Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud…these are just a few of the critical thinkers who have shaped our modern lives. Critical thinkers think clearly and rationally, and make logical connections between ideas — they are crucial to exploring and understanding the world we live in.
Critical thinking is more than just the accumulation of facts and knowledge; it’s a way of approaching whatever is presently occupying your mind so that you come to the best possible conclusion. Critical thinkers are focused on constantly upgrading their knowledge, and they engage in independent self-learning. They make some of the best leaders, because they can reach new planes of self-improvement and self-actualization.
If you’re hoping to reach your full potential and make your mark on the world, cultivate the following 16 characteristics of critical thinkers.
Observation is one of the earliest critical thinking skills we learn as children — it’s our ability to perceive and understand the world around us. Careful observation includes our ability to document details, and to collect data through our senses. Our observations will eventually lead to insight and a deeper understanding of the world.
Curiosity is a core trait of many successful leaders. Being inherently inquisitive and interested in the world and people around you is a hallmark of leaders who are critical thinkers. Instead of taking everything at face value, a curious person will wonder why something is the way it is.
As we get older, it’s easier to put aside what may seem like childish curiosity. Curiosity forces you to keep an open mind and propels you to gain deeper knowledge — all of which are also fundamental to being a lifelong learner.
Good critical thinkers are able to stay as objective as possible when looking at information or a situation. They focus on facts, and on the scientific evaluation of the information at hand. Objective thinkers seek to keep their emotions (and those of others) from affecting their judgment.
However, it’s impossible for people to remain completely objective, because we’re all shaped by our points of view, our life experiences and our perspectives. Being aware of our biases is the first step to being objective and looking at an issue dispassionately. Once you’re able to remove yourself from the situation, you can more thoroughly analyze it.
This is the art of being aware of your thinking — or, to put it another way, thinking about how you think about things. Critical thinkers need introspection so they’re aware of their own degree of alertness and attentiveness, as well as their biases. This is your ability to examine your inner-most thoughts, feelings and sensations. Introspection is closely related to self-reflection, which gives you insight into your emotional and mental state.
5. Analytical thinking
The best analytical thinkers are also critical thinkers, and vice versa. The ability to analyze information is key when looking at any almost anything, whether it is a contract, report, business model or even a relationship.
Analyzing information means to break information down to its component parts and evaluate how well those parts function together and separately. Analysis relies on observation; on gathering and evaluating evidence so you can come to a meaningful conclusion. Analytical thinking begins with objectivity.
6. Identifying biases
Critical thinkers challenge themselves to identify the evidence that forms their beliefs and assess whether or not those sources are credible. Doing this helps you understand your own biases and question your preconceived notions.
This is an important step in becoming aware of how biases intrude on your thinking and recognizing when information may be skewed. When looking at information, ask yourself who the information benefits. Does the source of this information have an agenda? Does the source overlook or leave out information that doesn’t support its claims or beliefs?
7. Determining relevance
One of the most difficult parts of thinking critically is figuring out what information is the most relevant, meaningful and important for your consideration. In many scenarios, you’ll be presented with information that may seem valuable, but it may turn out to be only a minor data point to consider.
Consider if a source of information is logically relevant to the issue being discussed. Is it truly useful and unbiased, or it is it merely distracting from a more pertinent point?
Information doesn’t always come with a summary that spells out exactly what it means. Critical thinkers need to assess the information and draw conclusions based on raw data. Inference is the ability to extrapolate meaning from data and discover potential outcomes when assessing a scenario.
It is also important to understand the difference between inference and assumptions. For example, if you see data that someone weighs 260 pounds, you might assume they are overweight or unhealthy. However, other data points like height and body composition may alter that conclusion.
9. Compassion and empathy.
Having compassion and empathy may seem like a negative for critical thinkers. After all, being sentimental and emotional can skew our perception of a situation. But the point of having compassion is to have concern for others and to value the welfare of other people.
Without compassion, we would view all information and situations from the viewpoint of cold, heartless scientific facts and data. It would be easy to allow our cynicism to become toxic, and to be suspicious of everything we look at. But to be a good critical thinker, we must always take into account the human element. Not everything we do is about detached data and information — it’s also about people.
Humility is the willingness to acknowledge one’s shortcomings and see one’s positive attributes in an accurate way. When you have humility, you are aware of your flaws, but also your strengths, and this is an important element in critical thinking and being willing to stretch and open your mind.
When you have intellectual humility, you’re open to other people’s viewpoints, you recognize when you’re wrong and you’re willing to challenge your own beliefs when necessary.
11. Willing to challenge the status quo.
Critical thinking means questioning long-established business practices and refusing to adhere to traditional methods simply because that’s the way it’s always been done. Critical thinkers are looking for smart, thoughtful answers and methods that take into account all the current and relevant information and practices available. Their willingness to challenge the status quo may seem controversial, but it’s an essential part of the creative and innovative mind of a critical thinker.
Being able to step back from a situation and not become embroiled helps critical thinkers see the broader view. Critical thinkers avoid launching into a frenzied argument or taking sides — they want to hear all perspectives. Critical thinkers don’t jump to conclusions. They approach a question or situation with an open mind and embrace other opinions and views.
13. Aware of common thinking errors.
Critical thinkers don’t allow their logic and reasoning to become clouded by illusions and misconceptions. They are aware of common logical fallacies, which are errors in reasoning that often creep into arguments and debates. Some common errors in thinking include:
- Circular reasoning, in which the premise of an argument or a conclusion is used as support for the argument itself.
- Cognitive shortcut bias, in which you stubbornly stick to a favored view or argument when other more effective possibilities or explanations exist.
- Confusing correlation with causation. In other words, asserting that when two things happen together, one causes the other. Without direct evidence, this assumption isn’t justified.
14. Creative thinking
Effective critical thinkers are also largely creative thinkers. Creative thinkers reject standardized formats for problem solving — they think outside the box. They have a wide range of interests and adopt multiple perspectives on a problem. They’re also open to experimenting with different methods and considering different viewpoints.
The biggest difference between critical thinkers and creative thinkers is that creativity is associated with generating ideas, while critical thinking is associated with analyzing and appraising those ideas. Creativity is important to bringing in novel ideas; critical thinking can bring those ideas into clearer focus.
15. Effective communicators
In many cases, problems with communication are based on an inability to think critically about a situation or see it from different perspectives. Effective communication starts with a clear thought process.
Critical thinking is the tool we use to coherently build our thoughts and express them. Critical thinking relies on following another person’s thought process and line of reasoning. An effective critical thinker must be able to relay his or her ideas in a compelling way and then absorb the responses of others.
16. Active listeners
Critical thinkers don’t just want to get their point across to others; they are also careful to engage in active listening and really hear others’ points of view. Instead of being a passive listener during a conversation or discussion, they actively try to participate.
They ask questions to help them distinguish facts from assumptions. They gather information and seek to gain insight by asking open-ended questions that probe deeper into the issue.