Why Critical Thinking Is Important (& How to Improve It)

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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By improving the quality of your thoughts and your decisions, better critical thinking skills can bring about a big positive change in your life. Learn how.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the quality of your life largely depends on the quality of the decisions you make.

Amazingly, the average person makes 35,000 conscious decisions every day! (1)

Imagine how much better your life would be if there was a way to ensure you made the best possible decisions, day in and day out?

Well, there is and it’s called critical thinking.

Learning to master the skills of critical thinking can have a profoundly positive impact on nearly every aspect of your life.

What Exactly Is Critical Thinking?

The first documented account of critical thinking is the teachings of Socrates as recorded by Plato. (2)

Over time, the definition of critical thinking has evolved.

Most definitions of critical thinking are fairly complex and best understood by philosophy majors or psychologists.

For example, the Foundation for Critical Thinking, a non-profit think tank, offers this definition:

“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”

If that makes your head spin, here are some definitions that you can relate to more easily.

Critical thinking is “reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do.” (3)

Or, a catchy way of defining critical thinking is “deciding what’s true and what you should do.”

But my favorite uber-simple definition is that critical thinking is simply “thinking about thinking.”

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6 Major Benefits of Good Critical Thinking Skills

Whether or not you think critically can make the difference between success and failure in just about every area of your life.

Our human brains are imperfect and prone to irrationality, distortions, prejudices, and cognitive biases.

Cognitive biases are systematic patterns of irrational thinking.

While the number of cognitive biases varies, Wikipedia, for example, lists nearly 200 of them! (4)

Some of the most well-known cognitive biases include:

  • catastrophic thinking
  • confirmation bias
  • fear of missing out (FOMO)

Critical thinking will help you move past the limitations of irrational thinking.

Here are some of the most important ways critical thinking can impact your life.

1. Critical Thinking Is a Key to Career Success

There are many professions where critical thinking is an absolute must.

Lawyers, analysts, accountants, doctors, engineers, reporters, and scientists of all kinds must apply critical thinking frequently.

But critical thinking is a skill set that is becoming increasingly valuable in a growing number of professions.

Critical thinking can help you in any profession where you must:

  • analyze information
  • systematically solve problems
  • generate innovative solutions
  • plan strategically
  • think creatively
  • present your work or ideas to others in a way that can be readily understood

And, as we enter the fourth industrial revolution, critical thinking has become one of the most sought-after skills.

chart showing the increase in demand for enterprise skills
Critical thinking is one of the most important workplace skills. (Image courtesy of The Foundation for Young Australians)

According to the World Economic Forum, critical thinking and complex problem solving are the two top in-demand skills that employers look for. (5)

Critical thinking is considered a soft or enterprise skill — a core attribute that is required to succeed in the workplace. (6)

Other soft skills include:

  • problem solving
  • creativity
  • communication and presentation skills
  • digital literacy

Critical thinking can help you develop the rest of these soft skills.

Developing your critical thinking can help you land a job since many employers will ask you interview questions or even give you a test to determine how well you can think critically.

It can also help you continually succeed in your career, since being a critical thinker is a powerful predictor of long-term success.

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2. Critical Thinkers Make Better Decisions

Every day you make thousands of decisions.

Most of them are made by your subconscious and a few, like which shoes to wear today, don’t require much thought. (7)

But the most important decisions you make can be hard and require a lot of thought, such as when or if you should change jobs, relocate to a new city, buy a house, get married, or have kids.

At work, you may have to make decisions that can alter the course of your career or the lives of others.

Critical thinking helps you cope with everyday problems as they arise.

It promotes independent thinking and strengthens your inner “BS detector.”

It helps you make sense of the glut of data and information available, making you a smarter consumer who is less likely to fall for advertising hype, peer pressure, or scams.

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3. Critical Thinking Can Make You Happier

Knowing and understanding yourself is an underappreciated path to happiness. (8)

We’ve already seen how your quality of life largely depends on the quality of your decisions, but equally as important is the quality of your thoughts.

Critical thinking is an excellent tool to help you better understand yourself and to learn to master your thoughts.

You can use critical thinking to free yourself from cognitive biases, negative thinking, and limiting beliefs that are holding you back in any area of your life.

Critical thinking can help you assess your strengths and weaknesses so that you know what you have to offer others and where you could use improvement.

Critical thinking will enable you to better express your thoughts, ideas, and beliefs.

Better communication helps others to understand you better, resulting in less frustration for both of you.

Critical thinking fosters creativity and out-of-the-box thinking that can be applied to any area of your life.

It gives you a process you can rely on, making decisions less stressful.

4. Critical Thinking Ensures Your Opinions Are Well-Informed

We have access to more information than ever before.

Astoundingly, more data has been created in the past two years than in the entire previous history of mankind. (9)

Critical thinking can help you sort through the noise.

American politician, sociologist, and diplomat Daniel Patrick Moynihan once remarked, “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” (10)

Critical thinking ensures your opinions are well-informed and based on the best available facts.

You’ll get a boost in confidence when you see that those around you trust that your well-considered opinions.

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5. Critical Thinking Improves Relationships

You might be concerned that critical thinking will turn you into a Spock-like character who is not very good at relationships.

But, in fact, the opposite is true.

Employing critical thinking makes you more open-minded and better able to understand others’ points of view.

Critical thinkers are more empathetic and in a better position to get along with different kinds of people.

Critical thinking keeps you from jumping to conclusions.

You can be counted on to be the voice of reason when arguments get heated.

You’ll be better able to detect when others:

  • are being disingenuous
  • don’t have your best interests at heart
  • try to take advantage of or manipulate you

6. Critical Thinking Makes You a Better, More Informed Citizen

“An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”

This quote has been incorrectly attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but regardless of the source, its words of wisdom are more relevant than ever. (11)

Critical thinkers are able to see both sides of any issue and are more likely to generate bipartisan solutions.

They are less likely to be swayed by propaganda or get swept up in mass hysteria.

They are in a better position to spot fake news when they see it.

5 Steps to Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills

Some people already have well-developed critical thinking skills.

These people are analytical, inquisitive, and open to new ideas.

And, even though they are confident in their own opinions, they seek the truth, even if it proves their existing ideas to be wrong.

They are able to connect the dots between ideas and detect inconsistencies in others’ thinking.

But regardless of the state of your critical thinking skills today, it’s a skill set you can develop.

While there are many techniques for thinking rationally, here’s a classic 5-step critical thinking process. (12)

How to Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills

Clearly Define Your Question or Problem

This step is so important that Albert Einstein famously quipped:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Gather Information to Help You Weigh the Options

Consider only the most useful and reliable information from the most reputable sources.

Disregard the rest.

Apply the Information and Ask Critical Questions

Scrutinize all information carefully with a skeptic’s eye.

Not sure what questions to ask?

You can’t go wrong starting with the “5 Ws” that any good investigator asks: Who. What. Where. When. Why.

Then finish by asking “How.”

You’ll find more thought-provoking questions on this Critical Thinking Skills Cheatsheet.

Consider the Implications

Look for potential unintended consequences.

Do a thought experiment about how your solution could play out in both the short term and the long run.

Explore the Full Spectrum of Viewpoints

Examine why others are drawn to differing points of view.

This will help you objectively evaluate your own viewpoint.

You may find critical thinkers who take an opposing view and this can help you find gaps in your own logic.

This TED Ed video elaborates on the five steps to improve your critical thinking.

Video: 5 Tips to Improve Your Critical Thinking
Click the image above to see the TED Ed video “5 Tips to Improve Your Critical Thinking” by Samantha Agoos.

Why Critical Thinking Is Important: Take the Next Step

Critical thinking is one of the most important cognitive skills that you can develop.

By improving the quality of both your decisions and your thoughts, critical thinking can significantly improve your life, both personally and professionally.

Too many people criticize without thinking or think without being critical.

You don’t have to be one of them.

Follow the five steps above to develop your “critical thinking muscle.”

As a side benefit, critical thinking has the power to make the world a more rational, reasonable place.

READ NEXT: How to Think Faster, More Efficiently and Accurately