, the meaning became clear. The pole helped the captain determine the direction of the ferry.


A woman wakes up with a rash on her throat and chest. She has a few ideas about the potential cause. Two weeks ago, she began a daily regimen of blood pressure medication. She might have a possible allergy.

Yesterday, she used a new lotion. Also, she recently started using over-the-counter eye drops. Finally, she might have a heat rash, because the temperature in her room was hot for most of the night.

She can’t make a 100% accurate determination, but she does develop a plan of action. She’ll stop using the new lotion immediately, as it has the most direct connection to the rash. She’ll also lower the temperature in the room.

She disregards the eye drops as irrelevant information. Next, she makes an appointment with her doctor to discuss potential side effects related to her medication, but otherwise, she’ll keep taking it. Finally, she’ll watch the rash to see if it gets worse or better with time and use that information to adjust her conclusions as necessary.

What Do These Examples All Have in Common?

The situations above are fairly diverse, but they all have an underlying pattern. Dewey (the father of critical thinking) identified five common phases found in all critical thinking scenarios:

1. Suggestions

Each of the people in the example had an immediate possible solution to their problem. The first man wanted to take a taxi; the second person thought the pole held a flag; the third blamed her new medication.

It turns out that none of their initial ideas were correct, but that’s okay. When we first encounter a problem, our brains immediately suggest solutions. However, the critical thinker then takes a moment to evaluate the situation before taking action.

2. Questioning

Next, each of the three people formulated a question to help frame the problem. What’s the best mode of transportation to arrive at the appointment on time? What’s the purpose of the pole? What’s causing this rash?

3. Hypothesis Formulation

The people in the examples then applied their original suggestion to the question at hand to create a hypothesis, or potential solution. At this stage, you might formulate more than one potential answer.

4. Reasoning

Now you’re ready to reason through your hypothesis. The man late for an appointment must determine the location of the closest subway stations and train platforms. The lady with the rash had to mentally catalog all the new products she’d encountered.

5. Testing

Finally, it’s time to test the hypothesis. You can do this by either direct action or by using your imagination.

The first guy looked at the line for the subway station and then imagined the other travel times. The man on the ferry used his imagination to see through the captain’s eyes.

From Confusion to Clarity

All three people experienced moments where they were confused and even troubled. They noticed a situation – a rash, a pole – that provoked puzzlement.

However, following a process of critical thinking produces clarity to a confusing situation. Instead of choosing their first instinct (for example, thinking it was a flag pole), each person followed a series of steps to develop a reasoned hypothesis.

A Closer Look at 7 Skills Connected to Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is a great skill to learn because doing so also teaches you the following seven other skills:


Analysis is the ability to break a problem down into its core components. It’s the understanding of how each piece of a system works together to create a single function. Examples include:

  • Understanding how the various departments in a company work together
  • Understanding how a physical object like an engine operates


Standardization is when you apply consistent standards to similar situations. It applies to standards both personal and professional.

Applying standards consistently allows you to approach situations without judgment or bias. It’s also a way to obtain consistent results. For example, standardization is used to ensure all manufactured products work in the same way.

Logical Reasoning

Logical reasoning is the ability to detect inconsistencies across a large set of information. You can also use the information you have to draw reasonable conclusions about potential outcomes.


In this use of the word, discrimination isn’t bad. It’s the ability to recognize the similarities and differences between two things or ideas. Discrimination acts as a sorting tool to help you identify information relevant to the problem-solving process.


Sourcing refers to identifying accurate, factual information relevant to the situation at hand. First, this process involves the ability to separate true information from false. Next, it involves understanding the relevance of information to the situation.


Once you’ve created a plan, but before you’ve put it into action, you should have a solid understanding of the potential outcome. While nobody can predict the future, the ability to make reasonable predictions indicates you’ve done adequate research.

Re-using Information

Sometimes finding the solution requires trial and error. As you learn new information, new solutions might present themselves requiring information you previously discarded as irrelevant.

The ability to transfer knowledge from earlier situations, or from another situation altogether, is a key skill used in critical thinking.

Adopting a Mindset of Critical Thinking

You can train your brain to adopt a mindset that naturally results in critical thinking. Instead of using critical thinking to solve a specific problem, you can use this mindset to approach everything in your life. Here’s a look at the characteristics of a critical thinker:

Stay Open-Minded

Keep your mind open to all possibilities. Otherwise, you’ll miss important information. Always try to look at a problem from the perspective of all those affected by it. An ability to stay open-minded often leads to unexpected insights and solutions.

Keep Your Thoughts Flexible

Don’t feel afraid to change your mind. Rigid thinking is when you arrive at a solution without gathering all the facts.

Flexible thinking is when you develop insights and solutions based on new information. A person with a critical thinking mindset can change directions when needed. In fact, they’re constantly looking for new ideas, even after the problem seems solved.

Ask and Answer Questions

Many people are afraid that asking questions will make them seem dumb. But that’s not the case. Questions are the cornerstone of understanding.

If you don’t understand an aspect of your research, keep asking questions until you do. Of course, you don’t want to pepper others with incessant questions. You might have to ask yourself questions.

Also, try to answer questions from others whenever possible. You’ll know that you’ve truly mastered a subject when you’re able to provide clear, simple answers to questions.

Question Your Assumptions

Sometimes the things we know that are true not out to not be true at all. Make sure to always double-check your most basic assumptions about a topic. Can you justify your beliefs with well-sourced, accurate information?

Consider counterarguments to your position. It’s all-too-easy to dismiss anything that goes against your beliefs as crazy. Truthfully, studying the opposition to your beliefs is a useful, informative method of learning. You’ll either gain a new perspective or reinforce your existing ideas.

Final Thoughts

A few people are born with a natural inclination for critical thinking, but most of us have to practice. Fortunately, developing a critical thinking mindset isn’t hard, and the benefits apply to practically all areas of life.

The importance of critical thinking extends beyond the individual. When people in society think critically, they have an easier time working together to develop solutions to large problems. A society that prizes critical thinking sees advancements in technology, medicine, and more.

Retrain your brain! Embracing a critical thinking mindset can help boost your success and happiness.

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