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10 tips to improve critical thinking skills

1. Don’t Take Anything at Face Value The first step to thinking critically is to learn to evaluate what you hear, what you read, and what...

1. Don’t Take Anything at Face Value

The first step to thinking critically is to learn to evaluate what you hear, what you read, and what you decide to do. So, rather than doing something because it’s what you’ve always done or accepting what you’ve heard as the truth, spend some time just thinking. What’s the problem? What are the possible solutions? What are the pros and cons of each? Of course, you still have to decide what to believe and what to do, but if you really evaluate things, you’re likely to make a better, more reasoned choice.

2. Consider Motive

We recently got a call from our cellular service provider about changing our very old, very cheap cell phone plan. They claimed they could give us a new plan that would provide better value. But why, my partner asked, would the company be interested in pursuing us so that we could pay less? Aren’t companies generally interested in making more money? Good question, right? And the reason we were asking it is because we questioned the cellular phone company’s motives. What they said just didn’t make sense. 
Where information is coming from is a key part of thinking critically about it. Everyone has a motive and a bias. Sometimes, like the cellular phone company, it’s pretty obvious; other times, it’s a lot harder to detect. Just know that where any information comes from should affect how you evaluate it — and whether you decide to act on it.

3. Do Your Research

All the information that gets thrown at us on a daily basis can be overwhelming, but if you decide to take matters into your own hands, it can also be a very powerful tool. If you have a problem to solve, a decision to make, or a perspective to evaluate, get onto Google and start reading about it. The more information you have, the better prepared you’ll be to think things through and come up with a reasonable answer to your query.

4. Ask Questions

I sometimes find myself shying away from questions. They can make me feel like a bit of a dummy, especially when whoever’s fielding them isn’t receptive. But mostly, I can’t help myself. I just need to know! And once you go down that rabbit hole, you not only learn more, but often discover whole new ways of thinking about things. I think those other perspectives can also help you get closer to thinking through a problem or uncovering what’s what, which brings me to my next point ...

5. Don’t Assume You’re Right

I know it’s hard. I struggle with the hard-headed desire to be right as much as the next person. Because being right feels awesome. It’s an ego trip almost everyone aims to take at some time or another. But assuming you’re right will often put you on the wrong track when it comes to thinking critically. Because if you don’t take in other perspectives and points of view, and think them over, and compare them to your own, you really aren’t doing much thinking at all — and certainly not the critical kind.

6. Break It Down

Being able to see the big picture is often touted as a great quality, but I’d wager that being able to see that picture for all its components is even better. After all, most problems are too big to solve all at once, but they can be broken down into smaller parts. The smaller the parts, the easier it’ll be to evaluate them individually and arrive at a solution. This is essentially what scientists do; before they can figure out how a bigger system — such as our bodies or an ecosystem — works, they have to understand all the parts of that system, how they work, and how they relate to each other.

7. Keep It Simple

In the scientific community, a line of reasoning called Occam’s razor is often used to decide which hypothesis is most likely to be true. This means finding the simplest explanation that fits all facts. This is what you would call the most obvious explanation, and the one that should be preferred, at least until it’s proven wrong. Often, Occam’s razor is just plain common sense. Sure, it’s possible that the high-priced skin cream on TV will make you look 20 years younger — even though you’ve never heard of it, and neither has anyone else. What’s more likely is that the model shown in the ad really is 20 years old.

8. Be Aware of Your Mental Processes

Human thought is amazing, but the speed and automation with which it happens can be a disadvantage when we’re trying to think critically. Our brains naturally use heuristics (mental shortcuts) to explain what’s happening around us.
This was beneficial to humans when we were hunting large game and fighting off wild animals, but it can be disastrous when we try to decide who to vote for.
A critical thinker is aware of their cognitive biases  and personal prejudices and how they influence seemingly “objective” decisions and solutions.
All of us have biases in our thinking–it’s awareness of them that makes thought critical.

9. Try Reversing Things

A great way to get “unstuck” on a hard problem is to try reversing things. It may seem obvious that X causes Y, but what if Y caused X?
The “chicken and egg problem” a classic example of this. At first, it seems obvious that the chicken had to come first. The chicken lays the egg, after all. But then you quickly realize that the chicken had to come from somewhere, and since chickens come from eggs, the egg must have come first. Or did it?
Admittedly, is a bit confusing, but it does show how reversing things helps you question your assumptions.

10. Evaluate the Evidence

When you’re trying to solve a problem, it’s always helpful to look at other work that has been done in the same area.
It’s important, however, to evaluate this information critically, or else you can easily reach the wrong conclusion. Ask the following questions of any evidence you encounter:
How was it gathered, by whom, and why?  
Take, for example, a study showing the health benefits of a sugary cereal.On paper, the study sounds pretty convincing, but then you learn that the study was funded by the same company that produces the cereal in question.
You can’t automatically assume that this invalidates the studies results, but you should certainly question them when a conflict of interests is so apparent.

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