The Basic Elements of Critical Thinking:
Building Skills for Better Decision-Making

See also: Analytical Skills

Critical thinking is a tool that every grown adult should be well practiced in. All mature humans - especially those living in democratic societies who live with the responsibility of participating in electoral politics - should have a firm grasp on the basic principles of thinking critically. It helps with understanding how the world works, aids us in sorting truth from fiction, and enables us to make better decisions.

But what does being able to think critically really mean? Well, if you’re really not sure, there are plenty of online EdD programs where you could learn critical thinking skills, and prepare yourself to teach them to others. But if you’re just looking to get the basics down in order to make yourself a more responsible citizen and overall better human, I’ve got you covered.

Model of 'The Thinker' statue.

The real essence of critical thinking is to not simply accept what you are told. This basic skill is more important than ever in a world flooded with disinformation, “alternative facts”, and public access to scientific research that can often conflict with other published research or common understanding of complex topics.

But simply rejecting everything one is told is not critical thinking; indeed, we must be just as critical of our own thoughts and ideas as we are of those of others if we want our critical thinking skills to yield good results. Being open-minded and teachable is just as important as questioning what you learn from others.

The real key element of critical thinking is curiosity. This might sound counter-intuitive, but in reality, there is no better cure for ignorance than a passionate thirst for the truth. People who are curious and want to know more will always be interested in knowledge for its own sake, rather than consuming or confirming knowledge in order to further their own agendas. Cultivating and rewarding your own curiosity is a great way to ensure that you’re getting as close to the truth as possible. Curiosity imbues one with the same tendency to question and learn as having a skeptical attitude, but it makes you way less combative and stubborn! So allow yourself to be curious - don’t shut down that natural instinct we are all born with to ask, “why?”

It’s not all about being a seeker, though. Intellectual discipline is just as important to effective critical thinking as curiosity. After all, with so much information out there, someone who is a little too curious might wind up inundated with conflicting information, cognitive dissonance, or even conspiracy theories. Understanding the basics of logic is a crucial tool to thinking critically - when presented with a conundrum or conflicting information, we have to use our own deductive or inductive acumen to sort the wheat from the chaff and find the kernel of truth below all of the noise. 

Learning about the principles of symbolic logic - the linguistic math that underpins all language and scientific understanding - is a great way to improve your critical thinking skills. Understanding the idea of a logical fallacy and a few common ones that people often commit - either unwittingly or in an attempt to deceive themselves or others - can really help unlock a deeper understanding of how people think and why they might believe what they do.

Understanding how evidence should be evaluated for relevance, and how scientific studies are conducted and reported, is a great skill to have, too. Far too many people read an abstract or conclusion from a study, only to produce erroneous conclusions from partial information, or make assumptions that fail to account for the scope or context of the study they are chosen to use as a flag post for their fragile understanding of an issue they know very little about.

Rubik cube on an old book.

Acquiring skills like these sometimes feels like a bit of a superpower. Understanding how the human brain works and how and why we decide that something is true is a fundamental skill for comprehending reality from first principles. It’s important, when going this far down the rabbit hole of pure logic and reason, to remain humble, and remember how many absolute geniuses have walked and crawled so that you could run in those fancy new symbolic logic Nikes laced up with defenses against logical fallacies and bad evidence. It never hurts to read some of the great thinkers of our time to grasp the foundations that our understanding of reason, philosophy, and the scientific method are predicated upon.

Important classical thinkers like Plato and Aristotle laid the foundation for our abstract understanding of reality; Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers like Descartes and Hume paved the roads of the fundamentals of reason and its application in understanding complex moral phenomena; foundational scientists like Galileo and Isaac Newton changed the way we understand the world around us; modern philosophers like Hegel and Wittgenstein unraveled the very fabric of our perception.

Even though their knowledge seems dated and even simplistic to us now, the world we live in would be very different without them, and we shouldn’t underestimate the absurd difficulty of deriving the basic truths these thinkers uncovered without the benefit of their work.

Questioning, curiosity, humility, precision of thought, and a deep understanding of the foundations of our understanding of knowledge are skills that any human can benefit from in any endeavor.

Understanding how the human mind works and how we derive knowledge from information is a virtual superpower that nobody will regret taking the time to unlock!

About the Author

Caitlyn Bell is an arts student whose experiences in life make her tougher than anyone else. She can lend you expert tips on diverse topics ranging from relationships to fashion, making money, health, and careers.