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What is Critical Thinking?

Margo Upson
Updated: May 23, 2024

Critical thinking is the ability to apply reasoning and logic to new or unfamiliar ideas, opinions, and situations. Thinking critically involves seeing things in an open-minded way and examining an idea or concept from as many angles as possible. This important skill allows people to look past their own views of the world and to better understand the opinions of others. It is often used in debates, to form more cogent and well-rounded arguments, and in science.

Open-Minded Approach

The ability to think critically is essential, as it creates new possibilities in problem solving. Being "open-minded" is a large part of critical thinking, allowing a person to not only seek out all possible answers to a problem, but to also accept an answer that is different from what was originally expected. Open-minded thinking requires that a person does not assume that his or her way of approaching a situation is always best, or even right. A scientist, for example, must be open to the idea that the results of an experiment will not be what is expected; such results, though challenging, often lead to tremendous and meaningful discoveries.

Rational Considerations

Another aspect of critical thinking is the ability to approach a problem or situation rationally. Rationality requires analyzing all known information, and making judgments or analyses based on fact or evidence, rather than opinion or emotion. An honest approach to reasoning requires a thinker to acknowledge personal goals, motives, and emotions that might color his or her opinions or thought processes. Rational thought involves identifying and eliminating prejudices, so that someone can have a fresh and objective approach to a problem.


Critical thinking often relies on the ability to view the world in a way that does not focus on the self. Empathizing with a person usually involves a thinker trying to put himself or herself in the place of someone else. This is often done by students of history, for example, in an attempt to see the world as someone would have while living in an ancient civilization or during a violent conflict. Communication skills, teamwork, and cooperation are typically improved through empathy, which makes it valuable in many professional fields.

How to Apply It

Effective critical thinking often begins with a thinker analyzing what he or she knows about a subject, with extra effort made to recognize what he or she does not know about it. This forms an initial knowledge base for consideration. The thinker can then look at what research has been done on the subject, and identify what he or she can learn simply by looking over such work. This approach is often used in science, as it allows a scientist to determine what people do not yet know or understand, and then look for ways to discover this information through experimentation.

When someone applies this approach to his or her own life, he or she often places more emphasis on finding prejudices and preconceived notions he or she holds. This lets the thinker strive to eliminate or avoid these opinions, to come to a more honest or objective view of an issue. Someone struggling with a fear of heights, for example, might strive to determine the cause of this fear in a rational way. By doing so, he or she might be better able to deal with the root cause directly and avoid emotional responses that could prevent self-improvement.

Common Uses

Critical thinking is used in many situations. Students often use it to evaluate the plot of a book or a character’s motives in a literature class. Members of a debate team frequently think critically about a subject to form a strong argument and anticipate points their competitors might make. Diets using common sense, in which the focus is on how weight is gained and lost through calories and exercise, can require that the dieter thinks critically about his or her lifestyle. Many people use open-mindedness and empathy in their professional lives, allowing them to work better with others and complete tasks more effectively.

Teaching This Skill

School systems in the US usually teach critical thinking from elementary school up through college-level courses. Teachers encourage students to learn through writing assignments and problem solving. For example, younger students might be asked how their lives would be different if they were born in another country or in a different time period. Such assignments push students to let go of what they know about the world around them, to better consider other perspectives and apply new ideas to their own lives.

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Margo Upson
By Margo Upson
With a vast academic background that has ranged from psychology and culinary arts to criminal justice and education, Margo Upson brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her role as a Language & Humanities writer. Her wide-ranging interests and skill at diving into new topics make her articles informative, engaging, and valuable to readers seeking to expand their knowledge.
Discussion Comments
By anon358079 — On Dec 09, 2013

Teaching your kids common fallacies in arguments is a great way to teach them to argue fairly and keep arguments on track without using emotional ad- hom. attacks. Learning to recognize fallacious thinking in others and themselves is a great critical thinking tool.

By profess — On Dec 19, 2012

After reading this article I had to chuckle at myself a little bit. Doesn't it seem like the people in power, whether it be in business or government, often have the worst critical thinking skills?

By vigilant — On Dec 18, 2012

Are there any exercises that I can do with my son to encourage his critical thinking skills?

Here is already pretty bright, but while he is young I want to give him the best start in life that I can. If there is any way to help him get better with his core logic and reasoning that would be great.

By anon258809 — On Apr 03, 2012

I would like to say I think we all have a bit of critical thinking in us at some point in time.

By anon141709 — On Jan 11, 2011

Yes, critical thinking is essential for human survival. See the new book, "Rational Thinking, Government Policies, Science, and Living". Rational thinking means starting from basic principles, applying logic, and checking with empirical verification.

By Moldova — On Jul 21, 2010

Crispety- Debate teams at school also prepare students for critical thinking because they have to understand the topic well enough to offer there opinion which can only established that after significant thought.

Children considering a journalism or legal career would really benefit from the debate team experience because critical thinking is a must for these professions.

By Crispety — On Jul 21, 2010

Sneakers41- I just want to add that Martin Cothran wrote a book entitled, “Traditional Logic One” that offers training exercises that show children how to illustrate a point of view while understanding the opposing idea as well.

The book is geared for children in eight grade or higher and the course is designed so that anyone with no formal logic training can teach the program to kids.

By sneakers41 — On Jul 21, 2010

Suntan12-I agree with you. I just want to add that by training the mind to dig deeper when thinking about a topic the result might include an analysis of a simple new story.

On the surface, the news story offers information, but upon further analysis was the coverage fair? Is there a bias in the reporting? Asking these questions are a form of critical thinking because you are taking the basic information that you received and analyzing it.

By suntan12 — On Jul 21, 2010

I just want to add that teaching children about logic and inferences helps them develop their critical thinking ability.

This trains their mind to understand abstract ideas such as justice and fairness and be able to draw conclusions that require significant thought.

Margo Upson
Margo Upson
With a vast academic background that has ranged from psychology and culinary arts to criminal justice and education,...
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