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When it comes to understanding surroundings and processing information, it is a natural human tendency to make a lot of errors in making judgments. Individual perceptions, thought processes, decisions, and interpretation of information involve a lot of biases.

In addition to that, the 21st century, along with the advancement in science and technology, and ease of communication, has also observed excessive access to information, extreme polarization, and a rise in a capitalist attitude. This has given rise to a sense of chaos, uncertainty, and confusion that has collectively had a negative impact on the wellbeing of individuals. Such a scenario has also given rise to what is known as developing a herd mentality, leading to science denialism, anti-intellectualism, and a sense of meaninglessness.

However, this does not mean that nothing can be done about it. One way of dealing with such a scenario is the ability of critical thinking. Critical thinking is an ability that has been strongly emphasized by philosophers, scientists, and psychologists, over the years.    

The most widely accepted definition of critical thinking was given by the philosophers Michael Scriven and Richard Paul. They defined critical thinking as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”

In this regard, it can be said that critical thinking is corrective thinking. It is about evaluating and analyzing thinking in order to improve it. It is about being curious, wanting to know more, and examining multiple facets of the same information. It is the systematic process of analyzing information in order to form an opinion or make a decision. It involves always trying to look for new information, having a critical perspective, being as unbiased as possible, and always relying on facts.

Critical thinking can also be understood with respect to the psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s idea of System 1 and System 2 thinking. Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow suggested that human beings have two modes of thinking - System 1 involves little or no effort, it operates quickly and automatically. System 2, on the other hand, involves attention and effortful mental activities, including complex cognitive processes. 

System 1 thinking is more often used as it enables individuals to make quick judgments and decisions, and allows them to arrive at conclusions easily. However, this involves errors and biases that can lead to a wide range of negative consequences such as believing misinformation and disinformation, believing conspiracy theories, or holding on to false beliefs. System 2 thinking involving effortful mental activities is actually critical thinking, which leads to corrective thinking and minimizing errors and biases. However, due to being effortful, it is not used as often as System 1 thinking. Therefore, in order to indulge in critical thinking, individuals should be using System 2 thinking more often.        

Scriven and Paul suggest two specific ways of thinking that are major deterrents to critical thinking. These are egocentric thinking and sociocentric thinking. Egocentric thinking or egocentrism is the inability to realize that others may have a different perspective and that our own view may have limitations. It does not allow us to consider the perspectives and needs of others. Sociocentric thinking or sociocentrism is the tendency to view the world from the perspective of one’s own social group. It is the tendency to place and judge one’s culture, nation, and religion above all others. It is also about conforming uncritically to the perspective of one’s social group.

Both egocentric and sociocentric thinking limit the perspective of individuals extensively. They do not allow to develop multiple perspectives in viewing the same information. Such thinking can be associated with the System 1 mode of thinking, which involves little or no effort. Individuals would need to use the System 2 mode of thinking, in order to not get restricted by egocentrism and sociocentrism.

Further, critical thinking involves a number of characteristics. If individuals develop these characteristics, it will allow them to go beyond many of the inherent biases and distortions, while making interpretations and evaluations.

One of the most important aspects of critical thinking is intellectual humility. Intellectual humility is an understanding of the limitations of one’s knowledge, and lacking intellectual pretentiousness, pride, and arrogance. It is also about being able to look beyond one’s prior beliefs, not overlooking evidences, and being aware of the idea of faulty decision-making.

Another aspect of critical thinking is skepticism. Skepticism is the idea that knowledge is uncertain. It is an attitude of doubt towards information based on mere beliefs. It is about questioning the accuracy of claims and involves a critical evaluation of our perceptions.

Further, integrative complexity has been found to be an important aspect of critical thinking. Integrative complexity is the degree of complexity in which information is processed. It is about acknowledging that there are multiple ways of looking at an issue. It is the extent of perceiving a variety of perspectives, and being able to create connections among those various perspectives. Low integrative complexity means rigid thinking, an intolerance for ambiguity, and a lack of acceptance of alternative perspectives. High integrative complexity, on the other hand, means flexibility in thinking and being able to recognize multiple aspects and interpretations of the same issue.

Critical thinking also requires to have a high level of social awareness. Social awareness is an understanding of the surroundings, which includes cultures, communities, societal norms, and social problems. It is also the ability to empathize with people from diverse cultural backgrounds. Social awareness allows to look at issues from a perspective that is different from one’s own. It adds a lot of depth to the general understanding of the surroundings. 

Finally, critical thinking involves having self-awareness. Self-awareness involves being aware of private self-aspects such as mood, emotions, feelings, and thinking patterns. It is also about being able to identify the subtle changes that may occur within these private self-aspects. It helps in identifying and understanding the finer aspects of one’s feelings and emotions. 

Being high on self-awareness helps us to identify the finest of changes in mood, and even an understanding of the causes behind it. High self-awareness helps in realizing the feelings in an accurate manner as well as the reasons behind those feelings. This realization further helps in the regulation and channelizing of emotions in a proper direction. It is because of this that self-awareness allows to indulge in reflective thinking.

The term reflective thinking was coined by the psychologist, philosopher, and educationist John Dewey, in his book How We Think. According to Dewey, reflective thinking is about analyzing and making judgments about what has happened. It is an active and careful consideration of existing knowledge and beliefs. This, further, helps in identifying the possible biases that individuals may fall trap to, and thus, allows to identify faulty judgments and decisions.

Therefore, critical thinking involves intellectual humility, skepticism, integrative complexity, social awareness, and self-awareness. Critical thinking, in this sense, is then always doubting and questioning existing knowledge. It is about challenging existing ideas and beliefs, not accepting any information as a given, even from the most trusted individuals or the highest of authorities, and trying to understand multiple perspectives, before coming to any kind of conclusion. It also involves the idea of not always being right and that there is nothing wrong in changing one’s perspective and beliefs according to more reliable and accurate information. Additionally, it is about not always being guided by emotions and rather taking more of a rationalistic and skeptical perspective when making judgments.

In this way, critical thinking can be helpful in many ways in finding order within the chaos and confusion. Critical thinking, due to involving deep analysis and evaluation, helps to see beyond the inherent cognitive biases and misperceptions, and thus, unlikely to get a distorted picture of surroundings.

Critical thinking also helps to see beyond preconceived notions, false beliefs, false consciousness, stereotypes, prejudices, and superstitions. Because of the deep, effortful processing of information, critical thinking allows to have a more rationalistic perspective. It helps to not frame one’s thoughts and perceptions according to what is told from generations or what is made to believe through social interactions or media. It clearly helps in not developing an attitude of anti-intellectualism.

In the current scenario of having too much access to information, especially when fake news and media manipulation are rampant and prevalent, critical thinking helps in not getting easily influenced by misinformation and disinformation. Due to the excessive usage of the internet, misinformation is spread easily. Further, disinformation is used to influence people’s way of thinking in a specific direction, especially, by political parties, corporates, and media houses

Developing multiple perspectives and in-depth evaluation of information, involved in critical thinking, allows individuals to not immediately believe everything that is out there. It makes individuals look at any information skeptically, and come to any conclusion, only after they are convinced about it, after getting the same information from multiple sources or getting proper evidence.

In today’s scenario, when it is easy to influence people, leading to the tendency to develop a herd mentality often makes individuals not to have their own perspective. They often become lost in the crowd and tend to become confused and directionless in life. Critical thinking actually helps in not developing a herd mentality. It allows individuals to become rationalistic and incorporate metacognitive skills that help in developing a proper perspective of life. It allows them to think beyond the obvious and develop their own niche. It allows the person to have proper direction and purpose in life. Critical thinking, in this sense, becomes very useful, as it develops higher-order thinking, which gives meaning in life.

On the whole, critical thinking is useful in a number of ways. It helps in dealing with inherent biases and distortions, it allows in-depth, critical evaluation, and helps in looking beyond false notions, all of which make the individual intellectually competent, have meaning in life, and experience a sense of wellbeing. 

To know more about critical thinking, refer to my podcast - Psychology, Critical Thinking, and Society

Saif Farooqi

A PhD in Psychology (from the University of Delhi). I have been blogging about psychological issues for more than ten years. I am extremely passionate about teaching psychology. I'm a writer, podcaster, and TEDx speaker. I also conduct workshops and awareness programs in schools and colleges. Currently, I'm also working as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India


TF said...

Very nicely written. I think one point that you wrote about is not always possible to do accurately. That point was to "not accept information no matter how trusted the source is". Sometimes we do not have enough experience or knowledge to try and analyze/understand the information and overanalyzing can lead to errors in judgement.

Saif Farooqi said...

I agree that sometimes people may not have enough knowledge, experience, or qualifications related to some information. But I didn't mean that they need to analyze or understand it. It's about having a skeptical attitude towards it, and not blindly believing any information. Sometimes people believe just about anything and get misled by it. They may not understand everything properly, but still even if they are slightly skeptic about it, thinking that maybe this is not completely accurate. This helps a little to not always completely getting influenced by any kind of misinformation or disinformation.