The development of critical thinking is not a process that occurs completely spontaneously, it depends largely on our attitude to life and our desire to seek answers beyond the conventions. In fact, much of our everyday thinking is not exactly critical.
It actually makes sense. If we had to deliberately think about every action, from breathing to what to eat at breakfast, we would have no energy left for the important things. Therefore, automatic thinking is not necessarily a negative thing. On the contrary, it is necessary to alleviate the cognitive load.
The problem begins when we let that automatic thought processes govern the important decisions. When we stop questioning things. When we assume as absolute truths what others say. When we allow ourselves to be limited by ingrained beliefs. When we do not go beyond appearances.
If we do not develop critical thinking, it is easier for people to manipulate us and we will be more likely to fall into extreme ways of thinking that lead to blind fundamentalisms. Without critical thinking we also run the risk of living on automatic pilot, without questioning the relevance of certain things, which can condemn us to life dissatisfaction. To avoid these pitfalls, but also to make the most of our potential, it is essential to develop critical thinking.
Developing critical thinking to get away from conformity
1. Questioning everything we take for granted
When we are children, we don’t take anything for granted. The world is a place to discover. However, as the years go by, our minds fill with preconceptions that other people transmitted to us, from our parents to teachers or even our peers. Many times we do not question these ideas, but we assume that they are true or valid.
However, the world changes, so ideas that could have been valid a few decades ago may not be valid now. It is even probable that many of these ideas are actually prejudices, stereotypes or unproved experiences that do not contain the seed of truth.
Therefore, to develop critical thinking we must begin with an examination of conscience that allows us to question all that we have always taken for granted, from the notions of Homeland that have been transmitted to us to religious ideas, without forgetting gender stereotypes or of any other nature.
We cannot think critically if our thinking is still tied to preconceptions that we have never questioned. We need to ask ourselves where these ideas come from, who do they benefit and if they are valid at the present time or if they give us something to grow as people.
Since many of these preconceptions are so ingrained in our minds, it is sometimes difficult to analyze them from an objective perspective. In that case, we can question them by resorting to the alternatives. We can ask ourselves: What would happen if this idea changes? What if the exact opposite happens? These types of questions will help us develop a new perspective.
2. Reasoning with logic
Emotions can play against critical thinking. When a subject touches our most sensitive fibers, it is difficult to think clearly. In fact, it’s not unusual for us to get caught up in pointless arguments, resorting to puny arguments, just because we haven’t been able to think rationally.
Logic can take us away from the emotional traps that lurk behind experiences, expectations and desires in order to assume the necessary psychological distance that allows us to think more independently. We can use it to reverse our thought process, opening up new possibilities.
For example, when it seems obvious to us that X causes Y, we can ask ourselves what if Y causes X? We must also ask ourselves: is that argument supported by the evidence? Do I have sufficient evidence to allow me to reach a solid conclusion?
We can apply the Socratic method, which consists of asking ourselves a series of questions about a central theme or idea and answering the other questions that appear. The interesting thing about this method is that it demands that we unfold ourselves, becoming defenders and at the same time opponents of the idea, so that we manage to banish the emotions that could tie us to a point of view.
3. Diversify thinking to open it up to new ideas
In a society of opposites, we tend to think that there are good and bad ideas. Obviously, ours is always the “good” idea. We even get to the point of identifying with those ideas, so that we feel that different ideas are an attack on our identity.
In the long run, we end up feeling so comfortable with those ideas that we build a wall around them so that don’t enter different ideas. We meet people who think and act like us. And we exclude everything different.
That line of thinking is the most direct path to cognitive rigidity. It is diametrically opposed to the development of critical thinking, which is nourished precisely by new and different ideas. Approaching diametrically opposed ideas with an open attitude will allow us to understand them better and to absorb what they contain as positive.
That means getting out of the good and bad paradigm, breaking the dominant thought bubble to make room for other ways of thinking and seeing the world. We need to get out of the paradigm that leads to “ignorant certainties”, the belief that there are definite and correct answers to all questions.
Instead, we must assume that critical thinking leads us to change our minds, when we find better arguments. That implies having enough intellectual humility to recognize when we are wrong and admit that the others are right.