It’s that time of the year again when people around the world collectively pledge to eat healthier, exercise more, or take some other action to improve themselves or their lives. However, this year with misinformation and mistrust on the rise, committing to become a stronger critical thinker – one who can decipher fact from fiction and truth from opinion – could be the most helpful New Year resolution you could make.
And unlike fad diets that probably won’t work as advertised, anyone can become a better critical thinker. It simply requires a commitment to implementing the necessary steps to get there.
Why focus on critical thinking in the new year? There’s a lot of evidence that improving these skills can have long-term benefits. Research has also shown that being a sharp critical thinker is “better” than being “intelligent.” Heather Butler, a psychology professor at California State University, found through her research that people with better critical thinking skills had fewer negative life events than those who were merely “intelligent.” Butler reported that people with better critical thinking skills make fewer “negative life choices,” such as amassing credit card debt, engaging in an extra-marital affair, or driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
So, what are some simple ways to improve your critical thinking skills? And how can you approach this resolution so that you’ll actually stick with it?
The first thing good critical thinkers do is Question Assumptions. Humans make an untold number of assumptions daily, which is a normal part of our decision making process. However, it’s important to understand that an assumption is an unexamined belief that is often rooted in past experiences or stereotypes. They are not rooted in facts. For example, thinking a student who wears glasses is a nerd or that an assignment will take the same time or effort that a previous one did might seem to be reasonable and harmless assumptions. But if you put off that important assignment until late on Friday because you assumed it would be easy, you might find yourself working through the weekend to get it done. While assumptions are not always bad, to become a better critical thinker, it is essential to get into the habit of questioning them whenever you can.
How do you do that? By Reasoning Through Logic, an important link in the critical thinking chain. When questioning an assumption, reason through it using logic. Similar to the third and fourth steps in Reboot’s SHARP Thinking framework, individuals must identify sound and relevant evidence to support or denounce an assumption, and engage in thoughtful, logical reflection to come to a solid conclusion. So the next time you automatically assume one choice is better than another or one idea better than another, reexamine each option closer, and identify the real reasons you thought one was better than the other. The reason may be rooted in cultural or past experiences, and not at all in evidence.
Gandhi famously wrote that no culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive. Entrepreneur and founder of Forbes Magazine, Malcolm Forbes, described diversity as the art of thinking independently together. This is another key skill that good critical thinkers employ: they Seek Out Diverse Thought. No one can become a strong critical thinker unless they engage with opposing views and ideas because true critical thinkers are humble enough to know that they don’t have all the answers. While the growing polarization in politics and social issues has made many wary of diverse discourse, it is an essential component for becoming a strong critical thinker. It is important, however, to distinguish between an opposing viewpoint and hate or bigotry. To start, seek out ideas and viewpoints from those who are culturally, racially, and economically different from yourself.
Finally, take a Digital Detox. Step away from the keyboard and the screen scrolling. The negative impact of digital platforms and social media has become a focal point in the last few years. A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that two-thirds of Americans (64 percent) believe that social media negatively impacts the country. Much of this negativity is rooted in the increasing misinformation, harassment, and hate on the platforms. In a study of 1,000 Americans, Reboot found that 50 percent of respondents believed that their feelings of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and more were somewhat intensified by social media. Twenty percent of respondents indicated that those feelings were “very” or “extremely” intensified by social media. It can be difficult to become a well-rounded critical thinker when you’re stuck in an algorithm bubble that consistently feeds misinformation or only one viewpoint. Logging off, even for a day or two, can significantly improve your stress levels, your sleep, and your overall productivity.
New Year resolutions are rooted in the idea that a fresh year is great opportunity to become a better version of yourself. Becoming a better critical thinker is an essential element to becoming the best you possible. After all, critical thinking is the skill that makes us human. It is the one capacity that truly distinguishes us as species. And the benefits of being a critical thinker – which includes making better decisions, being more productive, and having healthier relationships – are priceless.