Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

Critical Thinking Goes Beyond Problem Solving

A lot of critical thinking consists of problem solving. You may want to research and figure out the major causes for the amount of violent crime in the United States, or wonder why there are so any earthquakes in California. On a personal level, you may want to improve your study skills or social life. You may map out a scenic route to drive from Denver to Toronto. These are all problems to be solved – or, if “solved” is too strong a word, they are problems to be addressed and figured out as well as possible.
Critical thinking, however, goes beyond problem solving. Some questions or situations are too big or too ill-formed to be classified as problems – still less as problems to be solved.

Trying to decide whether to marry someone is one of the best examples of a critical-thinking question: there are few other decisions that affect people’s long-range welfare more than this one does. But most of us would not classify that as “problem solving.” Similarly, when a nurse gives a nursing diagnosis for a patient, that’s problem solving. But nurses can also think critically about wellness: what it means at different age levels, how to promote it in an individual or a community. But wellness is not a problem; nor is it a problem to be solved.

Another way critical thinking goes beyond problem solving is in the realm of asking questions. Questions are a fundamental part of critical thinking, and one of the most difficult skills in critical thinking is learning to notice that there is a question you should be asking, a problem you should be solving. In problem solving, on the other hand, someone gives you the problem – and your job is to solve it. Critical thinking is different because it begins with posing the problem in the first place.

Impediments to Critical Thinking

The way we think is an adaptation to the surroundings we have lived in. The patterns in our thinking are ways we have developed to make sense of what goes on around us. These patterns can be effective, but they can also be dysfunctional. Most likely, for each of us, the patterns are variable: effective in some areas, wildly ineffective in others, and mixed most of the time.
Many aspects of the world we live in can be impediments to learning to think more critically.

Forming a Picture of the World on the Basis of the News

Most of us form a picture of what the world is like based on the news: TV news, newspapers, newsmagazines. Even if you don’t watch the news or read newspapers much, you indirectly form a good deal of your picture of the world from the news. You get a picture of what the world is like by talking to friends, or listening to talk shows or watching MTV, or just through hearsay. But your friends and the people on MTV form their picture of the world from the news – and so indirectly you and I do too.

Here is a question I ask students in Louisiana. (You may not know much about Louisiana, but answer the question anyhow):
Consider people who are convicted of murder in Louisiana, and sentenced to life imprisonment. How much time do such people, on the average, actually spend in prison? (Remember: the question is not how many years they are sentenced to; it is how many years they end up actually spending in prison.)
a. 0 – 5 years
b. 5 – 10 years
c. 10 – 20 years
d. 20 – 50 years
e. until they die.
Choose an answer before you read on.

I have asked thousands of students this question over the last few years or so; almost no one ever gets it right. Even with myself, it was hard to become convinced of the right answer. The first few times I heard it, I simply didn’t believe it.
Now, this is a purely factual question, not a critical-thinking one. But there is a critical-thinking question behind the mistaken answers. Where do we get our false impression? We get it, directly or indirectly, from the news media. But how? We do not get the wrong answer because the news tells us the wrong answer. News media are very careful to check the accuracy of factual statements they report.

Rather, the news media tell us stories. They report on someone getting released from prison early. Maybe over the course of time they report several such stories, including some where a criminal then commits a violent crime while on parole. Maybe we hear politicians or relatives of a victim talking about how life means only twenty years, and we believe them. (These people too get their impression from the news.) These stories are vivid. They are simplified and made dramatic. Often there is stirring footage. They register in our minds.

Whether we are aware of it or not, we form a general picture that violent criminals (including murderers sentenced to life in Louisiana) are getting out of prison early all the time.

Any picture like that one, formed on the basis of news presentations, is likely to be seriously distorted. This is because the news media report not on what is usual or typical, but on what is unusual. That’s why it is called news: it reports on what is out of the ordinary. That’s also why it works so well as entertainment. In contrast, what is usual is for people to wake up in the morning, eat breakfast, go to work, eat lunch, come home at the end of the day, watch TV for a while, go to bed. That is not a news event. Rather, what the news reports on is Iraq (hardly a typical country), a fire in an apartment complex (not a common event), an ax murder in Montana (maybe the only one to occur there in fifty years), a highly controversial bill in Congress (not the hundreds of bills that are passed regularly).

If you want an accurate picture of what the world is usually like, you need to look to reputable books, studies, or websites that deal with the subject in depth. Textbooks are usually an excellent source. And, of course, you have to do some intensive critical thinking about the topic as well.
This doesn’t imply that it’s wrong to consult the news media regularly. On the contrary, the news – especially if it has more in-depth coverage – is an excellent way to keep up with the unusual, even earthshaking, events of our time.

Forming a Picture of the World on the Basis of Movies, TV, Advertising, Magazines
If forming a picture of the world on the basis of the news results in distortion, forming a picture on the basis of fictionalized or sensationalized material results in vastly more distortion. Sometimes the distortion is obvious, at least to reflective adults: People do not get thrown through plate-glass windows and emerge intact; there is no reason to believe there are aliens among us; the clothes in the glossy picture will not make most of us look like the model in the picture; products often have unmentioned defects. Other examples are more subtle and affect our attitudes in deep and disturbing ways: Trying your hardest, though it may give you personal satisfaction, will not usually result in beating the competition (especially because they may be trying their hardest too); most people’s grades (or height or intelligence or abilities) cannot be above average; everyone cannot be glamorous, young, physically attractive, or strong; being a lone – wolf rebel who can’t get along with superiors does not usually bring success.

All-or-Nothing Thinking (Black-and-White Thinking), Us-Versus-Them Thinking, Stereotyping

Each of these ways of thinking is deeply ingrained in us. Some biologists even think we have a built-in genetic bias in favor of thinking in these ways. Nevertheless, each stands in the way of critical thinking, and for similar reasons. Thinking in terms of concepts like these is a way of simplifying our world. In fact, each of them vastly oversimplifies the complexity of reality, and each serves as an excuse for not thinking things through.

Effective thinking requires us to pay attention to the complexity of things. It requires us to develop a tolerance for ambiguity and an acceptance of less-than-certain answers. It requires a commitment to seeing both sides of an issue and to trying to find out the truth, rather than merely trying to bolster our side: our country, our race, our gender, our political views.

Although, as we have seen, all fears are not automatically an impediment to critical thinking, some fears do tend to become obstacles. That’s especially true of
■ fear of making mistakes
■ fear of trying something new, of sticking your neck out
■ fear of looking foolish

The full exercise of critical thinking requires that you develop intellectual courage. For example, making mistakes is an essential part of critical thinking. What important skill have you ever learned that did not involve making many mistakes? Most critical-thinking experts believe you learn a great deal more from mistakes than from successes. In fact, though you may make fewer critical-thinking mistakes as your higher-order thinking skills develop, there will always be mistakes to be made and learned from.
The same will be true when you try new ways of thinking, when you risk looking foolish by exposing how you think about issues, and when you take the risk of giving original solutions to old problems.

Some Educational Practices Discourage Critical Thinking

Some prevalent educational practices discourage critical thinking, and internalizing them as a model of what education should be can seriously affect your critical thinking. These practices are based on assumptions like:
■ The student’s role is to be a passive recipient of knowledge.
■ The student’s role is to memorize and regurgitate information.
■ The teacher’s role is to dispense knowledge.
■ Questions on exams should be taken only from what has been covered in class.
■ Problems assigned to students should always be clearly formulated.
■ There is an adequate answer to every question.
■ Everything is just a matter of opinion.

Deeper, More Pervasive Impediments to Critical Thinking

In addition to the specific impediments listed previously, there are other, deeper and more pervasive obstacles to critical thinking. Four of them are briefly discussed next, but they are not separate from one another. All four are deeply interwoven. In addition, they are difficult impediments to come to terms with. Maybe it is fair to say that none of us ever completely overcomes them. We can, however, gain deeper insights into how they work, and that can help us overcome their influence.


Each of us is at the center of our own experience. We live in the middle of our feelings, pains and pleasures, the things we want and the things we are afraid of, the experiences that have shaped our lives and our attitudes, whether we know it or not. Our experience is heavily influenced by how we think, and, conversely, how we think is influenced by our experience.
In accord with this, people often have a way of thinking that always puts themselves first. When they are engaged in such egocentric thinking, they tend to make judgments about how things are, but they may base those judgments on wishful thinking or mere self-interest. This occurs in all of us, probably a good deal of the time. Sometimes it’s so blatant that, when it is pointed out to us, we easily see it. Most of the time, though, it operates far beneath the surface. It is easy to delude myself into believing that I am working in the best interests of humanity as a whole when in fact I am working for my own interests and even against the interests of humanity. This is always easier to see in other people than it is in myself.

Egocentrism interferes with critical thinking on all levels, from the deepest to the most superficial. It stands in the way of the empathy that is such an important part of critical thinking. If I am in the health-care professions, for example, it’s easy to stay bound up in my own desires and needs and not see things from the patient’s point of view. Egocentrism stands in the way of fair-mindedness too, another essential component of critical thinking. Part of thinking effectively is being able to understand points of view that are opposed to my own. Sometimes when I feel threatened, though, I can’t even hear what the other person is saying. For many people, when someone critiques their country or culture or religion or family, all they hear is the fact that they are being criticized. Anger rises, and often they can’t even repeat the substance of the comments the person made. This interferes with their ability to give a fair evaluation of their country, culture, and so on. If I can’t hear a critique, then I can’t come to a balanced conclusion, and that deprives me of information I can use to assess the validity of my beliefs.

Egocentrism makes it difficult for me to tell accurate from inaccurate statements. It leads me to misunderstand other people’s motives as well as my own. It influences me to put incorrect interpretations on what people say.

In course work, egocentrism can lead to my seeing education only in terms of grades, in effect causing me to miss out on all the other benefits to be derived from education. It can lead to plagiarism and cheating, or thinking that teachers are unfair even if they’re not.

One of the most valuable things to be gained from critical thinking is an ability to see the egocentricity of our own thinking.

Developmental Patterns of Thinking

We acquire many of our patterns of thinking as we go through different stages of psychological and physical development. As children, we have a number of deeply felt needs: a need to feel safe, a need to be loved, a need for physical contact; we have a need to individuate ourselves from others as well as a contrary need to join completely with another person. Moreover, many of our standard ways of thinking were acquired during childhood, even during early childhood. After all, that’s when we first learned how to conceptualize and deal with emotions, frustration, authority figures, strong desires, pain, and hurt. Many of the strategies we devised back then still persist, beneath the surface, throughout our lives. Thus, when we feel threatened, we can easily revert back to a child’s way of thinking. Problems that can be solved may seem overwhelming. (Think of how overwhelming problems can be to a child.) People can be going about their business with no reference to us at all, and we may feel victimized by it (e.g., waiters who don’t see us at their table; drivers who go slow in the left lane; customers who have 20 items in the 15-item checkout lane). We might resort to manipulation or even physical bullying when we don’t get our way. Psychologically, that makes sense from a child’s relatively helpless point of view.

Those are reversions to childhood. But our thinking can also revert to early adolescence. That’s especially true of our judgments about love, romance, and sexuality.

Both childhood and early adolescence, though, are very confusing times, when our critical-thinking abilities have not yet developed very much. If we continue to use those patterns of thinking, especially at important junctures in our lives, we can easily perpetuate the situations of the past. So, another great benefit of learning to think critically is that you can start identifying the assumptions you used to make about life, and you can distinguish them from the more mature assumptions you can make now. You can separate your past from your present purposes. You can take seriously the much more extensive information you have now, the context in which you now live, the alternatives that are now available to you that were not available when you were younger. You can draw different conclusions.

Previous Commitments, Previous Personal Experience

Suppose someone makes a point about a controversial issue, about politics maybe, or capital punishment, or the benefits of a trade agreement. The most usual way to evaluate the person’s statement is first to see how much it agrees with my views, and then give reasons for or against it based on the amount of agreement.

This might be reasonable if my views were the product of extensive critical examination on my part. But often my views are ones I just happen to hold; they only seem to be the result of previous examination. There may be no reason to think that my previously held beliefs are more likely to be correct than the newer points I am evaluating for the first time.
We can also think in a biased way with respect to evidence. On the one hand, if I lean toward a certain belief, then just a small amount of evidence weighs heavily in its favor for me. If I believe in aliens visiting earth, or herbal remedies for cancer, or homeopathic cures, or predestination, then even the negative fact that such views have not been absolutely disproven counts heavily in their favor in my eyes.

On the other hand, if I oppose a belief, then a vague piece of evidence, or just the fact that it has not been absolutely proven, weighs heavily against it:
“I don’t believe in global warming. Nobody has proved the earth is getting warmer. Last winter it was very cold.”
“Smoking does not cause lung cancer: correlation is not the same thing as causation.”
“You can’t prove that I won’t win the lottery. There’s always a chance. You can’t win if you don’t play.”
That is, we slant the amount of evidence to fit in with our predispositions. We require a mountain of evidence to make us doubt something we already believe, but we require only the slightest of evidence to make us more sure of it. Even our own ingenuity can work against us. No matter how bizarre or farfetched a point of view is, if we become convinced that it is true, our ingenious minds can almost always construct at least some evidence in its favor.
How should we make judgments? If we are interested in accuracy, in knowing the truth or what is likely to come closest to the truth, we should go with the preponderance of evidence, regardless of whether we started out for or against a particular conclusion. That is often extremely difficult to do because decisions can be made below the level of our awareness and because our beliefs are so often bound up with our egos and developmental ways of thinking. We can increase our awareness and open-mindedness by using critical thinking.

This is also true when we are basing judgments on personal experience. Personal experience gives us a valuable supply of information, one that we can use to draw conclusions, make decisions. One of the main ways teachers get students to think critically about a discipline is by asking them to relate the discipline’s concepts to their personal experiences. No one would deny the value of personal experience in critical thinking.

However, personal experience can also be an impediment to critical thinking. That’s particularly true of vivid personal experiences, the kind that are unusual and imprint themselves on our minds. For each of us, our personal experience is limited. If we make generalizations from it that go beyond what we are acquainted with, we stand a good chance of drawing distorted conclusions. Your own experience has far more impact on you than the experiences of a hundred other people you hear about. But, if you want to draw accurate conclusions about what is likely to happen, then (other things being equal) you should put more faith in the experiences of a hundred people than in the experience of one – even if that one happens to be you.

What do you need to do to broaden your knowledge base so as to take account of a wide variety of experiences and conclusions beyond your own? Look at reputable books, studies, journal articles, sources that gather and assemble information from a great variety of human experience. If you own a Toyota that repeatedly gives you trouble, that is an excellent reason not to trust that car in the future. But if you want to make a wise decision about whether the next car you buy should be a Toyota, your personal experience is too limited. It would be wiser to consult Consumer Reports or some other neutral agency that evaluates cars. The best-selling and highly influential book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus draws conclusions about what men and women are really like – but the conclusions are based on the behavior of only a handful of American men and women who decided to go into therapy and consulted the author. That sample is so tiny and unrepresentative that when it is projected on to men and women in general, it’s liable either to be inaccurate or to be seen as accurate only because it’s a set of stereotypes. What should the author have done if he wanted to think critically about profound differences between men and women? At the very least, he needed to consult well-substantiated studies of men and women from a great variety of cultures, and he needed to research the behavior of people who have never consulted a therapist.

How Deep Is Our Need for Critical Thinking?

One of the great things about critical thinking is its versatility. It is valuable at all levels of our thinking.

At the Level of Practical Decision Making

Critical thinking helps when we are simply trying to deal with ordinary tasks: how to study more efficiently, find a strategy when we are stuck in an airport, decide what kind of clothes to buy. This is thinking about the means to use to accomplish our goals. It is problem solving of the most authentic kind. This is an important level of critical thinking, one that addresses all those ordinary decisions we make.

Developing thinking skills helps you envision alternative paths you could take. It helps you identify and discard outdated assumptions you may be making. It helps you anticipate some of the consequences, both positive and negative, of decisions you or others may make. It helps you keep your goals in sight and think of more effective means of achieving those goals.

At the Level of Meaningfulness

Learning to think critically also helps people deal with the much larger issues of living their life. Critical thinking frees people, the way nothing else really can, from habits of thinking they are often ruled by. Not completely of course, but substantially. Critical thinking opens up other viable courses of action that leave people far more fulfilled, paths that otherwise might never occur to them. Finding a life partner or a new occupation; incorporating the profound knowledge that’s available in your courses into your way of thinking about your life; developing reasonable attitudes toward self, toward others, toward your values, toward all the things that make life meaningful for you – all of these can be made richer and more attainable when you examine them thoughtfully.

At the Level of Concepts

We think in terms of concepts, and these inevitably shape our life to a considerable degree. Very often the concepts we think in terms of are ones we accept uncritically. We may understand what love is from movies and from the way we feel. We may understand what freedom is simply by having heard the word over and over and making vague associations with it. We may grow up thinking justice means getting even. We all have concepts of what it is to be a student, a teacher, a woman, a man, a religious person, an atheist, a scientist, an artist, a professional in the field we are studying. We have concepts of what it means to be brave, to be treated fairly, to be intelligent, to be cool, to be anything you can name or describe. We can reach a deep level of critical thinking by examining our concepts critically, becoming more aware of the way individual concepts help us or hurt us, limit us or free us.
Even aspects of ourselves that are distinct from thinking are heavily influenced by our concepts. Desires, for instance: If you like something, or hate it – a person, a movie, a subject in school, a kind of car – the liking or the hating is not itself an instance of thinking. Rather, the liking or hating is influenced by the concepts you use in your thinking. It is only recently that anyone thought suntans were beautiful, that beaches were a desirable place to spend a vacation, that thinness in men and women was attractive, that wilderness held value, that toleration was a virtue, that democracy was workable, that it was unhealthy to be a caretaker in a relationship. Our standard concepts for each of these key terms has changed, becoming strikingly more positive or negative. The concepts may well change again. It can be liberating to step out of the fads that come and go with respect to what is desirable. Re-examining the concepts you have of the things you desire will help you rise above the fads.

Similarly, your concepts have an immense influence on what you are afraid of and what brings you joy. If you are afraid of the dark, afraid of math, or even afraid of dying – these are not universal fears. There are many people, not very different from you, who don’t share these fears. Some people feel safe in the dark, delight in math (even if they are not very good at it), and find peace and acceptance in contemplating death. We fear things in part because of the concepts we have of those things, because of how we classify them and think about them.

The influence of our thinking extends even to bodily sensations: “Even though nerve signals work the same way, something as obviously biological as pain in childbirth is experienced differently depending on cultural expectations [that is, on concepts in our culture]. Women develop expectations not just about how they should respond but about how they should experience their own sensations and emotions.”

Emotions are not really under our direct control, though how we act on those emotions often is. Many of the ways people try to gain direct control over their emotions actually hurt. If you are afraid of speaking in public, for example, but feel you shouldn’t be afraid of it, you can try to suppress the fear. Maybe you can even force yourself to speak in public, or pretend to yourself that you are not afraid of it. You can reason as follows: “It doesn’t make sense to feel fearful of speaking in public. There’s really nothing to be afraid of. Therefore, I am not afraid of speaking in public.” This is called denial. Denial is when you keep yourself from seeing something you know is true. The classic case is alcoholics who refuse to see that they are alcoholics. Many people confuse denial of this sort with being rational. Neither suppression nor denial is very healthy. Neither is very effective either, at least not in the long run. Both have high psychological costs.

Though our emotions are not under our direct control, we can indirectly affect them by addressing our concepts. You can work on your concept of public speaking and try to understand why you see it as fearsome. You can admit and honor the fear that arises. You can investigate what its roots are, what associations you have with it that generate the fear, and build new associations. You can rethink the concept over time, and usually this will be effective in changing your reaction to it.

Back to: Module 2. Critical thinking, creative problem solving