1. What is critical thinking?

Why is the importance of critical thinking?

For us humans, there is an importance in critical thinking because it aids us in making good decisions. Often we do not realise how irrational our decisions can be, and this is where critical thinking comes in. Critical thinking basically means thinking about our thinking. We make use of logic and reason to determine whether or not a claim is true, if the reasoning behind it is sound and if we can draw a correlation or connection. It is not necessarily about coming up with claim as much as evaluating the correctness of claims that have been made and try to form a proper conclusion.

To achieve this, we evaluate our thinking on the basis of rationality. When we understand how critical thinking works, we can use this knowledge to be critical in multiple subjects and situations in our daily lives. It is, however, important to understand that criticising other people’s claims and ideas does not mean that we want to attack other people, only that we are trying to find the logic in them. Also, criticising other people in not always a case of critical thinking. People can criticise in the most illogical and unreasonable ways, without considering whether or not their claims are true or their reasoning sound.

When we come to a conclusion at the end of a reasoning, we call that a belief. Beliefs are prepositional and can be either true or false. Beliefs can be compared to a judgement or an opinion. When a belief is stated in a declarative way, that is when we start calling it a claim or statement. Claims are things that we can think critically about.

What are important elements of critical thinking?

Within critical thinking, there are three important parts: claims, issues and arguments. These parts can be analysed once they have been determined in conversation or writing.


Claims are things that we write or declare, to bring across information. With claims we often deal with statements, opinions or beliefs. Claims can be true or false and can be about pretty much everything and anything. Of some claims, it is pretty clear whether they are true or not; for instance take someone telling you they have flown to space and walked across Saturn. You can be pretty sure that this is a lie. However, of some claims it is harder to instantly determine their truthfulness and thus we must think critically about them.

Claims can be objective or subjective. The truthfulness of an objective claim is independent from anything that other people think about it. For example, ‘I ate pie yesterday’ is an objective claim. It can be a lie, but whatever other people think of the claim does not change whether it is true or not. This can also be with things we don’t know. ‘God exists’ is an objective claim, because the existence of God is independent of what us humans think of it.

A subjective claim, however, is dependent of what we think of the matter. ‘This cocktail is way too sweet’ is a subjective claim, because it is what I think of something. Thus, objective claims are often also called factual claims because they state facts. This, however, does not mean that all objective claims are true.

Relativism is the idea that the ‘truth’ of things is related to culture and situations. If, in a certain culture or language, people relate to a stone as ‘water’ instead of H2O, then in that culture that stone is ‘water’. Moral subjectivism takes the stance that the moral judgement of something is completely subjective.

Cultural relativism combines these two and says that all moral and/or ethical systems, also those that differ depending on culture, are equally valid. None of these are more true or better than the other.


Issues are always questioning statements and mostly have to do with questions that wonder if a claim is true or not. That sounds complicated but is in reality relatively simple. An example of an issue is: ‘is James taller than Emma?’

Sometimes it can be hard what the statement hiding in an issue is. This can be because people use confusing or difficult terms to hide the true intention of their statement or question, and thus purposefully do not want to clarify. If you notice someone doing this, it might be smart to think critically about it.

It is important to keep in mind that people have different qualifying systems when it comes to determining whether something is true or not. If someone beliefs that the Bible is the word of God, then obviously ‘God’s will is represented in the Bible’ is a statement that is true to the person saying this. However, for someone who believes in the Quran or doesn’t have a religion, this statement is not necessarily true.


An argument is a reasoning that is provided to prove or disprove a specific statement. A statement provided to prove (or falsify) a statement is what we call a premise. The statement that the premise is trying to prove is called the conclusion. An example of such a premise is: ‘Emma’s boyfriend is cheating on her with her best friend.’ The conclusion to this premise would be ‘Emma should break up with him.’

Whether or not an argument is actually good or valid depends on how much the premise actually supports the conclusion. This can only be if the premise is actually true and relevant to the conclusion. This makes sure that the premise increases the chance of the conclusion being true. One must also remember that even if it might seem that someone is giving an argument, they might not. An argument is not a summation of facts, but rather a statement to support a conclusion and that is how you can recognise it.

How do you distinguish between arguments, statements and beliefs?

It often happens that people confuse statements and persuasion techniques with arguments. It is important to remember that an argument consists of both a premise and a conclusion and never just one of these elements. When the only thing given is the cause for a phenomenon, it is a statement, not an argument. The important difference between an argument and a statement is that arguments are used to prove or support a conclusion, while a statement is used to describe the cause of an event.

Persuasion techniques are different from arguments. If you try to convince someone, you want him or her to take over your vision or viewpoint of a particular situation. Conviction, therefore, is different from logical reasoning and using arguments to do so. It is possible to use an argument when trying to convince someone, but not all arguments are useful or necessary for that. In addition, many persuasion attempts do not use arguments. One must remember that negative opinions and facts about a concept are not arguments either. It is often not even useful to use arguments to convince someone of something. For this reason, real arguments are rarely used in commercials to sell a product for instance.

What are cognitive biases?

The formation of a belief is always influenced by unconscious characteristics of human psychology, the so-called cognitive biases. These biases influence the way in which information is processed both consciously and sub-consciously. For example, we tend to evaluate an argument based on our own conviction of the truth of the subject, context, and previous experiences rather than logic. A few of these biases are:

  • Persuasive bias (aka belief bias): this is the tendency to judge a reasoning based on the credibility of the conclusion. The moment an illogical reasoning is followed by a credible conclusion we are more inclined to believe it than a logical reasoning with a conclusion that, to our prior knowledge, seems unbelievable.
  • Confirmation bias: this is the tendency to place more weight on evidence supporting our own ideas, rather than evidence that disproves or falsifies them. We ignore things that are not parallel to our beliefs and look for information that does match to them.
  • Heuristics: these are general rules that we use unconsciously use when estimating probabilities. An example is the availability heuristic. We tend to judge the likelihood that something will happen is based on information that is best available in memory. For example, you might think a plane crashes much more often than they actually do, simply because you have seen it on the news recently. The consequence is that the probability is often overestimated or underestimated. This probably also explains how easily the error of generalizing on the basis of an anecdote occurs. The availability heuristics is also related to the "false consensus effect". This involves the tendency to assume that our attitudes and the attitudes of our environment are shared by the larger society; if all our friends think that the alcohol limit should be lowered, we assume that the rest of the population will agree as well.
  • Bandwagon effect: this is the tendency to align one's own thinking with that of others. Research has shown that when we hear others say something positive or negative about something, it can change what we think we see or show, and that we are more likely to buy something if we think everyone else does.
  • Negativity bias: people are more sensitive to negative information than positive information and remember it faster. This bias also plays a role in loss aversion, where people are more focused on avoiding loss than gaining profit.
  • In-group bias: this is the tendency to perceive members who do not belong to their own group (aka the 'out-group') as different and wrong, and members of their own group (aka the 'in-group') as good and correct. We also tend to attribute the success of the in-group to hard work, and the failures to bad luck, but the failures of the out-group to personal failures and their successes to good luck.
  • Fundamental attribution error: this is the tendency to directly attribute behaviour to a person's personality, without regard to context and situation.
  • Obedience to authority: this is the tendency for people to blindly follow the assignments of the authority.
  • Boldness effect: this is self-deception. For example, if someone is asked to estimate the percentage of their own correct answers to a test, then the estimate is likely to be on the high side, and generally always above average.
    • Better-than-average illusion: the tendency of people to judge themselves better than the average in some areas, for example a characteristic.

Truth and knowledge

It is possible to express the same statement in different ways. "The book is on the table" is the same as "It is a fact that the book is on the table". Plenty of philosophers have thoughts about what true knowledge really means. We can say that the statement 'the book is on the table' is true if (1) you believe the book is on the table, (2) you can justify said belief and prove that the book is on the table and (3) you have no reason to believe you are wrong (for example because you have been drinking or if you are on drugs). Some philosophers think that certain knowledge does not exist and that we can never know for sure whether the things that we "perceive" actually exist in the same way in the world.

We use critical thinking when we examine the fundaments of the conclusions that are drawn. Critical thinking will therefore not tell you that you have to get that puppy you saw in the shelter or that there is or isn’t a problem in climate change, but it can help you to spot a faulty foundation or someone trying to cover up their errors.

Practice questions

  1. When do we think critically?
  2. What are the three core elements of critical thinking?
  3. What is meant by "cognitive bias"?
  4. What are heuristics?
  5. When do we say a claim is "true"?

Answers practice questions

  1. We think critically when we use our reasoning to come to conclusions.
  2. The three core elements of critical thinking are (1) assertions, (2) issues, and (3) arguments.
  3. "Cognitive bias" is a belief that is influenced by unconscious characteristics of human psychology.
  4. Heuristics are general rules that we use unconsciously when estimating probabilities.
  5. A claim is "true" when it is free from error.
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