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5 Tips for Critical Thinking

What can you do to think critically in day-to-day situations?

Recently, I was delighted to have had the opportunity to celebrate the launch of my book, Critical Thinking: Conceptual Perspectives & Practical Guidelines, with family, friends, and colleagues. Apart from ‘thank yous’ and a brief account of how the book came to be, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to say about Critical Thinking (CT).

I decided to delve into what I get asked most about critical thinking by students; that being, "What can I do to critically think better in day-to-day situations?" I generally have five such tips, and I thought that readers of this blog would also enjoy them:

1. Save your critical thinking for things that matter, things you care about.

CT is necessary when you care about your decisions or when the consequence of a decision is impactful. According to Jean Paul Sartre, every time an individual acts, they are making a choice to commit that act as opposed to not acting, or acting in an alternative manner. With that in mind, if we were to think critically about every single decision we make, we would be mentally exhausted before we even got to work.

Each and every day is filled with thousands of potential decisions. For example, in 2003, a famous coffee chain boasted a possibility of over 19,000 beverage combinations. Though most of the time we choose based on habituation or other automatic processes (Bargh, 2002)—that is, we remain reinforced by successful choices made in the past—at other times, novel and/or considered choices are necessary.

Such auto-pilot thinking is an evolutionary advantage, it helps us stave off decision fatigue (i.e. the decreased accuracy and/or quality of processing in decision-making or self-regulation as a result of the amount of previous engagement with problem situations that required decisions or judgments; Baumeister, 2003) and it serves us well most of the time.

However, this automatic thinking is a disadvantage, cognitively speaking, when we depend on it too much, particularly in cases where you go with your gut regarding things you care about. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter what type of coffee you get; however, if you were to buy a new car—obviously, you will care about your decision a little bit more—a case in which critical thinking is necessary. The point is, save your cognitive energy and your critical thinking for things that matter.

2. Do it in the morning.

The second tip begins with a question: Are you a night owl? That is, do you accomplish your best work at night?

If you answered yes, then whether you realize it or not, you’re lying to yourself. No one does their best work at night unless, of course, you wake up in the evening. Decision fatigue is, again, the reason for this. People expend their cognitive energy on decisions throughout the day, leading to a higher chance of poor decisions as the load accumulates (Danziger et al., 2011) such as at night. Thus, to avoid the cognitive load associated with decision fatigue, make sure to complete the work that matters most in the morning!

3. Take a step back.

I once had a great conversation with a colleague about people who get so good at critical thinking that they no longer have to trudge through it in a step-by-step sequence (i.e. analysis, evaluation, inference). They get so good at critically thinking about overcoming problems, that it becomes almost automatic. However, being so good at it that it becomes this way renders it non-critical. Remember, if thinking is automatic, then it’s not critical.

So, in order to overcome this problem, we must engage a very important aspect of critical thinking known as reflective judgment. From an epistemological standpoint, a formal description of reflective judgment is the recognition of limited knowledge and how this uncertainty can affect decision-making processes (King & Kitchener, 1994). Simply, it’s taking a step back and thinking about the argument or problem a little bit longer.

Recent research indicates that delaying a decision by even a 10th of a second significantly increases decision accuracy (Teichert, Ferrera & Grinband, 2014). I’m not saying that a 10th of a second will help you solve all your problems, but if you are to critically think about something and if you care about your decision, it is vital to take your time in developing or inferring a solution or conclusion. So, no matter how good at critical thinking one becomes, I always urge individuals to ensure that they take that "reflective step back."

4. Play Devil’s Advocate.

Our gut is always going to offer its opinion. In psychology, we often refer to this gut feeling as system 1 thinking or intuition. Whatever you want to call it, we can’t turn it off. Our intuition is always going to tell us what it thinks we should do. This instruction, of course, is going to be biased, reinforced by similar experiences or choices in the past. In the context of critical thinking, a good way of learning to overcome this bias and, likewise, the auto-pilot processing of our gut is through playing Devil’s Advocate; and by that, I mean truly considering alternatives.

This is best exemplified by what I call the Magic Number 8. Cognitive psychologists will be familiar with Miller’s (1956) Magic Number 7 (+/- 2), but in critical thinking, the Magic Number 8 refers to searching for and identifying at least eight of the most compelling pieces of evidence (four for and four against a particular perspective). Searching for the Magic Number 8 is a great way of overcoming cherry-picking evidence from biased searches.

5. Leave emotion at the door.

When I teach CT, I often present a series of arguments regarding whether or not someone should buy a dog. One of those arguments is that "Dogs are quite vicious." As an exercise, I have students develop reasons and objections for the claim. One year, a student raised his hand and in quite an assertive manner, stated that this claim was nonsense and that no dogs are vicious. I put this statement to the test and asked the class had anyone ever been bitten by a dog. I was actually surprised to see about 40 percent of the 150-student class raise their hands. Of course, this could have been a statistical anomaly and is by no means the point. All I needed was for one student to raise their hand to make my point.

I asked those who did raise their hands if they thought dogs could be vicious. They all nodded in agreement. The student in question responded that he didn’t care about this; he owned eight dogs and all of them were lovely creatures and would never harm anyone. As I’m sure you’ve realized, his experience was irrelevant, because a sample size of one is not sufficient. What happened was that his experience and his emotions got in the way of his thinking.

In a similar example (mentioned before in a previous post), I use the common adage "Dogs are man’s best friend." A few years back, I changed the proposition to "Dogs are people’s best friend." This change is subtle, but also makes an important point about CT. Again, I used to teach this example as "Dogs are man’s best friend," but in one class, upon asking a question about the argument, a student raised her hand immediately. I called on her but instead of answering the question posed to her, she complained about the adage, claiming that it was wrong of me to suggest such a thing—dogs could just as easily be "woman’s best friend."

I explained that I didn’t have a problem with that perspective, but "woman" would be included in this context, as "man" is referring to "mankind" as opposed to specifically males. The student responded that she didn’t care what was intended or implied, that it was sexist against women and that it should be amended at once, perhaps to "Dogs are people’s best friend." I have since done as she asked and amended this particular exercise, however, not for the reason she gave but rather as a reminder. If we want to be able to think critically, we must remove our emotions from our thinking; a perspective consistent with a large body of research on the negative impact of emotion on decision-making (e.g. Kahneman and Frederick, 2002; Slovic et al., 2002; Strack, Martin, and Schwarz, 1988).

As you have probably guessed (and perhaps observed in my previous posts), there are many more than just five "rules" for critical thinking. However, these are the five tips I find most useful for everyday situations, given that these rules are among those most frequently broken. We will be sure to consider some more of these broad tips in the future; but for now, if you are playing Devil’s Advocate, in the morning, only about things you care about, while taking a step back and leaving your emotions out of it, then you’re probably on the right track to quality critical thinking.


Bargh, J. A. (2002). Losing consciousness: Automatic influences on consumer judgment, behavior, and motivation. Journal of Consumer Research, 29(2), 280-285.

Baumeister, R. (2003). The psychology of irrationality: Why people make foolish, self-defeating choices. The Psychology of Economic Decisions, 1, 3-16.

Danziger, S., Levav, J., & Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(17), 6889-6892.

Kahneman, D. & Frederick, S. (2002). Representativeness revisited: Attribute substitution in intuitive judgment. In T. Gilovich, D. Griffin & D. Kahneman (Eds), Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment, 49-81. New York: Cambridge University Press.

King, P. M., & Kitchener, K. S. (1994). Developing reflective judgment: Understanding and promoting intellectual growth and critical thinking in adolescents and adults. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Miller, G.A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. The Psychological Review, 63, 814-97.

Slovic, P., Finucane, M., Peters, E., & MacGregor, D. G. (2002). Rational actors or rational fools: Implications of the affect heuristic for behavioral economics. The Journal of Socio-Economics, 31(4), 329-342.

Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Schwarz, N. (1988). Priming and communication: Social determinants of information use in judgments of life satisfaction. European Journal of Social Psychology, 18, 5, 429-442.

Teichert, T., Ferrera, V. P., & Grinband, J. (2014). Humans optimize decision-making by delaying decision onset. PloS one, 9(3), e89638.

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