15 September 2022
Critical thinking happens when you engage in reflective and independent thinking rather than falling prey to cognitive biases like stereotyping and generalisation. When you reflect on whether a story is credible by analysing and evaluating all the information as opposed to only considering one perspective, you are thinking critically. Critical thinking is about asking questions of our sources and their information.
Fact vs Opinion
Identifying facts and opinions is part of critical thinking – learning to interrogate the speaker, question opinions and seek to prove statements true or false.
A fact is an objective statement that can be verified, something that can be proven true or false. Facts are not colored by emotion or bias, they merely convey information in a neutral way. Opinions, on the other hand, are statements that express feelings, attitudes and beliefs – they are neither true nor false. Opinions express someone's view on a particular topic or issue. These types of statements typically include emotive and persuasive language.
Critical thinking and social media
Opinions on social media know no bounds! It can be a confronting space as not everything we read reflects our beliefs or echoes the values we hold. But, it is the perfect space to exercise critical thinking. By asking questions of those who share information as well as the information itself can help us fact check in a meaningful way. For example, who is this person? What are they trying to achieve by sharing this? Who are they targeting? Am I being manipulated?
Critical thinking in times of stress
The way we consume information is not effective in times of stress and crisis. Let's use the Covid 19 pandemic as an example to demonstrate how critical thinking can be applied in times of uncertainty. If we remember back to the beginning of the pandemic, some of our fear in the community came from the sheer amount of information we were given and our struggle to understand and accept it. For some of us, it was contradictory, highly emotive and persuasive. When we're anxious or bombarded with information, our thoughts can become clouded, and decisions can be difficult to make with any clarity. We may gravitate towards information that reassures us, rather than look for facts that can be verified.
Critical thinking requires time – time to ask questions, time to verify information. In times of crisis, often we become panicked, or engage in what we now know as 'doom scrolling'. Consuming a rapid stream of information, much on social media that's unverified but we're able to consume it at pace in an undiscerning way. This practice is the enemy of critical thinking but often what we do when we're stressed.
How to become more critical (in a good way)
Use mindfulness! Be mindful of your stress levels and emotional thinking and try to avoid being swayed by persuasive arguments that are targeting your emotions
Use quiet moments to reflect. Thinking things over – inquire, interrogate. Give your brain space to think properly. Walking and thinking are a great combo!
Try and avoid pointless debates – of which there are plenty relating to the pandemic. These are just circumstances where people share opinions and can often become hostile and draining.
Having the cognitive clarity and flexibility that critical thinking requires has positive effects on your life. This skill can help you make better life decisions for yourself – ones that might involve relationships or your career. Developing problem-solving skills is beneficial in a work sense, allowing you to better perform collaboratively but also creatively. Being able to think clearly and systematically can help us in the way we express ourselves – this might flow on to be a positive outcome for colleagues or family members.
Being open minded helps you to recognise there is another side to the story that might be counter to your beliefs – this is a particularly hard skill to develop as the beliefs we have are often ones we've held for most of our lives, so are rooted in our identity. Confirmation bias plays into this – that's where we seek out opinions that confirm what we already believe – it is the path of least resistance. Staying open to hearing the opinions of others is key to learning and gives us the opportunity to grow and use our critical thinking skills.
Self-improvement comes from making better decisions for ourselves. Good decisions rely on sound information, which in turn comes from applying critical thinking to data. We can make better decisions when we have access to more robust information relating to our lives, careers and families.
Leila Rahimtulla is a Wellbeing Coordinator at Lifeline WA and a tenured Crisis Supporter of 7 years.
If you or someone you know needs support, please call 13 11 14.