Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


7 Puzzles to Challenge Your Critical Thinking

Can you spot the connections and sort these items?

Forster Forest/Shutterstock
Source: Forster Forest/Shutterstock

The theme of this post is critical thinking—and the kinds of puzzles that can be constructed around it. This term is used frequently in psychology and education. There are various definitions, but the one that best suits our purpose and which is, in the end, perhaps the best, is the ability to comprehend the logical connections among ideas, words, phrases, and concepts. In the relevant scientific literature, of course, the term is used much more broadly as a framework for understanding human cognition. But in my opinion, the best way to understand things is to construct puzzles to illustrate their basic essence.

Critical thinking involves skill at recognizing a pattern in given information and especially recognizing how the information is connected to the real world. Here are a couple of very simple examples. First, consider the five words below:

  1. Cruise ship
  2. Bicycle
  3. Airplane
  4. Walking on foot
  5. Automobile (not a race car)

Now, put them in order from the slowest to the fastest, when they are going at maximum speed. The solution, of course, is: 4-2-5-1-3.

As with all such puzzles, there might be slightly different solutions—one could claim that some automobiles go faster than cruise ships. This “indeterminacy” characterizes this kind of thinking. However, some puzzles are straightforward. For instance, what do the following five things have in common?

  1. Sky
  2. Navy
  3. Celeste
  4. Azure
  5. Cerulean

The answer? These are all words referring to shades of blue.

The seven puzzles below are to the ones above, though hopefully more challenging. Some involve knowledge of facts, but critical thinking is still involved in such cases because the organization of the facts according to some principle is always involved—for example, a puzzle may ask you to put five items in order of their dates of invention.

The following tongue-in-cheek definition of critical thinking by Richard W. Paul, a leading expert on critical thinking theory, says it all: “Critical thinking is thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking in order to make your thinking better.”

I. What do the following 5 things have in common?

  1. Milk
  2. Soda pop
  3. Coffee
  4. Orange juice
  5. Beer

II. Put the following buildings or structures in order of height, from the shortest to the tallest.

  1. Shed
  2. Skyscraper
  3. Duplex
  4. Bungalow
  5. Typical camping tent

III. What do the following animals have in common?

  1. Cat
  2. Fox
  3. Raccoon
  4. Squirrel
  5. Mouse

IV. Put the following inventions in order from earliest to most recent.

  1. Radio
  2. Television
  3. Gramophone
  4. Telephone
  5. Telegraph

V. What feature do the following words have in common?

  1. Armchair
  2. Egg
  3. Imagination
  4. Over
  5. Understand

VI. Put these bodies of water in order in terms of volume, from smallest to largest.

  1. Lake
  2. Pond
  3. Ocean
  4. Brook
  5. Sea

VII. What do the following landmasses have in common?

  1. Italy
  2. Gallipoli
  3. Karpass
  4. Istria
  5. Sinai


I. They are all drinkable liquids.

II. 5-1-4-3-2

III. They all have a tail. They are also all quadrupeds.

IV. To the best of my knowledge: 5-4-3-1-2

V. They start with a vowel: a, e, i, o, u

VI. 4-2-1-5-3

VII. They are all peninsulas.

More from Marcel Danesi Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today