One of the most important skills in developing successful personal and professional relationships is critical thinking. Critical thinking is a high level skill that allows somebody to process information (especially external information) in order to make a decision, come to a conclusion, or solve a problem.
Because critical thinking requires outside information, it may be one of the least common to come naturally to somebody, however it is also very closely tied to development of other skills. Being able to think critically will lead to greater innovation, focus, and cooperation with others.
The ability to think critically is broken down into six steps. To illustrate each of these six sub-steps, we will be trying to think critically about the following problem:
While out grocery shopping, you overhear a man telling a woman at the store that if she eats five peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in one day, her big toe will fall off. This doesn’t sound right to the woman (or you), but the man claims he is one Dr. Pepper and therefore licensed to provide medical advice.
1. Gathering information
The first, and most clearly actionable step to critical thinking is to gather information. The formalized process of gathering information is called “research,” and involves pulling information from multiple sources, and organizing it in a way that will make the next step more efficient.
In our problem above, you may start by researching how much peanut butter is on the average peanut butter sandwich. You may also look into what goes into peanut butter and jelly and download a chart showing how much of each of those ingredients is harmful to human beings.
You read an article on medical conditions that could make a person’s toe fall off. You even decide to look into Dr. Pepper and download information about a brand of soda that curiously has the name.
Typing the term “Peanut butter no toes” into Google leads you to the “Anti Peanut Butter Society of America,” a group dedicated to ending peanut butter, whose regional chairman looks like Dr. Pepper.
2. Analyzing information
The next step to critical thinking is to analyze the information and research we’ve gathered. Analyzing information means breaking it down into a way that makes it make sense. If the topic at hand is contentious, you will want to pull information from every perspective on the issue and work to find commonalities between them. Critical thinking means attempting to perform this sub-step in a way that is the least influenced by your own personal feelings about the issue.
After downloading all of this information, you put it through a strict medical and scientific analysis. Your findings indicate that the least safe ingredients in either peanut butter or jelly (namely sodium and sugar) would not pose any threat to humans beyond a tummy ache if five sandwiches containing both were consumed.
You compare the portrait of the “Anti-Peanut Butter Society of America” regional chairman and your memory of Dr. Pepper and surmise they are the same person.
Finally, you realize that you bought soda in the aisle in which you heard Dr. Pepper dispensing his incorrect medical advice, and this fraudulent practitioner likely borrowed his name from a nearby case of soda.
3. Applying information
In this step, you take the information you’ve gathered and the insights you’ve gained from analysis and figure out the best way to apply them to your life and the problem at hand. Information that is never applied is ultimately useless.
A story begins to emerge that this man, in an attempt to sway a fellow shopper against peanut butter, lied to her and told her he was a doctor in order to bolster his credentials as he dispensed fraudulent medical advice.
4. Forming a hypothesis
A hypothesis is an educated guess that will assist you in reaching a conclusion. Hypotheses take into account all of the information that’s been researched, analyzed, and applied and ask “what are some possible answers to my problem?” It’s best to try and come up with several hypotheses that can work together or independently of one another to help you solve the problem at hand.
You hypothesize that “Dr. Pepper” was in some way himself harmed by peanut butter (or so he believes). He went on to join a fringe group of legume antagonists and recruits new members to his ranks by pretending to be a medical professional and making grocery shoppers believe their toes are in danger.
You decide to approach this problem with multiple hypotheses and also guess that maybe it’s all done for a hidden camera show to see if anybody will believe the absurd medical advice.
5. Problem solving
Putting your hypotheses to the test! Problem solving is where the rubber really meets the road and you begin to work through possible solutions based on your set of hypotheses. Though working through these six steps of critical thinking will teach you that there are usually multiple solutions to one problem, you will quickly learn that the process to finding them is always the same.
After googling the given name of the regional chairperson for the “Anti-Peanut Butter Society of America.” You find his self-published autobiography on Amazon. As a young boy, the family of Mr. Norman Uts owned a peanut farm. He grew up eating peanuts for every meal: Peanut butter, peanut brittle, roasted peanuts, you name it… Norman was mowing the lawn one day when his mower spun out of control heading right into his family’s peanut patch.
In an effort to save his parents’ business, he jumped off and dove in the way, unfortunately losing his big toe. Ever since, he has hated peanuts.
Congratulations: Problem solved!
6. Decision making
Finally the last portion of the critical thinking sextet is to use the above critical thinking skills and plan a course of action (or inaction) to solve your given problem.
Armed with this information, you decide to ignore Mr. Norman Uts’ unsolicited and ridiculous advice and have yourself a delicious dinner of not 1, not 5, but 6 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Obviously the example we used to illustrate this process is absurd, but it highlights the very real and important steps of thinking critically and being able to solve problems and make decisions that are as close to free from bias as humanly possible. In a world that’s saturated with questionable advice, perhaps this soft skill is among the most important.