Can you think of the last time you made a decision? It was probably about one second ago, even though you may not have realized it.

Our days are filled with choices, from pressing the snooze button on the morning alarm to selecting what to eat for dinner. On average, adults make around 35,000 decisions a day. If you average 16 hours of waking time, that's almost 36 decisions per minute.

Most decisions are entirely unconscious, like whether or not to scratch an itch or having a knee-jerk reaction to the expression on your significant other's face. Others, though, require a more careful and critical examination.

Critical thinking is one of the most valuable skills we can possess in our personal and professional lives. It allows us to analyze information, make sound decisions, and solve problems. However, many people find it difficult to think critically.

This article will discuss what critical thinking is, why it's important, and how you can overcome common critical thinking barriers.

What is critical thinking?

The origin of critical thinking can be traced back thousands of years to the teaching practice of the Greek philosopher Socrates. After discovering that many people couldn't explain the truth of their statements, he encouraged people to ask questions that go deep into their thoughts before accepting them.

Socrates used open-ended questions to stimulate critical thinking and uncover assumptions, a process that bears his name today — Socratic Questioning. It’s grounded in the belief that thoughtful questioning allows the student to examine ideas logically and determine their validity.

Socrates' method of questioning set the stage for thoughtful reflection. Today, the Foundation for Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as "the art of analyzing and evaluating thinking to improve it." Unlike automatic or subconscious thought, thinking critically requires you to actively use intellectual tools to reach conclusions rather than relying on subconscious processes. This strengthens decision-making skills.

Critical thinking consists of two components:

  • A set of skills used to process information and beliefs
  • The act of consciously applying those skills as a guide for behavior

Each of these components is equally important during the critical thinking process.

What is the critical thinking process?

Critical thinking barriers: Steps on a wall

Critical thinkers evaluate evidence and analyze information before making a judgment. The process requires higher-order thinking skills such as sorting, analyzing, comparing data, and assessing logic and reason.

The critical thinking process consists of five primary elements:

  • Identify the claims. Organize arguments into basic statements and conclusions.
  • Clarify the arguments. Look for inconsistencies and ambiguities in statements.
  • Establish the facts. Verify whether the claims are reasonable, identify missing or omitted information, apply logic, and check for possible contradictions.
  • Evaluate the logic. Analyze whether the assumptions align with the conclusions.
  • Make the decision. Evaluate the argument using evidence, logic, and supporting data to increase the weight, contradictions, poor reasoning, or lack of evidence to decrease the weight.

Finding accuracy in ideas and challenging assumptions are essential parts of this process. Observing these two steps closely enables critical thinkers to form their own conclusions.

Why is it important to think critically?

Success in both business and life depends on the ability to think critically.

Human nature doesn't permit us to be completely objective. Instead, we each have our own viewpoints, close-mindedness, and social conditioning that influence our objective thinking capability. Everyone experiences distorted thinking and cognitive biases, leading to irrational thought processes. Critical thinking ability is necessary to overcome the limitations of irrational thinking.

Thinking critically is beneficial because it:

  • Promotes problem solving and innovation
  • Boosts creativity and curiosity
  • Encourages deeper self-reflection, self-assertion, and independence
  • Improves career opportunities
  • Builds objectivity and open-mindedness

Critical thinking isn't about reaching the "right" answer — it's about challenging the information you're given to make your own conclusions. When you can question details and think for yourself, you're less likely to be swayed by false claims, misleading arguments, and emotional manipulation.

5 common critical thinking barriers and how to break through them

It's possible to break through critical thinking barriers

The ability to think critically is essential to our personal and professional development. To become excellent critical thinkers, we must embrace a growth mindset — the idea that we can cultivate intelligence through learning and practice. This includes stepping out of our comfort zone to push our thinking patterns and checking in to correct ourselves as needed.

Very few of us can think critically without hitting a couple of roadblocks. These critical thinking barriers can come in many forms, including unwarranted assumptions, personal biases, egocentric thinking, and emotions that inhibit us from thinking clearly. By becoming aware of these common challenges and making a conscious effort to counter them, we can improve our critical thinking skills and learn to make better decisions.

Here are five of the most commonly encountered critical thinking barriers, how to spot them, and what you can do to overcome them.

1. Confirmation bias

What it is: Confirmation bias refers to the tendency to see new information as an affirmation of our existing beliefs and opinions. People with this bias disregard opposing points of view in favor of evidence that supports their position.

Why it occurs: Confirmation bias results from our emotional inclination to see the world from our perspective. Having quick reflexes keeps us safe, so we interpret information from our own perspective because it enables us to react instinctively. Another explanation is that our minds struggle with the parallel processing of two opposing arguments, so we only process the one we already believe because it’s easier.

How to overcome it: Confirmation bias may be the hardest bias to defeat. It’s difficult to not hold preconceived notions, but you can train your mind to think differently. Make an effort to be open-minded and look at situations from an alternative perspective. When we're aware of our own confirmation biases and diligently watch out for them, we can avoid favoring specific facts when evaluating arguments.

2. Self-serving bias

What it is: The self-serving bias concerns how we place attribution for results. An individual with this bias externalizes blame for any undesirable results, yet takes credit for success.

Why it occurs: Researchers have found that people with a self-serving bias make attributions based on their need to maintain a high level of self-esteem. Our minds fear losing confidence if we take responsibility for failure or negative outcomes.

How to overcome it: You can counteract self-serving bias by maintaining a growth mindset. To have a growth mindset, you must be able to admit your errors, examine personal biases, and learn to take criticism. To overcome a self-serving bias, practice self-compassion. Accepting your imperfections and being kind to yourself when you fall short of your goals can help you maintain confidence.

3. Normalcy bias

What it is: The normalcy bias arises from our instinctual need for safety. Using this bias, we tend to overlook new information and common sense so that nothing changes and we can continue to live our lives as usual.

Why it occurs: The normalcy bias is a protection mechanism, a form of denial. Usually active when facing a traumatic event, this bias shuts down the mind to protect us from things that are too painful or confusing to comprehend.

How to overcome it: Although it is the brain's attempt to protect us, the normalcy bias can be harmful — and even dangerous — if it keeps us from facing reality. The best way to overcome it is to face facts and truth head-on, no matter how difficult it may be.

4. Availability heuristic

What it is: The availability heuristic occurs when we rely on the first piece of information that comes to mind without weighing other possibilities, even when it may not be the best option. We assume that information that is more readily accessible is more likely to be true.

Why it occurs: This heuristic stems from the brain’s use of shortcuts to be efficient. It can be used in a wide variety of real-life situations to facilitate fast and accurate estimation.

How to overcome it: Some real-world scenarios (like probability estimations) can benefit from the availability bias, so it's neither possible nor advisable to eliminate it entirely. In the event of uncertainty, however, we must be aware of all relevant data when making judgments, not just that which comes readily to mind.

5. Sunk cost fallacy

What it is: The sunk cost fallacy arises from the instinctual need for commitment. We fall victim to this illusion when we continue doing something even if it's irrational, simply because we’ve already invested resources that we can’t get back.

Why it occurs: The sunk cost fallacy occurs when we’re affected by feelings of loss, guilt, or regret. These innate feelings are hard to overcome — research has found that even rats and mice struggle with sunk costs when pursuing a reward. Because of this tendency, when we feel like we've already put considerable effort into organizing our information and pursuing a result, we tell ourselves that we can’t waste it by changing course.

How to overcome it: Instead of dwelling on past commitments, pay attention to the present and future. Thinking with logical reasoning, in terms of concrete actions instead of feelings, is vital.

Be ABLE to think critically despite barriers

Thinking critically is an essential skill for self-learners. Making sound decisions starts with recognizing our critical thinking barriers. Practicing self-compassion and self-awareness are excellent ways to identify biases in your thinking. From there, you can begin working toward overcoming those obstacles. When you have no critical thinking barriers in your way, you can develop and strengthen the skills that will help you succeed.

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Straight from the ABLE team: how we work and what we build. Thoughts, learnings, notes, experiences and what really matters.

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