What is critical thinking?
Critical thinking is a deliberate thought process used to evaluate information. It means specifically and intentionally examining information to determine its validity and relevance. It is an essential skill in improving your cognitive processes, but importantly is your first line of defense for preventing coercion and coercive control, including identifying misinformation and fake news.
Critical thinking, sometimes called healthy skepticism, is a learned skill, using reflective, analytical thinking to make a reasonable, rational decision on what to believe or do. Even the most intelligent people have to learn it and practise it consciously. Once learned, critical thinking helps us to resist emotional appeals that might otherwise undermine our reasoning.
The Critical Thinking Essentials
The essential elements of critical thinking in everyday life are:
- Willingness to follow the evidence wherever it leads
- Application of systematic analysis to problem solving
We can always learn something new, no matter how knowledgeable we are. We should be open to new information, so that we can change our opinions. When we are curious, we enjoy looking at things from different perspectives, because it will improve our understanding and expand our knowledge. Curious people keep asking questions, like “What if the opposite is true?”, “What if I am wrong?”, “How sure can I be about this explanation?”, “How did you come to your conclusion?”, “What would it take for me to question my opinion?”
2. Willingness to follow the evidence wherever it leads:
This is the willingness to explore the facts we’re given and see what conclusions they might lead to. Instead of discarding evidence because it doesn’t fit in with our own opinions, we need to be open to anything that might contradict our existing information and beliefs. The wider the variety of evidence that we can find, the better adapted and more nuanced our view of reality will become. This attitude leads us to a realistic outlook on life, and a capacity to interpret and predict the wealth of facts and information we must deal with every day.
3. Application of systematic analysis to problem solving:
We must reflect on problems from different angles to work out the importance, goals, actions and outcomes in a rational and reasonable manner. Systematic analysis means we don’t make decisions based on assumptions, emotions, or wishful thinking. Instead, we evaluate possible outcomes to see if there might be a better approach. By reviewing our past actions, we will improve our future responses.
- Looking at problems from other people’s points of view
- Applying logical reasoning skills
- Holding back when we feel a need to act on the basis of an emotion such as guilt, fear, shame, infatuation, or loyalty
- Analyzing carefully how rational and fair other people’s arguments are.
Critical thinking skills help us to avoid mistakes and to lead a better life.
What makes a good critical thinker?
Critical thinking takes practise and self-reflection, and a good awareness of self. Commonly, good critical thinkers will employ a range of critical thinking tools, but will also display some key characteristics and values including:
Pausing and slowing down:
Many of us are used to quick, efficient decision making that may easily be described as snap judgements. Critical thinkers slow down this process by actively engaging with the thought process and establishing why and how they are thinking in a particular way. This allows them to suspend raw emotion and engage active critical thinking skills to help make better decisions.
To be a better critical thinker, practise slowing down your thoughts and considering how and why you are making a decision. What information might you be lacking? What assumptions might you be making? You don’t have to do this for every thought process, but practising a couple of times a day initially, will dramatically improve your critical thinking skills.
The more we ask, the more we can know, and potentially the more information we have to work with. Not only will good critical thinkers ask questions, but their questions tend to be better too, asking open questions that require more than a yes/no answer, and which allow the person answering to provide a breadth of information that they believe is important. Questions such as “How do you know that?”, “What evidence are you drawing on?”, and “What information am I missing?” can all help to fill the gaps in your knowledge.
Practise asking open questions and the answers might surprise you. Many describe having “lightbulb moments” in relation to open questions,
learning new things.
Considering perspective and bias:
While we all like to believe that we are working with facts, in reality we are more often than not working with factual information that lacks context. Critical thinkers will consider the perspective from which the information is being offered and the potential bias that accompanies it. Bias and perspective don’t invalidate the quality of information, but awareness of both helps critical thinkers to identify additional sources of information.
We recommend the Rule of Five for helping you to practise identifying bias, and understanding how it affects the narrative. More awareness makes it easier to filter the facts from the bias.
Understanding the implications:
Holding a particular belief has implications and consequences, positive or negative. They may encourage you to act in a particular way, or approach problems from a particular perspective. There is no such this as a perfect, pure decision, but understanding the implications of their beliefs helps critical thinkers to have an awareness on how that might bias their own judgement, and supports open-mindedness in considering other viewpoints.
Again, utilising the Rule of Five can support you with understanding your own bias and leanings, and consider whether that is more likely to make you believe or respond in one particular way or another. Understanding your own limitations is essential for your critical thinking.
Open-mindedness and respect:
Opinions differ and while there can be definite rights and wrongs, in the majority of cases, neither opinion is entirely right and there is plenty of nuance. Critical thinkers accept that they won’t always agree with another individual, and approach conversations in a rational, open-minded and respectful way. It’s a great way to ensure that emotion doesn’t overcome rationale debate, ensuring that conversation becomes an important learning tool.
Deliberately practise being open-minded and respectful during conversation and keep your emotions in check. It isn’t always easy, particularly if you disagree, but keeping calm helps you to actively listen and process the information you are hearing.
Using reason, logic and evidence:
Did you know, humans have a “truth bias” which means that we believe what we are hearing is the truth, even if we have information to the contrary. Critical thinkers are typically aware of their own and others’ limitations, (see also confirmation bias, and groupthink) and actively seek out more information to make decisions based in reason, logic and evidence.
Critical thinking comes back to slowing down the decision-making process and actively seeking out information to combat your blind spots. Practise logic exercises to get your brain thinking creatively, and seek out multiple sources of information.
Re-evaluating information and conclusions:
Critical thinkers are typically not afraid to admit they were wrong, or to change their stance in light of new information. Sticking doggedly to your beliefs, even in light of new evidence, is a common but difficult trait, and critical thinkers will actively challenge their own ideas.
The best way to practise this critical thinking skill is to never stop learning. Seek more, new information. Ask questions of and debate with others. Find ways to challenge the status quo.
Key tenets of critical thinking
The key skills in critical thinking & how to improve them
Whenever you consider an issue, critical thinking is about using a deliberate set of skills to evaluate the issue, before drawing a conclusion about what to believe or what to do. Ultimately, thinking critically is about slowing down the process of cognitive reasoning, so that decisions are made later in the thinking process, after additional information and resources have been gathered.
The key tenets of critical thinking are:
Observation gives you an opportunity to notice and identify the critically important details in the context of the information. In a personal interaction, it may be the way that a person behaves or interacts, or the facial expressions that they use, while in written communication, it may be discrepancies in the detail or the use of particular words. Observation helps you to form the initial basis of whether statements may be true or not.
To improve your observation skills, consciously slow down the pace at which you process information, and train yourself to pay closer attention to what is going on. Useful techniques include active listening, journaling, and mindfulness to give you time to examine that you see, hear and interact with. Self-reflection can take you one step further, identifying trends in your behaviours, gaps in your knowledge, or your potential biases.
Analysis is about viewing a statement, problem, or piece of information outside of its original context. It involves knowing what facts, data or information are important, and whether separate sources of information can enhance knowledge or understanding. This may include additional research and asking relevant questions before assessing the findings objectively.
The best way to improve your analysis skills is to acquire more knowledge, particularly if it is an area that you are unfamiliar with. Read books or articles, listen to podcasts, and actively seek out views that oppose your own, trying to see the merit in their arguments. Doing this helps to push and improve your thinking skills, get in the rhythm of questioning what you are told, and improve your ability to make sound, effective decisions.
Inference is the process by which we draw conclusions. What is essential is that inferring during the critical thinking framework requires us to infer after first observing and analysing. What typically happens in normal cognitive processes is that people infer first instead, deriving meaning and drawing conclusions within split seconds of receiving information. During critical thinking stages, this process is slowed down and the inference happens when further information is available. It helps stop fake news statements being as believable for example.
Inference is considered to be a foundational skill which underpins learning. The best way to improve it is to self-reflect and consider how you can infer better next time. Give yourself a framework of questions that allow you to evaluate your own inference skills, and then improve on them next time. Examples include “What did I infer?”, “What information did I use to infer? Were there any gaps or assumptions?”, “How good was my thinking?”, and “Do I need to change how I think”. It really is a matter of practise – something that also happens with life experiences – so give yourself plenty of dedicated opportunity to practise.
Communication is essential both to explain how you have drawn a particular conclusion, but also to facilitate others to test and debate those conclusions. Communicating an issue beyond what you have read or heard, encourages your brain to reconsider the information out of context and reevaluate its importance. Be aware of your own bias though and ensure that you are not changing the information to fit your own narrative.
Communicating better starts with having difficult conversations and developing better habits. Debate is an extremely powerful tool in testing our assumptions and identifying gaps in our knowledge. Communicating better means holding ourselves to account, and ensuring quality conversations including active listening and giving respect, regardless of differences in our views.
Using critical thinking skills in your daily life may require problem-solving. This is about how you execute plans or developments to improve your skills. In the context of coercive control, problem solving is the least applied tenet of critical thinking, in that the purpose of the critical thinking is to question what you know or are told, rather than to drive a specific action. It does however still have value in your critical thinking toolkit and is good to practise.
To improve your problem-solving ability, the best thing to do is to solve problems. Start by stating what the problem is, why you need to solve it, and what success looks like, then employ problem-solving skills to draw a conclusion. Reflect on how you can problem-solve better, or improve your knowledge, then implement these changes next time around.
Key Critical Thinking Definitions
We need to be able to voice our concerns, to assert our rights, and to stand up to injustice. Intelligent disobedience is “doing right when what you’re told to do is wrong.”
Critical thinking is the ability to make decisions based upon evidence rather than emotions. Critical thinking helps us to collect and consider the facts, and understand the bigger picture.
If we ask the right questions, any scam or trick will fall apart. It is surprising how obvious manipulation techniques become when you know what they are. This is our scam detection kit.
Courageous followers speak truth to power. We must learn how to stand up to the excesses of our leaders and overcome the groupthink urge to simply do as we are told. We can only have ethical leaders if we are courageous followers.
Trickery is a tool of manipulation
The tools of the trade
Scams, which are often synonymous with “bamboozle” or “trickery” covers all the of approaches used by human predators to deliberately manipulate an individual. It is a known and deliberate process with the predator targeting a victim directly (face-to-face) or indirectly through mediums such as social media.
If the predator approaches a target directly, it will often begin with a charm-offensive. Flattery is commonly applied, and there will be a focussed agenda. The problem with many scams and group recruitment agendas is that they happen gradually, building trust before any influence is actually applied, which makes it hard to notice. Reflect on your own behaviours and beliefs – has anyone encouraged you to exhibit new behaviours?
If the predator approaches a target indirectly, such as through email, social media, or another form of storytelling, then their focus will be on manipulative language. They employ the same tricks that work in sales and advertising, just on a more specific and targeted scale. Free gifts, limited-time offers, “once in a lifetime” opportunities, can all be employed to coerce an individual, for example to join a cult, gang, or extreme political group. If bribery doesn’t work, emotional manipulation often will, appealing to an individual’s fears or dreams, or exploiting their principals.
These approaches have little to do with critical thinking: even the most rational people are prey to predators, and as neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor says, “‘Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think.”
This flower is our gift for you!
A cheap gift may be offered – some pick-up artists give necklaces, timeshare scammers offer free drinks and meals; cult recruiters may give flowers or incense sticks, or offer a free survey or personality test. When a stranger offers you something for nothing, they are acting out a deliberate script, and they are definitely trying to sell you something. It is time to walk away.
Con artists offer big rewards for small investments, offering us a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to cash in. Many will justify their actions by saying that greedy people deserve to be conned, but the truth is that we all want to make a profit in life, so it is easy to be taken in. If it seems too good to be true, it most likely isn’t true.
Another manipulative tactic is to insist that the offer is taken up immediately – time pressure is an essential element of trickery: “buy now or lose the deal” is the message of the predator; if we’re given time to think it over, we’re more likely to see the trick, and that’s bad for business. Simply put, if you must “buy now,” don’t.
Emotional manipulation can go either way: into your darkest fears, or into your highest hopes and dreams. It is not a good idea to share either your fears or your dreams with a stranger, because it creates emotional vulnerability. The scammer will offer to mend your fears or to help you achieve your dreams, but will more likely increase your fears, empty your wallet, and shatter your dreams.
These approaches have little to do with critical thinking: even the most rational people are prey to predators, and as neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor says, “‘Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think.”
Perhaps the most important advice is never to take sweets – or anything else – from strangers; don’t sign anything without taking it home and talking it over with friends; and take a long hard look at that friendly stranger, before handing over any cash or making a commitment.
Resources for Critical Thinkers
- Skeptic’s Dictionary – a searchable collection of articles debunking myths of all sorts, religious, secular and pseudoscientific
- Snopes.com – the ubiquitous debunking site
- Science Fraudwatch – debunking pseudoscientific frauds
- Quackwatch – a database dedicated to exposing medical quackery
- Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice – debunking novel, controversial, and untested mental health claims.
- Financial Fraud Research Center – for information on financial fraud
- USFDA Fraudwatch – for information on health and food fraud, from the United States Food & Drug Administration
- FTC Fraudwatch – information on financial fraud, from the United States Federal Trade Commission
Standing up and doing the right thing
Intelligent disobedience means the ability to assert ourselves when we disagree. It is “doing right when what you’re told to do is wrong”. Too often, we teach children to simply obey, rather than teaching them to reason and express their views.
Obedience can be a sell out
Sometimes in emergencies it is necessary to act on the directions of a leader, but most of the time we are better off discussing options and considering possibilities. Obedience can strengthen groupthink and compliance with ill-conceived plans.
We are too often willing to accept information without checking the source. Fake news is readily believed, and reliable sources of information dismissed, because we have not learned how to collect and examine evidence. Intelligent disobedience is the first stage of this process: we have the right to doubt, to question any information presented to us. Only tyrants teach otherwise.
Intelligent disobedience is not rebellion against authority, but rather the best check against tyranny. Children – and adults – should be taught to disagree agreeably.
Investing in courage
Intelligent disobedience can be learned from an early age, as this video demonstrates:
In his groundbreaking book, “Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told to Do Is Wrong” Ira Chaleff offers a formula for intelligent disobedience:
- Understand the mission of the organization or group, the goals of the activity of which you are a part, and the values that guide how to achieve those goals.
2. When you receive an order that does not seem appropriate to the mission, goals, and values, clarify the order as needed, then pause to further examine the problem with it, whether that involves its safety, effectiveness, cultural sensitivity, legality, morality, or common decency.
3. Make a conscious choice whether to comply with the order or to resist it and offer an acceptable alternative when there is one.
4. Assume personal accountability for your choice, recognizing that if you obey the order, you are still accountable regardless of who issued the order.
Acting or refusing to act
Intelligent Disobedience goes beyond querying or speaking up in dissent. It means refusing to obey if you think that obeying may produce avoidable harm. Intelligent Disobedience requires critical thinking, but it goes beyond critical thinking into acting or refusing to act. We cannot claim innocence by saying “I told them I thought it was wrong” if we proceed to obey anyway.
Heroes or Devils
Courageous followership speaks truth to power. It overcomes the groupthink that fails to challenge leaders about ill-considered and potentially dangerous decisions.
Focus on the Leader
Our culture is very much focused on celebrity, and we celebrate our leaders, without necessarily understanding that behind every great leader there is usually a great team enabling that leader.
Leaders are usually seen as heroes or devils – there is little mid-ground. Most Britons revere Churchill and revile Chamberlain, but Churchill’s excesses and failures are disregarded, as is Chamberlain’s considerable political acumen. The same can be said of many leaders – they are a mix of sense and folly, as are we all.
Charisma Is Not Always Intrinsic
Sociologist Max Weber pointed out that “charisma” is a quality given to leaders by their followers, rather than something intrinsic. He was among the first to study the role of followers, rather than concentrating simply on the capacity of leaders.
At times, opposition is the only answer. Gandhi stood up to the cruel imperialism of the British Raj. Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King gave their lives to oppose racism. But courageous followership is appropriate in all situations. It is “courageous,” because there are risks involved. Courageous followership demands that we stand up for what we know to be true.
Five Styles of Followership
Robert E Kelly, a pioneer in the field, has set out five basic styles of followership: the sheep, who simply follow the leader; the yes-people, who are highly supportive of the leader and uncritical; the alienated, who are generally critical of the leader; the pragmatics, who wait to see which way the wind is blowing before weighing in on the stronger side; and the star followers, who think for themselves, are active and contribute positive energy.
Courageous followers fit into this last category – they are “star followers.” As Kelly says, “They do not accept the leader’s decision without their own independent evaluation of its soundness. If they agree with the leader, they give full support. If they disagree, they challenge the leader, offering constructive alternatives that will help the leader and the organization get where they want to go.
See Chaleff, Riggio and Lipman-Blumen eds, The Art of Followership: How Great Followers Create Great Leaders and Organizations
In his study of groupthink, Irving Janis suggested that all groups should deliberately include a devil’s advocate. The Catholic Church used to appoint a devil’s advocate to argue against any proposed saint. The advocate’s job is to find contrary evidence. The best devil’s advocates would be star followers.
In a free country, people should show their opposition to statements and practices that they disapprove of, but we might also consider how to be better followers: how to influence the incumbent president by using (and perhaps improving) the system to complain, and make suggestions toward betterment.
No Test for Politicians
It is surprising that there is no test to ensure that politicians are psychologically competent. We need to inhibit psychopaths and narcissists, and we should seek compassionate people to lead us, but good leadership will only win out if we are courageous followers.
Courageous followership is absolutely about questioning, when needed; about helping positional leaders see their blind spots, and helping them understand the impact of their actions on success and on morale, as well as taking an ethical stand when needed. Crucially, these actions are effective if the follower performs their own job well and authentically supports the leader.
Test of Core Values
If what the leader is asking has a reasonable chance of success, and doesn’t violate core human values, even if the follower would prefer a different course, following is inherent to the follower role. In other words, following requires not continuously competing for the lead role. So the courage to serve or support the leader and the mission is foundational. In that context the positional follower can then successfully question, offer candid critiques, suggest alternative courses, and so forth.
How to Talk to Children
Give Children Power of Choice
Knowing how to talk to children about predators and manipulation is vital to giving them the tools in life to spot manipulation, coercion and undue influence.
It is vital to talk to children at the level of their understanding. Too many adults presume that children share their vocabulary and their ideas; it often isn’t so.
Young children need simple lessons. Ira Chaleff’s “Blink, Think, Choice, Voice” is an excellent beginning. Adolescents are more likely to pay attention to the culture of their peers – Rick and Morty is far more appealing to them than Shakespeare.
Children need to be heard. Recent abuse scandals have highlighted the failure of adults to believe what they are being told. The first lesson is to listen, and the second is to ask questions to make sure that you understand what the child’s understanding is. Friendly questioning also helps the child to remember the points being made.
We all respond best to stories – narratives that explain the world in simple terms: religious parables and fairy tales are easy to understand and often vividly described – they stick in the mind.
It is often best to explain to a child through a story from your own experience – especially if you can admit to a mistake, because that not only creates interest and empathy, it also allows the child to see that admitting to mistakes is a positive – even an admirable – trait.
If you feel irritated or angry, don’t try to persuade or educate a child. We take in information better when we are not on the defensive, when we feel comfortable and, best of all, when we are fascinated. A boring or emotionally charged environment is no good for learning!
Be patient, be interesting and be concerned about the child’s welfare. It may well be frustrating – especially if they want to run off with a potentially dangerous group.
If that is the case, it is important to allow them to tell you about the group, rather than trying to use rational argument (or sneering criticism of the group, which should be avoided at all costs!). Our commitments are emotional, whether we are adults or children. If a child feels certain that a probably dangerous group offers salvation to all of humanity, they will defend their belief in the same way that a parent will defend a child: we adopt our beliefs, and treasure them, often irrationally. It is the passion of commitment that has to be quieted, not the reasons they may have for holding that commitment.
Active listening is a counseling approach that is very useful in communicating. To diffuse potentially emotional situations, it is sensible to listen to the end of a person’s thought – which can be an agreed two or five minute period – before responding. Even when you know their evidence is wrong, it is best to let them offer it all. If necessary, take notes, so that you can return to anything that has been said.
There are particular open-ended questions that are useful for anyone with a fixed way of thinking. Ask what attracted the child to the belief system, what they expect to gain personally, what they feel they have gained, what they have seen gained by others. People too often think they will win someone over by destroying their belief with evidence. But this is not a contest: people should only change their beliefs when they are persuaded, rather than when they are bullied, cajoled or tricked. And the only person who can really persuade me is me. There is a difference between, “You’re right” and “I agree”: the first is sometimes simply code for “I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
The purpose of conversation is to bring someone to express themselves sufficiently to begin to ask questions and offer negative comments about the group or belief. This only happens in a friendly, uncritical environment, where their right to have an opinion is respected.
Where children have already been involved in a high-control group, it is best to seek expert information. Janja Lalich’s latest book, Escaping Utopia, is a good source on second-generation members. Steve Hassan’s Combatting Cult Mind Control remains the most accessible general text.
More difficulties are resolved through patient listening than forceful argument. Once you have listened patiently, the child should be willing to consider your evidence. Be sure that the evidence is well-researched and not simply an attack – and support children in their right to make decisions for themselves!
At the Open Minds Foundation, we are developing a range of educational materials, which match the UK curriculum / US syllabus, supporting teachers and parents to encourage critical thinking skills in young people.
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